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Newspeaking About Torture

If you can’t ban a word, break it.

One major theme of George Orwell’s 1984 is the importance of language to oppressive governments. From the beginning of recorded history, crude dictators have punished people for criticizing their rule. But modern, sophisticated dictators change the language itself, so that thoughts undermining the ruling ideology are hard to put into words, and no one would understand what you were saying if you did.

Orwell described this technique in detail in an essay he appended to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak“.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

That’s a fine strategy if you already run a totalitarian government like the one in Orwell’s Oceania. But it completely ignores the problems faced by movements still trying to rise to power, like today’s American conservatives. Despite controlling Congress, they can’t just ban words they don’t like.

All they have besides Congress is a media empire, vast wealth, and an amazing degree of message discipline. What can you accomplish with those resources?

Just by being loud and persistent, you can try to alter common usage to favor your ideology. Sometimes that works (“death tax“) and sometimes it doesn’t (“homicide bomber“). But the real challenge is to disarm a word that works against you or for your enemies.

In Oceania they’d simply remove the word from the dictionary and correct everyone who kept using it. (“It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not proper Newspeak.”) Or they’d keep the word, but remove all its offending meanings, again correcting the people who persisted in using it incorrectly.

But what if you don’t have that kind of power? American conservatives solved this problem a long time ago: If you can’t ban a word, you apply your resources to break it through misuse.

I’m not sure when this started. (That’s the great thing about breaking a word; eventually everybody stops using it, so it never comes to mind again. Your tracks are covered, because hardly anybody ever asks “How did zimzam become unusable?”) Maybe it was during the Reagan years, when liberal became an insult to throw at people you don’t like. I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying attention to the right things then. None of us were, or we might have tried to defend liberal rather than just stop using it.

I first noticed word-breaking* years later, during the second Bush administration. A lot of nasty stuff was happening then: The U.S. government was torturing people in secret prisons, spying on its own citizens, locking people up indefinitely without trials, and manufacturing bogus reasons to invade a foreign country. The administration was justifying all that by putting forward bizarre new legal interpretations of “the unitary executive” and the nearly unlimited “Article II power” he had whenever he determined that we were at war. Standing previous conservative small-government and fiscal-responsibility rhetoric on its head, the administration was creating huge new programs to buy off key constituencies, and not raising any revenue to pay for them. (Just tack them on to the deficit. No worries.)

As I was reading an Economist article characterizing Bush’s ideology as “big-government conservatism”, I wondered: Why use such a cumbersome phrase, when English already had a perfectly good word for this configuration of ideas and policies — fascism.

The answer was that fascism had become unusable, because misuse had broken it. Just when America needed the word to describe what was going on, conservatives were instead discussing “liberal fascism” and “Islamo-fascism” and so forth. In the conservative media, suddenly anything and everything was fascist, except the kind of militaristic, torturing, secretive, prying, corporatist, big-government conservatism that had been practiced by Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and Pinochet — and was increasingly being adopted by Bush.

The word fascist could have been a rallying call for the enemies of American conservatism. But conservatives averted that threat by breaking fascist through misuse. As a result, today you are perfectly free to talk about fascism — I just did — but no one will know what you mean. Fascist is nothing but an insult now; it has no real content. If you use it, you aren’t saying anything in particular, you’re just being aggressive and rude.

Terrorism was broken in another way, like a proud wolf who gets turned into an attack dog. Terrorism used to have a clear meaning: threatening or perpetrating violence against civilians for political purposes. It was an ideologically neutral description of a tactic that any political movement might resort to. But after a decade of misuse, terrorism has become any violent act conservatives disapprove of. So the Fort Hood massacre is terrorism, even though it was an attack against a military base. Whatever ISIS does is terrorist, even fielding an army and fighting pitched battles against other soldiers. But hardly anyone (except me) called the Sikh Temple murderer what he was: a white right-wing Christian terrorist. White Christian right-wingers can’t be terrorists any more; it’s an oxymoron.

More recently, religious freedom and religious persecution have been broken. A generation ago those were ACLU words, used by atheists, Jews, and other minority movements that struggled against oppression by the Christian majority.

That oppression hasn’t disappeared; in many ways it’s getting worse. But the words to fight it have been hijacked so that they’re barely usable any more. Today, religious persecution is telling a Christian baker that a gay couple is part of the general public his business serves. Or maybe it’s just saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Religious freedom means that a Christian employer is “free” to block any part of his employees’ health-care coverage that he doesn’t like, and a Christian pharmacist can freely decide whether he approves of your prescription (and the lifestyle it implies) before he fills it. Separation of church and state — which used to be the hallmark of religious freedom — is now a Communist idea that is part of the conspiracy to persecute Christians.

So now, when Kennesaw, Georgia won’t let a Muslim group rent space to worship in their town, or a parole officer forces an atheist to attend a religious program under threat of returning to jail, there are no words to describe what’s happening. Calling it “religious persecution” just confuses people.

And that brings us to torture. For the longest time, the primary defense of the Bush torture program was that it didn’t happen. There was no torture, there was just enhanced interrogation, a phrase brazen enough to do Newspeak proud.

But that defense has become untenable now that the Senate report on torture is out. Once the public heard the details, the claim that this wasn’t torture was exposed as ridiculous. (That’s only going to get worse as more details appear.) And although some are trying, the word torture can’t be reclaimed from the dark side. There’s no way to say, “We’re the Torture Party and that’s a good thing.”

But there is an alternative strategy: misuse the word torture until it breaks.

Dick Cheney pointed the way during his Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd. When Todd asked how Cheney defined torture, Cheney deflected with this:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.

Todd followed up by asking whether rectal feeding was torture, and Cheney continued his distract-with-shiny-objects strategy.

I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

The misuse campaign is on. The American Thinker blog reports on the “real torture scandal in America“, which is abortion. General Boykin says “Torture is what we’ve done by having the IRS go after conservative groups.” The Koch-funded American Energy Alliance is calling EPA fossil-fuel regulations “torture”:

Whether it’s the costliest regulation in history or the coal-killing power plant rules (that Obama’s law professor says raise “constitutional questions”), it’s clear that the CIA isn’t the only government agency engaged in torture. At least the CIA isn’t torturing Americans.

The AEA illustrated its point with this cartoon:

Yes, “raising energy costs” and “harassing property owners” are now torture.

Expect to hear a lot more of this. Soon, every inconvenience to a conservative special interest group is going to be “torture”. Anything and everything will be “torture” — except a CIA interrogator looking into the eyes of a helpless (and possibly innocent) prisoner and threatening excruciating pain, trauma, or humiliation unless he talks.

Torture can’t be defended, so the word torture has to become meaningless. If you can’t ban a word, break it.

* I anticipate the question: “What about the ways that liberals try to change the language?” There are a number of words liberals have tried to remove from the language, like nigger or faggot. We discourage men from referring to adult females as girls, and so on. But these efforts have been above-board and transparent. For example, we have largely removed nigger from common usage among whites by openly discussing the reasons whites shouldn’t say nigger. If conservatives want to start a similarly open discussion to convince people to stop saying torture, I invite them to try.

5 Lessons to Remember as Ferguson Fades into History

If you learned anything from Ferguson, how are you planning to hang on to it?

Remember the days right after the Newtown Massacre? For a week, maybe two, it seemed like the country had finally woken up and nothing would ever be the same. Twenty innocent children were dead, along with six adults who tried to protect them. And it was our fault. Mass shootings had been happening more and more often for years, and — unlike Australia, which had the same problem and solved it — we’d done nothing. But now that was all going to change.

Be a Target(ed) shopper.

It didn’t. Within months, all the vested interests that benefit from our crazy lack of gun laws had re-asserted themselves, and nothing happened. Or rather, things continued getting worse, with the momentum still on the side of the guns-everywhere movement. Instead of trying to get rid of assault rifles (or at least keep them away from the mentally ill), we’re debating whether or not you can hang one over your shoulder while you shop for Oreos. (The ad to the right is a parody, but the picture is genuine.)

So now we’ve had Ferguson, another national trauma that has mesmerized the media and caused a number of people to see the light on some important issues. Maybe someday we’ll look back and see the Michael Brown shooting and the ensuing protests as a tipping point, a moment when things started to turn around. Or maybe we have just briefly tossed in our sleep and will soon settle back down.

In part, that decision is up to all of us. Will we let the things we’ve learned these last few weeks slip away like the trig identities we crammed into our heads for the big math test? Or will we hang on to our new understandings and not settle back into the same old conversations? Will we demand that our news sources and our political representatives recognize these realities? Or not?

The first step in hanging on to new knowledge is spelling it out clearly. Here’s my attempt to isolate five simple Ferguson lessons that we shouldn’t forget or let the country forget. I admit they’re not rocket science. If they were, we’d already be forgetting them.

1. Police mistreat black people. It’s not a fantasy created by “the grievance industry” and it’s not a few isolated incidents caused by a handful of bad apples, it’s a pattern.

Some parts of the national media have finally started covering it like a pattern, and drawing attention to incidents that by themselves wouldn’t usually get national attention. Just this week I ran across the following stories.

  • New information the John Crawford shooting came out. On August 5, a 22-year-old black man was killed by police in a WalMart in Ohio because he was carrying an air rifle that he had picked up from a shelf. We had already heard from his girl friend, who was talking to him on the phone as he was being shot. Tuesday, we heard that the shooting was captured on WalMart’s surveillance video. It has not been released (though information favorable to the police has been), but Crawford’s parents and their attorney have been allowed to see it. The attorney said that Crawford was facing away from officers when they killed him, and that “John was doing nothing wrong in Walmart, nothing more, nothing less than shopping.” One of the officers involved in the shooting is back on the job. (A fake news site’s story of a second WalMart shooting got taken seriously by a number of people, but didn’t actually happen.)
  • Chris Lollie was arrested and tased by police in St. Paul while he was waiting for his kids to get out of school. He was trying to walk away from police when they got violent with him. The incident was recorded on his cellphone when it happened in January, but only became public recently after charges against Lollie were dropped and he got his phone back. St. Paul police have defended their officers’ actions, which is hard to imagine as I watch the tape.
  • Kametra Barbour and her four young children were pulled over in Texas, even though their car was a different color than the one police received a complaint about. The police dashcam video shows the terrified woman being forced at gunpoint to walk backwards towards the police cruiser, protesting all the while that they’re making her leave her frightened children alone in the car. The confrontation doesn’t end until her 6-year-old son also gets out of the car and walks toward police with his hands up. (What if he’d come out some other way?) “Do they look young to you?” one officer finally asks the other.
  • A week and a half ago TV producer Charles Belk was walking back to his car from a Beverly Hills restaurant when his evening took a bad turn. “I was wrongly arrested, locked up, denied a phone call, denied explanation of charges against me, denied ever being read my rights, denied being able to speak to my lawyer for a lengthy time, and denied being told that my car had been impounded…..All because I was mis-indentified as the wrong ‘tall, bald head, black male,’ … ‘fitting the description.’ ” It was six hours before his lawyer convinced police to watch the surveillance video and recognize that the bank robber’s accomplice was obviously not Belk. According to his lawyer (as summarized by ThinkProgress) “many other individuals who found themselves in Belk’s situation without his resources would likely have been detained at least until Monday”.
  • Rev. Madison T. Shockley II published similar stories from his own life, his father’s, and his son’s. “I fit the description. I was a black man.”

What makes these stories hit home is that they’re not about purse-snatchers who got roughed up a little too much. They’re about people who did nothing and suffered for it.

I know blacks must look at this lesson and say, “Well, duh.” But for the most part, whites — and the media that caters to whites — have refused to take it seriously until these last few weeks. Many of us came to a similar insight after Trayvon Martin, and then backslid into denial. Let’s not do it again.

2. Police kill a lot of people in America. Responding to the racism charge, some conservatives put forward a bizarre police-kill-white-people-too case centered on the shooting of Dillon Taylor in Salt Lake City — as if that should make everybody more sanguine about Michael Brown or John Crawford. But if white deaths are what it takes to get a certain segment of the public excited about police violence, then let’s publicize them. Because whether you break things down by race or not, there’s a problem.

You can say policing is a tough, dangerous job — and it is. But somehow police in other countries manage to do that job without killing nearly so many people. No government agency totals the exact number — it’s like we don’t really want to know — but various available statistics point to around 400 police killings a year in the United States. Here’s how that stacks up internationally.

If you want some real contrast, look at Iceland, where last December police shot and killed someone for the first time in the country’s history. Admittedly, Iceland is a thousand times smaller than the U.S., but even so, at our rate you’d expect Icelandic police to shoot someone dead every two or three years, rather than once since World War II.

3. We need better ways to hold police accountable. One inescapable feature of the Michael Brown investigation is that the Ferguson police are an interested party, and are not simply seeking to bring the truth to light. (For example, the only detail they were willing to release from Brown’s autopsy was that he tested positive for marijuana. And they released a video that they claimed was Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store, but not an incident report on his death.) It’s crazy to believe that they — or a prosecutor who works hand-in-glove with them every day — will investigate Brown’s death fairly and see that justice is done.

And yet, that is the standard situation whenever a citizen feels mistreated: Police will investigate themselves and find that whatever they did was justified. After police killed his white son, Michael Bell did the research:

In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.

Police will also control — and distort — the flow of official information to the media. Reporters, in turn, depend on police leaks for their scoops, so they are often active participants in smearing victims. (It’s the same pattern we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq War, when reporters whose careers depended on their relationships with Bush administration sources published whatever they were told as if it were fact.)

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel (whose interview with Chris Hayes starts around the 14-minute mark) suggests a common-sense reform:

There should be a civilian review board in Ferguson and in every city in America. And what that means is that you can’t allow the police to investigate the police. You have to have independent civilians looking at the complaint. We need a permanent special prosecutor for police misconduct so we can finally get accountability.

In April, Wisconsin passed a law requiring an outside investigation whenever someone dies in police custody. Every state should follow.

There has been some limited accountability for the most outrageous police behavior during the Ferguson protests. Dan Page, the frighteningly paranoid St. Louis officer I described last week, has been allowed to retire; he’ll get full pension and benefits, but at least he’s not wearing a badge any more. Ray (“I will fucking kill you”) Albers was forced to resign. Matthew (“These protesters should be put down like a rabid dog the first night”) Pappert was fired. Chris Hayes asks the right follow-up question:

The national media came to one (in some ways) random metro area suburb, St. Louis Country, with a hundred cameras for two weeks. And you’ve got at least four police officers essentially caught on camera doing really awful things, and a bunch more unnamed. It was almost a random audit. And the thing I can’t help thinking is “OK. There’s two ways to interpret this. Is this area particularly bad in terms of the quotient of police officers who act like this? Or is this just normal, and we just happened to have the cameras pointed there?”

What if we put the cameras right on the police? Events in Ferguson have added momentum to the notion that all police cars should have dash-cams and all officers should wear cameras on their uniforms. Private sources have donated enough body cameras for every Ferguson officer to wear one. Let’s see if they do.

4. White privilege is real. Stephen Colbert advised the Ferguson protesters to learn from Cliven Bundy and his friends in the militia movement.

By the way, black people, why can’t you be more like these guys? They were armed, and they dared the cops to shot them, and nothing happened. Just figure out whatever was different about them, and you’ll be fine.

But being treated with more respect by police is just one aspect of white privilege, which affects everything from hailing a cab to whether your resume will get you an interview. Pre-Ferguson, most whites reacted to talk about white privilege as if it were just an Ivy League way to call them racists or tell them to STFU.

But recently more whites have started to get it and explain it to others. One of the most approachable explanations is in “What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege” posted by Pastor Jeremy Dowsett on his blog A Little More Sauce. Dowsett, who is white but has non-white children, compared being black in America to his own experience riding a bicycle on the busy streets of Lansing.

[Bike riders] have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.

Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.

And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car.

Similarly, our laws promise racial equality and not all whites are racists, but our society was built with whites in mind. Systems that seem perfectly natural and transparent if you’re white are problematic if you’re not.

Elaborating on Dowsett’s metaphor from my biking perspective: I can’t count how many times I’ve nearly fallen off a no-shoulder country road because car drivers have no idea how loud a “light” beep of the horn sounds to someone not enclosed in a glass-and-metal bubble. (Apparently they worry that their internal-combustion engine might “sneak up” on me because it seems so quiet to them.) Keep that in mind the next time you offer a “reasonable” criticism of the black experience.

Jon Stewart’s epic response to conservative fury that blacks “make everything about race” is worth watching from the beginning, but it came down to this:

Race is there, and it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how f*cking exhausting it is living it.

How are we whites going to keep this increased consciousness of privilege from fading away? Christian Lander, who writes the blog Stuff White People Like, suggests making it the next ice-bucket challenge. He observes that what whites really need to raise their awareness of (far more than any deadly disease) is what it’s like to be a black teen. So he proposes the BT Challenge: Video yourself doing something that is dangerous for a black teen — like, say, walking to the convenience store for Skittles — and post it on social media.

5. We need to de-militarize our society. Americans from coast to coast were repulsed and alarmed by the images of mine-resistant military vehicles roaming American streets with camo-clad police snipers perched on top of them. It was way beyond ironic that equipment created to defend an occupying army in a guerrilla war was being deployed against American citizens protesting excessive force from police.

The militarization of police has been roundly denounced — most effectively by John Oliver — and it deserved every word of that denunciation.

That public outcry has even started to have some effect. Anchorage police have rescinded their request for military vehicles. Claire McCaskill will be chairing Senate hearings on police militarization.

But while MRAPs are obviously over the top, Ladd Everitt from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence told Business Insider that some advanced weaponry is justified by the level of armament police might face (from someone other than mostly non-violent protesters).

 “We see this as a product of the continuing arms race between law enforcement and civilians that has been going on for decades.” Everitt said the increasingly sophisticated weaponry being sold to U.S. civilians is forcing police to keep up, with both sides purchasing ever more powerful weapons. The arms race means “police officers have legitimate fears about the nature of the firepower they are confronting on a daily basis,” he said.

So the problem isn’t just the militarization of American police, it’s the militarization of American society.

That puts a different spin on the gap in police killings between the U.S. and every other first-world nation. American police are on a hair trigger because, in a country with over 300 million firearms, the possibility that a suspect might start shooting at them is never far from their minds. Over the course of a long career, it just doesn’t seem safe to take the more laid-back approach of a German or English policeman.

Bear that in mind the next time the NRA frames guns-everywhere as purely a question of personal rights. No matter how responsible and well-intentioned that gun-toting Oreo shopper might be, his presence raises the temperature in the room. All of us — and especially police — have to shorten our response times, given how fast a situation can turn deadly. So whether I choose to carry a gun or not, that raised room temperature might get me killed someday.

And that brings me full circle, back to gun control. Remember Newtown?


Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. … Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

— Arch City Defenders, “Municipal Courts White Paper

This week’s featured post is “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“. The featured post from two weeks ago “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” continued its viral spread last week. It’s now over 100,000 page views, making it the second most popular Sift post ever. But it’s still got a ways to go to catch “The Distress of the Privileged” at 332K. (Those numbers make the 2,000 views of last week’s “The Ferguson Test” seems puny, but it’s actually quite good by normal Weekly Sift standards.)

This week everybody was still talking about Ferguson

Wednesday, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell nailed the NYT for police reporting that reminds me of the reporting Judith Miller did for them in the lead-up to the Iraq War: Leaks from government sources are reported as facts, the official framing of events is accepted uncritically, and contradictory evidence is discounted.

A different angle on Ferguson comes from Arch City Defenders, a group that “strives to provide holistic criminal and civil legal services to the homeless and working poor in the St. Louis Region.”

In a white paper on the St. Louis area municipal courts published before Mike Brown’s death, ACD focused on Ferguson and two other municipalities that it described as “chronic offenders” for abuses of the justice system like

being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members, and being mistreated by the bailiffs, prosecutors, clerks and judges in the courts.

… In many municipalities, individuals who are unable to pay whatever fines they are assessed are incarcerated — sometimes repeatedly over many years. One defendant described being incarcerated fifteen or sixteen times over a decade on the same municipal charge.

In short, if you are poor in Ferguson, getting a speeding ticket can wreck your life. But it makes money for the town.

Court costs and fines represent a significant source of income for these towns. According to the St. Louis County two municipalities alone, Ferguson and Florissant, earned a combined net profit of $3.5 million off of their municipal courts in 2013.

ACD’s Thomas Harvey says:

The courts in those municipalities are profit-seeking entities that systematically enforce municipal ordinance violations in a way that disproportionately impacts the indigent and communities of color.

St. Louis County municipal courts typically don’t provide public defenders, so even if the law makes allowance for poverty, the poor may not know how to claim their rights. Those who can afford lawyers often can deal with minor violations without a court appearance, with the result that (as one resident put it) “You go to all of these damn courts, and there’s no white people.”

ACD’s white paper draws an obvious conclusion: “This interaction … shapes public perception of justice and the American legal system.”

St. Louis police released a cellphone video of two of their officers killing a different black man. The video contradicts several parts of the police account of the killing, but nonetheless the shooting is judged by experts to be justified. Watching it gives you some idea of what police are allowed to get away with.

Three of the officers involved in policing the Ferguson protests have been disciplined. The first was Ray Albers of the St. Ann police force, who was videotaped waving a gun at the crowd and yelling, “I will fucking kill you.” He’s been suspended indefinitely.

The second is Glendale officer Matthew Pappert, who was suspended after tweeting: “These protestors should have been put down like a rabid dog the first night.”

But the scariest is Dan Page of the St. Louis force. He’s been relieved of duty after St. Louis Post-Dispatch released a video of an hour-long talk he gave to a meeting of the local Oath Keepers chapter in April. The articles about him pick out the easy sound bites: his hostility to gays, women, the Supreme Court, and President Obama, as well as several statements expressing pride in being “a killer”. But if you watch the whole talk, what’s really frightening is Page’s paranoid thought process, and the fact that the gym-full of people he appears to be talking to seem to approve.

I have listened to certifiably paranoid people before, and this talk is exactly what they sound like. They present “evidence” for their dark fantasies that you look at and think “Huh?” Page wanders through the Constitution, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and various other apparently authoritative sources, referencing bits that (if you look them up) have little to do with what he’s saying. (At the 25 minute mark: “In Psalms 83, Russia invades Israel. They are beat back, eight-fifths of their army are killed.”)

At around the 17-minute mark he presents a slide he says came from a talk by the Secretary of the Army. The untitled, unannotated slide is simply a list of ten regions. (“1. America, Canada, Mexico … 10. Remainder of Africa”.) Page finds this slide deeply threatening: “World government, folks. Anybody who resists it is dead.”

The idea that Dan Page is on the street with a gun is scary enough, much less that he has wielded the authority of a police officer for 35 years.

Online arguments about the Brown shooting are so formulaic that The Daily Dot has a taxonomy of the ten kinds of trolls you’ll run into.

As part of a long article that is well worth reading end-to-end, an ex-cop compares Ferguson to the Bundy Ranch showdown.

On the Bundy Ranch, armed protesters were violently obstructing law enforcement from performing their duties.  Sniper rifles were pointed at those law enforcement officers. Then those “snipers” openly gloated about how they had the agents in their sights the entire time. And what was the police response?  All out retreat.  Nobody was arrested. No tear gas deployed. No tanks were called in. No Snipers posted in the neighborhood. No rubber bullets fired. Nothing. Police officers in mortal danger met with heavily armed resistance and no one had to answer for it.

… Just imagine if there were 150 black folks walking around Ferguson with assault rifles right now. Imagine if a couple of them took up sniper positions on the tops of buildings with their rifles pointed at the police officers.  Take a quick guess at how that story ends.

and ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheaded American journalist James Foley — and posted the video on YouTube — after the U.S. government refused a 100 million Euro ransom demand and a rescue attempt failed. This sparked a lot of discussion about widening the U.S. involvement in Iraq beyond the current air strikes.

I don’t doubt that a lot of people in ISIS are bad guys. But it gets old watching the pro-war spin machine work. Once again, we face a group of insane, unstoppable monsters far worse than the last group of insane, unstoppable monsters we were warned about. Rick Perry thinks they’re coming over the Mexican border, and a former CIA deputy director warns us that they could get an AK-47 and shoot up a mall — not because either man has any evidence that such things are in the process of happening, but because we have a new name for the Boogie Man.

The problem with the panic-mongering is that it just raises the pressure to do something. It doesn’t increase the effectiveness of any of the somethings we might do. Couldn’t we someday have a rational discussion of what our options really are, and what good or bad things are likely to result from the various things we might do?

and Ukraine/Russia

The Ukrainian government forces seem to be advancing against the pro-Russian rebels who hold several cities near the Russian border. Russia is moving what it claims is humanitarian aid across the border, but Ukraine says it’s military re-supply for the rebels. It’s hard for American journalists to verify anybody’s story.

and you also might be interested in …

It’s still in the laboratory (at my alma mater, BTW), but wow is this cool: transparent solar cells. Someday, your windows could generate electricity without blocking the view.

The pressure to change the name of the Washington NFL team continues its slow, inexorable build. The editorial board of The Washington Post announced Friday that it will no longer refer to the team as “Redskins” in its editorials. (Presumably, the announcement itself was the last time.) That move was mostly symbolic, since the R-team isn’t mentioned that often on the editorial page, and the news and sports sections of the paper will continue to print “Redskins”. But it’s something.

As of June, The Seattle Times won’t use the name at all. It’ll be interesting to see how they cover the Seattle-Washington Monday Night Football game on October 6. Maybe this article from The Kansas City Star could be a model.

Wednesday it came out that longtime NFL referee Mike Carey had been quietly boycotting Washington games since 2006. When confronted with the fact that he had not refereed a Washington game in many years, Carey owned up:

The league respectfully honored my request not to officiate Washington. … It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening, was probably not the best thing for me.

Carey has retired from the NFL and now works for CBS’ football coverage team as a rules analyst. He was the first African-American to referee a Super Bowl. A coaches’ poll once named him (tied with another guy) as the league’s best referee.

CBS’ Phil Simms and NBC’s Tony Dungy have said they will try to avoid saying “Redskins” while announcing or commenting on games.

Sooner or later, these little grains of sand will turn into a landslide. For now, not cooperating with the misnamed team requires an explanation. But we’re approaching a tipping point, where those who do cooperate will be expected to explain.

and let’s close with some creative law-breaking

Cracked has compiled a list of “The 7 Most Badass Acts of Vandalism Ever Photographed“. I mean, would you have thought to paint a giant penis on a drawbridge, so that would rise every time the bridge goes up? Or turn a Soviet monument in Bulgaria into colorful American comic-book characters and other mythical beings like Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald? Or let half a million brightly colored plastic balls bounce down the Spanish Steps in Rome? Somebody did.

No Sift This Week

Sorry for not putting out an announcement sooner. (I’m on vacation and have been driving all day.) The Weekly Sift will be back next week. Posts will appear on Monday the 28th in the general vicinity of noon (eastern time).

No Sift on Christmas Eve

Celebrate whatever holiday makes you happy, then come back next Monday for the annual Yearly Sift, in which I almost always discover (retrospectively) that what I’ve been writing this year has a theme.


Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Stephen Colbert

In this week’s Sift:

  • Propaganda Lesson: The Two-Step. If you have lots of time and resources, and you want to attack somebody, don’t just smear them directly. Establish a stereotype first, and then attach it to them. So rather than talk about what Obama does, his enemies want to talk about what he is.
  • Already Refuted 97 Years Ago. Already in 1914, the economy was too complicated for the individual consumer to exercise the kind of judgment that the Republican health-care vision implies.
  • Wisconsin Update. The Wisconsin Supreme Court excused the legislature’s unusual process by engaging in an unusual process of its own.
  • Short Notes. Past Supreme Court justices have resigned in disgrace for doing what Clarence Thomas does. Alabama outdoes Arizona’s immigration law. The Pentagon as a model of left-wing social policy. A prominent climate-change denier faked his credentials. A young adult explains why his peers don’t vote. And more.

Propaganda Lesson: The Two-Step

One of the axioms of 21st-century political campaigns is: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

In other words: If the attack against you is simple, but the reason why it’s unfair is complicated, then you’re in trouble. Even if people listen to you long enough to understand your side of the story, you’ve lost valuable time that you could have spent spreading the vision of what you want to do when you get into office.

You saw lots of examples if you watched last Monday’s Republican debate, but my favorite was Michele Bachmann’s claim that “the Congressional Budget Office has said that Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs.” The Washington Post’s fact-checker explains:

In dry economic language, the CBO essentially said that some people who are now in the workforce because they need health insurance would decide to stop working because the health care law guaranteed they would have access to health care. (As an example, think of someone who is 63, a couple of years before retirement, who is still in a job only because he or she is waiting to get on Medicare at age 65.)

So the CBO’s 800K has nothing to do with anybody getting fired or not finding a job. But it took a whole paragraph to explain why “Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs” is deceptive. Advantage Bachmann.

The two-step. Obamacare-kills-jobs is a fairly direct attack. But if you have the time and the resources, a sneakier way to take advantage of the explaining-is-losing effect is to build up your attack in layers. The two-step attack works like this: Over time, you turn vaguely-defined words into negative stereotypes. Then you attack by attaching the word to your opponent.

Example: Obama is a socialist.

Last summer, the Christian Science Monitor spent two on-line pages debunking that claim. I doubt it helped.

If, like the Monitor, you want to be rational about this, you notice that the full attack is actually a syllogism: “Obama is a socialist. Socialists are bad. Therefore Obama is bad.” In order for the syllogism to be valid, the word socialist has to carry the same definition all the way through. So the article examines the evidence that Obama promotes some bad kind of socialism, and finds that he doesn’t.

It explains, so it loses.

Worse, Obama himself can’t dispute either step without seeming to concede the other: If he argues that he’s not a socialist, he seems to concede that it’s bad to be one. If he argues that socialists aren’t bad, he seems to concede that he is one.

Either argument misses the real point, because socialist represents a stereotype, not a definition. The right-wing media has been heaping scorn upon socialist and socialism for decades, so that (at least for their audience) those words evoke Pavlovian responses in the glands rather than clear concepts in the mind. Obama is a socialist doesn’t make factual claims about anything Barack Obama has ever said or done or believed. It simply says: “You know that Pavlovian response we’ve trained you to feel when you hear the word socialist? You should attach that feeling to Obama.”

No parallel. No symmetry. Liberals are easily flustered by this kind of attack, because we have no experience with it. Attacks on President Bush, for example, usually stayed close to facts and actions: Bush ordered people tortured. He wiretapped Americans without warrants. He misled us about the reasons for invading Iraq.

Those are all statements about what Bush did, not what he is. Is-statements against Bush were usually shorthand that quickly led back to his actions. Charges that Bush is a criminal refer to specific actions that broke specific laws; it isn’t just liberals throwing around a bad word. Ditto for liar or torturer. Even people who claimed that Bush was a fascist often produced a definition of fascism in fairly short order, and went about connecting his deeds with its requirements. (Keith Olbermann defined fascism as “the seamless mutuality of government and big business” and used it in response to Bush demanding immunity for law-breaking the telephone companies did on his behalf.)

Three steps. In the same way that Caesar’s army spent peaceful intervals sharpening weapons and drilling troops, a modern propaganda machine spends the time between election campaigns sharpening its stereotypes and drilling its audience in their Pavlovian responses.

By now, there is even a three-step attack on Obama. The statement that he is something (anti-American, say), is backed not by references to specific statements or actions, but by generic summaries of the kind of thing he says or does: Obama “apologizes for America” — a charge that is based on more-or-less nothing. (The WaPo fact-checker awarded four Pinocchios, their lowest rating: “The apology tour never happened.” Nonetheless, when Mitt Romney titles his book No Apology, his target audience knows what he’s contrasting himself against.)

The more steps you can put between your attack and the facts, the harder it is for anyone else to root it out of the mind of your audience once you get it established. If people believe that Obama is bad because he is anti-American because he apologizes for America, what facts will change their minds? They might have to concede that Obama doesn’t apologize for America in this or that particular speech, but what about all the others? The generic summary floats above any particular events, and isn’t contradicted when some event turns out not to have been like that.

No arms race. Usually, when an article points out something that conservatives do more effectively than liberals, the proposed solution is that we raise our game to compete. But propaganda is an area where we have to be very careful, because our goals are different than our opponents’ goals. Propaganda can serve their goals in ways that it can’t serve ours.

In the liberal vision, government is a means for the people to look out for their common and collective interests. We want government to succeed at that mission. In order for that to happen, democracy has to work. The political process needs to be trusted and trustworthy.

Conservatives — at least the plutocrats who dominate the conservative movement today — don’t need that. They want government not to be trusted, so that billionaires and corporations will be free to do as they please. So anything that raises cynicism about the political process works to their advantage. When the public discourse devolves to our lies against their lies, they win.

Worse, they win when the public polarizes into camps that live in separate realities. Think about global warming. In order to get a cap-and-trade program passed, President Obama had to get a majority in the House and 60 senators to unite around a single plan. His opponents only needed to stop that from happening. Anything that raised fear and distrust worked to their advantage, because they were not trying to pass their own plan. They just needed to prevent the American people from using government to look out for their common interest.

Liberals win when the public lives in one reality, and has a transparent discourse about that reality that reaches some kind of consensus. Our best chance to achieve that is to stay connected to facts. Stephen Colbert noticed the right correlation, but got the causality backwards: Liberals need to have a reality bias.

So when it comes to propaganda, we don’t need to raise our game. We need to raise the public’s game, so that they are less easily fooled. We need to spend our between-campaigns intervals tearing down stereotypes and educating the public, both about reality and about how propaganda works.

If we wait until the last few weeks before an election to explain that, then we really will be losing.

Already Refuted 97 Years Ago

Several Sifts have led off with quotes from commentator Walter Lippmann, who could turn a phrase better than almost anybody else in the 20th century. Well, this longer quote from Drift and Mastery (1914) explains precisely what’s wrong with the Republican Medicare-privatization plan — and what’s wrong with their whole vision of individuals negotiating their own health-care purchases:

In our intricate civilization the purchaser can’t pit himself against the producer, for he lacks knowledge and power to make the bargain a fair one. By the time goods are ready for the ultimate consumer they have travelled hundreds of miles, passed through any number of wholesalers, jobbers, middlemen and what not. The simple act of buying has become a vast, impersonal thing which the ordinary man is quite incapable of performing without all sorts of organized aid. There are silly anarchists who talk as if such organization were a loss of freedom. They seem to imagine that they can “stand alone,” and judge each thing for themselves. They might try it. They would find that the purchase of eggs was such a stupendous task that no time would be left over for the purchase of beer or the pursuit of those higher freedoms for which they are fighting.

The old commercial theorists had some inkling of these difficulties. They knew that the consumer could not possibly make each purchase a deliberate and intelligent act. So they said that if only business men were left to compete they would stumble over each other to supply the consumer with the most satisfactory goods. It is hardly necessary to point out how complete has been the collapse of that romantic theory. There are a hundred ways of competing, to produce the highest quality at the lowest cost proved to be the most troublesome and least rewarding form of competition.

Remember, Lippmann is talking about the “intricate civilization” of 1914. It was already too much for the individual consumer to handle.

Fast forward to 2011, and let’s imagine the Republican ideal of individual health-care choice. People like my 89-year-old Dad would be deciding whether or not the cut-rate MRI shop on the edge of town is safe. (Or I’d be deciding for him from a thousand miles away.) If a profit-driven doctor recommends an expensive treatment, Dad would have to look at that suggestion as skeptically as he used to look at mechanics who wanted to replace his car’s transmission. And yes, insurance companies would compete for his business — with clever advertising, deceptive slogans, fast-talking telemarketers who call at all hours, and low-premium plans that seem to cover every illness except the ones you happen to get.

That’s market competition as it really exists in America today — not the Atlas-Shrugged fantasy of high-quality/low-cost competition.

Markets respond well when they have to satisfy well-informed consumers who have the time and ability to “make each purchase a deliberate and intelligent act”. That’s why I don’t need a government inspector to check that McDonalds’ french fries are crisp enough; I have all the information I need to make a good decision for myself. But how do I determine for myself whether the Filet-O-Fish sandwich contains mercury that will make me senile 15 years from now?

Unfortunately, a well-informed consumer is a corporation’s worst-case scenario. If it can hide the relevant data, distract or confuse the buyer, and sell the sizzle instead of the steak, it will.

And if someday we arrive at their free-market health-care utopia, which side will the Republicans be on? Will they insist on strong consumer-protection regulations that force corporations to collect and reveal the information people need to make wise choices? I’m guessing not.

Wisconsin Update

This week we got another lesson on the consequences of elections: Back in April, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser won a close re-election that played out suspiciously, but apparently honestly. Tuesday he was the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision overturning a lower court’s ruling that the legislature violated Wisconsin’s open-meetings law when it passed Governor Walker’s union-busting bill.

The gist of the ruling, as I understand it, is not that the legislature followed the law, but that it is not up to the judiciary to say whether it did or not. It is a “separation of powers” issue, in which the legislature’s “failure to follow such procedural rules amounts to an implied ad hoc repeal of such rules.”

The dissenting judges found that the Court itself was engaging in an unusual process. Ordinarily, a court hears a case either originally or as an appeal from some other court, using the factual record established by the original court. In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court did something in between: It granted itself original jurisdiction on a case that had already been heard by a lower court, and then made its own findings-of-fact without gathering any new evidence beyond what was in the lower court’s record.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson minced no words in her dissent:

The order and Justice Prosser’s concurrence are based on errors of fact and law. They inappropriately use this court’s original jurisdiction, make their own findings of fact, mischaracterize the parties’ arguments, misinterpret statutes, minimize (if not eliminate) Wisconsin constitutional guarantees, and misstate case law, appearing to silently overrule case law dating back to at least 1891.

Other than that, it was all good.

Wisconsin public employee unions are now filing a suit in federal court, but I’ve got my doubts that it will go anywhere.

The other theater of action in Wisconsin is the recall elections of nine senators — six Republicans and three Democrats. Here also, the Republicans are engaging in an unusual process: They have filed dummy Democratic challengers to force a Democratic primary and delay the recall elections from July 19 to sometime in mid-August.

FDL comments:

I’m a little surprised a registered Republican and a Republican county official can just run in a Democratic primary, but those are the rules in Wisconsin, apparently.

And there apparently is no concern about good government or right-and-wrong. Whatever you can get away with is what you should do.

Short Notes

ThinkProgress points out that the current ethical controversy around Clarence Thomas — namely, that he and his wife get expensive favors from a rich guy whose companies sometimes have an interest in cases before the Supreme Court — is pretty much identical to a scandal that caused LBJ-appointee Justice Abe Fortas to resign in the 1960s.

One of Thomas’ benefactors has even filed briefs in his Court since giving Thomas a $15,000 gift, and Thomas has not recused himself from each of these cases.

No one seriously expects Thomas to resign.

When I graduated from Michigan State in 1978, some congressman gave a commencement speech about farm policy. So how come another Big Ten school, Northwestern, just got Stephen Colbert?

Salon’s Steve Kornacki:

If nothing else, Monday’s Republican presidential debate made those commentators who have been touting Michele Bachmann as a serious threat to win the GOP presidential nomination look like prophets.

That would be me. Like me, Kornacki is not predicting that Bachmann will get the nomination, just that she’ll come a lot closer than the conventional wisdom suggests.

I think even Kornacki underestimates Bachmann, though, by comparing her to past religious-right candidates like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee. Pat and Mike were religious candidates first, and sometimes gave the impression that they were making up their other positions on the fly. (Huck in particular raised fears among Club-for-Growth types that he might turn into a Sermon-on-the-Mount liberal if he took office.) But Bachmann sounds completely authentic rallying a Tea Party crowd on taxes and spending.

New evidence that life is not fair: Even in his mug shots, John Edwards looks better than I do.

Nicholas Kristof finds at least one American organization that embodies liberal principles like racial diversity, social mobility, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, educational opportunity, and keeping a lid on income inequality: the military.

But as we as a country grope for new directions in a difficult economic environment, the tendency has been to move toward a corporatist model that sees investments in people as woolly-minded sentimentalism or as unaffordable luxuries. That’s not the only model out there. So as the United States armed forces try to pull Iraqi and Afghan societies into the 21st century, maybe they could do the same for America’s.

When it passed its famous anti-immigrant law SB 1070 last year, Arizona made its bid to be America’s most racist state. But Alabama is not giving up the crown without a fight.

Salon lists some of the Arabic words that are staples of anti-Muslim rhetoric, how they’re used, and what they mean to people who actually know Islam or Arabic.

There’s a fine line between making something illegal and putting so many restrictions on it that it becomes impractical. AlterNet’s Amanda Marcotte examines 10 States Where Abortion Is Virtually Illegal for Some Women.

Last week I pointed out that the NYT had published an op-ed denouncing clean energy by someone from a Koch front-group. Mike Casey gives more details:

I’m not even expecting that the Times actually demand a factual grounding for the opinion pieces it runs. That seems to have gone out of style awhile ago. … But Bryce got away with something much more preventable: pretending he’s some sort of intellectually honest thinker when his organization has ties to dirty energy money that no one bothered to note.

And then he makes a good suggestion:

Why not have a standard for all opinion pages for papers over a certain basic level of readership requiring opinion page submission finalists to disclose financial conflicts, direct or indirect, on the subject on which they have written? … it might inject just a little bit of honesty into what is now an all-too-frequent stream of enabled propaganda.

Why don’t young people vote? I don’t know, let’s ask one.

The biggest climate-change denier in the Minnesota Senate turns out to have been lying about having any scientific background at all.


The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

Surviving the Enemy

There are those in our own country too, who today speak of the protection of country, of survival. A decision must be made. In the life of every nation, at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat, then it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival on what is expedient, to look the other way. Only … the answer to that is: Survival as what?

Spencer Tracy as Judge Dan Haywood,
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Death of the Bogeyman. If you want to know how I feel about killing Osama bin Laden, you’ll have to specify whether we’re talking about the Saudi billionaire’s son or the mythic Master of Evil.
  • The View From Peru. Hernando de Soto has long been the Right’s favorite third-world economist. But I wonder how long that can last, now that he has started applying his theories to us instead of them.
  • Short Notes. Exporting democracy has caused a shortage. Maddow’s amazing interview. The Daily Show’s royal wedding coverage. A congressional candidate’s entire web site gets spoofed. And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Want to get a letter to the editor published? Here’s how I do it.

The Death of the Bogeyman

Every now and then, a real person becomes a fictional character. It happens. A nice-looking girl named Norma Jean turns into the sex goddess Marilyn Monroe. Four guys from Liverpool become the greatest rock stars ever.

Some people say mythic or legendary instead of fictional, but it comes down to the same thing: Your real life gets swamped under the stories about you.

I’m told such people continue to be real, even after they turn fictional. But I can’t say for sure. I assume you could have sat around the pool with Marilyn and worked on your tans together. It might still be possible to have Paul or Ringo over to play some Beatles Rock Band. But personally, the only rock stars or Hollywood goddesses I have ever known were fictional.

The only Osama bin Laden I ever knew was fictional too. Once, I’m told, he was just a rich kid from Saudi Arabia. But I never met that guy. Long ago he became the fictional Master of Evil, the God of Terror who stalked my country, the Bogeyman.

Now he’s dead.

If you want to know how I feel about that, you’ll have to specify whether we’re talking about the Saudi rich kid or the Bogeyman. The real Saudi guy … well, I believe in human rights, and I suspect his DNA tests as human. So I would rather we had put him on trial, because that’s the American way.

But like everybody else, I’m glad the Bogeyman is dead. How could I not be? Some of my friends found it unseemly to celebrate Bin Laden’s death, but I didn’t. The Death of the Bogeyman is one of the great old holidays. It doesn’t get celebrated every year, like the Birth of the Savior does, but that’s all the more reason to do it up right.

Just remember, though: The Bogeyman always reincarnates. I mean, Hitler died. So did Stalin and Mao. Pol Pot. Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam Hussein. Evil just kept right on rolling. President Bush pledged to “rid the world of evil-doers“, but (short of annihilating the human race) that’s not going to happen. The Bogeyman will reincarnate. Soon, probably.

Consequences. Eliminating the Bogeyman always has unexpected effects. Saddam’s capture made the war harder for America, not easier. Until then, Iraqis worried that Saddam would come back if the U. S. failed. But with Saddam out of the picture, Iraqis could focus on a new question: Why is my country full of foreign infidels? The U.S. lost 486 soldiers in 2003, the year that ended in Saddam’s capture. But we lost more than 800 soldiers every year from 2004 to 2007.

Many people are predicting a similarly perverse effect of bin Laden’s death: Support for the Afghanistan War will dry up. So although President Obama has seen a medium-sized jump in his popularity this week, the pendulum could swing against him if he doesn’t start extricating us from Afghanistan, especially if his 2012 opponent can promote a vague Nixon-like peace-with-honor plan.

Alternet’s Adele Stan speculates that Bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad might further destabilize Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.

The operational consequences for Al Qaeda are probably small. Communicating only by monthly courier, Bin Laden couldn’t have been a hands-on leader. So his significance to Al Qaeda must also have been largely as a fictional character — the Man America Can’t Catch, maybe because Allah hides him. His death will mostly just hurt their recruitment and morale.

New Era? Personally, I hope Bin Laden’s death marks the end of the nasty and dismal era that began with 9-11. I think we all feel the change, but no one knows quite what it means yet. We’ll be arguing about it at least through the 2012 elections.

We have an opportunity now to re-open a lot of conversations: Guantanamo, torture, warrantless wiretaps, and the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. If we play our cards right, those things could join the Fugitive Slave Act, the Japanese internment, and mutually assured destruction as relics of the bad old days, when we were all crazy.

It can be a new era for the Muslim world as well. The revolutions of the last few months had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, and Bin Laden posters were nowhere to be seen during the Cairo demonstrations. Bin Laden’s big idea was that the dictatorships of the Middle East could not be toppled one-by-one as long as America stood behind them. His strategy was to go after America first, making us yank our hands out of the backs of our pseudo-Muslim puppets. That view seems irrelevant now.

No one can say exactly how things are going to play out in Egypt or Tunisia or Yemen or even Syria. But none of those stories fit into the Bush vs. Bin Laden narrative of the last decade. I never liked that narrative, so I have hopes for the new one.

I took this opportunity to review Terrorist Strategy 101: a Quiz, which was one of my first blog posts to get any attention. (It was on the front page of Daily Kos shortly after the 2004 elections.) While a few of the predictions are off-base, I think the logic holds up pretty well.

One of the stranger ideas to float around in right-wing circles is that we should have desecrated Bin Laden’s body.

On the other side, some claim burial at sea is not in accordance with sharia, though others note various exceptions that might apply to Bin Laden.

BTW, I notice that Muslims say “sharia” or “Islamic law” while anti-Muslims say “sharia law”. I don’t know whether “sharia law’ is one of those intentionally offensive phrases like “Democrat Party” or just a clueless redundancy like “Rio Grande River”. If you know, comment on the blog or send me email.

A possible replacement Bogeyman is running into trouble. The Guardian reports:

Close allies of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been accused of using supernatural powers to further his policies amid an increasingly bitter power struggle between him and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Several people said to be close to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested in recent days and charged with being “magicians” and invoking djinns (spirits).

Witch trials — it looks like the modernization of Iran has reached the 17th century.

Disinformation watch. Did torture produce the information that found Bin Laden? Nope, and nope, and again nope. Did the Dalai Lama really say that killing Bin Laden was OK? No, he didn’t. Was Rush Limbaugh serious when he said, “Thank God for President Obama”? No, he wasn’t.

On the Fox Business channel, waterboarding is a big joke.

Abbottabad turns out to fit perfectly into the Muppet Show theme song.

Jon Stewart’s reaction: “Abbottabad sounds like the name most New Yorkers would have invented for the fictional place they would have loved to kill Bin Laden.”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Bin Laden had been captured rather than killed, we’d be hearing about how wimpy Obama is. But now John Yoo says killing Bin Laden was wimpy — Obama should have tortured him for intelligence.

I think Osama fantasized for a decade about staying true to Allah while being tortured for intelligence. For him, it would have been better than 72 virgins.

Some of the same people who thought Bush’s mission-accomplished stunt was brilliant also think that Obama has “pounded his chest too much” about Bin Laden. Like gorillas do, I guess.

You’d think Obama would know: Black heroes are supposed to be humble like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, not uppity like Jack Johnson and Muhammed Ali.

The View From Peru

Once in a while, it helps to go outside the polarized American system of Left/Right, Republican/Democrat, and get a view from somebody who on occasion will either please or annoy either side — like the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

De Soto’s book The Mystery of Capital is an icon among conservatives, because it outlines a capitalistic path for third-world development, one that focuses on establishing the rule of law and the transparency of markets. If you’ve ever said, “They don’t need our money, they need to follow our example”, then you’re likely to be a de Soto fan. That’s why he won prizes named after Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman and Adam Smith.

But de Soto has one decided drawback as a right-wing hero: He really means it. De Soto-ism is not just a compassionate veneer to slap onto a policy of plutocratic class warfare. He really wants a legal/economic system that is lawful and transparent. What’s more, he believes that the first world would do well to practice what it preaches to the third world.

So de Soto’s view of the 2008 economic collapse is not likely to win him another Friedman award.

One basic idea runs through all de Soto’s writings: Markets work well when everybody knows what they’re buying and selling, but they work badly when doubts creep in. (Maybe what you’re buying doesn’t really exist, maybe the guy selling it to you doesn’t really own it, maybe owning the thing entails drawbacks and restrictions you don’t know about, and so on.) When there is no trustworthy way to dispel such doubts, even an honest seller can’t get what his property is worth. And sometimes doubt gets so extreme that the market just breaks down, the way credit markets broke down in 2008.

When he looks at third-world poverty through this lens (in The Mystery of Capital), de Soto sees that a lot of the urban poor are not destitute, but everything they own or control is either off the books or otherwise ambiguous. They can use it, but they can’t take it to a bank and get a loan. So they can’t start family businesses or send their kids to college, or do any of the other things that people with recognized property do. De Soto wants to get poor people’s unofficial property into a lawful transparent system, so that they can use it as capital.

But when he turns that lens to the 2008 financial collapse, de Soto sees that the first world had the kind of system he wants for Latin American, until we threw it away by de-regulating.

It is the business of government, de Soto argues, to create and enforce standards that allow people to know what they’re buying. The great achievement of the West was the creation of “public memory systems” that standardized and kept track of who owned what, who owed what, and who was responsible for what risks. These systems replaced informal relationships and handshake commitments with publicly verifiable facts.

Over the past 20 years, Americans and Europeans have quietly gone about destroying these facts. … The results are hardly surprising. In the U.S., trust has broken down between banks and subprime mortgage holders; between foreclosing agents and courts; between banks and their investors—even between banks and other banks. Overall, credit (from the Latin for “trust”) continues to flow steadily, but closer examination shows that nongovernment credit has contracted.

… When then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson initiated his Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in September 2008, I assumed the objective was to restore trust in the market by identifying and weeding out the “troubled assets” held by the world’s financial institutions. Three weeks later, when I asked American friends why Paulson had switched strategies and was injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into struggling financial institutions, I was told that there were so many idiosyncratic types of paper scattered around the world that no one had any clear idea of how many there were, where they were, how to value them, or who was holding the risk. These securities had slipped outside the recorded memory systems and were no longer easy to connect to the assets from which they had originally been derived. Oh, and their notional value was somewhere between $600 trillion and $700 trillion dollars, 10 times the annual production of the entire world.

De Soto understands that there is no “free” market, if by free we mean unregulated. Markets are created by regulation.

Markets were never intended to be anarchic: It has always been government’s role to police standards, weights and measures, and records, and not condone legalized sleight of hand in the shadows of the informal economy. To understand and repair one of mankind’s greatest achievements—the creation of economic facts through public memory—is the stuff of nation-builders.

To avoid another 2008 collapse, he argues, we need to re-regulate finance. Governments should standardize and keep records on all the new financial instruments, and insist on accounting standards that make corporate risks transparent again. Otherwise, how can investors know whether they are buying a piece of the next AIG?

And if they can’t know, why will they invest at all?

Short Notes

April’s best satire. Exporting Democracy Has Led to Shortages of it in U.S., Expert Say.

a new study commissioned by the University of Minnesota … predicts that if the U.S. continues to export democracy at its current pace it may completely run out of it at home by the year 2015.

House Speaker Boehner recommends we deal with the shortage by exploring “alternative forms of government, such as oligarchy or plutocracy.”

Friday Rachel Maddow did one of the most powerful TV interviews I’ve ever seen: As the NRA convention was happening downtown, she got a driving tour of PIttsburgh’s gun-infested Homewood neighborhood from its councilman, Rev. Ricky Burgess.

Earlier on the same show, she used quotes from the Republican presidential debate in South Carolina to make an important point that no one else is making so clearly: The party’s libertarian small-government rhetoric doesn’t match its meddling big-government social policies — exemplified by a new Florida law about how low students can wear their pants.

Tuesday she was on Jon Stewart’s show.

Speaking of Jon Stewart, Tuesday’s show also had his royal wedding coverage. The royal family banned satire and comedy shows from using the news footage — which they can do in the UK. Jon decided not to take that lying down.

In 2007, the possible presidential candidates who were making appearances in early primary states went ahead to run, while the ones who weren’t, didn’t. Using that criterion, Nate Silver says:

the 2012 Republican field is far more defined than most people think, with Mr. Gingrich, Gary Johnson, Mr. Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Mr. Romney as likely’s and Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Trump and Mr. Paul as maybe’s.

According to Frank Lunz’s focus group, the big winner of Thursday’s debate was Godfather’s Pizza founder Herman Cain — despite the fact that he doesn’t have an Afghanistan policy and doesn’t expect to have one until he takes office.

The first rule of political web design has to be: Get control of all the URLs for your candidate’s name. Republican congressional candidate Jane Corwin must have missed that class. Her web site is, and a devastating parody (with all the same photos — you have to see it) is now at

She says: “Together we can build a bright future that is lit with prosperity and opportunity.” The parody says: “Together we can make delicious soup from the bones of the poor.”

Can’t decide which baseball team to root for? Follow this flow chart.

This Week’s Challenge

If you ever think about writing a letter to the editor, try it this week. If you send one in, feel free to leave the text as a comment at the Sift. If you get published, leave another comment  with the link.

Thursday, I published this letter in my local paper, the Nashua Telegraph. Over the last 30 years, I’ve published a lot of letters, in everything from the NYT and Time to one of those free papers for shoppers.

Here are my tips for getting a letter published.

  • Don’t ramble. Pick one point and make it.
  • Shorter is better. The more prestigious the newspaper, the shorter letters need to be (unless you’re famous). My letter to the Telegraph would have been way too long for a major big-city paper.
  • Personalize. How does your experience give you unique insight? In my letter, I take advantage of the fact that I would be one of the last people to qualify for Medicare under the Paul Ryan plan. So I wonder: What if someday I’m the last Medicare recipient alive? Will they keep the program running just for me? Probably not.
  • Localize. Newspapers want their letters column to be a back-and-forth forum for their readers, not a megaphone for outsiders making nationalized arguments. So, for example, my letter blames the Medicare privatization plan on New Hampshire’s two representatives, who voted for it, rather than Wisconsin’s Ryan, who wrote it.
  • Be topical. In a major newspaper, you just about have to be responding to a specific article published in the last few days. (Name it!) In a lesser paper, you can get away with a topic that is “up” in a more general way. If you’re stuck for a topic, try relating tax cuts for the rich to program cuts for the needy. Some recent article is bound to be relevant.
  • Don’t be ashamed to aim low. When you’ve got your letter sharpened as far as it will go, you’ve got a judgment to make. Remember: Getting printed by a free weekly with 100 readers is better than not getting printed by the Wall Street Journal. (Telegraph circulation: around 27,000 — a lot more than the zero NYT readers who would have seen my letter.)
  • Follow instructions. Every paper tells you what it wants to see on its letters. (Daytime phone number so they can call to verify that you wrote it?) Give it to them.

If your letter doesn’t get printed, don’t get discouraged — it still gets counted. Sheer numbers will push a paper to print more letters on a topic. So if you see another letter making a point similar to yours, you may have helped get that one printed.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

Getting Richer

Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress.

President Andrew Jackson, vetoing reincorporation of the Second Bank of the United States (1832)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Return of Candidate Obama. If you’ve been wondering what happened to the guy America voted for, he came back Wednesday to give a speech about the deficit.
  • Corporations Can Pay Taxes. Conservatives often claim that corporate taxes are an illusion: Any tax on corporations just gets passed on to the consumers who buy their products. But that simplistic view of the market contradicts other conservative rhetoric, not to mention common sense.
  • Why Bradley Manning Matters. Just as the Jose Padilla case summed up the Bush administration’s contempt for human rights, the Bradley Manning case sums up how little has changed under the Obama administration.
  • Short Notes. Quid pro quo in Wisconsin. Fair and balanced coverage quantified. Trump’s rise is good for Obama. Incorporating your uterus. Rapping knuckles at Goldman Sachs. Green sex toys. A suspiciously amusing dispatch from the Shady Pines Home for the Violently Senile. And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Freeing Bradley Manning seems to me like too much to ask for. But can we at least let some neutral observers in to inspect his treatment? Here’s the petition to sign.

The Return of Candidate Obama

If you haven’t watched to or read the speech President Obama gave Wednesday on the deficit, you should. It’s a reminder that on occasion our political leaders can be factual and sensible. I had the same reaction as Salon’s Joan Walsh: “That’s the president I voted for.”

Obama defended a lot of basic American values that conservatives often attack and liberals often leave undefended:

  • the public sector. In addition to individualism and suspicion of government, “there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. … And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire new industries.”
  • entitlements. “Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. … We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us.  ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ we say to ourselves.” And so: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, Medicaid. “We would not be a great country without those commitments.”
  • progressive taxation. “This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well -– we rightly celebrate their success. Instead, it’s a basic reflection of our belief that those who’ve benefited most from our way of life can afford to give back a little bit more.”

He told the often-forgotten story of how the deficit got this big: “America’s finances were in great shape by the year 2000.  … But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program -– but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts. … When I took office, our projected deficit, annually, was more than $1 trillion. On top of that, we faced a terrible financial crisis and a recession that, like most recessions, led us to temporarily borrow even more.”

He faced facts about the budget: “Around two-thirds of our budget — two-thirds — is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security. Two-thirds. Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20 percent. What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else … education, clean energy, medical research, transportation, our national parks, food safety, keeping our air and water clean.”

He nailed the Ryan deficit plan: “I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic. It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. …  [I]f that [Medicare] voucher isn’t worth enough to buy the insurance that’s available in the open marketplace, well, tough luck -– you’re on your own. … It’s a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit.” (Hunter elaborates on this “staggeringly bleak vision“.)

And he tells us who many of those 50 Medicaid recipients are (Ezra Klein illustrates): old people in nursing homes, poor children, children with autism or Downs syndrome or other disabilities that may require constant care. “These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.”

And thank God somebody finally rejected — on moral grounds! — the idea that the rich need more tax cuts: “In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That’s not right.” (Cartoonist Clay Bennett doesn’t think so either.)

Finally, we get the President’s deficit plan. It’s typical Obama. No magic bullets, we have to do a little bit of everything: cut the kinds of discretionary spending we’ve already been cutting, but also let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy, cut defense, reduce health care spending by raising the efficiency of care rather than by making the old and poor do without, and limit tax deductions for both individuals and corporations.

He claims that adds up to $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years. I’m sure somebody reputable will check those calculations, and when I find that analysis, I’ll link to it.

Usually the if-we-do-nothing scenario is a horror show that is supposed to goad us into action. But if we do nothing, it turns out that the deficit pretty much gets under control: The Bush tax cuts go away, Obamacare starts to control health-care costs, and so on.

Jargon watch: Conservatives have begun referring to entitlements as “welfare”. Examples: Paul Ryan has equated Medicaid reform with welfare reform. (Matt Yglesias debunks this.) And David Brooks starts out talking about a European-style “welfare state”, but then shortens it to just “welfare”, as in “Obama, meanwhile, does not believe the current welfare arrangements are structurally unsustainable.” and “Every few years, Republicans try to reform the welfare delivery systems to make them more marketlike.” In both of these lines, “welfare” means entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

So the millions of Social Security beneficiaries are “on welfare”. This narrative has been building at least since August, when Alan Simpson referred to Social Security as “a milk cow with 310 million teats.”

Paul Ryan isn’t lying when he says his plan doesn’t change Medicare for those over 55, but you need to think another step ahead: After Ryan’s plan passes, the generational warfare can start. Conservatives will tell young people that they pay crushing taxes to support welfare-queen baby-boom seniors. How long can that last?

About that theory that Keynes was wrong and the government should cut spending before the job market is back to normal: The United Kingdom is already trying it, and it’s not working. Cutting government spending lowers demand, which kills jobs — just like Keynes said it would

The Willamette Week reveals 9 Things the Rich Don’t Want You to Know About Taxes. And Nicholas Kristof adds this bit of common sense:

it’s worth remembering that the last time our budget was in the black was in the Clinton administration. That’s a broad hint that one sensible way to overcome our difficulties would be to revert to tax rates more or less as they were under President Clinton.

Corporations Can Pay Taxes

A week and a half ago, Rep. Bill Posey (R-Florida) mocked the people who think oil companies should pay higher taxes. It’s pointless, he argued, to tax corporations:

Let’s say we tax those evil oil companies another dollar a gallon. They’re not going to write the check. We know what’s going to happen; they’re going to raise the price a dollar a gallon. Or, given the corporate greed we sometimes see, round it off to two dollars. Corporations don’t pay taxes. Corporations collect taxes. They collect taxes from consumers who ultimately pay the tax.

This is an example of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose logic I called out two weeks ago. In any other context, conservatives tell us how competitive and efficient the free market is. But now, when it’s convenient, the price of gas is not bound by the market and can be whatever the oil companies want it to be. So we’d better not make them mad by asking them to pay taxes.

Suppose Exxon really could respond to a higher corporate income tax (it paid no U.S. corporate income tax in 2009) by raising its price to make up the lost profit. Then someone needs to explain this: Why isn’t Exxon already charging the higher price?

Corporations are (as I have explained before) sociopaths. They are not interested in charging a fair price and making a fair profit, because the whole concept of fairness does not register with them. So at all times — tax or no tax — they are trying to charge the highest price the market will bear and make as much money as they can.

In short: Exxon is already charging the highest price the market will bear. That price will go up or down in response to changes in the market, but subtracting an income tax from their maximized profit doesn’t change the calculation. Corporations can pay taxes if politicians have the courage to tax them.

Why Bradley Manning Matters

In the Bush years, the individual civil-liberties case that summed everything up was Jose Padilla: an American citizen arrested in Chicago and held in a military brig for 3 1/2 years without charges or trial, in abusive conditions that ultimately destroyed him as a person. (Padilla was eventually convicted on a vague conspiracy charge unrelated to what he was originally suspected of. During his trial Padilla appeared to root for the government and against his own defense.)

President Obama was supposed to change all that. But though he has softened the Bush regime a little, overall not much is different. The Bush administration’s interpretation of the Constitution could have gone on to justify more-or-less any abuse a president could imagine — a John Yoo memo from 2001 claimed that the President’s role as commander-in-chief allows him “to take whatever actions he deems appropriate” to fight terrorism — so we’re well rid of those guys. But most of the actual civil-liberties abuses under Bush continue and are being defended by the Obama administration.

The individual case that sums it all up now is Bradley Manning. Manning is widely believed to be the source of a vast trove of documents that have been made public by WikiLeaks. So he’s either the greatest whistle-blower since Daniel Ellsberg (as Ellsberg himself believes) or a traitor to the United States or both.

But (like Padilla during the worst of his ordeal) Manning is still just a suspect, not a convict. And yet he is being held in conditions that constitute punishment, not detention. He sees no other prisoners and very few visitors. (Ellsberg, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture have all been refused permission to see him.) He is allowed to pace in a large room for an hour a day, but otherwise does not leave his cell. At times his clothes have been taken away, Abu-Ghraib-style. He is allowed to have one book at a time.

Individually, all these conditions are allowed in military brigs for short time periods in response to specific risks like escape or suicide. None of this applies to Manning; he is simply being punished for what he is suspected to have done. In the long term, this level of isolation is known to be debilitating, as it was to Padilla. Nearly 300 legal scholars — including Obama’s teacher Lawrence Tribe — have signed a letter charging that this is cruel and unusual punishment banned by the Eighth Amendment.

In short, our government is literally driving a man insane — an American citizen who has been convicted of nothing, and who some Americans consider to be a hero.

If you find it curious that anyone could make a hero of Manning, look at what Marcy Wheeler learned from the WikiLeaks cables: the extent to which our foreign policy is shaped by Monsanto. As in the Pentagon Papers, many of the secrets in the WikiLeaks cables are not being kept from foreign governments, they’re being kept from the American people.

And if you’re wondering how a low-ranking enlisted man was able to get his hands on that much sensitive information, Marcy is on that question too.

Short Notes

What do the Koch brothers get in exchange for funding the campaigns of Wisconsin Governor Walker and Supreme Court Justice Prosser? Their company gets to keep dumping phosphorus into Wisconsin rivers. Not a bad return on investment.

The NYT points out that this is a theme among the new Tea Party governors: “cut budgets and personnel at regulatory agencies, prevent the issuing of new regulations, roll back land conservation and, if possible, eliminate planning boards that monitor, restrict or permit building development.”

Whether these environment-bashing policies create any jobs (other than in cancer care 20 years from now) is debatable, but they definitely create profits for the Tea Party’s financial backers.

Fox News scorecard: Pumping up the phony New-Black-Panther-Party scandal: 95 segments lasting 8 hours. Covering the Justice Department OPR report debunking it: two segments lasting 88 seconds.

The rise of Donald Trump in Republican presidential polls is great news for President Obama. All the Republican front-runners are damaged in one way or another, so the party’s only real chance in 2012 is for a presidential-stature candidate to come out of nowhere. Dark horses like Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels hope to be that guy, but the more oxygen Trump sucks out of the room, the fainter their voices get.

Are you a woman who worries that corporate rights keep growing while women’s rights keep shrinking? The ACLU of Florida has the solution: incorporate your uterus.

Arizona’s anti-immigrant law is working its way up the court system. An appeals court just backed up the district court’s injunction against enforcing the law, on the grounds that the federal government seems likely to win its claim. The opinion is boring and technical, but boils down to this: Federal law takes precedence over state law, especially on issues that the Constitution explicitly assigns to the feds.

You can quote Catholic League President Bill Donohue, but you can’t parody him. Consider last Monday’s full-page ad Straight Talk About the Catholic Church in the Boston Globe.

What did he “talk straight” about? How overblown the whole priest-sexual-abuse thing is. After a bunch of whining and excuse-making — “rape” is an exaggeration; most victims were just molested — Donohue’s punch line explains why priests are “singled out” even though all kinds of people abuse children:

Let’s face it: if [the Catholic Church’s] teachings were pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and pro-women clergy, the dogs would have been called off years ago.

OK, I’m not president of the Catholic League, but I think I have a better explanation: Maybe the furor has more to do with the claiming-to-represent-God-on-Earth thing. For some weird reason, that always makes people judge you by a higher standard.

Equal time for Catholics who pay attention to the teachings of Jesus: Franciscan nuns are going to the Goldman Sachs annual meeting to protest the sinful level of executive compensation. I hope they bring their rulers.

Heads I win, tales you lose: Planned Parenthood has to be defunded because money is fungible; no matter what accounting controls exist, any money the government gives them might get spent on abortions. But public money given to faith-based groups is not fungible; we can be sure — somehow — that the government isn’t unconstitutionally funding religious proselytization.

Probably the Left will have this kind of fund-raiser to itself for a while: Buy your green sex toys at Babeland and the environmental news site Grist gets 10%. What makes a sex toy “green”? Babeland explains: rechargeable batteries, non-toxic materials, and so on. (Probably no animal testing either, though I’m trying not to picture that.)

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has the charts: Taxes are low in the United States, both compared to other countries and compared to U.S. taxes in the past. The Republican talking point says: “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.” But in the real world, we have a revenue problem.

Matt Yglesias imagines how income tax could work: The IRS could sum up all the income reported to it, compare to your personal information from last year, and send you a bill. If you had additional information to offer or claims to make, you could file a return. Otherwise, just send a check or claim your refund.

Downside? H. R. Block’s lobbyists would hate it, and conservatives want you to find taxes annoying.

Yglesias also calls BS on the claim that a flat tax would be simpler. If you do your own taxes, you understand why: “What’s complicated is the definition of taxable income”, not the tax rates. The only thing a flat tax simplifies (by a line or two) is the computer program that produces the tax tables.

Flat-taxers argue that they also want to do away with deductions, which would simplify things. But we could eliminate deductions and still tax the rich at a higher rate than the poor. The two ideas are unrelated.

Having hit my 20-article monthly limit, I bit the bullet and got a digital subscription to the New York Times. The Times is far from perfect, but it does journalism that nobody else is doing. Good reporting doesn’t happen by magic; somebody has to pay for it. If not the readers, then who?

I have no idea whether anything written on the Sarah, Proud and Tall blog is true or not. (You have to wonder about “Dispatches from the Shady Pines Home for the Violently Senile.”) Sarah Howard claims to be 92 years old and tells a lot of unverifiable (and perhaps unlikely) stories about famous people. This one is about Ayn Rand, and if isn’t true, it ought to be.

This Week’s Challenge

There’s an online petition to free Bradley Manning, which I haven’t signed because I think it goes a little too far. Civil disobedience ought to have a price. But FireDogLake has a petition asking the government to stop restricting official visits to Manning. That seems like the least we can do. Take a look and see if you can sign it in good conscience.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

Born to Property

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

— Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, (1793)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Justice of the Public Sector. What about that idea that the government is “stealing your money” and spending it on “freeloaders”? New-fangled notions from John Locke and Thomas Paine explain the hole in that thinking.
  • Who’s Ready for Democracy? We can examine the obstacles to democracy in Libya (and elsewhere) without invoking religious, racial, or cultural stereotypes.
  • Short Notes. More soap opera in Wisconsin. Jon Stewart thinks “Gov hurts”. The ACA is a year old. Warrantless wiretapping is back in court. And my wife and I politely ask NOM to stop defending our marriage, which is doing fine on its own.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Let me know how the Sift gets from me to you.

The Justice of the Public Sector

Last week I argued that the current battles over state and federal budgets are part of a long-term conservative plan to destroy the public sector by “starving the beast“. Last September (in a review of Thomas Geoghegan’s Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?) I claimed that a society with a large public sector — public schools, public parks, public healthcare, public pensions — is a nicer place to live for the large majority of its citizens.

But even someone who granted me all those points might still say: “Yes, but the public sector is unjust. It relies on the government taking money from the people who earn it and spending it on people who didn’t earn it.”

Conservative rhetoric is the mirror image of Marxist rhetoric on this issue. To conservatives, you’re a parasite if you flip burgers for minimum wage, pay little-to-no tax, and nonetheless expect the government to spend somebody else’s taxes on your daughter’s chemotherapy. To Marxists, you’re a parasite if you expect burger-flippers to work for minimum wage so that dividends from your McDonalds stock can pay your country club membership.

Who’s right?

If you look at things on the small scale, the conservative argument looks compelling: There’s a big number at the top of your paycheck, and a considerably smaller number at the bottom that you get to take home. The idea that you “earned” the big number, but the government “stole” a chunk of it — it looks right.

If you pull back to a larger scale, though, the Marxists have a point (especially if you express their ideas in religious terms that Marx would have hated). Pre-tax earnings (both yours and Warren Buffett’s) reflect the outcome of a rigged game, because they’re based on a property system that is fundamentally unjust.

Think it through from the beginning: For whose benefit did God create the world? Everybody’s? Or just for the people who have their names on deeds? Babies are born into a world in which every object of value is already the property of someone else — how can that be just? What did those babies do to lose their share of the inheritance of the world?

As Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly argue in Unjust Desserts, and I’ve echoed on my religious blog, the same ideas apply more widely than just to land and other natural resources. Whether you’re a capitalist, a worker, or something in between, the bounty of the world economy has little to do with your efforts.

You can think of the economy as an enormous lever that magnifies the results of the effort we put into it. When we work, we pull that lever and move the world. But how did the lever get there? Why is our labor so much more productive than the efforts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

In a word, the answer is knowledge. Not just the insights reflected in patents and copyrights, but the deep knowledge that is embedded in the system as a whole: language, the wheel, metallurgy, and many subsequent advances made by people who are long dead. A huge slice of today’s economic pie is due to them, not to us. To us it may look like a wage, but it’s really an inheritance too.

So who should get the benefit of that inheritance? Lately we have been operating the American economy under the assumption that capital-owners are the sole heirs; the lever belongs to them, and they graciously let the rest of us use it. That’s reflected in the fact that wages have stagnated even as productivity increases. The lever of accumulated human knowledge continues to get longer and longer, but the benefit of its use no longer percolates down to everyone.

These observations are not new. The people who built the philosophical foundations of modern society knew that there was an original injustice at the root of the property system. When John Locke justified private property in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690), he set the stage like this:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man.

That means of “appropriation” — privatizing, in our language — was labor. If someone gathered acorns, the acorns became his or her private property through the effort of gathering. Similarly, land became property through the labor of cultivation:

God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labour was to be his title to it;) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious. He that had as good left for his improvement, as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another’s labour: if he did, it is plain he desired the benefit of another’s pains, which he had no right to, and not the ground which God had given him in common with others to labour on, and whereof there was as good left, as that already possessed, and more than he knew what to do with, or his industry could reach to.

And there’s the rub: After your labor makes a bucket of acorns or a piece of land yours, there should still be “as good left” for other people to invest their labor in and make their own. Plainly, that no longer is true, and it was already false in England in Locke’s day.

So the basis of the property system was flawed from the beginning. But what can be done about it? Even if you could uproot the whole system without inciting a civil war, you would probably wreck productivity so badly that everyone would be poor for decades to come (as the Soviets proved in the 20th century).

In Agrarian Justice (1793), Thomas Paine provided a solution: Let the unjust-but-productive system run, but tax it to provide compensating benefits to those who have been disinherited from the legacy of God and our common ancestors. (Specifically, Paine proposed an inheritance tax to fund a grant of capital to the young and a pension to the old.)

And that’s the philosophical basis of the public sector we have today.

So the big number on your paycheck is your share of that original unjust system. It may seem like a lot, but for most people it is Esau’s porridge compared to the human birthright they have lost claim to.

Fortunately, though, those unjust desserts are taxed, and the taxes go to provide a public sector for the benefit of everyone. The public sector is our compensation for giving up our share of humanity’s common inheritance. Conservatives can argue that this compensation is too large. But when you appreciate the magnitude of the legacy, I think there’s a better case for claiming that the public sector is not big enough.

And that’s why the burger-flipper’s children are not freeloaders, even if their parents’ taxes don’t cover the cost of their education, or the use they get out of the parks or libraries or hospitals.

Mark Twain once responded to the charge that he was “low born” by pointing to his descent from Adam. The burger-flipper’s kids have a similar pedigree. It includes Og, who invented the wheel, and goes all the way back to God, who created the Earth.

Who’s Ready for Democracy?

Whenever we intervene in another country, we need to ask: What would count as success?

Obviously, our highest hope is that the country could become a prosperous democracy like Japan or Germany. But when is that a reasonable expectation?

Personally, I get a sinking feeling whenever I hear somebody wax optimistic about Afghan or Iraqi or Libyan democracy, but I don’t want to indulge in the racial, religious, or cultural stereotypes that so often get used to justify those feelings. You know what I’m talking about. There’s an longstanding argument about who is “ready for democracy”. Are Arabs ready for democracy? What about Muslims? Africans? Asians?

If you follow the thread of those questions back through history, you wind up listening to the self-justifications of 19th-century European imperialists, who carried the “white man’s burden” to bring civilization to the benighted parts of the world. In this telling of the story, the non-Western nations are like children, and we are the grown-ups. We need to nurture and discipline them until they’re “ready” to be Western nations themselves.

Yuck. Get the mental floss.

On the other hand, it still seems naive to expect Libya to be Germany. But why, exactly?

The problems that have kept democracy from taking hold in places like Afghanistan are hard to think about because they are inherently political and collective, not averages of individual attributes like intelligence or maturity or education. (That should be obvious: Individuals of every description come to America, and once they get here they do fine with democracy.) Almost all these problems boil down to one issue: As a nation, have we reached consensus on the issues that are worth killing people over?

Try this thought experiment: You and I belong to different tribes, and our tribes have a blood feud going. My people want to kill all of your people, and vice versa. Now imagine that some imperial bureaucrat draws a circle around our territories and wants our two tribes to be a democracy. Is that going to work? If the candidate from your tribe loses the election and my tribesman takes control of the army, are your people going to submit peacefully to the genocide?

Of course not. We’ll be in civil war before the inauguration. But it’s got nothing to do with you and me as individuals, or even with the “maturity” of our tribal cultures. Maybe your tribe could be a perfectly fine democracy, and so could mine. We just can’t be a democracy together, because we don’t have consensus on the issues worth killing over.

Look at the early United States. We had a run of really excellent statesmen, but all they could manage was to put the Civil War off for most of a century — because slavery was worth killing over, and we didn’t have consensus on it.

Around the world, vast wealth is considered worth killing for. Sometimes there are widely accepted ideas about who legitimately owns what, and in those cases the accepted ideas can be the basis for democratic laws. But a lot of the world’s wealth is what I sometimes call pirate treasure — it belongs just as legitimately to any person as to any other person. Unless a society comes up with some way to legitimize its ownership, pirate treasure will be controlled by force — and that’s bound to undermine a democracy.

Oil in the ground is a prime example of pirate treasure. Why, for example, did Saddam control the oil of Iraq? Because he had the guns. When we came along with bigger guns, then we controlled the oil and could pass it on to whomever we chose. Nobody wastes their time worrying that some long-lost heir of Saddam will come along to claim legitimate ownership of the Iraqi oil, because there was no legitimate ownership in the first place. It’s pirate treasure; finders keepers.

So as we wonder whether Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan will come out of their current struggles with a democracy, let’s look in the right direction. It’s got nothing to do with their DNA or the sophistication of their culture or even with Islam. (Remember: Overall, Muslim Americans have proven to be fine citizens.) The right question is: Can these countries reach consensus on the issues worth killing over? In Libya and Iraq, that especially hangs on the question of legitimizing ownership of the oil.

It won’t be easy, because it’s not enough to wield a majority on these questions. The consensus has to be large enough that any dissenters can be characterized as criminals, not a rebel faction. Again, think of the U.S.: Some teen-ager may decide that he owns your car, but that’s not a threat to democracy in America. We can deal with it as a crime, not a revolution. Disputing the House of Saud’s right to the oil of Arabia, though, could only be a revolution.

University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan blogged a pessimistic view of Libya’s prospects on the NYT website. LIbya has numerous “characteristics that make democracy unlikely”, including oil and an “ethnically heterogeneous” population:

no amount of Allied help will change the country’s location or its basic economics. Nor would it change Libya’s demographics, though perhaps a post-Qaddafi Libya would consist of multiple countries, each more homogeneous than the unified Libya was.

The Allied intervention will not bring Libya peace in the short term, and will not bring democracy in the long term as long as Libya has valuable oil in the ground.

A separate NYT article raises the possibility that the Libyan revolt is a “tribal civil war”, but Juan Cole is more optimistic.

It’s important to understand why “heterogeneous population” is an obstacle to democracy, because otherwise you can find yourself justifying xenophobia and nativism.

The key insight comes from Walter Lippmann’s 1920 classic Public Opinion: Democracy is a way for the will of the people to manifest itself and rule a country. But drawing a circle on a map doesn’t automatically create a popular will among the people inside. Unless and until they form a national consciousness and develop a popular will, democracy will just be a tussle among the wills of various factions.

So homogeneity is useful when founding a democracy, but once a national consciousness has formed, people of all ethnicities can join it. In 1776, for example, the Founders benefited from a shared perspective as English Protestants. But if today’s Americans consider themselves Irish or Jewish or Hispanic in addition to being Americans, democracy isn’t harmed.

Here are some maps that deserve more attention than they’re getting: a tribal and ethnic map of Libya and the locations of the oil reserves.

Compare them with the battle lines. In general, the population is along the Mediterranean coast. Qaddafi holds the capital of Tripoli in the West, while the rebels hold the the cities of the eastern coast. The west is dominated by the El Magarha tribe, while the east is split among numerous other tribes.

Both east and west have oil reserves, a fact which lends itself to the idea that the country could be partitioned. The pipeline to Europe is in Tripoli.

Short Notes

The soap opera of Wisconsin’s union-killing bill just keeps getting soapier. In our last episode, a judge restrained the Secretary of State from publishing the bill (a technical step necessary for it to take effect). The injunction was supposed to provide time for the court to decide whether the rush-rush process Republicans used to pass the bill violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

Friday, in what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called “a stunning twist”, the Legislative Reference Bureau posted the bill to its website. The Walker administration says that’s publication enough — even though both the head of the LRB and the Secretary of State say no — so they will begin enforcing the bill as law.

Both of the Republicans’ latest moves are head-scratchers. The bill-passing maneuver didn’t have to be so rush-rush, and premature enforcement will only spawn new court cases. Why not just let the first case proceed to a conclusion? Ratings, I guess.

Gov. Walker’s budget slashes public funds available to finance elections to the state Supreme Court — because judges should have to pander to wealthy special interests just like everyone else.

In another classy move, Wisconsin Republicans are using a freedom-of-information law to examine the emails of a history professor who criticized Governor Walker. Paul Krugman comments.

Governor Rick Scott’s plan to contract out Medicaid services may or may not save Florida money, but it will definitely benefit the health-services company Scott founded. No conflict of interest, though, because he got rid of all his stock in that company — by transferring it to his wife.

Rick Snyder, Rick Scott, Scott Walker — Jon Stewart skewers them all in a segment called “Gov hurts“.

The Affordable Care Act became law a year ago (though many of its features haven’t kicked in yet). Wendell Potter, the ex-health-insurance-executive who realized that his previous job was immoral, explains why we should be happy about the ACA.

Warrantless wiretapping is back in the news. A lawsuit challenging the practice was thrown out of district court in 2009 because the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. But Monday an appeals court reversed that decision. Neither ruling touches the merits of the case, which may finally get a hearing.

The National Organization for Marriage has a new ad attacking President Obama’s decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in court. takes the ad apart point by point.

Having just celebrated our 27th anniversary, my wife and I have a message for NOM: Thanks, but we don’t need your help. Whatever you think you’re accomplishing, don’t do it on our account.

This Week’s Challenge

It’s not a challenge exactly, but I would like to hear from you: How do you get the Sift? Email? RSS feed? Somebody links to it or forwards it to you? You bookmark the website? Is there some way that would be more convenient, or easier to pass on to others? Comment on the blog, drop an email to WeeklySift at — whatever is convenient.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

I or We?

The way I see it is we’ve got two choices. I can have my union busted and stand alone and be pitted against my neighbor in a desperate and unequal economy, or WE can come together to say, “This is what our families need. This is what our communities need. This is what a just wage is. This is what democracy looks like.”

Wisconsin farmer Tony Schultz

at Saturday’s 100,000-person rally in Madison

In this week’s Sift:

  • Did We Lose? Wisconsin Governor Walker came up with a parliamentary maneuver to pass his union-busting bill without any Democratic support. So in the short term, we lost. But unlike other recent losses, this one leaves a lot to build on.
  • Money and Motivation in Education. It seems like common sense: If you want more from people, reward the top performers. Merit pay, pay-for-performance — it’s called a lot of things. But what if the whole idea behind it is wrong?
  • Short Notes. How many lives have government regulations saved in Japan? Larry Kudlow is grateful that the human toll was worse than the economic toll. NH college students will keep the vote. Why Newt won’t be nominated. Bachman gives Lexington and Concord to NH. Domestic oil production isn’t providing the answer.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Do one thing for democracy this week.

Did We Lose?

Friday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed the union-busting bill that Democrats have been trying to block and the citizens of Wisconsin have been demonstrating against for the last month. He didn’t compromise on anything, and also gained vast new powers to regulate the state health care system.

So it looks like we lost that one. Or did we?

How it got done. The 14 Democrats in the state Senate had escaped to Illinois to deny the Senate the quorum it needs to vote on fiscal matters. Despite a new rumor every few days saying that they were about to give in and come back, they didn’t. And despite a well-funded propaganda campaign about how they needed to “come back and do their jobs” — i.e., knuckle under to Governor Walker — poll after poll showed the people of Wisconsin supporting their position.

Here’s how it went down: After weeks of claiming that the union-busting parts of the bill were absolutely essential to close the budget gap, the Republicans reversed themselves, split the union-busting off from the rest of the bill, and then declared that union-busting part was non-fiscal, and so didn’t need the 20-senator quorum. They passed it 18-1 in what the Wisconsin State Journal called “a bizarre two-and-a-half hour legislative sprint” that appeared to violate Wisconsin laws about public notice.

Democratic Senator Jon Erpanbach summed up:

They have been saying all along that this is a fiscal item; we’ve been saying it is not. They have been lying. Their goal is to bust up the unions.

Will it stand? Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law says that public meetings require 24 hours notice unless there is an emergency, and even then two hours are required. The conference committee that split the fiscal and non-fiscal parts of the bill did neither. Worse, notice was provided inside the Capitol at a time when access to the Capitol had been strictly limited.

So there will be a legal challenge, and it’s possible the bill will get thrown out. On the other hand, the Senate clerk says everything is OK, and it’s not clear that the state courts have the right to call the legislature to account for rules the legislature imposed on itself. I can’t predict what will happen.

BTW, this makes the April 5 election of a new state Supreme Court justice way more interesting.

What next? The bill restricts the public-employee unions’ ability to collect union dues and requires an annual re-certification election, in addition to taking off the table nearly all the issues that would make workers want to have a union to begin with. So without question, it will kill the unions in the long run.

In the short run though, not much happens other than public employees seeing their take-home pay shrink. (Governor Walker told Sean Hannity workers could make up the difference by not paying union dues: “So, you can use those five or $600 if you are a state employee that you otherwise pay for union dues or up to $1,000 for teachers’ union dues, and you can use those if you chose to pay for your health care and your pension contributions.”)

Other than what the courts do, the next fight is to recall the eight Republican senators who are eligible for recall. Petitions are circulating, but the process is difficult. Two senators, though, seem to be in real trouble, and their recall would send a serious message.

Energized Democrats. There are a number of lenses through which to see the two major parties: big government vs. small government, government vs. corporations, and so on. The one that paints the Democrats in the best light is: working people against the rich. That’s the frame this issue reinforces, and the longer it stays in the headlines, the better for Democrats.

In all these state budget battles, Democrats are for working people, for the public schools that the children of working people attend, for the state universities working people hope to send their kids to, and for unemployment insurance and state health care assistance they will need if they ever lose their jobs. Republicans, meanwhile, are for tax cuts and subsidies for corporations, and against any regulations that will prevent corporations from abusing their workers, cheating their customers, or destroying the environment.

The longer that frame stays in place, the better for the Democrats.

Best of all, for once Democrats did not knuckle under. They lost, but they lost defiantly, determined to continue the battle and win the war. Rank-and-file Democrats are hungry for that kind of backbone — as was obvious Saturday when nearly 100,000 energized people welcomed the 14 Democratic senators back to Madison.

Contrast this with other recent progressive losses — for example, when the public option was removed from the health care plan. Then we were left feeling depressed and leaderless, because our leaders were the ones telling us we’d have to give in. Is it any wonder Democratic turnout was low in 2010?

I think Walker expected that pattern to repeat. The polls would back him, the Democrats would come back to Madison with their tails between their legs, and we’d all feel depressed again. That didn’t happen. Instead, Walker had to pull a fast one to get his way.

Tactics. The important question is what to do with this energy and how to keep it going. Initially, I worried that there would be violence after the legislative chicanery. But through some combination of leadership and good sense among the rank-and-file, that hasn’t happened.

Obviously, recalling the Republican senators is an important political move.

There has even been talk of a general strike —  a phrase that (until this week) I had not heard used seriously in the United States in my lifetime. I’m still doubtful this will happen, and I’m undecided about whether it would be a good idea. But it shows where we’ve gotten to: Tactics from the earliest days of the labor movement are relevant again, because (like then) the survival of the labor movement is at stake.

Lesser actions are already happening. For example, unions are urging people to take their money out of the M&I bank, which has been a major Walker supporter. The M&I boycott home page is here. The full boycott list is here. (This morning, I sold my IRA’s shares in one of the boycott companies, Johnson Controls.)

What you can do. MoveOn is raising money to support the Wisconsin recall movement. You can contribute here. When I checked this morning, they were just short of $1 million.

Tomorrow, Defend the American Dream demonstrations are planned around the country to protest the ongoing attacks on the middle class disguised as state and federal budget proposals. You can find one near you here.

One way to get rich is to inherit Koch Energy from your Dad. Another way is to start out with next to nothing and use your talent to write books people enjoy reading. Strangely, the people who take these different paths look at the world differently.

Stephen King, well known as a Mainer but also a Florida snowbird, spoke to an Awake the State rally in Sarasota Tuesday. The purpose of the rally was to raise energy against the budget proposed by new Tea Party Governor Rick Scott. King said:

You might say “hey what are you doing up there, aren’t you rich?” The answer is, “thank God, yes” …  And you know what, as a rich person I pay 28 percent [federal] tax. What I want to ask you is: Why am I not paying 50? Why is everybody in my bracket not paying 50?

Scott’s budget is perhaps the most naked class-war attack of any of the new Tea Party governors, because it is clearly not about closing a deficit. He proposes billions in new tax cuts for businesses and property owners while cutting public education and Medicaid, as well as cutting benefits for state workers. Scott intends Florida’s business taxes to go away completely by 2018.

Conservative rhetoric says that soaring compensation for public employees is bankrupting the states. Is there anything to that? Well, no. The Center for American Progress gets numbers from the U. S. Census Bureau and graphs total worker compensation as a percentage of state spending: It’s been heading slowly downward since 1992, from around 23% then to a little less than 20% now.

The states are in trouble because revenue collapsed during the recession and hasn’t completely recovered. No matter how many times you hear someone say, “We don’t have a revenue problem”, we have a revenue problem. Tax cuts just make it worse.

Comparisons have been made between the Wisconsin legislative maneuver and the Democrats passing health care reform through the reconciliation process. There are similarities, but also some important differences: The Democrats’ maneuver was discussed in public long before it happened. At the time it happened, anybody who was paying attention knew what was going on. And finally, the legal justifications of the maneuver were made in public before the fact, not afterwards.

I can’t resist pointing out the time-honored history of the general strike. History’s first recorded general strike was the Aventine Secession of 494 BC that resulted in the establishment of the Roman tribunes, ten plebeian officials who had veto power to protect the common people.

Department of Corrections. Last week I said:

Newly-elected Governor Scott Walker inherited a budget headed for either balance or a small surplus, which he promptly wrecked with corporate tax cuts.

This turns out not to be true, as a commenter pointed out to me. I was fooled by the fact that the budget gap was $137 million and Walker had just passed a $140 million corporate tax cut. But the the cut is for the next fiscal cycle.

I stand by the larger point of the article — that Walker took a fairly minor budget gap and used it as an excuse for solidifying Republican power in ways that had nothing to do with the budget.

Money and Motivation in Education

The best video I saw this week — both for content and technique — was Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It’s 11 minutes long, has fascinating content, and demonstrates what you can do with low-tech animation tools like a whiteboard and fast forward. It’s from a talk Daniel Pink gave at RSA almost a year ago, and apparently almost 5 million people saw it before I heard about it. (I’ve got to get better connected.)

The economic “common sense” that keeps popping up in both business and government says you can get people to work harder and produce more if you reward the top performers with more money and penalize or fire the poorest performers. This creates a king-of-the-hill environment where everybody scrambles to be the best.

Well, research shows that this only works if the task is mechanical and repetitive. If you’re paying people to dig ditches or stack up cinder blocks, they’ll dig or stack faster if it affects their pay.

But if the task involves skill or thought, the reverse happens: pay-for-performance actually makes performance worse. Money will get you to pay more attention to a task you don’t want to do. But if you already want to succeed, money just mucks things up. (Ask any golfer standing over a million-dollar putt.)

Pink explains:

The best use of money as a motivator is to give people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work. Once you do that, there are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

OK, now let’s look at this week’s news: Florida legislators want to rate public-school teachers half on their principal’s opinion and half on student test scores. High-rated teachers will be paid more, while poorly rated teachers will be paid less or fired.

This is a great idea if teaching is a mechanical job like ditch-digging or block-stacking. If teachers aren’t interested in seeing their students learn, then we can pay for performance so that they get interested and work harder at the rote task of teaching.

On the other hand, what if teachers already want to teach? What if good teaching requires thought and creativity? Well, then, Pink’s research says you would get better results if you just paid the teachers decently and got out of the way. Give them autonomy to try out their own ideas. Encourage them to master their profession and find a sense of purpose in the success of their students.

But rather than compare just-so stories from both sides, let’s look at data. Since 2007, New York City has been trying out merit pay for teachers. Public and private sources came up with an extra $75 million for incentives. A Harvard economist (who was originally optimistic about the incentives) analyzed the results and concluded: “If anything, student achievement declined.”

The economist believes differently-structured incentives still might succeed, but a commenter on the news report about this study has a different analysis:

The idea of merit pay includes an underlying assumption that teachers are operating at well below their capacity: in other words, merit pay should only be expected to work if teachers are, in fact, mostly being lazy, and are capable of much better work simply by applying themselves.

That assumption is pretty clearly embedded in the US’ current public image of teachers. My own experience as an educator, however, indicates that such teachers are actually a minority of the active field of teachers. Most of the teachers I work with are working pretty near their capacity (and so couldn’t be realistically expected to raise their performance in response to any sort of incentive…)

An interesting sidebar here is that the same people who believe in merit pay are also likely to believe in reforms that make teaching more mechanical and less emotionally rewarding: uniform curricula, tightly scripted lesson plans, frequent testing, and so on. Perversely, they could end up creating a situation in which their ideas pan out. Teaching could be turned into a dull, mechanical job that nobody really wants to do. And then financial incentives would make a difference.

Short Notes

I’m assuming you already know everything I do about the Japanese earthquake. JM Ashley adds this point: The headline you’ll never see is Strict Government Regulations Save Millions of Lives. But that might well be the truth. Japan’s building codes include a high level of earthquake-proofing, and they’ve done a massive amount of public education regarding disaster preparedness. As bad as this has been, imagine how a libertarian Japan would be faring.

It’s hard to grasp the scale of the quake, but these numbers give you an idea: Much of the coastline of Japan’s main island of Honshu seems to have moved about 8 feet, and the earth’s axis shifted by 4 inches. And if you think time is speeding up, you’re right: An earth-day is now 1.8 millionths of a second shorter. But Dan McNamara of the U. S. Geological Service says some of the claims for the earthquake are overblown.

CNBC’s free-market cheerleader Larry Kudlow comments on the impact of the quake: “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”  Or at least Larry can be grateful that he has more invested more in stocks than in people.

In addition to busting unions, another element of the Republican plan to solidify power is to make it harder to vote. (Marginal voters tend to vote for Democrats.) Here in New Hampshire, we’ve managed to scrap a plan to disenfranchise college students.

Nate Silver explains why Newt Gingrich won’t be the Republican nominee: He has no base, and his high unfavorability ratings make him a poor dark horse candidate if the early leaders falter.

Speaking of Newt, Salon has graphed “wives per GOP presidential candidate, 1988-2012“. It starts at 1.17, drops to 1 in 1992, and then starts its inexorable climb to 1.8 in 2012.

The drill-baby-drill crowd knows what we have to do to protect the country from high oil prices: Increase domestic production. Guess what? We did. US oil production in 2010 was the highest since 2003, up more than 10% from its low in 2008. Have you noticed any decrease in gas prices at the pump?

Michelle Bachmann continues to do everything necessary to run for president. She just got endorsed by an Iowa state senator who the Iowa Independent describes as “a favorite of Iowa’s evangelical conservatives and tea partiers”.

And then she came to New Hampshire and congratulated us on the battles of Lexington and Concord. Actually that was Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, but we have a Concord in NH too, so what’s the big deal?

This Week’s Challenge

Don’t be passive this week. Whether you support my positions or not, do something to participate in democracy: Go to a demonstration, contribute to a fund, write a letter to the editor, call your representatives, boycott something, or whatever. Don’t just wish things would get better. If you want, post a comment about what you did.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.