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Fair and Honest

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants.

— Martin Luther King

from the Mountaintop Speech given the day before he died

In this week’s Sift:

  • Blueprint for Dystopia. We don’t have to speculate any more about the Right wanting to destroy public schools. It’s all there in the new Wisconsin budget.
  • Nothing Personal, AT&T. The Supreme Court limited how far it will go with corporate personhood, but continues to support the basic concept.
  • The Importance of Early Intervention. A surprisingly readable piece of education research says that improving the schools isn’t enough. For some kids, the damage is already done by the time they get to school.
  • Short Notes. What the Cookie Joke gets right. Republicans won’t buck Big Oil for any amount of money. Jon Stewart is biased about teachers. Take the Sheen/Beck/Qadaffi quiz. Colbert calls for a new country. And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Any other jokes like the Cookie Joke?

Blueprint for Dystopia

Every time I think that I’m over-obsessing on the Wisconsin budget stand-off, I run into some other intelligent person who has barely heard about it. Considering the coverage comparative handfuls of Tea Party activists got in the summer of 2009, the fact that a three-week siege of the Wisconsin Capitol by thousands of pro-union protestors isn’t leading the network news every night is pretty amazing.

Previously … In case you’ve only been paying attention to the major media outlets, let me catch you up. (You can catch me up on other vital issues like Charlie Sheen and Kate Middleton.)

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

He then proposed a “budget repair bill” to fix this “emergency”. The bill closed his self-created budget gap by cutting benefits on state employees, and then went on to do some very non-fiscal-emergency stuff: It ended state and local employees’ rights to collective bargaining on any issue but wages (i.e., benefits, working conditions, lay-offs), and imposed new rules on public-employee unions that probably would lead to their eventual extinction. He continued to insist on the non-fiscal union-busting parts of the bill even after the unions indicated they’d give in on the fiscal parts.

This was all supposed to be a rush-rush emergency, and Democrats knew they didn’t have the votes to stop it, so they tried a desperation tactic: The 14 senate Democrats escaped to Illinois, preventing the state senate from meeting its constitutionally-required quorum.

Meanwhile, thousands of teachers, nurses, firemen, and other ordinary Wisconsinites who work for state and local governments, together with UW students and out-of-state liberals who have come to see Madison as the Minas Tirith of the American labor movement, have surrounded and sometimes occupied the state capitol in numbers that reach into the tens of thousands on weekends.

Next budget. That’s all about the budget that ends in June. Tuesday, Governor Scott Walker released his budget proposal for the two-year cycle beginning in July.

It’s a piece of work. In this era of partisan polarization, each side does a lot of speculating over the true intentions of the other side, and frequently you’ll hear it said that one side is “planning” X, Y, or Z based on some off-hand remark or a statement by some radio host or comparatively minor official.

Well, this is a budget proposed to the legislature by the governor in a middle-of-the-road state. We’re not speculating here. This is what the Right wants to do.

On education, for example, the Right wants to break public schools and push everybody into using state vouchers to pay for private schools. You see that in Walker’s budget in the combined effect of these proposals:

  • Cut state funding for education by $834 million. This is the make-hard-choices and share-the-sacrifice part of the budget. It is supposedly justified by the deficit that would result otherwise.
  • Cap local property taxes. This proposal has nothing to do with the state deficit, and it’s hard to say what it’s doing in a state budget bill at all. It means that local communities who want to save their public schools from cutbacks can’t raise their own taxes to make up the difference. So it’s a gross violation of the alleged conservative principle of local control, and its only possible purpose is to make certain that the state budget cuts damage the public schools. In Green Bay, Brown County Executive Tom Hinz responded: “The bottom line is that counties should have the abilities to make their own decisions and not be dictated by the state. … I take offense at something like that.”
  • Expanded access to private-school vouchers. Milwaukee already has an experimental state-funded voucher program for low-income families. Walker’s budget phases out the income requirement. So a wealthy Milwaukee family will be able to use state funds subsidize sending their kids to chi-chi private schools — which they’d be foolish not to do, since their public schools are going to go to hell. (This is a twofer, BTW. Every student who leaves a public school reduces its state aid even further.)

The best way to kill any public service is to get the wealthy to abandon it, because the wealthy are usually in the best position to make their voices heard. After the wealthy are gone, you can start the vicious cycle of cuts and abandonment, because each cycle eliminates the voices most likely to protest successfully.

And the wealthy are in the best position to take advantage of vouchers. Vouchers typically aren’t large enough ($6442 per student, currently) to pay a really ritzy school’s tuition, but they’re a nice bonus if you were thinking about sending your kid there anyway.

So if this passes it will put the Milwaukee public schools on the road to extinction, a fact which can then be used to argue that people across the state would prefer private schools.

Other hidden gems. In his budget address, Walker said:

It’s true we are reducing aid to local government by just over one and a quarter billion dollars, but we are providing almost $1.5 billion in savings through our budget repair bill.

“What savings?” you might wonder. Well, after the budget repair bill takes away collective bargaining rights, local governments can cut their employees’ pensions and other benefits. So: I’m taking money away from you, local governments, but I’m showing you how to take even more from your employees. Win-win.

This, again, strikes at the conservative principle of local control. Any local government that doesn’t want to screw its workers will be in a deep financial hole. And remember, it can’t raise its own taxes.

Deep in the weeds of the budget, Madison’s Madtown Max found $100 million for the recently-created Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. It’s publicly funded, has a broad mandate to support “new business start-ups, business expansion and growth”, is run by a small board dominated by the governor, and is exempt from most regulations that apply to state agencies (like the Department of Commerce that the WEDC more-or-less replaces).

Max concludes:

A picture emerges of the governor and a few friends, with the “flexibility” to dispose of a large budget to achieve very broadly defined, “pro-business” goals, without any pesky concerns about the environment or clean energy, or providing retirement benefits to their employees.

But what’s $100 million to Wisconsin? It’s not like the state is broke or something.

As protests continue and Walker’s popularity falls, the governor is resorting to increasingly authoritarian tactics. Police illegally kept protestors out of the capitol, and Walker supporters were brought in to clap for his budget address.

Some Democrats in the Assembly (which unlike the senate is still functioning), moved their desks outside (in Wisconsin in March) so that they could continue to meet with their constituents in spite of the Capitol lockdown.

Among the tactics used to pressure the 14 Democratic senators to return to the state: They’re being fined $100 a day. Arrest warrants have been issued, so that they can be taken into custody the moment any of them appear in Wisconsin. They also face a barrage of pettiness: they have lost their parking privileges, their staffs have been re-assigned, they can’t use the copy machines, and they can’t access their paychecks until they appear in person to claim them.

Strangely, loss of copy privileges has not crushed their resistance.

Walker has also issued a series of don’t-make-me-kill-the-hostages threats, including laying off state workers.

This is the kind of stuff an executive resorts to when the people turn against him.

The anti-Walker protests have been a huge political boon to Democrats. DaveV reports:

my 82 year old dad — a 50 year union member who has voted R since Reagan — offered the other day to picket with me.  He doesn’t listen to Limbaugh any more.  He has turned off Fox News.

Meanwhile, recall petitions are circulating on 16 of the 33 Wisconsin senators — everyone who can legally be recalled at this point in the election cycle. It’s 8 Democrats and 8 Republicans, but given the polls, I like the Democrats’ chances of making gains. Bring it on.

While Bill O’Reilly and an on-the-scene correspondent talk about the protestors in Madison, Fox shows video of shouting and shoving in Sacramento. If most viewers get the impression that the Madison protests have turned violent, well, that’s not really Fox’s problem, is it? Stephen Colbert gives this the ridicule it deserves.

Russ’ Filtered News — a filter, a sift, it’s the same thing — documents at least 20 lies from Governor Walker.

Another recent bill proposed by Walker rescinds the requirement that cities disinfect their drinking water. This is one of those “savings” that make up for cuts in state funding. A Madison Democrat dubbed this “the Poison Our Drinking Water Act”. I wonder if Poland Springs contributed to Walker’s campaign.

Another priority is to stop defending wetlands from developers.

Nothing Personal, AT&T

After the Citizens United decision, we had to wonder how far the corporate personhood insanity would go. Well, this week the Supreme Court had a chance to push to even more bizarre lengths, and they backed off.

The case is FCC v AT&T, and the issue comes from an investigation into AT&T overcharging a government program. AT&T settled the case for $500,000. But later, competitors of AT&T filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records of the FCC’s investigation.

There are a series of exemptions from FOIA reports, which usually just result in some parts of documents being blacked out. Trade secrets are one exemption. A more generous exemption is for “personal privacy” — for example, details that turned up about individual AT&T employees.

AT&T wanted to claim that as a corporate person, it was entitled to the personal privacy exemption, and not just the trade secret exemption.

The Court ruled 8-0 against this strange idea, with Justice Kagan not participating. Judge Roberts, the driving force behind Citizens United, wrote the Court’s opinion.

His reasoning hangs on legal grammar, and does not at all undermine corporate personhood in general. Roberts argues that in the FOIA, “personal privacy” means more than the sum of its parts:

“Personal” in the phrase “personal privacy” conveys more than just “of a person.”  It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns—not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.

But Roberts ignored the fact that being a “person” at all is usually “evocative of human concerns — not the sort usually associated with an entity like AT&T.” So while he refused to double down on his previous mistakes, he didn’t back off either.

The Importance of Early Intervention

In the background of the hot political debate about teachers and their unions is a long-smouldering public discussion about education. And that discussion is made all the more bitter by the fact that none of us really know what we’re talking about.

American education is prone to fads and controversies: the new math, phonics vs. see-and-say, strictness vs. freedom, competition vs. collaboration, big consolidated schools vs. small neighborhood schools vs. home schooling, tenure reform, merit pay, charter schools and on and on. Every few years, it seems, we decide that our schools are failing and launch some big reform. And then a few years later we wonder what that was all about.

Usually, it wasn’t about much. For example, it’s worth remembering that the current testing fad is based largely on Governor Bush’s “Texas miracle” — which we now know was miraculous mainly its ability to cheat and juggle statistics.

It’s hard to admit that after decades of research, teaching is still more art than science. Every educated person can look back and pick out some extraordinary teacher. But if you try to nail down exactly what made that teacher special — something that can be codified in rules and mandated across the country — you’ll have to admit that you don’t really know. Beyond “every student like me should have a teacher like that” we’re all just guessing.

We’ve identified some things that don’t work: bad childhood nutrition, violent schools, cruelty, sexual abuse. Beyond that, we’re mostly just playing hunches backed by a few anecdotes. Perhaps out of embarrassment, education researchers have developed layer after layer of jargon that the general public finds impenetrable.

So it was surprising to find a recent report by James Heckman that is surprisingly readable, makes clear recommendations, and seems to be based on actual data:

American public policy has to shift to acknowledge that the core skills needed for success in life are formed before children enter school. The main lesson of Figure 1—that gaps in child test scores open up early and persist and that schools contribute little to these gaps—needs to be acted on.

Figure 1, which Kevin Drum reproduces, shows the gaps in achievement test scores between children of mothers with various educational backgrounds. The gaps appear by age 3 and stay fairly flat thereafter. Maternal education is an easily-measured stand-in for a host of fuzzier variables: delayed parenting, greater wealth and social standing, more two-parent homes, richer intellectual home environment, higher parental self-esteem, and so on. Educated mothers, for example,

spend more time reading to children and less time watching television with them. Disadvantaged mothers, as a group, talk less to their children and are less likely to read to them daily. … Disadvantaged mothers encourage their children less and tend to adopt harsher parenting styles. Disadvantaged parents tend to be less engaged with their children’s school work.

Footnotes reference the studies that establish these statements as statistical tendencies rather than free-floating stereotypes. (In case you’re wondering, Heckman poses and refutes with data the theory that the differences are primarily genetic.)

It’s worth noting that black educator Geoffrey Canada came to the same conclusions, and so his Harlem Children’s Zone project is as much about training disadvantaged parents to raise high-skill toddlers as it is about educating school-age children.

Another interesting point is that Heckman is talking more about “soft skills” than about IQ. Some of the differences that concern him are in the ability to manage time and delay gratification, as well as character traits like curiosity and confidence. A curious and confident child who enters school with an ability to delay gratification and manage time may be way ahead of a kid who is just smart.

Which means that current policy is dangerously wrong-headed:

In contrast, the school-focused No Child Left Behind program diverts teaching away from fostering other skills that matter for success in life besides tested math and reading. Because it ignores inequality at the starting gate, No Child Left Behind leaves many children behind.

Heckman thinks early-intervention programs focused on supplementing the resources available to disadvantaged families would be far more effective than many of the programs we are funding now. In the long run, we might save more on future remedial programs than we spend now.

Unfortunately, in the current environment, I can easily imagine his research being interpreted to say “don’t fund schools” — ignoring the part about funding early interventions.

Short Notes

I saw this joke everywhere this week:

a CEO, a tea party member, and a union worker are all sitting at a table when a plate with a dozen cookies arrives. Before anyone else can make a move, the CEO reaches out to rake in eleven of the cookies. When the other two look at him in surprise, the CEO locks eyes with the tea party member. “You better watch him,” the executive says with a nod toward the union worker. “He wants a piece of your cookie.”

It’s typical of the discussion the TV talking-heads are having: The 11 cookies taken by the rich are already off the table, so we’ll focus on everybody else fighting over that last cookie. But Michael Moore is right: There are plenty of cookies.

Example: How about we narrow the deficit by cutting subsidies to the oil companies? No, no, those are too important — cut medicine for sick kids instead. No Republican in Congress was willing to cross Big Oil.

Jon Stewart collects the video: The same people who defended rich people and Wall Street bonuses on principle, reverse those principles when it comes to teachers.

Stewart is biased, of course, because his mother was a teacher. And I’m biased because my sister is. (She was at the big demonstration in Nashville Saturday. If it had been a Tea Party rally it you’d have seen it on all the news shows, but … you know.)

Come to think of it, a whole lot of people are “biased” by actually knowing somebody who works for state or local government. Demonization works pretty well when it targets Muslims or illegal aliens or inner-city single moms. But the trick is harder to pull off when the public already knows the people being demonized.

Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi? Take the quiz about which loon said which loony thing. It’s hard. I got 9 out of 15.

New research on the difference between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which sweetens most processed foods: HFCS leaves you hungrier than a calorie-equivalent amount of sugar. That could be one reason why Americans are getting fatter.

Stephen Colbert says “sometimes income brackets just drift apart” and proposes the rich create their own country, America Plus.

The New Republic puts its finger on what’s wrong with the low-taxes-low-services-low-regulations model of economic growth:

The fact that the “beneficiaries” who get jobs as a result of this corporate development model will have to work for lower wages and fewer benefits, and suffer from poor schools and a violated environment, is beside the point.

Chris Hayes explains why polls say Americans want the government to focus on creating jobs, while the actual government (and the media that covers it) are focused on anything but jobs: If you’re part of the DC power structure, just about everybody you know either has a college degree or lives in DC. Those two segments of the economy are recovering pretty well.

it just so happens that policy-makers, pundits and politicians are drawn from the classes that are in recovery, and they live in an area where new sushi restaurants are opening all the time. For even the best-intentioned and most conscientious staffers and aides this has, I think, a subconscious effect.

This Week’s Challenge

The Cookie Joke gets its point across without any of the boring facts and statistics that liberals are famous for. What other jokes should we be telling?

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.

Demands and Concessions

If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.

Molly Ivins

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.

Frederick Douglass (1857)

In this week’s Sift:

  • What Unions Mean to the Rest of Us. If you think that because you don’t belong to a union, they don’t affect you — think again. Maybe you don’t really understand how our democracy works.
  • Who Wins the Wisconsin Stalemate? At first the Democrats’ walkout in the state senate only seemed to delay the inevitable Republican victory. But as the national politics of the issue play out, you have to wonder how long Republicans can let this situation continue.
  • Section 3 of DOMA is Indefensible. President Obama did something both reasonable for the country and courteous to his opposition. In response, they yelled “Dictator!”
  • Short Notes. Impeachment? What teaching is really like now. Why government shouldn’t resemble business. Huckabee sounds like a candidate. Spain investigates Guantanamo. Now Planned Parenthood is in the crosshairs. Sunday TV is for Republicans only. The last doughboy dies. And Anonymous starts hacking the Kochs.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Can any other kind of organization replace unions as the institutional center for progressive economic policy?

What Unions Mean to the Rest of Us

Back in the 1950s, about a third of all American workers were unionized, and just about everybody had friends or relatives in a union. Workers in non-union factories (like my Dad) knew that they were treated better because management feared the threat of unionization. Just like today, some people thought unions were wonderful while others thought they came from the Devil. But everyone knew why they should care.

That’s not true today. Unions represented only 11.9% of workers in 2010 and only 6.9% of private-sector workers. Both numbers are still dropping, for two reasons: The types of jobs most likely to be unionized are being shipped overseas, and the rules for organizing unions have gotten so badly out of whack that it’s almost impossible to organize a company if the management decides to resist.

So unions appear to be dinosaurs, and most Americans don’t know why they should care.

Coincidentally — or maybe not so coincidentally — the American middle class is also shrinking, and our country’s wealth is getting increasingly concentrated. We still have economic growth, but only for the wealthy.

It’s easy to play tricks with numbers, but this statistic seems both fair and important to me: Over the entire Bush economic cycle, from the beginning of the recession of 2000-2001 to the beginning of the recession of 2008-2009, inflation-adjusted median household income dropped. So the household at the 50th percentile (the actual middle of America), had less real income at the end of the economic cycle than at the beginning.

In all the economic cycles since World War II, that had never happened. If median household income dropped during a recession, it would grow even more during the expansion that followed. But not this time.

Now, I’d be over-stating things quite a bit if I attributed that all to the lack of collective bargaining power. But as books like Robert Reich’s Aftershock and Hacker-and-Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics make clear, changes in government policy have played a central role in ability of the rich to capture all of the economic growth. (That was clearly evident in the crisis of late 2008: A Republican administration and a Democratic Congress ponied up vast sums to keep the bankers afloat, while ordinary homeowners have been allowed to sink.)

Kevin Drum has written an important article in the current Mother Jones, explaining the significance of unions in American democracy. It’s a primer on democracy as it actually works, which is not precisely what we were taught in civics class.

The gist of Drum’s case is that public opinion changes nothing by itself. (Otherwise the health-care law would have included a public option.) Public opinion only has power when it is channeled by organizations that have the wherewithal to affect elections: the ability to put money and manpower into political campaigns. On the Right, billionaires and corporations provide the money and fundamentalist churches provide the manpower. On the Left, unions used to do both, but they are increasingly unable.

During their heyday, the unions pushed politically for workers in general, not just for their members. So, for example, unions supported minimum wage laws, even though their members already earned more than minimum wage. They supported worker-safety laws that covered all workers, not just their own. They supported Social Security and Medicare, not just their own pension and health-care plans.

With the decline of unions, there has been no organizational voice for progressive economic policy. A few meaningful (if less powerful) groups lobby for the environment and for the rights of various minorities and occasionally for peace, but no powerful organization defends the middle class in general or the rights of workers. And so we have seen decades of corporate deregulation and upper-class tax cuts.

Think about the effort to re-regulate the financial industry and prevent another 2008-style debacle. The vague idea of putting more restrictions on Wall Street is very popular, but who speaks for it? Who is going to draw a line in the sand about some particular provision and get people knocking on doors if it’s not passed? Nobody. And so, in spite of all the proven abuses that led to the crash, and in spite of having a Democratic president and (for two years) large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, nothing much has changed.

The same is true of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Taxing the rich is popular, but who speaks for it? Organizationally, who is going to stand their ground and not crumble when billionaire front-groups like Americans for Prosperity or corporate lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce launch attack ads?

Decades ago, the unions would have. Union presidents like George Meany and Walter Reuther would have been all over the TV talk shows, putting politicians on the spot and saying the things that today go unsaid.

That’s why billionaires and corporations want the unions gone completely. And why you should hope they bounce back instead.

The standard Republican talking point is that states are in trouble because they’re being bled dry by unions. Mike Konczai looks at the numbers and finds no correlation between the percentage of a state’s employees that are unionized and its budget deficit.

What does correlate? Mortgages with negative equity. In other words, if your state got hit hard by the housing bubble, it’s probably in fiscal trouble.

So if you wanted to change the rules in such a way as to make states more fiscally sound in the long run, stricter regulation of the financial industry makes a whole lot more sense than ending collective bargaining for the unions.

Matt Yglesias thinks getting rid of teachers’ unions won’t even save the taxpayers money in the long run:

When conservatopia arrives and kids all go to for-profit schools where they’re taught by non-unionized teachers, the school operators’ trade association will have all the same sometimes problematic incentives that the National Education Association has today. Heck, it’ll probably even be called the National Education Association. But instead of being a “union” that promotes high levels of education spending in sometimes inefficient ways plus egalitarian social policies, it’ll be a “business association” that promotes high levels of education spending in sometimes inefficient ways plus regressive social policies.

One of Daily Kos’ most popular posters is Kenneth Bernstein, better known among Kossacks as teacherken. Well, this week the teacher graduated to the major media with a piece CNN titled No Unions: Government by the Rich, For the Rich. His actual phrase is better: “Government of the corporations, by the already powerful, for the wealthy.”

Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather (Canadian politician Tommy Douglas) warned about such a government back in the 1940s in his Mouseland speech, recently animated.

Who Wins the Wisconsin Stalemate?

At this writing, neither Governor Walker nor the Democrats in the state senate are backing down. Walker is refusing to make any changes in his “budget repair” bill, and the Democratic senators are staying out of state to deny the state senate the quorum it needs to hold a vote on the bill.

Obviously this can’t go on forever, but how does it end? Initially, speculation was that the Democrats would fold, because only one of the 14 senators needs to give in to create a quorum. Eventually, some combination of bribery, intimidation, family emergency, or simple boredom would bring one senator back home.

As the stalemate has dragged on, though, it becomes clear that the status quo works in favor of the Democrats. Walker’s hardline, no-compromise position is polling badly, and Democrats have done a good job of framing the issue in terms of workers’ rights rather than greedy bureaucrats. Usually, politicians have to decide between exciting their base and appealing to the center. For Democrats, this issue does both. It also unites economic progressives with social-issue Democrats; the lunch-pail brigade has not been so shoulder-to-shoulder with students and other DFHs since their falling-out at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968.

Other Republican governors have been tepid in their support of Walker, a clear sign that their political instincts say this issue is a loser around the country. Democratic fund-raising is strong. The solidarity demonstrations across the country look enough like Cairo and Tripoli to associate Walker with Mubarak or Qadaffi. The rallies are the political equivalent of evangelical revivals,  and many liberals are feeling born again.

That all creates a second possibility. At some point the people who run the GOP, the Kochs and their fellow billionaires, are going to say “We need to get this off the front page.” Their first instinct will be to create a bigger distraction somewhere else. But if that doesn’t work, Walker may have to fold.

Yesterday the first Republican state senator defected from Governor Walker.

The “budget repair” bill in Wisconsin was originally supposed to be about making up a budget shortfall. But then people started blowing away the fog of propaganda and seeing that it was really about union busting. The budget was a pretext, and after the unions gave in on the financial issues,  it was a lame pretext. Even some people on Fox News see through it.

Well, it turns out that even that insight does not get you all the way to the bottom of this abysmal legislation. The bill also allows the governor to sell state-owned power plants (there are some, like the one that supplies the University of Wisconsin campus) without soliciting bids or going through the legislature. Why would Governor Walker want a provision like that? Well, it would be very handy if he were planning to sell state assets for pennies on the dollar to the companies that financed his campaign. Naked Capitalism and Paul Krugman explain how the scam works.

In the Third World and the former Soviet Union countries, this was called “asset stripping”. (For details, see Naomi Wolf’s The Shock Doctrine.) Under the pretext of some emergency, valuable assets bought or developed by the people wound up in private hands, with great profit to cronies of the ruling power. Now it seems that asset stripping is coming the the states. If we elect a Republican president in 2012, we may see it on the federal level.

The first people who noticed this gem in the Wisconsin bill figured that the Koch brothers, owners of Koch Energy and major financial backers of Governor Walker, would be the beneficiaries of the scheme. But then another Walker contributor, Alliant Energy, started posting jobs for power plant managers in Wisconsin.

So far, no specific sales have been publicly proposed. (In a serious asset-stripping scheme, you wouldn’t expect specifics until the law is safely in force and the public is looking in another direction.) So at the moment this is all speculation. But if the speculation were false, Walker could quickly end it by explaining where the sale-of-assets provision comes from and what it’s for. So far he hasn’t.

Section 3 of DOMA is Indefensible

To hear people like Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck tell the story, you’d think President Obama had unilaterally decided to reverse one of the laws of the land, just because he doesn’t like it. What a dictator! Who does he think he is, George W. Bush?

Would it surprise you to find out that none of that is true? That it’s totally egregiously pants-on-fire not true?

Here’s what’s really going on: Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) says that for federal purposes, same-sex couples are not married even if a state says they are. So some couples legally married in, say, Massachusetts can’t file joint tax returns. Or if one of them works for the federal government, he/she can’t extend his/her health insurance to his/her spouse.

Last summer, a federal judge said that was unconstitutional, and more suits are on the way. Up until now, at considerable political cost, Obama’s Justice Department has defended DOMA in court, in line with what Attorney General Eric Holder calls “a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of duly-enacted statutes if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense.”

But now Obama/Holder have determined that they can’t find “reasonable arguments” that work in the federal districts where the new cases are being filed. So they’re not going to defend Section 3 any more, and AG Holder wrote a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner to explain why — giving House Republicans the chance to raise their own defense if they so choose.

The legal issue is interesting, if you’re into that kind of thing. Each federal court district has its own precedents, established by its own appellate court, and sometimes legal interpretations can differ from one district to the next unless and until the Supreme Court steps in to make a precedent that is binding across the country. Currently, one such issue is whether gays and lesbians are a protected class like blacks and women. If they are not such a class, then laws discriminating against them are subject to the fairly loose rational-basis test. But if they are, then the court has to apply a higher standard, and consider the possibility that apparently reasonable arguments made for the law are actually rationalizations for bigotry. In particular, judges have to consider the arguments actually put forward by the law’s supporters in Congress rather than more legally defensible after-the-fact justifications.

Up until now, cases have only appeared in districts where precedent said that gays/lesbians are not a protected class, so the Justice Department was able to make arguments that it thought met the rational-basis test. (The judge disagreed, holding that Section 3 couldn’t even meet this low standard.) But the new cases are arising in districts where the protected-class question is still open. So to defend DOMA there, the administration would have to argue that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be considered a protected class.

Holder’s letter recalls the Supreme Court’s established standards for protecting a class: (1) a history of discrimination, (2) immutable characteristics that define the group, (3) minority status that prevents the group protecting itself through the political process, and (4) the group’s defining characteristics are unrelated to any legitimate government purpose.

Looking at those criteria, Holder says … well, duh. We can’t make the case that gays don’t qualify. And then he looks at what it would take to defend Section 3 under the heightened standards and says … we can’t do that either. If you look at the actual Congressional debate on DOMA, it was full of bigotry. So the administration is going to have to punt and let somebody else make the crazy-ass arguments that are necessary to defend Section 3’s constitutionality.

In the meantime, the Justice Department will continue to enforce whatever the courts’ interpretation of DOMA turns out to be, and it will continue to defend the parts of DOMA it can find reasonable arguments for.

That’s “dictatorship” for you.

BTW: Somebody needs to pin the Tea Partiers down on why this isn’t a states-rights issue. Massachusetts says these people are married. Where in the Constitution does the federal government get the power to overrule a state’s judgment on such matters?

Short Notes

There’s a Democrat in the White House and a Republican majority in the House. Must be impeachment time.

The demonization of teachers during the Wisconsin stand-off has produced a lot of responses explaining what it’s really like to be a teacher these days. Here’s the best one I’ve found, from an Oregon elementary school teacher with 34 years of experience.

Matt Yglesias explains why it’s a bad idea to run the government like a business:

A state is fundamentally an ethical enterprise aimed at promoting human welfare. A business isn’t like that. If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. … The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street. The problem with this isn’t that it wouldn’t work, it’s that it would be wrong, morally speaking.

If you worry about corporately irrelevant things like morality, that is.

Mike Huckabee is sounding a lot like a presidential candidate. His new book trashes RomneyCare in Massachusetts.

Huckabee is the most likeable of the Republican candidates and I think he would be the toughest for President Obama to beat. But in the Republican Party there are three major interest groups: neocons like Dick Cheney, corporatists like Mitt Romney, and theocrats like Rick Santorum. Huckabee is popular among the theocrats and gets neocon street cred for being more pro-Israel than most Israelis. But the corporatists are still suspicious of him. The Club for Growth declared him a “liberal” in 2006. That’s where the anti-Huckabee attack ads will come from.

Every country that has signed the Convention Against Torture has an obligation to investigate credible accusations of torture, particularly those that are being ignored by the country where the torture happened. That’s why Spain is going to start investigating Guantanamo.

ACORN … public employee unions … clearly the next thing to destroy is Planned Parenthood.

Liberal media. A funny thing happens when you watch Candy Crowley’s “Sound of Sunday” summary of yesterday’s Sunday talk shows — you only see Republicans: Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, Halley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, and Chris Christie.

That’s only a slight misrepresentation of the shows themselves. Fox News Sunday, CBS’ Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press had only Republican guests: the ones listed above, plus John McCain. ABC’s This Week had a balanced line-up, but that seems to be the best you can hope for. When do we get an all-Democrat week?

In a week where labor issues were front and center, union leaders were nowhere to be found, at least on network TV on Sunday morning. After protest from liberals online, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was added to a five-person panel discussion on Meet the Press. But MtP allowed union-busting Governor Scott Walker to make his case without being part of any “balanced” panel. And so more falsehoods about unions got propagated without rebuttal.

Meanwhile, pro-union demonstrations were held all over the country Saturday, including a giant 70,000-person rally in Madison. It went virtually uncovered on TV. Recall how much coverage much smaller Tea Party rallies got during the health-care debate.

The last American World War I vet just died. He was 110.

The WikiLeaks-related hacker group Anonymous declared war on the Koch brothers and their astroturf organizing groups. Yesterday, the Americans For Prosperity web site went down. That’s amusing, but what I really want to see are internal emails where the Kochs laugh at the suckers who think they’re part of a grass-roots movement. Find and leak those, hackers, and you’ll have done something.

This Week’s Challenge

This week’s challenge comes from Kevin Drum’s article, discussed in more detail above:

If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we’ve ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.

Are there any 21st-century alternatives to re-envigorating the union movement? What would they be?


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.

Extremism in Defense of Fantasy

Barry Goldwater famously said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  Maybe so, but extremism in the defense of fantasy is a tougher sell.

Dave Hawkins, NRDC Director of Climate Programs

In this week’s Sift:

  • Hate Addiction and the Republican Future. Anti-Hispanic and anti-gay rhetoric is like crystal meth: It raises a lot of short-term energy, but there’s no future in it. Some Republicans understand this, while others just want to keep cranking.
  • Private Sector Covert Ops. It’s not just bad fiction any more: Once you privatize CIA-type spooks, their specialized services become available to Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce, in case they want to target Think Progress or Glenn Greenwald.
  • Then They Came for the Trade Unionists. New Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker doesn’t just want to cut state workers’ benefits, he wants to take away their rights.
  • Lies and Opinions. Non-journalists have trouble understanding why Anderson Cooper took so much criticism for accurately identifying the Mubarak regime’s false statements as “lies”. A model from Jay Rosen and Daniel Hallin explains the unwritten code he violated.
  • Short Notes. A career devoted to helping the uptrodden. Mitt rewrites his autobiography. A crime-ridden city lays off half its police. Cairo makes Bob Herbert wonder about democracy in America. And more.

Hate Addiction and the Republican Future

Simple demographics tells you that in the long run an American political movement doesn’t want to be anti-Hispanic or anti-gay.

The Hispanic segment of the population is 15.8% and growing, and is already a major force in Southwestern and Southern states that a Republican presidential candidate needs to carry. Bush in 2004 won and McCain in 2008 lost the 46 electoral votes of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida, largely due to the Hispanic vote, which simultaneously grew and shifted Democratic. In 2012, those states will have 49 votes. Texas (38 more electoral votes and growing) is securely Republican for now, but is projected to have a Hispanic majority by 2040.

Opposition to gay rights is concentrated among the elderly and getting moreso every year. If only people under 30 could vote, same-sex marriage would pass in 38 states, including places like Nebraska and West Virginia. On the other hand, even in liberal Massachusetts and Vermont, no more than 1/3 of those over 65 support it. Year-in, year-out, a lot of elderly Americans die and a lot of teen-agers register to vote. If anti-gay is not already a losing position, it soon will be.

For the Republican Party, nativism and homophobia are like crystal meth: They produce fabulous short-term boosts to the Party’s metabolism, but wiser heads — it’s scary when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are your wiser heads — look down the road and say, “We’ve got to get off of this stuff.”

But kicking the habit is easier said than done.

Nativism. Enlarged GOP majorities in 15 legislatures are pushing Arizona-style immigration laws — sometimes to the dismay of their demographically aware Republican governors. California Republican strategist Adam Mendelsohn points out the ominous implication of one of the few Republican failures of 2010:

I really think that California serves as a very important case study in what happens when Republicans alienate Latinos with aggressive rhetoric. We lost every statewide election because we lost Latino voters.

According to the same article from the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium:

Conservative Hispanic Christian leaders said talking about illegal-immigrant children as if they’re criminals turns off their conservative congregations, driving them away from what should be a natural alliance with the GOP on other social issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Homophobia. This week’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference was an early salvo in what I expect to be a long-term struggle.

GOProud is a conservative pro-gay-rights organization that participated in CPAC. A boycott led by folks like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council failed to get them thrown out, probably because GOProud’s board includes conservative heavyweights like Andrew Breitbart and Grover Norquist.

So far the results are a draw: The new chair of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, says “it’s going to be difficult to continue the relationship” with GOProud. But in a straw poll of CPAC attendees, 62% supported the decision to include them. (An asterisk there: To the extent that the boycott had any effect, which is questionable given that attendance was up, it would have skewed the straw poll.)

Rather than tip-toe in and thank everyone for their tolerance, GOProud co-founder Christopher Barron whacked the hornets’ nest like this:

What we’re doing is separating the people who don’t agree with the left-wing agenda from the real bigots. You can be against ENDA and hate crimes and federal safe schools legislation and not be a bigot. [But] if you’re Tony Perkins, you’re a bigot. You’re against all of that stuff not because of any federalist reasons, but actually because you’re just a nasty, anti-gay bigot.

Barron’s “attack against long time solid conservatives” set off founder (and CNN commentator) Erick Erickson, who roundly denounced GOProud. The 200+ comments on his post mostly agree with him, but there are some interesting threads that demonstrate how this discussion plays out on the Right. Ender asks, “how does being for gay marriage preclude someone from being a firm free-market capitalist, supporting limited government, lower taxes and strong national defense?” And jpmulhern replies:

As a society’s morality is less and less capable of holding it together, political power will fill the void. Any efforts to maintain a limited government will be futile once the moral foundation that makes such government possible disappears. … You have joined the side that wants to see the West fall, which is not where any conservative should find himself.

It will be interesting to see how similar discussions progress over time, because jpmulhern’s just-so-story logic, devoid of any examples or data — Massachusetts and Canada have had same-sex marriage for years without any apparent effect on social order — is widespread on the Right. People who have to fight against it may come to question the whole right-wing agenda.

In another conflict, Bill Kristol’s criticism of Glenn Beck’s grand Egyptian conspiracy theory has sparked an old-fashioned bar fight among conservatives. Media Matters provides a scorecard, with links to the major bottle-smashers and chair-swingers. Even Beck’s Fox News colleague Bill O’Reilly isn’t buying it. Find a safe place with a good view and pass the popcorn.

Private Sector Covert Ops

I still haven’t wrapped my mind about this, so I’ll probably come back to it next week. But I’m pretty sure it’s the most important story sailing under the radar: Private security firms that have extensive government contacts and contracts have been pitching proposals to Bank of America, the Chamber of Commerce, and God knows who else to run “information operations” against their enemies. Not rival corporations: unions and liberal blogs.

It gets complicated because there are conflicts of interest in the reporting path: We know all this by way of WikiLeaks and a related group of hackers called Anonymous. But WikiLeaks is itself one of the targeted enemies. And here, ThinkProgress covers a Chamber of Commerce plan to attack (among others) ThinkProgress:

ThinkProgress has learned that a law firm representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the big business trade association representing ExxonMobil, AIG, and other major international corporations, is working with set of “private security” companies and lobbying firms to undermine their political opponents, including ThinkProgress, with a surreptitious sabotage campaign.

Assuming this is accurate, we’re not talking about normal public-relations stuff. The plans call for discrediting liberal organizations by doing things like creating fake documents that can be leaked to them and then exposed as fakes after the organization runs the story. (Doesn’t that sound like what happened to Dan Rather?)

Plans also target journalists who support WikiLeaks (most notably Glenn Greenwald of Salon), saying “these are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause.” The Tech Herald interviewed Glenn, who called the report “creepy and disturbing”. In his own column, Greenwald wrote:

My initial reaction to all of this was to scoff at its absurdity. … But after learning a lot more over the last couple of days, I now take this more seriously — not in terms of my involvement but the broader implications this story highlights.  For one thing, it turns out that the firms involved here are large, legitimate and serious, and do substantial amounts of work for both the U.S. Government and the nation’s largest private corporations

I’m still fuzzy on lots of this, like how they planned to make Glenn “choose career preservation”. Also:  Is this is a case of private-sector spooks trying to scare up business, or corporate bigwigs soliciting proposals for covert ops? Maybe by next week I’ll have a clearer picture.

I’d also like to know who thought up the smear campaign against Planned Parenthood.

Then They Came For the Trade Unionists

Governor Scott Walker’s plan to balance Wisconsin’s budget is to get rid of public-employee unions. He doesn’t propose outlawing the unions altogether, but under his plan they lose their right to negotiate over anything but base pay, or to demand base-pay increases higher than inflation. So basically the unions can exist, but it’s illegal for them to do anything meaningful.

If workers get tired of belonging to do-nothing unions, they can just stop paying their dues, and Walker’s proposal mandates annual elections to dis-establish the union.

And by the way, state workers will have to pay more for their pensions and healthcare.

The newly-elected Walker has not negotiated with the unions about any of this, and is prepared to call out the National Guard if they strike. reports:

“If you’re going to negotiate and you’re going to do it in good faith, you’re going to have to have something to offer,” Walker said. “The state’s broke. Local governments are broke. They don’t have anything to offer.”

It’s one thing to drive a hard bargain. A lot of states have seen revenue drop and expenses increase in the recession, so you would expect them to take a hard line in contract negotiations. But this is something else. This isn’t just money, it’s taking workers’ rights away. And not just until the economy gets better. Permanently.

Who voted for that? What candidate said, “Vote for me. I’ll take your collective-bargaining rights away.”?

And speaking of revenue drops, Walker has already signed tax cuts that increase the Wisconsin deficit by $117 million over the next two years. Budget-balancing spending cuts in education and Medicaid are expected when Walker’s complete budget comes out — because it makes so much sense to take money from kids and sick people so that you can give it back to corporations.

The title of this section comes from the famous reflection of German Pastor Martin Niemöller on his experience under the Nazis. Glenn Beck has been misquoting this, and popular culture is in danger of losing the original version. Beck says, “First they came for the Jews, …”

But that’s not it at all. It really goes: “First they came for the communists … then they came for the trade unionists”. Then they come for the Jews and eventually Niemöller himself.

But Beck can’t quote it the way it’s written, because he’s right at the end of an attack on — you guessed it! — union leader Andy Stern, “communist” Van Jones, and “Marxist” Jim Wallis. Naturally, it wasn’t long before he started going after Jews like George Soros.

Here’s a somewhat larger exposition of the pattern Niemöller was pointing to: First they demonize somebody, then they take those people’s rights away, and then they demonize somebody else. Over the last few years a lot of effort has gone into demonizing government workers and their unions, to the extent that even private-sector union members may not identify with the “bureaucrats” and “paper-pushers” any more. But once government workers’ rights are gone, the demonization machine can move on to focus on somebody else.

(But not you, of course. You could never be demonized.)

There’s a lesson here, and it’s a very old lesson: People who work for a living need to stick together. When the corporate media tries to raise your envy at some other group of workers who “make too much money”, stop and think it through. It’s really the corporations and financiers who make too much money. They love it when working people forget about them and squabble with each other instead.

So when you hear that such-and-such workers get some amazing pension, the right question isn’t “Who do they think they are?” it’s “Why can’t I have a pension like that?” There’s probably no reason, other than fat cats maneuvering to keep the money for themselves.

Lies and Opinions

The LA Times’ Big Picture blog seemed taken aback that CNN’s Anderson Cooper repeatedly used the words “lie” and “lying” to describe what the Mubarak regime was doing in its final days. Big Picture noted “Cooper’s pronounced shift toward more opinion-making” and theorized that Cooper “may be trying to adopt the more commentary-heavy approach of [his] higher-rated competitors, Fox and MSNBC.”

Here’s what’s strange about the LA Times’ view, which seems widespread in the mainstream media village: If a newsmaker says something provably and obviously false, then “lie” is an accurate and objective report, not “commentary” or “opinion”. And indeed, Big Picture seems to realize this at some level, admitting uneasily that “It’s hard to find fault with what Cooper had to say” even though it had just spent an entire column finding fault.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald quotes CNN media critic Howard Kurtz similarly asking “should an anchor and correspondent be taking sides on this kind of story?” And then Glenn points out what ought to be obvious:

“Objectivity” is breached not when a journalist calls a lie a “lie,” but when they refuse to do so, when they treat lies told by powerful political officials as though they’re viable, reasonable interpretations of subjective questions. The very idea that a journalist is engaged in “opinion-making” or is “taking sides” by calling a lie a “lie” is ludicrous; the only “side” such a journalist is taking is with facts, with the truth.

So what’s going on here? This isn’t a glitch, it’s how the media works. But how is that exactly?

Jay Rosen is one of the sharpest observers of journalism around. A couple years ago, he brought back Daniel Hallin’s Vietnam War model of media coverage. There are, Hallin/Rosen say, three spheres of coverage. At the core is the Sphere of Consensus, the stuff you can either assume without mentioning it or present without any opposing view. Next is the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, “of issues recognized as such by the major established actors of the American political process”. Finally, there is the Sphere of Deviance, in which the press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant views.

What issues belong where is not something that can be determined objectively. Things move from one sphere to the other through some unconscious cultural process among journalists that the journalists themselves don’t really understand.

It’s an intrinsic part of what [journalists] do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded. Worse than that, these decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.

Deciding what does and does not legitimately belong within the national debate is—no way around it—a political act. And yet a pervasive belief within the press is that journalists do not engage in such action, for to do so would be against their principles. As Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Post once said about why things make the front page, “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.” I think he’s right. The press does not permit itself to think politically. But it does engage in political acts. Ergo, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good. When it is criticized for this it will reject the criticism out of hand, which is also not good.

So what Anderson Cooper did “wrong”, then, was to decide that what he saw with own eyes was not debatable. He reported the Mubarak lies as if their falsehood was in the Sphere of Consensus. Other journalists were placing them in the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy. But since the sphere-placement decisions are unconscious, the other journalists couldn’t put their finger on Cooper’s misdeed. So they said he was expressing his opinion.

Their criticism didn’t make any sense, but it was all they could think of. People do stuff like that when their unconscious processes get interrupted.

Another Rosen observation: “Powerful and visible people can start questioning a consensus belief and move it form the ‘everyone agrees’ category.” Grist’s David Roberts points out how this makes the press manipulable by propagandists.

The right has been masterful in manipulating these spheres over the last few decades, dragging things that were once in consensus out into legitimate debate (torture is unacceptable), dragging things that were once legitimate debate into consensus (raising taxes is bad), and — perhaps most importantly — preventing things from entering consensus (cigarettes are harmful; climate change is happening). What conservatives have realized is that you shift things between spheres not with clever arguments but with social pressure. They repeat simple messages, loudly and through multiple media, and lean hard on those who question them (“working the refs”). If they need to get a lie pushed into the sphere of legitimate debate, they relentlessly repeat the lie and accuse anyone who identifies it as such as “biased.”

Short Notes

The Onion reports that Senator John Cornyn of Texas “was honored for his 20 years of work with the overprivileged Sunday.” The article quotes billionaire T. Boone Pickens: “John has dedicated his life and career to helping the uptrodden.”

The past doesn’t change, but Mitt Romney’s autobiography does. It’s called No Apology, and the new paperback version demonstrates that there’s no need to apologize if you can keep re-spinning.

The slogans always talk about cutting government “waste”, but somehow it always comes down to stuff like this: Camden, New Jersey — which the FBI ranks second to St. Louis in crime — just laid off half its police force.

Florida Governor Rick Scott’s budget cuts per-pupil state education spending by 10% and cuts $3 billion from Medicaid. He also calls for $1 billion in corporate tax cuts and $1.4 billion in property tax cuts. It can’t get any clearer: more for corporations and owners of big estates, less for kids and sick people.

The NYT’s Bob Herbert responds to the celebrating in Cairo:

John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities.” Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.

And that’s pretty much what George Carlin said a few years ago.

Sometimes you have to take a step back to realize just how far things have gone. Paul Krugman points out that Milton Friedman “was a leftist by the standards of today’s GOP”. Cenk Uygur goes even further, outlining all the ways that Ronald Reagan was more liberal than today’s mainstream Democrats.

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.

Subsidized Air

Don’t you know that if people could bottle the air they would? Don’t you know that there would be an American Air-bottling Association? And don’t you know that they would allow thousands and millions to die for want of breath, if they could not pay for air? — Robert Ingersoll, “A Lay Sermon” (1886)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Is Health Care Reform in Trouble? When the court cases against the new law were filed, legal commentators thought they were a stunt. Now they’re saying it comes down to Justice Kennedy, and who knows what he’ll do?
  • Sacrificing Your Life to Their Conscience. “Conscience” laws in a number of states allow medical professionals not to treat you if they disapprove of what you’re doing. Now the House is considering H.R. 358, nicknamed the Let Women Die bill.
  • 2012 Republicans Run Late. I know we just had an election and it seems way too early to talk about the next one. But actually it’s getting late. By recent standards, Republicans who want to challenge President Obama should be running by now.
  • Socialism Wins the Super Bowl. Ever wonder why you don’t hear anything bad about the owner of the Green Bay Packers? There isn’t one. Owners, it turns out, are not strictly necessary.
  • Short Notes. President Bush can’t travel freely. Glenn Beck jumps the shark. Obama faces off with O’Reilly — when will Palin face Maddow? Connecting the dots from Cairo to global warming. Arizona has run out of stuff to sell. Plus, Lazy Teenage Superheroes and the Supernatural Registration Authority.

Is Health Care Reform in Trouble?

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick has such a good lead paragraph I’ll just steal it:

Articles of faith, as a rule, don’t change every few months. And yet, just nine months ago, it was an article of faith among court watchers that President Obama’s health care reform plan would be upheld at the Supreme Court by a margin of 7-2 or 8-1. Today it is an equally powerful article of faith that everything rests in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy in what will surely be a 5-4 decision. What changed between last March and last Monday?

Let me back up and set the stage. The part of the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Healthcare Reform or Obamacare) that is being challenged in court is the insurance mandate: People who don’t have adequate health insurance will have to pay extra on their income tax form starting in 2014. If that’s interpreted as a new tax, it’s clearly constitutional, because the Constitution grants Congress a fairly broad power to tax. But if it’s interpreted as a penalty, that’s dicier; the constitutionality of the mandate depends on the Commerce Clause: “Congress shall have Power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.”

The Commerce Clause is the stretchiest part of the Constitution, mostly because the Founders had no idea what a big deal interstate commerce would become. In 1787, just about everything you used was made locally. Or if it wasn’t, it could be. Luxuries like tobacco and fine manufactured goods came from other states or overseas, but if you had to do without all that stuff, you could. People grew their own vegetables and had their shoes made by the local cobbler, who got his leather from the local tanner, who bought hides from the local butcher.

Today, living on local products is a major challenge. Just about everything you buy crosses state lines before it comes to you. So the power to regulate interstate commerce is more-or-less the power to regulate everything. And over the years the Supreme Court — for both liberal and conservative reasons — has chosen to interpret the Commerce Clause broadly: In Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Court held that even use of homegrown marijuana could be criminalized under the Commerce Clause:

the regulation is squarely within Congress’ commerce power because production of the commodity meant for home consumption, be it wheat or marijuana, has a substantial effect on supply and demand in the national market for that commodity

Justice Scalia concurred with that opinion. So everyone assumed it would be impossible for him to squirm out of that position and deny the same argument for the insurance mandate. Specifically: A person’s decision not to purchase health insurance has a substantial effect on the national market for health care.

The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen argues that Scalia will squirm out, and that the signal of this squirming is a dissent that Justices Thomas and Scalia issued January 10th to the Court’s refusal to hear another Commerce-Clause case. It’s fairly rare to publish dissents to such refusals; typically the Court turns down a case if it sees nothing in the lower court rulings it needs to weigh in on, and that’s that. That two of the Court’s conservative justices chose to do so, Cohen says, signals that they are ready to overturn the ACA.

Simon Lazarus of the Public Policy Counsel finds similar decisions containing words that Justices Roberts and Kennedy will have to eat before they can overturn the ACA. But at the same time he raises the specter of Bush v Gore. Law may not matter if the conservative judges decide that the outcome is important enough.

I’ll let Lithwick wrap up:

If the odds of success for the health care challenges have tilted in recent months, it’s not because the suits themselves have somehow gained more merit. It’s because the public mood and the tone of the political discourse have shifted dramatically—emboldening some federal judges willing to support a constitutional idea whose time, in their view, has finally come.

There is no one unified ACA court case. So far four federal judges have ruled in four different districts: Two found the individual mandate constitutional, and two didn’t. (Several other judges have found procedural reasons for their districts’ cases not to go forward.) If you are only aware of the negative rulings, there’s a reason: They’re the only ones getting media coverage.

DeanDemocrat points out that the mandate is a result of an attempt to compromise with the Republicans and the insurance companies. If we’d gone for a single-payer system, we wouldn’t be having this debate.

Building on the Ingersoll quote at the top: A private market for health care is like a private market for air. Rather than making air a public good, we’ve created a system where the air stays private, but we have a government subsidy to help people pay for it.

The case against the individual mandate is that if it is constitutional, then the powers of the federal government are virtually unlimited. For some reason critics have fixated on broccoli: If the government can make you buy health insurance, why then, it could make you eat broccoli. Matt Yglesias comments:

I really think these efforts to scare people with the specter of unlimited government founder on the fact that any government empowered to levy excise taxes is conceptually pretty much unlimited. The government is allowed to tax everyone, and use the revenue to subsidize broccoli consumption. Now maybe you think that’s legally distinct from the idea of fining people for failure to consume broccoli. But the practical impact is identical.

In any reading of the Constitution, with or without an expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause, Congress has the power to do things that sound absurd. The constitutional remedy for this possibility is for the people to elect sensible representatives.

Sacrificing Your Life to Their Conscience

House Republicans seem to have abandoned their attempt to redefine rape, but not their overall culture-war agenda. According to TPM, a new bill in the House would “allow hospitals to let a pregnant woman die rather than perform the abortion that would save her life.”

H.R. 358, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (which Daily Kos’ Joan McCarter calls “the Let Women Die bill“) is the logical extension of those “conscience” provisions 46 states have put into their laws, allowing right-wing Christians not to participate in medical procedures they find immoral. (I have yet to hear of a liberal or non-Christian or even nonstandard-Christian application of these laws. Imagine the outcry if some televangelist died after a car wreck because a Jehovah’s Witness EMT refused to give a blood transfusion.)

In Idaho, a pharmacist refused to fill a prescription to stop the bleeding in a woman’s uterus, because the nurse couldn’t give assurance that the patient hadn’t just had an abortion. (If she had, apparently the pharmacist was content for her to bleed to death. God’s will, I guess.) When asked to recommend someone who would fill the prescription, the pharmacist hung up. The Idaho Board of Pharmacy has found that the pharmacist did nothing wrong. In Idaho, where the next drug store might be some distance away, you have no right to get a prescription filled if the pharmacist doesn’t want to fill it.

I have a compromise proposal for those states where some kind of conscience law is unavoidable: Medical professionals shouldn’t be able to make these life-and-death decisions on a whim. If a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist wants to claim such a right-of-conscience, s/he should have to file ahead of time and go through a process similar to claiming conscientious objector status in war. That would allow hospitals, drug stores, and patients to maneuver around these people’s limitations, and the more arduous process should weed out the folks who are just being jerks.

The Daily Show’s Kristen Schaal says the redefinition of rape was necessary “to protect us from the worst kind of rape: money rape.” She defines “money rape” as “forcible taking of taxpayers’ money to pay for abortions.” (That’s parody, folks.)

2012 Republicans Run Late

Everybody who is not a political junky will be amazed to hear this, but the race for the 2012 Republican nomination is off to a late start, at least compared to recent presidential cycles.

Last time around, Barack Obama announced his candidacy right about now: February 10, 2007. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and various others were already in. On the Republican side, John McCain held off until the end of February, but he had already formed an exploratory committee the previous November. Mitt Romney announced on February 13. Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, and various others were already in by now.

In the 2004 cycle (which is more comparable to 2012 because there was an incumbent president), Howard Dean announced his candidacy in August of 2002, and Dick GephardtJohn Edwards, and John Kerry had exploratory committees out there raising money by the first week of January, 2003.

By contrast, Daily Kos’ GOP Cattle Call 2012 says “the only Republican to even file exploratory papers thus far is Herman Cain, a millionaire best known as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.” And it’s not just that people are saying maybe in a wink-and-nod way. Yeah, we are 99% sure Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum are running, and Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann clearly want to, but there’s genuine doubt about whether Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee will be in or out.

This is just a guess, but I think the Palin uncertainty is making everybody wait. Minor candidates usually go first (because they need the publicity). And the first impression a minor candidate wants to make this year is different depending on whether Palin is running.

The Daily Kos Cattle Call and National Journal Presidential Power Rankings differ wildly on who they take seriously. National Journal takes more of a political-insider view and so gives points to people for organizing and fund-raising, while DKCC is more focused on polling. So DKCC’s top three are Huckabee, Romney, and Palin, while NJ’s are Romney, Pawlenty, and Huckabee.

In the 2008 cycle, I was awful at predicting Democratic trends and uncanny when I analyzed the Republican race, maybe because I was more objective. This time, the only Republican who scares me (in terms of beating Obama and becoming president) is Huckabee. For this reason: When I ignore the content of his words and just look at his body language and listen to his tone, Huckabee does by far the best job of sounding like a reasonable guy. If you had all the potential Republican candidates read the phone book out loud, and then asked a random group of low-information voters who they’d trust to do the right thing about an issue they know nothing about, they’d pick Huckabee.

On that look-and-sound test, Romney seems calculated, Bachmann crazy, Palin flighty, and who the hell are these other people anyway?

Fortunately, Huckabee doesn’t seem to be raising money yet or maneuvering to sign up organizational talent in key states. I don’t know why. Maybe he’s happy being a Fox News host.

Another thing to bear in mind about this race: No sitting governor has any chance, because the problems of the states are just too big. Daniels, Jindal, Barbour, Christie, Perry — forget about them. They’re going to have to throw people out on the streets, raise taxes, and/or sign off on huge deficits right in the middle of the campaign. It won’t fly.

The main reason I think Palin will lose in an embarrassing way (even in the primaries) if she enters the race: She doesn’t have the organizational ability.

Organization is why the Democratic race came down to Obama and Clinton last time, and why Obama won. His golden rhetoric, personal charisma, and yes-we-can slogan got all the credit, but Obama’s people were consistently a step ahead. They knew all the rules, and understood that you run a caucus campaign differently than a primary campaign. They consistently out-delegated Clinton in caucus states, and that was the difference.

Contrast Palin: Last week we found out she had taken the unusual step of applying to trademark her name, and the application was rejected because she forgot to sign it. Is she really going to out-organize Mitt Romney?

BTW, trademarking is a commercial rather than a political move, and so fits my belief that Palin is more interested in being a celebrity and making money than in governing. Funny, being a celebrity was bad when Obama did it.

Socialism Wins the Super Bowl

The New Yorker points out one of the little-publicized stories of this year’s Super Bowl: The Packers are owned by their fans. There is a limit on how much stock any individual can own, and the by-laws don’t allow the team to pay stockholders dividends, give them tickets, or provide anything of value other than a football team worth watching. The only reason to own stock is to have a say in how the team runs.

That explains why the Packers haven’t moved to a bigger, richer city (Green Bay has about 100,000 people and is not a suburb of anything larger) and still play in historic Lambeau Field (which has been consistently upgraded over the years). ESPN adds that beer prices are reasonable, and the concession profits go to local charities.

Think about that: Los Angeles can’t keep an NFL franchise. (It lost both the Rams and the Raiders in 1995 and hasn’t had a team since.) But Green Bay can.

Remember the Packers the next time somebody claims that profit is the only way to motivate excellence. The franchise has won 13 NFL championships (nine before the Super Bowl was established in 1966), more than any other team. Ask your free-market-fundamentalist friends how Green Bay or the Packers would benefit from having an owner to siphon $20-30 million of profit out of the team every year.

The Green Bay model motivates community involvement. When a big snow needs to be swept out of the stands before a game, volunteers show up to do it. That would be incredibly stupid if their free labor was benefitting some billionaire owner. But it’s not; it benefits a community institution.

How did this come about? The Packers’ ownership model was established in 1923, before anybody knew pro football would be a gold mine. No other major sports franchise works this way, and the owners of the other franchises would rather you didn’t find out about the possibility. NFL rules ban any other teams going the way of the Packers, but the Packers are grandfathered in.

A radio ad is using the community-owned Packers as a way to tweak Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

Short Notes

For a long time now, I’ve been telling you that Bush administration officials with torture records shouldn’t travel too freely. Well, this week President Bush himself canceled a trip to Geneva, apparently to avoid a criminal complaint filed against him in Swiss court. Protests were also planned, and the official explanation of the cancelation was security.

The torture case against Bush is fairly easy to make, given that he himself has admitted approving waterboarding, which international law has long recognized as torture.

If only you had $300, a video camera, some talent, and a few friends with nothing better to do — then you too could have made Lazy Teenage Superheroes.

And while we’re talking about the more-than-human among us, have you filed your papers yet with the Supernatural Registration Authority? Descended from the UN’s post-World-War-II Supernatural Refugee Board, “the Supernatural Registration Authority is responsible for tracking the birth/creation, movement, employment and death/transubstantiation of the world’s supernatural entities.” Registration is free.

I haven’t watched Bill O’Reilly’s interview of President Obama yet. But it does raise a question: Can you imagine Sarah Palin or any of the other Tea-Party champions having a one-on-one sit-down with Rachel Maddow? Sarah and her ilk don’t have Obama’s confidence or courage.

I’m getting the feeling that Glenn Beck has jumped the shark. He has a truly wacky interpretation of the Egyptian protests that winds up with the whole eastern hemisphere divided among China, Russia, and a Muslim Caliphate. (Spain, Italy, and maybe even Britain and France wind up in the Caliphate. Russia gets the Netherlands and China grabs Australia.)

Naturally, lefty voices like the Guardian and Rachel Maddow noticed the craziness. But even conservatives like US News’ Scott Galupo (a former John Boehner aide and Washington Times writer) have lost their fear of criticizing Beck: “Beck is a college sophomore with a big budget. He knows just enough history to be dangerous rather than simply ignorant.”

And Bill Kristol calls Beck’s presentation a “rant”, saying that “he brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. He’s marginalizing himself, just as his predecessors did back in the early 1960s.”

Paul Krugman connects some dots: Protests in the Middle East connect to high food prices, which connect to extreme weather events like last summer’s Russian heat wave, which connect to global warming. 

the evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.

Explore the sorry mess that is the state of Arizona: Already ranked near the bottom in education and children’s health, the state faces a $3.2 billion deficit and a legislature determined not to reverse recent tax cuts. They can’t sell the state capitol again this year, so … more education-and-health cuts ahead. And more flashy distractions like trying to take away the citizenship of “anchor babies”, making sure all future presidential candidates have a valid birth certificate, nullifying the national health care law, and offering new “In God We Trust” license plates.

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.

More Perfect Union

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America

— the Preamble of the United States Constitution

In this week’s Sift:

  • SOTU: Government as Us, Not Them. President Obama didn’t announce any big new policy agenda, but instead laid out a counter-narrative to the Tea Party’s stop-the-government rhetoric. Obama appeals to national pride by framing government as how We the People act together to do things we can’t do as individuals.
  • Egypt. Whatever government comes out of the current unrest is going to be very difficult for the American media to portray accurately. That’s why I’ve started watching Al Jazeera.
  • Demoting the General Welfare. Rand Paul has given us a Tea Party budget. It’s an opening salvo against the general idea that we are a nation with national interests.
  • Short Notes. House Republicans redefine the rape exemption for Medicaid abortion funding. No more secret holds in the Senate. Rabbis denounce Fox. Clarence Thomas’ ethical problem. Utah gets a state firearm. A territorial turkey. And more.

SOTU: Government as Us, Not Them

President Obama’s State of the Union address (delivered Tuesday night) was a framing speech, not a policy speech. It told us not so much what the administration is going to do over the next two years, but how it is going to present its case to the American people.

As much as I’d like to hear a big policy agenda from the President, I think he made good use of the setting. The central battle of the next two years is going to be a battle of narratives. Republicans want the American people to think of government as a Them; government takes “our” money, and we may need to shut the government down to get it to stop. Democrats need to present government as an Us; in a democracy, government is how We the People do things together that we can’t do as individuals.

When Obama said “We do big things,” the “we” was America — an undivided America where the public and private sectors work together smoothly. By talking about a “Sputnik moment”, he made an analogy between our current economic challenges and the space race (in which we started out behind, but got to the Moon first anyway).

I agree with frame-guru George Lakoff: It’s a brilliant frame if he can make it stick: The space race could not have been won — or even run — by the free market. And it produced one of America’s greatest moments of national pride, the Moon landing. When government and the private sector work together, we do big things indeed.

The government-is-us-acting-together frame exposes the weakness of the conservative message, which can evoke national pride only through war. Conservatives are saying — and should be made to say publicly, again and again — that we can’t have the things other nations have. We can’t have national health care. We can’t have bullet trains. We can’t have clean, well-equipped parks or libraries or schools. We can’t take care of our old people or send our young people to college. We can’t have safe bridges or smooth highways. We can’t have clean energy.

Other nations can, but not us. We’re too poor.

That’s a losing message, particularly at a time when the rich are richer than ever. Americans can see where the money has gone. And we don’t want to be told that other nations are better than we are, that they can do things we can’t. Americans want to do big things.

If you haven’t already seen it, the best place to watch the State of the Union is on the White House web site, which has annotated the speech with appropriate images and graphs.

Then watch President Obama’s speech at the Health Action 2011 conference, where he lets his hair down a little and mocks conservative disinformation about health reform. “Granny is safe,” he pledges.

And this sign is pretty good.

None of the Republicans who responded to Obama did themselves any credit. Rep. Paul Ryan was earnest but dull; his official response was forgotten almost as soon as it was delivered. CNN conservative pundit Ed Rollins lamented: “He’s the one we should be talking about tonight, and yet we’re talking about Sarah Palin saying something very stupid.”

Rep. Michelle Bachmann, representing the Tea Party, was wild and woolly. Among other distortions, she trotted out the long-ago-debunked charge that “16,500 IRS agents [may be] in charge of policing President Obama’s health care bill.”

The biggest flop, though, was Sarah Palin, representing herself. Responding to Obama’s “Sputnik moment” quote, Palin garbled history that is well known to everyone but her:

He needs to remember that, uh, what happened back then with the communist U.S.S.R. and their victory in that race to space. Yeah, they won but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union

So the Soviets won, but that’s why they collapsed in 1991, 34 years after Sputnik? (Maybe that was when the bonds came due.) With generous interpretation, parts of that statement can make sense. (Sputnik won the race to space for the Soviets, but not what is usually called “the space race”, which we won.) But no interpretation pulls it all together into a coherent thought.

Then Palin rolled on to advocate more “Spudnut moments” — a reference to a doughnut shop. I’ll let the WaPo’s Alexandra Petri respond:

President Obama is talking about competing with the rest of the world. He’s pointing out that we need to get our act together and try to commit to education and research that will allow us to make innovative strides comparable to the ones we made after we got that wake-up call from Sputnik. And you are — rambling about bakeries with names that sound sort of similar? I guess? It’s just not a responsible comparison.

Yes, we need more Spudnut moments. We need self-sufficiency, work ethic, and delicious donuts here at home. But if we really want to get the economy back on track, we need a better-educated workforce, one that knows that the Space Race didn’t bankrupt the Soviet Union, understands syntax, and doesn’t just bloviate about bakeries.

I’m reminded of the dogs in the Pixar movie Up. Palin just suddenly yells out “Squirrel!” and is off on something else entirely.

I’ve speculated before that Sarah Palin will not run for president. Well, I think Michelle Bachmann is already running. She spoke to Iowans for Tax Relief in Des Moines on January 21, and if you watch Part I of that talk on YouTube, you’ll see a campaign stump speech. Eventually she gets around to selling her vision, but in Part I she’s selling herself — explaining her connection to Iowa, telling her family’s heroic immigration story, sprinkling in as many Iowa town and county names as she can, and in general looking more charming than I’ve ever seen her. The Iowa Caucuses are a year from Sunday, and she’ll be there.

Bachmann has taken a lot of heat for what she says in Part II (around the 9 minute mark). Anderson Cooper said she flunks history, and “that’s just not true.” But it’s actually more dangerous than that. Bachmann is in that George W. Bush region where her words, if put in their full context and parsed very generously, can be defended. But the listener almost certainly goes away with a false impression.

Here’s what caused the trouble:

And our ancestors when they arrived on these shores — just think of it — they spoke different languages, they had different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions. But unbelievably, they all bound themselves back to this tradition, this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact, this covenant that we re-published in the Declaration of Independence. How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point for people-groups from all across the world! It didn’t matter the color of their skin. It didn’t matter their language. It didn’t matter their economic status. It didn’t matter whether they descended from nobility or whether they had a higher class or a lower class. It made no difference. Once you got here, we were all the same.

Now, obviously the color of your skin did matter, and even among whites the Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants were not really equal. In a generous context, though, Bachmann is talking about the ideal of America, not the practice. She mentions slavery as a “stain on our history” and then stretches the facts to claim “the very Founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

Well, maybe Franklin and a couple others, but Washington and Jefferson kept their slaves, and the Founders as a whole worked tirelessly to push the question off to later generations. But the larger point Bachmann is making, that we were “self-correcting” on this issue, is more-or-less true, in the sense that no foreign power had to come in and free our slaves.

It’s a Bush-like 10% truth that easily slides into 1% truth and then into outright fantasy. Dangerous.


Breaking news isn’t something the Sift can do well, so instead I’ll point you to my favorite source for up-to-the-minute coverage of the Egyptian uprising. Sad to say, it’s not any American news organization or even the BBC — it’s Al Jazeera. My cable system doesn’t carry it, so I’ve been watching Al Jazeera live online.

In general, Egypt is a tough issue for the American media to cover clearly, because the reality over there runs perpendicular to a lot of our myths. For example, we think of ourselves as representing democracy and often (especially on the Right) think of Islam as our enemy. But in Egypt (as in many Arab countries) a corrupt dictator has been propped up for decades by America. And (as in any country with an authoritarian government and a religious tradition) many Egyptians look to religion for a moral authority higher than the tyrant, and as a source of values higher than money and power. In Poland, that religious tradition was Catholicism; in Egypt, it’s Islam. (Check out this photo of protestors praying while police stand over them.)

So to the extent that Egyptians ever get a government that truly represents them, that government will be part-secular, part-Islamist, suspicious of America, and cautiously hostile towards Israel — a little like Turkey’s government, only moreso. It’s hard to imagine American media recognizing such a government as democratic, no matter how free the elections might be.

Over here, this situation is making heads explode across the spectrum. The administration sounds unconvincing as it tries to distance itself from a former tyrannical ally without unnerving our other tyrannical allies (like the Saudis). Meanwhile, right-wingers are simultaneously claiming the uprising as evidence that Bush was right about spreading democracy in the Middle East, and saying that we have to support Mubarak. Israeli commentators are already tagging Obama as “the president who lost Egypt”.

The other feature to watch about the uprising is its pan-Arabian nature. It spread to Egypt from tiny Tunisia, and there are already demonstrations in Yemen. Places like Jordan and the Emirates have to be worried. Cairo is the traditional center of thought and learning in the Arab world, and any movement that took hold in Egypt would have strong appeal.

Right now, Americans need to educate ourselves about Egypt and similar countries, so that we’re not easily stampeded by the propaganda that will surely erupt against whatever government replaces Mubarak, assuming he falls. This 2004 article in the New Yorker seems like a good place to start. Send me links as you find them.

Demoting the General Welfare

I am still looking for the source of the quote that goes something like “If you want to know an organization’s values, look at its budget.” Rand Paul’s newly submitted  “A Bill to cut $500,000,000,000 in spending in fiscal year 2011” is the closest thing to a Tea Party budget we have. It says a lot about Tea Party values.

The first thing to note is that Paul is cutting half a trillion out of the current fiscal year, the one that we’re already four months into. (Federal fiscal years start on October 1.) If it were to pass (unlikely), federal agencies already four months into their budgets would get  rude surprise.

The bill itself is only 12 pages, and gives no details beyond naming a piece of the government and then saying how much less money it gets. For example:

Amounts made available to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for fiscal year 2011 are reduced by $1,165,000,000.

To get any kind of explanation, you need to go to Paul’s overview document. At 37 pages, it is also terse. But there are themes: Agencies should return to their original missions, no matter how much the world has changed in the meantime. Any program that is not solving its problem should be eliminated rather than fixed or replaced, regardless of the effect on the underlying problem. And beyond defense, there is no such thing as a national interest; the states are like 50 bison that have clumped together in a herd for safety.

But sometimes you don’t get even that much justification, and the cut seems to be based on little more than an ideological assumption that waste must be in there somewhere. Take the CDC again. It’s our front line against plagues and epidemics, the folks we depend on to helicopter down in astronaut suits if SARS or ebola breaks out or drug-resistant tuberculosis gets out of hand. It has a total budget of $6.342 billion in 2011, so $1.165 billion represents a 28% cut for the final 2/3 of the year (assuming Paul’s bill could be passed immediately).

How should the CDC fulfill its mission with 28% less money? Given how disastrous a mistake could be, you might hope for some kind of expert justification, maybe a new strategy based on a medical study or two. Nope. The overview just suggests “focusing on domestic priorities rather than spending billions on overseas initiatives.” So basically, the CDC should stop worrying about plagues in other countries, and wait until they show up here. In Rand Paul’s world, that kind of thinking saves money.

There’s a lot of nostalgia in Paul’s worldview. The Department of Education should be eliminated because we didn’t have one in the first half of the 20th century, when “America ranked among the most educated population in the world,” while now “the U.S. now ranks far below other economically developed countries.” Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

The National Park Service can be cut 42% by returning public lands “to the states or the private sector”.

In short, there is no national interest in things like education or infrastructure or research, and if Arizona wants to sell off the Grand Canyon (like it sold its state capitol building), that’s no more my affair than if Peru privatized Machu Picchu. It’s a state treasure, not a national treasure.

The people who promote this vision claim to get it from the Founders, but it’s really older than that. It’s the vision not of not the Constitution, but of the Articles of Confederation that the Constitution replaced. The Articles created less perfect union, a “firm league of friendship” more like NATO than a nation. Dissatisfaction with the Articles motivated founders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to push for a constitution with broad national goals like “promote the general welfare”.

When was the last time you heard the consitution-quoters of the Tea Party talk about promoting the general welfare?

Short Notes

Wild turkeys, it turns out, are territorial. This one wants to drive the Postal Service eagle away.

The latest example of the IOKIYAR (It’s OK If You’re a Republican) principle: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Over five years his financial disclosure forms failed to declare nearly $700K of his wife’s income from conservative groups. It’s a crime, technically lying under oath, and it’s got people wondering if he voted on cases where he had a conflict of interest, most notably Citizens United. I’m not holding my breath until the wage of outrage comes.

400 rabbis put an ad in the Wall Street Journal calling on the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, to sanction his Fox News employee Glenn Beck for portraying Holocaust-survivor George Soros as a Holocaust-collaborator: “It is not appropriate to accuse a 14-year old Jew hiding with a Christian family in Nazi-occupied Hungary of sending his people to death camps.” More generally:

you diminish the memory and meaning of the Holocaust when you use it to discredit any individual or organization you disagree with. That is what Fox News has done in recent weeks

Jon Stewart also called attention to the frequent Nazi references on Fox, particularly by Beck. Meanwhile, Beck’s ratings are sagging. A year ago he often drew 3 million viewers a night, but lately he has had trouble breaking 2 million. (That’s still high compared to other cable news shows; 1 million viewers is a good night for Rachel Maddow.)

I’ve complained before about essays that get padded out to book length just because there’s a market for books. Well, now there are Kindle Singles: shorter works available for $1-3. With its typical optimism, Wired says this “saves long-form journalism”. Maybe. First let’s see if Nook and iBook follow suit.

Mother Jones explains the House Republicans’ proposed abortion bill: “If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion.” An NYT editorial lists the ways in which this bill would make it harder to find and pay for any insurance policy that covered abortion.

Nicholas Kristof tells the story of St Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, which got stripped of its affiliation with the local Roman Catholic diocese after performing an abortion to save a woman’s life and refusing to repent for it. This was the bishop’s escalation after excommunicating a nun on the ethics board didn’t bring the hospital to heel.

The push to end the filibuster comes to nothing, but at least the Senate got rid of secret holds — a parliamentary maneuver by which a senator could block legislation or nominations without taking a public stand.

Injured pitcher Gil Meche walks away from the $12 million the Royals were contracted to pay him next year. “Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million… it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

In Utah, the state bird is the California gull, the state flower is the sego lilly — and soon the state firearm will be the Browning M1911 pistol.

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.

Coping With the Future

The present is already too much for me. I can’t cope with the future as well.

— Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown

In this week’s Sift:

  • Social Security. Two kinds of people look ahead 75 years: actuaries and science fiction writers. We need to be a little bit of both to avoid getting stampeded into a “middle way” solution.
  • State Bankruptcy Gains Support. Republicans want to let states opt out of their union contracts the same way bankrupt companies do. This only makes sense after you demonize government workers. Plus, updates on the budget problems in Texas, Nevada, and Arizona.
  • Conservatives Start Eating Their Own.For years conservatives have been encouraging anti-Muslim paranoia. Now that chicken is trying to roost.
  • Short Notes. The Tea Party was all about the culture war after all. John Adams mandated government health care. Palin makes Texas a battleground state. Repealing health care won’t save jobs. And more.

Social Security

This week the second supposedly bipartisan or nonpartisan plan for fixing Social Security came out, and it looks a lot like the first one (see slide 45): Dire warnings of what will happen if we do nothing, followed by calls for a higher retirement age, means-testing benefits, lowering cost-of-living increases, and a variety of other measures, including raising benefits for the poorest recipients to avoid looking like Scrooge.

This plan comes from the Third Way organization, which claims to “advance moderate policy and political ideas” that are not “defined by the rigid or outdated orthodoxies of both the left and right.”

Because Third Way and the co-chairs of President Obama’s bipartisan budget commission are saying the same things, there’s a possibility that this plan could cascade. The media could pick it up as the consensus of reasonable people, and nonsupporters would have to explain why they were being unreasonable. The assumptions behind the plan could become part of what “everybody knows” — the way we all “know” that tax cuts promote growth or government is full of waste or the US has a responsibility to police the world. When you challenge such ideas, you don’t get evidence in response; people just chuckle at how uninformed you are.

Does this view of Social Security deserve that kind of status? I don’t think so, but to explain why I have to back up and give a primer on how to look at these kinds of things.

Getting Started. Only two kinds of people look 75 years into the future — actuaries and science fiction writers. When you think about the future of Social Security, you need to keep a handle on both points of view. It’s the actuary’s responsibility to answer the question: “What if we keep doing what we’re doing for a long, long time?” And it’s the sci-fi writer’s responsibility to remind us that in fact we won’t. We never do.

It’s like drawing up a 10-year household budget. The best you can do is imagine that your income and expenses will stay steady or continue increasing at the same rate they have been increasing for the last several years. They won’t, of course. It’s ten years; you’re bound to have triplets or inherit Uncle Lester’s fortune or change professions a couple of times. Something will make sure that you don’t wind up with the net worth the budget predicts.

Which is not to say that long-term projections are useless; you just have to know how to use them. They aren’t plans or even predictions, really. They’re reference points. The question they really answer is: If we could keep doing what we’re doing for a long, long time, what would happen?

You also need to understand one other thing: Any time you assume recent trends will continue into the distant future, you wind up with an exponential graph — the kind that starts out almost flat and then goes wildly up or down. That’s just math; it’s got nothing to do with the topic, whatever it is. Exponential graphs make you giddy if they’re going the way you want, and scare you silly if they aren’t, because they always wind up at some astronomical number, either positive or negative. But that’s not how reality works; it’s just an artifact of the current-trends-continue assumption.

The $44 Trillion Hole. So, for example, the Third Way folks display this horrifying graph, where the Social Security Trust Fund winds up $44 trillion in the red by 2085. $44 TRILLION!!! Oh my God! We have to do something drastic immediately!

But slow down and think like a science fiction writer for a minute: Even adjusted for inflation, $44 trillion might be pocket change by 2085. 75 years ago was 1936. Imagine telling somebody from 1936 that people of 2011 can be overweight and have color TVs and cell phones and still be considered poor.

Third Way gets its data from the Social Security Trustees report. But it doesn’t sound nearly as bad there:

For the combined OASDI Trust Funds to remain solvent throughout the 75‑year projection period, the combined payroll tax rate could be increased during the period in a manner equivalent to an immediate and permanent increase of 1.84 percentage points

Retiree/worker ratio. Third Way presents this evidence that the current program is unsustainable:

In 2010, there were 3.5 taxpayers per Social Security recipient. By 2030, the ratio declines to 2.5 per beneficiary, and holds constant for several decades.

That’s mainly because people will live longer, so the over-67 segment of the population will grow. But a sci-fi author would consider this analogy: In 1930 about 25% of Americans lived on farms. Today about 2% do. Are we having food riots, or are we struggling to come up with ways to use our corn surplus?

The most relentless thing in the American economy is productivity growth, which continued right through the recent recession. Improved technology keeps giving us more output per hour worked. So as a society, we can either consume more and more all the time, or work less and less. Working less can mean either longer retirements or higher unemployment (as it has recently). So I think a future in which Americans work for 30-40 years and then have the option to retire for 20-30 years sounds pretty reasonable.

Again, the Trustees’ Report presents the same data more calmly:

OASDI cost is estimated to rise from the current level of 4.8 percent of GDP to about 6.1 percent in 2035, then to decline to 5.9 percent by 2050, and to remain between 5.9 and 6.0 percent through 2084.

Is that bad? Why? Public pension spending (defined to be broader than Social Security) was 6% of GDP in the US in 2005, but 12.4% in France, 11.4% in Germany, and 8.7% in Japan. None of those countries is collapsing.

The Shell Game. Scary exponential graphs are not the only tricks to watch out for in this discussion. The most common is the entitlement/Social Security switch. Third Way does it like this:

Social Security reform must be achieved in the context of an entitlement system that is dangerously on autopilot.

“Entitlements” include Medicare and Medicaid, which are part of the health-care mess that the Affordable Care Act was only the first step in sorting out. Social Security is doing quite well by comparison. But it’s common to bundle them together, declare a crisis, and then insist Social Security needs to be cut. (A better solution would be instituting German or French style socialized medicine, which delivers better care for about 2/3 the cost of our system.) It’s like saying, “As a group, you and two terminal cancer patients are in bad shape. So as a first step in dealing with that crisis, you need to stop eating french fries.”

Conclusion. I think we’re being stampeded into “fixing” something that is working reasonably well, and we’re being herded in the direction of spending cuts when tax increases on the well-to-do make more sense. (Third Way acknowledges that “many on the progressive side” believe Social Security can be fixed by eliminating the rule that exempts earnings over $106K from Social Security taxes. It never refutes that point, but instead brushes it away with calls for unspecified “growth-oriented investments” instead.)

Worse, supposedly “progressive” elements of the reform package — means testing, extra benefits for lower-income people — undermine the we’re-all-in-this-together aspect of Social Security and make it more of a welfare program for old people who didn’t save enough. Once that’s done, Social Security beneficiaries become a “them” rather than an “us”. Then the demonization can start — listen to what they’ve been saying about unemployment insurance recipients — and then benefits can be cut further.

Conservatives have always hated Social Security, because it’s a big government program that works and is popular. They’d rather that it not work and be unpopular. Any “middle way” that compromises with them is not good for the program.

State Bankruptcy Gains Support

An idea that I mentioned last week but didn’t take very seriously — establishing a bankruptcy process for states — is apparently getting serious attention in Republican circles, according to Thursday’s NYT. The story’s lead attributed the interest to “policymakers”, but the only names that come up are Senator Cornyn, Newt Gingrich, and Harry Wilson — all Republicans. An article in the conservative Weekly Standard is mentioned, and I linked to a column on the conservative site last week. It’s a Republican idea.

The point is basically for a state to get out of debt by voiding the contracts it has with state workers, possibly even renegotiating “existing pension benefits” according to the Weekly Standard article. Breaking union contracts is an important reason corporations go bankrupt, and Republicans want states to have the same option.

Let me explain why this idea is loony. In a corporate bankruptcy, the underlying idea is that the corporation can’t come up with all the money it is committed to pay. Corporate money ultimately comes from customers, and the customers aren’t committed to anything. So if the corporation tried to raise its prices to get enough money to meet its obligations, the customers would just refuse to buy.

In a state, however, the customers and the stockholders are the same people — the citizen-taxpayers of the state. What stops the state from coming up with more money is that its citizens (through their representatives in the legislature) are refusing to pay higher taxes. So basically, a state bankruptcy allows the citizens to refuse to pay the people who work for them just because they don’t want to.

It would be one thing if we were talking about some massive external disaster — a hurricane, an earthquake, a plague — that was unimaginable when the contracts were signed. But nothing of the sort has happened, and in states like Texas or Arizona, the fiscal problems follow large tax cuts.

The only reason state bankruptcy makes sense to anyone at all is that the Right has done a such marvelous job of demonizing government workers over the last several decades. But government workers are not fundamentally different from any other kinds of workers, and they have as much right to paid for their work as anybody else. If promises were made to them, those promises should be kept. A comment on the NYT story said it well:

I am a state employee nearing retirement age. All of my life, especially in the 90’s, I have heard this: “Well, if you work for government (God love you, you poor dumb little country mouse) you will never get rich, but at least you have good benefits and a steady job.” Starting in the 80’s, we heard that American workers needed to become more productive – and we did, by every measure.

Texas. The New York Times did a Room For Debate forum — two conservatives, two liberals — on Texas’ budget problems. It’s worth pointing out some of the rhetorical sleight-of-hand the conservatives use.

Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute:

Total state spending jumped 69 percent from the 2000-01 budget to the 2008-09 budget. So while the budget is flat now, it’s after a large run-up.

Let’s assume the 69% is true. But the 2000 census counted 20.85 million Texans while the 2008 estimate was 24.33 million, an increase of 17%. The consumer price index was at 168.8 in January 2000 and 211.08 in January 2008, an increase of 25%. (That’s a low estimate, because state spending has a high component of medical costs, which have increased faster.) So to keep per capita state spending flat in inflation-adjusted terms from 2000 to 2008 would require a 46% increase in nominal spending. [1.17 x 1.25 = 1.46] If nominal spending actually increased 69%, that’s a 16% increase in inflation-adjusted per capita spending. [1.69/1.46 = 1.16] Over eight years, that’s an average increase of 1.8% per year. [1.018 to the eighth power is 1.16]

So in the “large run-up” between 2000 and 2008, the average Texan saw the real value of her portion of state spending “jump” 1.8% per year. It sounds a little less impressive when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

What conservatives Heflin and Edwards ignore but liberals Mann and McCown point out is that the current “crisis” was a predictable and predicted consequence of an irresponsible tax cut in 2006. Accounting tricks and federal stimulus money kept the structural deficit hidden until now.

Nevada. Here’s new Republican Governor Sandoval’s plan to deal with Nevada’s deficit:

cut spending by consolidating government programs, allowing the university system to raise its own tuition and fees, and shifting more responsibility for social services onto cities and counties.

But the cities and counties don’t get any new revenue either, and the amount of money they can spend on social services is capped by law. So …

thousands of residents on the brink of homelessness are vying for depleted aid that will diminish further when social services are cut. The programs offer rental assistance and other means for keeping the destitute off the streets and out of jails and emergency rooms, [Clark] county officials say.

But hey, more homeless people is better than rich people paying higher taxes. And since jails and emergency rooms are free (aren’t they?) the savings must be enormous.

Arizona. Anderson Cooper interviews a man who can’t get a heart transplant because of Arizona’s budget cuts: “I’m a good citizen,” says Doug Gravagna, “and I should get another chance at life. It shouldn’t be taken away from me. She [Gov. Brewer] shouldn’t be able to decide whether I live or die.”

“For the last three months,” says an Arizona Democratic legislator, “the governor has essentially been a one-person death panel.”

While the transplant issue has gotten all the press, Arizona has also been cutting services for the mentally ill. The CEO of the Arizona Foundation for Behavioral Health sums up how pound-foolish this is:

The reality is cutting services does not cut demand. Individuals who can no longer get services through the state will wind up getting services through emergency departments . . . or they’ll get those services through the Maricopa County jail.

More untreated mentally ill people in a state with lax gun laws. What could possibly go wrong?

Conservatives Start Eating Their Own

From a political operative’s point of view, the great thing about crazy people is that they have lots of energy. They’re dedicated. They don’t give up. If you can get them focused on your opponent — demanding to see his real birth certificate, say, or making him out to be part of a deep conspiracy that goes back to some James-Bond villain like Woodrow Wilson — it’s gold for your side.

But conservatives are discovering the problem that arises when you court the lunatic fringe: Once you give the crazies legitimacy, there’s no telling what they’ll do with it.

CPAC and Grover Norquist. Frank Gaffney is the type of loon who sees Muslim terrorists under the bed. Like Communist subversives in the 1950s, Muslim terrorists and Sharia law are everywhere, infiltrating everything. Gaffney has been very useful to conservatives in flogging the bogus “Ground Zero Mosque” issue and making President Obama appear to be supporting terrorism.

Well, now there’s a problem. The American Conservative Union (which puts on the popular CPAC conference) has a Muslim board member, Suhail Khan, formerly of the Bush administration. So the conservative movement itself has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. As Gaffney-ally Paul Sperry says:

Suhail is the firstborn son of the late Mahboob Khan, a founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in America. Suhail has been a consultant to CAIR [The Council on American-Islamic Relations] and served on committees at ISNA [the Islamic Society of North America], both of which the government says are fronts for Hamas and its parent the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even Grover Norquist (the guy who wants to drown government in a bathtub) is implicated. “We are in a war,” Gaffney told World Net Daily, “and he [Norquist] has been working with the enemy for over a decade.”

Anderson Cooper summarizes the story, and then interviews Gaffney and Khan side-by-side. I’m not proud of my vindictiveness here, but I found it delicious to watch a conservative deal with the same kind of conspiracy-theory charges that are routinely unleashed on liberals.

Governor Christie. You know who’s also conspiring with the terrorists? New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, occasionally mentioned as a presidential dark horse.

Christie — you’ll never believe this — appointed a Muslim judge!! The guy’s name is Sohail Mohammed, and he committed the unforgivable sin of defending detained Muslims who were never charged with anything. And he’s on the board of the American Muslim Union which “has interlocking leadership with a group that has allegedly raised funds for Hamas and hosted as a guest speaker last year an alleged Hamas member.” So the judge knows a guy who knows a guy who might belong to Hamas. And Christie knows him.

I’m reminded of Lewis Black’s summary: “It’s six degrees of Kevin Bacon, except that there’s just one degree, and Kevin Bacon is Hitler.” Or, in this case, Bin Laden.

Short Notes

During the campaign, we kept hearing that the Tea Party was focused on economic issues rather than the culture wars. But now it looks like restricting abortion is a top priority after all.

The Jesus-Hates-Obama ad is too much even for Fox.

The first bill to create government-run health centers and mandate health insurance coverage wasn’t Obama’s. It was John Adams’.

Here’s the point that needs to be made about calls for across-the-board budget cuts or return to 2008 or 2006 levels or other sound bytes: Republicans ran on the idea that government waste is everywhere, and yet, now that they have the power to pass a budget in the House, they can’t identify that waste.

Eric Cantor isn’t a birther himself, but he’s not going to criticize people who are.

The Onion News Network is on TV now, and as good as ever: Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried as Black Adult.

Sarah Palin fans need to think about this: A PPP poll has her leading Obama by just one point in Texas. In other words, if Palin is the nomineeTexas is a battleground state.

I don’t care what they all say, Keith Olbermann going off the air just before Comcast takes control of NBC is too much of a coincidence.

Is Obamacare a “job-killer”? No.

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.


The money that we possess is the instrument of liberty, that which we lack and strive to obtain is the instrument of slavery.

— J. J. Rousseau, Confessions (1770)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Storming Sacramento, Austin, Albany … The same anti-government spending rhetoric that sent Tea Partiers marching against Washington also has them revolting against the “wasteful” spending of their state governments. But will the public see through the rhetoric when schools and libraries close — not just in blue California but in red Texas as well?
  • Sarah Palin’s Persecution Fantasy. With references to “blood libel” and “pogroms”, conservatives paint themselves as victims of persecution comparable to Jews under the Czar. Maybe they’ve pushed it too far this time. Meanwhile, potential victims of media-inspired violence have developed a term to describe the threat they face: stochastic terrorism.
  • Short Notes. Your church contributions may not make it to God. McCain states have more gun violence than Obama states. More on Second Amendment solutions. Sean Hannity claims Kuwait’s oil. An El Paso “traditional family values” organization learns the importance of legal expertise. Illegal foreclosures. And the difficult conundrums of superhero law.

Storming Sacramento, Austin, Albany …

Recessions hit the states with a double whammy: Just as the number of people in need of state services goes up, revenues go down. And unlike the federal government, most states have legal restrictions on deficit spending. Last year, one-time-only accounting tricks (Arizona did a $735 million sale-and-leaseback agreement with its real estate, including the state capitol) and the federal stimulus (which included $165 billion in aid to the states) masked the problem. Basically, the federal government ran the deficit the states weren’t allowed to run.

Now, as the stimulus money runs out, the economy is showing a few signs of bouncing back, but mostly for the relatively well-to-do. Even as the stock market rises into territory it hasn’t seen for years, the unemployment and poverty rates — and the consequent need for state programs — remain high.

So budget problems are hitting the states hard now. The easy cuts have already been made, but huge deficits remain. And (despite Republican rhetoric favoring the states over the federal government), the Republican victory in November means that new aid to the states isn’t going to come from Washington.

Within the states, the Tea Party denunciations of Washington have been reworded to attack Sacramento, Albany, Austin, and all the other state capitals. In state after state, a game of chicken is going on: How many of the poor and helpless have to suffer and even die, how far are we willing to cut education, how close does the state have to come to declaring bankruptcy, before new taxes can be approved?

(This game may go further than I thought. Saturday, conservative pundits Dick Morris and Eileen McGann posted a column proposing a state bankruptcy process that would allow states to break their union contracts the way that bankrupt corporations do. It’s interesting how the Right regards contracts as sacred — unless the contracts protect workers.)

Texas. Everybody talks about the budget problems in liberal states like California and New York, but things are just as bad in conservative strongholds like Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Mississippi. Business Insider notes the Texas-sized hole in Texas’ finances — they’re looking at a $25 billion deficit in a $95 billion two-year budget — and then comments:

So why haven’t we heard more about Texas, one of the most important economies in America? Well, it’s because it doesn’t fit the script. It’s a pro-business, lean-spending, no-union state. You can’t fit it into a nice storyline, so it’s ignored.

Illinois. Friday Illinois managed to raise taxes in response to the current crisis. The income tax rate went up from 3% to 5%. Prior to the increase, Illinois was looking at a $15 billion deficit. Democratic state rep Michael Zalewski justified the tax increase like this:

Since I’ve been elected in 2008, I have voted for every cut, every reform bill and the fact is there is no more money left and we can’t pay the people we owe money to.

California. California is facing the biggest deficit, in the $20-25 billion range. New Governor Jerry Brown has put forward a budget in which

the state’s welfare program is cut in half, $1 billion is trimmed from its universities, and tens of thousands of elderly and disabled residents lose access to care at home.

On the revenue side, he wants the voters to approve the extension of temporary taxes otherwise due to expire.

California’s problems have been due as much to politics as economics. In previous years, the legislature had to pass its budget with a 2/3 supermajority, which gave the Republican minority the ability to block attempts to raise revenue, even when the Republican governor (Schwarzenegger) asked them to. Brown is aided by a newly-passed ballot initiative that lets a mere majority pass a budget.

Local governments. The clearest evidence of the depths of the education-funding problem comes from Detroit. Last Monday, the Detroit Public Schools filed a plan to close half of their schools in two years, and increase the average high school class size to 62 from 35 now. Middle school class size would increase from 35 to 47. Matt Yglesias comments:

obviously this is death spiral stuff—the more the city pares back, the more the people with means and opportunity will leave and the worse things will become.

In all these state and local governments, the debate resembles the national debate: Conservative rhetoric says that the budget is full of wasteful spending, but is careful not to identify anything specific. When cuts arrive, they are not “waste” by any means. Real services to real people are eliminated or cut back.

It will be interesting to see if people catch on when the cuts are closer to home. On the national level, keeping taxes low for the wealthy means we have the abstract problem of a budget deficit. But on the state and local level, low taxes may mean closing the local library, sending your child to an over-crowded and poorly maintained school, driving over potholes, or even watching people die for lack of medical care.

I think they will catch on. Like the children of misers, at some point Americans will start to resent living as if our country were poor, when in fact it is rich. Unlike Botswana or Bangladesh, America can afford to have smooth roads and good schools. We can afford to take care of our sick and give pensions to our elders. We can afford to have safe communities and clean, reliable transportation systems. And we can afford to pay a living wage to the public employees who provide these services. The only question is whether we can raise enough faith in ourselves and our democracy to do so.

Sarah Palin’s Persecution Fantasy

Like most reasonable people, I was taken aback that Sarah Palin would use the term blood libel to describe the claim that heated political rhetoric from people like her makes political shootings more likely. How ridiculous, I thought, to compare criticism of Palin’s rhetoric to the outlandish claims that led to pogroms against Jews in Europe. (The Washington Times, by contrast, felt that Palin was “well within her rights to feel persecuted” and called the incident “the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers.” It is, I think, a very strange kind of persecution that gives you your own TV show, pays you millions of dollars, and requires only that you submit to some toothless criticism in the media. It’s a far cry from the Jewish experience in 19th century Ukraine, or even Fiddler on the Roof.)

Having watched the video and read the text of Palin’s statement, though, I found it more boring than incendiary, so I wound up concluding that she just didn’t know what blood libel means. It’s ignorance, not bomb-throwing. Probably she used the term because it had been ricocheting around in conservative circles for several days.

Another bizarre notion in Palin’s statement (which also is widespread in conservative circles) is the idea that individual and social responsibility are mutually exclusive:

President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

It didn’t make any sense when Reagan said it, and it still doesn’t. If violent rhetoric or the prevalence of guns raises the likelihood of events like the Tucson shooting, how does that let Loughner off the hook? The Right understands this perfectly well in regard to terrorism: They can denounce the rhetoric of radical imams without letting suicide bombers off the hook. Individual and social responsibility are two different dimensions of an event, not an either-or choice.

And Palin herself says that the “blood libel” put forward by her critics “serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.” So Palin understands how the words of her critics can cause violence, but not how hers can.

The technical term for this mindset — that the world works differently for you than for everybody else — is narcissism, but that’s too academic for the average person. If only there were a non-sexist way to say “drama queen”.

Slate’s William Saletan spins the tea-party/Muslim analogy in a different direction:

That’s what Palin believes. Each person is solely accountable for his actions. Acts of monstrous criminality “begin and end with the criminals who commit them.” It’s wrong to hold others of the same nationality, ethnicity, or religion “collectively” responsible for mass murders.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about Muslims. In that case, Palin is fine with collective blame.

How else can we account for her opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque?

“Blood libel,” as defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, is historically targeted not at a country but at a religion. Palin’s campaign against any Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero, based on group blame for terrorism, fits that definition more closely than does any current accusation against the Tea Party.

There’s now a term to describe those who use the media to stir up crazy people to do their dirty work for them: stochastic terrorism. Daily Kos’ G2geek defines:

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.

Palin’s crosshair graphic is not actually a good example of this (the Palin-Loughner connection is too tenuous), but Glenn Beck’s crusade against the Tides Foundation is. Hardly anyone had heard of the Tides Foundation when Beck started slandering it in May 2009. Media Matters found 29 separate shows between then and July 14, 2010 where Beck attacked Tides, demonizing it as part of some imaginary George-Soros-funded effort to take over America.

On July 18, 2010 Byron Williams was pulled over by police and opened fire on them. He was heavily armed and said he wanted to “to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation.” Only his inability to drive there without drawing police attention prevented him from having a body count like Jared Loughner’s.

As a follow-up to last week’s article on political correctness, let’s consider the would-be defenders of the white race who want you to boycott Marvel’s upcoming Thor movie because the Norse god Heimdall is being played by a black actor, the excellent Idris Elba (recently seen as the star of BBC’s “Luther”).

Where to start with these people? Did you thinkMarvel’s Thor comics had given an accurate account of Norse mythology up to now? Does a pop-culture misrepresentation of a second-tier god like Heimdall cramp your style religiously? When was the last time you worshipped Heimdall, anyway?

Fundamentally, this is another attempt to equate slights against whites with superficially similar slights against other races, and so support the idea that whites suffer persecution too. But there is no comparison. No anti-white stereotype is being supported or reinforced. No whites will be discriminated against because of some unconscious social conviction that divinity must be black. The persecution occurs entirely in fantasy.

Short Notes

Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander ran the numbers on shooting deaths and found no positive correlation with the number of drug users, illegal immigrants, or a lot of other alleged explanations. But they did find this:

Taking the voting patterns from the 2008 presidential election, we found a striking pattern: Firearm-related deaths were positively associated with states that voted for McCain (.66) and negatively associated with states that voted for Obama (-.66). Though this association is likely to infuriate many people, the statistics are unmistakable. Partisan affiliations alone cannot explain them; most likely they stem from two broader, underlying factors – the economic and employment makeup of the states and their policies toward guns and gun ownership.

As I’ve explained many times in the Sift, correlation is not the same as cause-and-effect. So it would be irrational to jump to the conclusion that we could save lives by getting more states to vote Democratic in 2012. It seems worth a try, though.

The new head of the Republican National Committee is Reince Priebus. I just heard someone describe him as “a name straight out of Hogwarts”. As Sharoney observed, the consonants in his name spell out RNC PR BS.

As she so often does, Digby avoids the distractions and gets to the important point:

The real problem, in my view, is that there is a subset of Americans who believe that government is illegitimate if their chosen leaders aren’t elected. They simply don’t believe in democracy.

That’s what I see in all this talk about “Second Amendment solutions“. Yes, at least some of the Founders did want the people to retain the means of revolution if democracy failed. But the failing they had in mind is what you see in faux-democratic countries like Egypt or Iran, where the government can close opposition newspapers, arrest opposition candidates, and stuff the ballot box when things get tense for them.

But Tea Party folks started talking about assassination and armed insurrection just because Republicans lost and Democrats started implementing the platform they ran on. The electoral system was working fine, it just got the “wrong” answer. Resorting to guns in that situation is the exact opposite of what the Founders had in mind.

Shepard Fairey’s “Second Amendment Solutions” poster says: “It’s not the bullet with my name on it that worries me. It’s the one that says ‘to whom it may concern’.”

According to Sean Hannity, Kuwait and Iraq should be paying us for their liberation by providing cheap energy. And if they don’t see it that way,

We have every right to go in there and, frankly, take all their oil.

Apparently we just loaned these countries their freedom, and if they miss a payment we can foreclose.

Once in a while, the Religious Right gets burned by its disdain for intelligence and expertise. Take El Paso, for example. An anti-gay group called El Paso for Traditional Family Values wanted to make sure that same-sex partners of city employees couldn’t get benefits, so they got voters to pass a ballot initiative saying so — or so they thought. Local station KVIA reports:

The ordinance drafted by EPFTFV asked voters to ‘endorse traditional family values’ by extending health insurance only to city employees, their spouses and dependent children. That left out a lot of people the city already covered, including elected officials, retirees, grandchildren, and affiliated contractors – those are agencies formed by City Council, like the Public Service Board and the Transportation Board. …

The city maintains it must implement the ordinance using its plain language, which excludes hundreds of people. City Rep. Steve Ortega and Mayor John Cook have said they told EPFTFV leaders to hire an attorney to draft the ordinance. The organization did not do that.


A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction that keeps the law from taking effect until he can rule on a suit challenging its constitutionality.  Among other things, plaintiffs are charging that the law is too vague to be enforceable:

The Judge asked all three lawyers to provide a legal definition of ‘traditional family values’ that could be found in state or federal law, statute or jurisprudence. None of them could.

Damn those meddling federal judges and their definitions and constitutions and other legalistic claptrap. Can’t they just let the Holy Spirit speak through them?

TPM recalls some of the more egregious recent political rhetoric suggesting violence or using violent metaphors.

Salon’s Glenn LaFantasie points out that, although we always treat political shootings as one-of-a-kind exceptions to our democratic process, in fact they are part of a longstanding pattern in our politics.

American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots’ victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation. It is a troubling, but inescapable, bequest that stems from the fact that our nation was born in violence, and it derives from the reality that violence has ever since become not only the device of criminals, but also of government and those who disagree with the government.

The NYT reports:

in the grand Venn diagram of life, there appears to be substantial overlap between lawyers and the people Mr. Daily lovingly refers to as “comic book nerds.”

The result is a blog. Law and the Multiverse: Superheroes, supervillains, and the law.

I mean, there are important issues to work out: How much responsibility do you have for the damage done by your super-powered minor child?What kind of retirement plan does an immortal need? Is there any way Bruce Wayne could openly fund Batman without becoming legally responsible for the damage he does? Is mind control a valid criminal defense?

Don’t wait until a radioactive spider bites you and it’s too late. Learn your rights now.

Tea Partiers aren’t racists, of course. But when they get into office in places like Raleigh, North Carolina their first acts include undoing the longstanding school-desegregation plan, and replacing it with … well, nothing really. Maybe separate-but-equal will work this time around.

It should be no great surprise that the same bankers who loaned money to people who had no hope of paying it back also failed to handle the mortgage paperwork correctly. The result is that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court now holds that huge numbers of foreclosures were illegal.

The Boston Globe’s Paul McMorrow reports on the implications:

I took a random sample of 30 foreclosure deeds from Chelsea (one of the cities hit hardest by foreclosures) since the beginning of 2006. Of those 30 foreclosure cases, 10 had paperwork on file with the Registry of Deeds that raised the sort of chain-of-custody concerns at the heart of the Ibanez decision. In one case, no mortgage was on file with the registry. Another showed no paperwork assigning the note to a mortgage servicer. In other cases, mortgage originators didn’t sign off on documents transferring the notes into mortgage pools, or transfer paperwork was filed after a foreclosure occurred. All of the properties have since been re-sold.

What could possibly go wrong?

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.


If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, “My goodness what can we do to turn this country around?” I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out. — Reid’s Republican opponent Sharron Angle (January, 2010)

We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (March, 2010)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Rhetoric and Reality of Violence. The shooting of Rep. Giffords calls attention to the sanctioning of violent rhetoric by officials at all levels of the Republican Party.
  • Privilege, Political Correctness, and the New Huck Finn. A bowdlerized new version of the Mark Twain classic gives me a hook to fix conservative rhetoric about political correctness.
  • Scalia’s Law. Nobody should be shocked when Justice Scalia denies that the Constitution protects women’s rights. All originalists believe that. Their theory needs to be attacked head-on, not issue-by-issue.
  • Look for a double helping of Short Notes next week.

The Rhetoric and Reality of Violence

As of this morning, no one had pinpointed a clear motive for Jared Loughner to shoot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people, six of whom have died, including federal judge John Roll. No one has released a political manifesto, like the one Jim David Adkisson wrote before killing two people at a Knoxville church in 2008. (He claimed to be inspired by Bernard Goldberg’s culture-war book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.) Or like Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion crusader who murdered George Tiller (also in church) in 2009. Or white supremacist James Von Brunn, who killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in 2009. Or anti-tax activist Joe Stack, who crashed an airplane into an IRS office building in Austin in 2010, killing Vernon Hunter.

Loughner appears to be insane to the point that his specific motives, if they ever come out, might be hard to understand. As the NYT editorialized:

It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge.

As they always do, right-wingers are claiming that both sides are equally responsible. And of course they can point to signs threatening President Bush and so forth.


What they can’t produce, though, is any equivalent of the Sharron Angle quote at the top of the page. No Democratic candidate for a major office so directly called for the assassination of an opponent. And that was not a mis-step; Angle stuck by it:

What is a little bit disconcerting and concerning is the inability for sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock. That tells me the nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn’t that they are so distrustful of their government? They’re afraid they’ll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways? That’s why I look at this as almost an imperative. If we don’t win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?

What indeed? In the Democratic Party, you stand down and start working to win the next election. But within the Republican Party, Angle suffered no consequences for suggesting violence instead. Her statements were not condemned by the leadership, she continued to get funding from national Republican organizations, and big-name Republicans continued to endorse her and campaign for her, causing Rachel Maddow to ask:

Is this considered a mainstream position now? Everybody down with this idea? RNSC, RNC, are you guys okay with this?

Apparently they were and are. At the highest levels of the Republican Party, calling for violence is considered acceptable political rhetoric. In the Democratic Party, it isn’t.

There are and always will be nutcases on both ends of the political spectrum. And there will always be ordinary people of all stripes who blow off steam by making meaningless threats. But one party welcomes and stokes that rhetoric, while the other party doesn’t.

That’s the difference.

I’ve been on this story for a while: here and here, for example.

Check out this more complete list of recent incidents. Not all of them are conservative-on-liberal. But the vast majority are.

Privilege, Political Correctness, and the New Huck Finn

As soon as I finished How to Speak Conservative: Class warfare, I planned to follow up with a comparable explanation of political correctness. But PC is a little more complicated, so that article kept failing to come together and then getting crowded out by other topics.

This week I got my hook: There’s a new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that changes the word nigger to slave. It’s paired with a new edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that changes Injun Joe to Indian Joe.

I imagine that the editor of this travesty believes he’s being a good liberal, but in fact he’s being a conservative’s parody of a liberal. The conservative assault has been so successful that few people even remember the real liberalism behind the parody and what it has been trying to accomplish.

Let’s start with the parody, because it is so much more familiar. As conservatives tell the story, groups that (for only semi-comprehensible reasons) consider themselves to be oppressed — blacks, women, gays, and some others — are sensitive to words like nigger, bitch, and fag. The words — not the people who use the words or the hostile intentions the words embody, but the words themselves — offend sensitive feelings. Liberals care much more about feelings than about liberty, so they want to ban the words.

This creates absurd situations (similar to the stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the porch monkey scene in Clerks 2), and allows conservatives like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter to look brave and edgy by using or hinting at the banned words. Rush and Ann become like the Kevin Bacon character in Footloose, breaking the stupid rules that keep people from having fun.

Start over. Now let’s put the conservative parody out of our minds and start over from the absolute beginning. Why, exactly, shouldn’t we say nigger?

The serious problem isn’t that the word nigger hurts blacks’ feelings. What conservatives implicitly deny by focusing on feelings is that blacks are harmed in a very real sticks-and-stones sense by white privilege. White privilege is justified by a negative stereotype of blacks. (We are deserving because they are undeserving.) And the word nigger can be used to invoke and solidify that stereotype.

Now let’s go through that a little slower and include some other words.

It starts with privilege. When you boil privilege down to its essence, it amounts to this: If you’re privileged, society grants you an exemption from the Golden Rule. You have the right to be outraged if you are not treated with a certain respect, but when others are denied the same respect, that’s not your problem. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s just the way things are.

So, you can use a public bus, but a person in a wheelchair can’t; you and your lover can get married, but a same-sex couple can’t; a taxi will stop for you, but not for a person of color; public information is displayed in your language, but not somebody else’s; police look at your skin and your clothes and decide to hassle somebody else, not you; public officials listen to your complaints, but not to other people’s; all over the world, miners and factory workers risk their lives to produce things for you, but you don’t have to risk your life for anybody; when someone who looks like you gets an undeserved promotion, everyone takes it in stride, but if someone who looks different from you does, it’s an issue.

That’s privilege. Don’t think about it. You didn’t do it; it’s just the way things are. If you do think about it, that’s so magnanimous of you, to consider granting other people the benefits you enjoy without controversy. Even if you ultimately shake your head and decide that it’s too expensive or society isn’t ready yet, you’re such a great person even to consider it.

Some Golden-Rule exemptions are less passive. You can insult people who don’t dare insult you back. You can expect to be waited on, and not wait on anyone else. You can spread malicious gossip about other people, knowing that your lies propagate easily and quickly, while their lies about you die out.

So the first reason to avoid calling someone a nigger or a fag is that there is nothing they can call you back. (Honky? Cracker? Don’t be silly. They don’t sting the same way. And I can’t even think of derogatory term for heterosexuals.) You are doing unto others something that can’t be done back to you.

It’s the stereotypes, not the words. The reason words like nigger sting is that they refer to detailed stereotypes built up over centuries, stereotypes made up not just of words, but of entire stories and images. So nigger doesn’t just mean black, it means lazy, shiftless, stupid, thieving, slutty, drunken, apelike, and more. (That’s why there’s no comparison between liberals who nicknamed President Bush “Chimpy” and conservatives who marketed the Obama Monkey. “Chimpy” insults Bush exactly to the extent that he personally resembles a chimp. There’s no anti-white or anti-anything-Bushlike stereotype for “Chimpy” to evoke.)

A stereotype also contains judgments: A nigger doesn’t really count as a person — as Mark Twain made explicit in this exchange between Huck and Aunt Sally:

”It warn’t the grounding — that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”

“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

That’s how stereotypes hold a system of privilege in place. A nigger, fag, or bitch is someone to whom the Golden Rule doesn’t apply. You can’t beat up a person who hasn’t done anything to you, but you can beat up a fag — they don’t count. If you steal from one of those money-grubbing kikes, you’re just taking back something they cheated from somebody else. If you slap a bitch around, she was asking for it — you know how they are. You don’t have to make a specific case against the individual; the case was already made long ago against fags, kikes, and bitches in general.

So the larger point of getting rid of words like nigger is to remove access to the stereotypes they evoke. When the privileged have to refer to other people respectfully (the way they naturally expect other people to refer to them), then the judgments that are implicit in the stereotypes have to be either dropped or explicitly defended. If you’re hitting a person, and not a fag or a bitch, you’d better explain yourself. If a young black lawyer (not a buck or a nigger) has applied to your law firm, you need a reason to turn him down. It doesn’t go without saying any more. It’s not just how things are.

Whitewashing history. You have undoubtedly noticed that in this article I have used all sorts of “bad” words. That’s because I wanted to evoke the stereotypes. I wanted to evoke them so that we could look at them.

If we banish the words entirely, we lose our handle on the stereotypes; we lose our ability to critique them or diagnose them properly. And if we banish them from our literature, it’s as if the whole history of oppression never happened.

A few years ago on Daily Kos, I started a discussion about the whitewashing of recent history. Some younger Kossacks were shocked to discover that “Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Moe” used to say nigger rather than tiger. How would they have known? The older rhyme has just vanished, as if none of us ever said it.

Whites aren’t doing this to diminish the anti-black stereotype. We’re doing it to cover our tracks. The history of racial oppression embarrasses us, so we make it nicer.

Here’s my conclusion: When you’re wondering whether to use a racial slur or some bowdlerized version like the N-word, ask yourself: Am I using the power of the stereotype against the oppressed group, or am I calling out the stereotype to diminish it or to own up to my own role in maintaining it?

If it’s the former, back off. If it’s the later, go ahead and say the word. Otherwise, the only person you’re protecting is yourself.

Huck. One of the many reasonsHuck Finn is a great book is that it accurately documents an era. The world of Huck Finn is not a nice place, just like the worlds of Night and Fog or The Sopranos are not nice places. We can’t make them nice without destroying them. Students who aren’t mature enough to go there shouldn’t go there.

Scalia’s Law

Justice Scalia raised a predictable furor with an interview he gave to California Lawyer magazine. But anyone who was shocked to hear a Supreme Court justice deny any constitutional basis for women’s rights hasn’t been paying attention. Scalia quotes like this are nothing new:

Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that.

Scalia says these things because he subscribes to the theory of law known as originalism, which he describes in the interview like this:

In its most important aspects, the Constitution tells the current society that it cannot do [whatever] it wants to do. It is a decision that the society has made that in order to take certain actions, you need the extraordinary effort that it takes to amend the Constitution.

To an originalist, the meaning of any phrase in the Constitution was frozen at the time it was written. If you want something else to be constitutional, you need to pass an amendment — which will then mean for all time what you think it means today.

If you want to argue with someone like Scalia, you need to argue with originalism, not just with the idea that women shouldn’t have constitutional rights. The point of the law is to be legal, not necessarily moral. (“This is a court of law, young man,” legendary Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes is said to have scolded an idealistic young lawyer, “not a court of justice.”) So you need more than moral outrage; you need an alternate interpretation.

I’ve highlighted non-originalist legal viewpoints twice in the previous year: in my review of David Strauss’ book The Living Constitution and in excerpts from Justice Souter’s commencement address at Harvard Law School.

Let’s apply that thinking here. The relevant portion of 14th Amendment says:

No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The conservative “judicial activism” trope claims that liberal judges just project their own feelings into the Constitution, but that’s plainly not what’s happening here with women’s rights. If you read the text in the most obvious way, women are “persons” and any law that discriminates against them does not give them the “equal protection” promised by the amendment. It’s a no-brainer.

“But wait,” an originalist would say, “you’re reading the text through 21st century eyes. The people who passed the 14th Amendment in 1868 discriminated against women all the time, and most of that discrimination wasn’t even controversial. They clearly didn’t believe they were establishing equal rights for women.”

And that’s absolutely true. If the people of 1868 had held our current interpretation of the 14th Amendment, the people of 1920 wouldn’t have had to pass the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Surely any law that gives men (but not women) the right to vote is denying “the equal protection of the laws” to women. Right?

But here’s the problem with originalism: What people think they’re doing at any given point in time is usually not completely coherent. As Justice Souter said:

[The Constitution’s] language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.

So the people of 1868 were simultaneously guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws” to all “persons” and denying women the right to vote. According to Jack Balkin, here’s how that worked, at least for married women:

under [the common-law doctrine of coverture] women lost most of their common law rights upon marriage under the fiction that their legal identities were merged with their husbands.

Today, after countless laws have ignored coverture without repealing it, how are judges supposed to apply the “original intent” of the 14th amendment? It’s not enough to say, “The people of 1868 would have made sense out of that somehow.” We, today, need to have some coherent account of what “equal protection of the laws” means. And we need to be able to apply it in situations that the people of 1868 never envisioned. (Does a transgendered person have the rights of a man or a woman?)

And that brings us to Strauss’ common-law theory of interpretation. Strauss takes for granted that as times change, we are increasingly confronted with the incoherence of the intentions of past lawmakers. They wanted “many good things” and didn’t foresee all the ways that change would bring those good things into conflict. They espoused high principles without grasping all the ways that the practices of their era contradicted those principles.

They were, in short, human.

The job of the judge, then, is not just to apply lawmakers’ intentions, but also to resolve inconsistencies in lawmakers’ intentions, so that the law continues to be applicable. That’s what is meant by a “living Constitution”. It’s an ongoing process, and occasionally so much change has happened or the original intentions were so contradictory that we wind up with interpretations that would have appalled the original lawmakers. (Same-sex marriage, for example.)

Judges have an obligation to use their interpretative power prudently, responding to real inconsistencies and resolving them with as little violence to the original intentions as possible. And overwhelmingly throughout our history they have, even in decisions that are sweeping reversals of past interpretations. (Strauss describes Brown v. Board of Education not as a sudden revolution, but as the culmination of a decades-long case-by-case process in which courts tried to make separate-but-equal work, until by 1954 it was obvious that it couldn’t work. A similar story can be told about Roe v. Wade.)

Most work that gets characterized as “liberal judicial activism” is like that: the end of a long prudent process of resolving inconsistencies, not a sudden attack of some judge’s personal idealism.

So when Scalia contends that the only alternative to originalism is anarchy:

Now if you give to those many provisions of the Constitution that are necessarily broad—such as due process of law, cruel and unusual punishments, equal protection of the laws—if you give them an evolving meaning so that they have whatever meaning the current society thinks they ought to have, they are no limitation on the current society at all.

he’s sweeping the real problem under the rug. It isn’t that we want these phrases to mean whatever we want; it’s that we want them to mean something coherent. Interpreting equal protection to defend women’s rights may not be original, but it is coherent. What alternative interpretation is?

Of course there’s simpler objection to Scalia’s position, which is that he doesn’t apply originalism consistently. The 14th Amendment is also the basis of the Citizens United decision (which Scalia supported) and all decisions that uphold corporate personhood.

Corporate personhood is indefensible from an originalist point of view. No one can make the case that the people of 1868 believed that they were granting rights to corporations. The only explanation I can find for an originalist to support corporate personhood is partisanship: The Court’s majority is conservative, and conservative bread is buttered by corporations.

Jack Balkin notes some additional inconsistencies in Scalia’s originalism.

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.

The Yearly Sift

We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but the powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

— — Benjamin Barber, Consumed (2007)

all the Sift quotes of 2010 are collected here

This is the 49th and last Sift of 2010. Time to look back at where we’ve been.

In this year’s Sifts:

  • The Theme of the Year: Concentration of Wealth. I never set out to explore a theme over the course of a year, but it happens on its own. This year, a number of Sfits ended up being about the concentration of wealth — that it’s happening, how it’s happening, and what problems it’s causing.
  • Update on Last Year’s Theme: Corporatism. The battle between corporations and humans continued this year. The Citizens United decision helped make 2010 a good year to be a corporation.
  • Secondary theme: Propaganda. By now I expect Sift readers to know that large swaths of the population believe things that are flat-out false. But why do they believe them? How do they believe them? I kept coming back to those questions all year long.
  • The Sifted Books of 2010. There were a lot of them this year. All the links are collected here.
  • Short Notes. The Sift’s biggest hit in 2010. My biggest mistake. And a couple of current notes: Obama moves towards embracing indefinite detention, a consequence of DADT repeal crosses my FaceBook news feed, and Barney Frank runs rings around a hostile reporter.

The Theme of the Year: Concentration of Wealth

In 2010 there were two economies. If you were a Wall Street banker, happy days were here again. Even if you were just an investor, things were pretty good — the Dow is up nearly 1000 points this year, almost 10%. But if you were unemployed, it was a different story. Close to half of the unemployed — 6.3 million of them — have been out of work for more than 6 months.

That’s just the most recent step in a journey America has been on since late in the Carter administration: The rich have been getting richer, but everyone else has been working harder and producing more for little extra money — and sometimes less. The so-called “Bush boom” was the first time since the Depression that median household income dropped over a complete business cycle.

A lot of  people, including me, have talking about that for years. But in September a bunch of recent data got popularized in Timothy Noah’s series The Great Divergence on Slate and in the newly published Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

The interesting point in this data is that the “vanishing middle class” phenomenon is only the part of the problem most of us are in a position to see. If you have the data, you realize that the super-rich are pulling away from everyone else, not just from the poor. If the world were a village of 1000 people, one guy would have made 1/8th of the money in 2008, nearly five times the share he got in 1973. (Increasingly that guy — or the super-rich class he represents — lives in a different world from the rest of us, as Robert Frank chronicled in Richistan.)

When you realize that hyper-concentration of wealth is the essence of the phenomenon, then most of the standard explanations fall away: It’s not global competition or education or immigration or automation, because none of that separates the top tenth of a percent from the top percent. Competition from illegal aliens isn’t preventing millionaires from keeping up with billionaires.

Hacker and Pierson lay the blame at the feet of the government: Republican and Democratic administrations alike have favored capital over labor, finance over industry, corporations over consumers, lenders over borrowers, fine-print-writers over the naive — in short, the very rich over everybody else.

Thomas Geoghagen’s Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be that way. Europe is subject to all the same economic winds we are, but countries like Germany and France and Sweden have built much more egalitarian societies, which Geoghagen argues are better places for ordinary people to live.

Typically, concentration-of-wealth is argued as a moral issue: Why should some people be allowed to waste the world’s resources on ridiculous luxury while others can’t get necessities? (This is the point of view of The Moral Underground by Lisa Dodson. She tells the stories of middle-managers who — recognizing the injustice of it all — break or otherwise circumvent the rules to make life livable for the working poor. Conservatives are well defended against this moral argument, as I explain in How to Speak Conservative: Class Warfare.)

But Robert Reich’s Aftershock argues that concentrated wealth is bad in purely economic terms: In a healthy economy, mass production and mass consumption go together; money cycles naturally because people who make stuff can afford to buy stuff. (Similar ideas are in Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal.)

But when wealth gets too concentrated, money piles up in the accounts of people who don’t spend it. At first they might invest it in new production, which is good, but even that slows down once it becomes clear that demand isn’t keeping up. (Why expand a factory if you can’t sell what it’s making now?) Instead, the surplus of the rich gets drawn into speculative bubbles, as they look for investments that don’t depend on increased consumption. (I explain what’s wrong with the contrary view — that rich people create jobs — in Where Jobs Come From. These days, it’s customers who create jobs, not investors.)

That low-demand, underemployed, bubble-driven economy is typical of both the last decade and the 1920s, the previous time wealth was over-concentrated. The 20s ended in the Great Depression, and the “Bush boom” nearly had the same result. Unless we can start de-concentrating wealth — as happened accidentally due to World War II — Reich makes the case that future business cycles will be similar: speculative bubbles followed by collapse.

Finally, we get to the moral case libertarians make for capitalism and the so-called free market: that the market gives people what they deserve, and that changing the market result is some form of theft. The best refutation of this idea is the book Unjust Deserts by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, which I reviewed in April.

Alperovitz and Daly start with the question of why today’s economy is so much more productive than, say, America in 1800. It seems unlikely that the billionaires of today are hundreds of times harder working or smarter than the businessmen of 1800. The more sensible explanation is that society as a whole is benefitting from the accumulation of knowledge and social capital. The inventions of people alive today make a difference, but a much bigger difference is that we’ve gotten better at using things invented or discovered generations ago. (For example, we make really good wheels and fires these days.)

In short, our advantage in productivity is largely a collective inheritance from our ancestors, so diffuse that it’s not even attributable to individual bloodlines. What happens under capitalism, though, is that our collective inheritance benefits a relatively small number of people. What looks like individual earning is largely a usurpation of an inheritance that rightfully ought to belong to everybody. (We should all be getting our share of royalties on the Wheel. I made a similar argument last year in a talk called Who Owns the World?)

Another financial theme: I looked at a number of explanations of how the real-estate bubble grew and then popped, most notably The Big Short by Michael Lewis and ECONned by Yves Smith.

In April, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pulled a bunch of these themes together in a talk at the Kennedy School of Government.

Update on Last Year’s Theme: Corporatism

Last December was the first time I noticed an annual theme in the Weekly Sift. Over the course of 2009, I had become more and more radicalized about the opposition between corporations and human beings.

2010 started with the Citizens United decision, which I characterized as Judicial Activism: The Supreme Court Invents New Corporate Rights. That week I was also inspired to write The Book of Corporation, a re-telling of Genesis in which God creates the Eden Corporation, which in turn hires the Serpent as its CEO. Eventually the Babel Project succeeds and God is ousted by the Serpent.

In the Citizens United decision, the Court’s conservative majority anticipated that transparency would allow voters to evaluate the sources of campaign advertising, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Republicans managed to block the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate. Consequently, the fall elections saw a flood of anonymous money, nearly all of it spent on negative ads against Democrats. I covered this in Quotations of Chairman Anonymous.

The other big corporate/human conflict story of the year was the West Virginia mine disaster. Having reviewed Doubt is Their Product last year (followed by Merchants of Doubt this year), I saw the miners’ deaths differently than the mainstream media:

This is the current level of corporate ethics: If they can make money by killing their workers or customers, they will. It’s not just a few bad apples; it’s standard operating procedure. … Current law is more concerned with protecting the mine owners from frivolous claims than protecting the lives of miners.

That’s still true. A new mine safety bill was proposed after the miners’ deaths, but Republicans managed to defeat it.

Another place where corporate lobbying worked against the public interest this year was with regard to net neutrality:

The point here is to create many new choke-points where toll booths can be set up. That — and not innovation and competition — is how big corporations make big money.

I finally summed up my picture of corporations a few weeks ago in Corporations are Sociopaths. I don’t intend that to be a rhetorical insult; I propose it as a diagnosis. Like sociopaths, corporations can be useful and entertaining if you meet them in circumstances where they can’t benefit by harming you. But if you look at the diagnostic criteria for sociopathy, they correspond to traits of corporate governance.

Secondary Theme: Propaganda

In a way, propaganda is always a theme of the Sift. Nearly every week I’m pointing out some widely publicized or widely believed “facts” that have no basis in reality: that the stimulus bill gave favorable treatment to districts represented by Democrats, for example, or that Obama quadrupled the deficit Bush left him. Occasionally I do a whole set of Disinformation Watch notes to list false things currently passing for truth.

But (having noticed how often new fake facts appear to replace the ones we manage to knock down) this year I tried to delve deeper into the mechanisms of the propaganda that surrounds us. Who believes it? Why? Who promotes it? How? And what are the false narratives that support and are supported by all these fake facts?

Part of the mechanism of propaganda is the cooperation of the media, or at least its submission. That was the theme of Tortured Coverage: A Harvard study documented how major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post stopped calling waterboarding torture when the Bush administration told them not to. The term became “contentious” rather than “objective” because the administration chose to contend against it.

Another level of mechanism is the network of right-wing think tanks and institutes that have been established by corporate and billionaire money. It is an entire system of apparent “experts” whose connections to their sponsors are rarely traced by the mainstream media, but whose opinions always fall in line with the interests of their sponsors. (This was the mechanism of Propaganda Lesson, in which the bogus scandal about stimulus funding was the result of “research” done by a “scholar” at the Manhattan Institute, funded predominantly by the billionaire Koch brothers.)

Similarly, large-scale corporate and billionaire money funded the Tea Party movement, but funded it through mechanisms that allowed the mainstream media to describe the movement as “grass roots”. In this way, disgruntled McCain voters who had never liked Obama were put forward as “independents” who had been “shocked” into opposition by the “radical” Obama administration. (What Money Buys)

The ultimate conservative infrastructure is the right-wing media, epitomized by Fox News, but embracing talk radio, newspapers like the Washington Times, and other outlets. This media empire has reached the point where Senate candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada could ignore the mainstream media entirely, refusing to answer any questions not posed by sympathetic voices. Fortunately, no major candidate who adopted such a strategy won a competitive race this year. But if Sarah Palin runs for president in 2012, we may see this strategy tested on a national scale. (The Private Campaign)

At the narrative level, I looked at the image of “government spending” which is always “out of control” and “wasteful”. This narrative is so well established by now that no facts are needed to support it. And so in the fall campaign right-wing candidates were able to run on a “cut spending” message without identifying any actual spending cuts other than the most trivial. They were pledged to cut “waste”, which the narrative tells us is everywhere. In an article titled simply Spending, I outlined how the supposedly “untouchable” parts of the budget were already enough to have caused a deficit in 2010.

In The Thing Behind the Thing I outlined three sets of largely unconscious assumptions underlying Tea Party rhetoric: that the authority of the Law comes in some way from God or Nature rather than from a social contract; that the punishment of transgressions is a good thing in and of itself, not requiring any justification in terms of its results; and that “the People” (as in “the People need to take this country back”) are straight white Christians.

Propaganda Lessons from the Religious Right was an attempt to get at some of the deep assumptions that make outlandish conspiracy theories believable to those on the religious Right: Belief in a Devil makes it unnecessary to provide a motive for the conspiracy, because it can literally be “demonized”. (How else to explain those terrorists who “hate progress and freedom and choice and culture and music and laughter”?) Also, a template like “reverse discrimination” can be promoted over decades, so that when an individual issue is identified as reverse discrimination, the pieces of the template snap into place without needing evidence to establish them. The lesson is that good framing doesn’t just happen because you coin a clever slogan. Templates of thought can take decades to build up.

Why Democrats Are Always on Defense makes a similar point in a different way. Here the phenomenon to be explained is: Democrats think they must “move to the Right” when they lose or fear losing, while Republicans never have to move to the Left, no matter how badly they get beaten. The piece is a re-introduction of George Lakoff’s notion of frames, and explains how a poll-driven approach to an issue can change the poll it is based on. (When liberals take what polls say is a “centrist” position, they can shift the public debate to the Right, moving the center away from the position they just took.)

Finally, last week I took a look at one of the deep conservative frames: class warfare. The phrase evokes an entire mythology on the Right, which liberals who argue against it are largely unaware of.

The Sifted Books of 2010

I went wild reviewing books this year: 16 of them in all. Some have already been mentioned in the previous sections: Aftershock by Robert Reich, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? by Thomas Geoghagan, Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, ECONned by Yves Smith, The Big Short by Michael Lewis, Unjust Deserts by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, Richistan by Robert Frank, The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman, The Moral Underground by Lisa Dodson, and Merchants of Doubt by David Michaels.

Other Sifted books of 2010 were:

Washington Rules by Andrew Bacevich. Surprisingly, this is the only military or foreign-policy book that I reviewed in 2010. Bacevich is a retired colonel who has begun to doubt the necessity or wisdom of America policing the world. This book retells American military history since World War II in an attempt to explain how perpetual war became acceptable to the public, in spite of the fact that our wars seldom proceed as expected or achieve what was desired.

The Living Constitution by David Strauss. Strauss explains the common-law method of interpreting the Constitution, and presents it as a practical alternative to the better-known-but-impractical theory of originalism. At least we don’t have to try to imagine what the Founders would have thought about the Internet.

Democracy, Inc. by Sheldon Wolin. Wolin outlines what he calls “managed democracy”, in which the people don’t actually rule, but only ratify the decisions of their leaders.

The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. Greer discusses the end of civilization as we know it and stays calm about it. How exactly does the trip to Hell in a handbasket go? And what should you do when you get there?

Methland by Nick Reding. Reding interprets the crystal meth problem as a symptom of larger problems: the collapse of the social contract and the inability of government to do sensible things that would interfere with corporate profits. The result is a threat to the survival of small towns in America.

Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen. A NASA climate historian explains why global warming is even more serious than most people think.

Short Notes

The Sift article that made the biggest splash this year was My Reservations about the Market Economy. I used Open Table, a web site for making restaurant reservations, as an example of how the market economy rewards gatekeepers, not producers.

A regular Sift reader posted a link on Reddit, which for some reason took off. (Go thou and do likewise.) The Sift got 5000 hits that week (rather than a more normal 200-400).

My biggest mistake in 2010 was in refusing to believe for most of the year that the generic-ballot polls showing a Republican landslide in the House would predict the election. In the Senate, things turned out more-or-less as I expected: Republicans gained, but didn’t win the Senate, because the crazy candidates they nominated (Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell) couldn’t live up to the public’s image of a “generic Republican”.

Many House battles, on the other hand, never got beyond the generic race, and Democrats were unable to make hay out of the wild positions the Republicans were taking or had taken. But the main thing my crystal ball failed to pick up was that the Democrats would completely refuse to defend their actions. I expected a real debate about the health-care law, and pre-election votes that would tie the Republicans to unpopular pro-wealth positions. None of that happened.

In current news: According to Pro Publica, the Obama administration is drawing up an executive order that will formalize a process of indefinite detention for suspected terrorists.

I was against this when W wanted to do it, and I’m against it now. No matter how conscientious an executive-branch process you set up, everybody with any power in it takes orders from the President. You can’t deprive somebody of liberty forever one the say-so of one guy.

A lot of the claims people make about “the Constitution” are partisan. (Just about all the Tea Party folks, for example, started worrying about the Constitution on Inauguration Day, some time around noon.) But this is a real constitutional issue, and a good test of whether somebody really cares about the Constitution. You can’t seriously worry about whether the Constitution allows Congress to make you eat your vegetables and not worry about whether it allows the President to lock you up and throw away the key.

It was one of those innocuous things that come across my FaceBook news feed all the time. One of my friends updated her status to say she’s in a relationship. One of my friends in the Navy.


And speaking of the DADT repeal, Barney Frank totally eats the lunch of a reporter from the right-wing CNS network when he springs a gotcha question about gay and straight soldiers showering together.

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.

Safe Ground

Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.

— Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible (1898)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Deal. We now know what President Obama got by agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts. The agreement is defensible economically, but you have to wonder what’s going to happen politically a year from now. Also, how to answer the “it’s my money, not the government’s” line.
  • Too Good, Too Easy, But … For years, educators have been working to close gender and racial performance gaps. A new technique seems to do just that … but it has nothing to do with the subject matter of the course. Why I’m not totally skeptical.
  • Elizabeth Edwards. I can’t say I knew her, but I did meet her once. Her death gives me flashbacks to my wife’s cancer battle.
  • Short Notes. Hottest year ever. Death panels in Arizona. Republicans rediscover earmarks. Suspicious behavior at WalMart. The difference between freedom and options. Living without Monsanto. The lack of Republican scientists. A smoking gun at Fox News. And more.

The Deal

Last week I expressed my bewilderment that the administration was planning to give in to the Republican demand to extend the Bush tax cuts for all income rather than just the first $250,000 of income. Well, the full deal was announced this week, and much argument has ensued. Let’s see if we can sort this out.

As usual, the best spokesman for White House economic policy is Austin Goolsbee at the White House White Board. His basic message is that President Obama wanted another economic stimulus and the Republicans wanted another handout to the rich (whose stimulative effect is questionable). In the compromise, Obama got $238 billion of stimulus, while giving up $114 billion of handouts to the rich. (The rest of the $900 billion deal is the middle-class tax cuts that both sides claimed to support. Ezra Klein has a pie chart.)

The $114 billion for the rich means that they pay $91 billion less in income tax and $23 billion less in estate tax than if the Bush cuts had been allowed to expire.

The $238 billion of stimulus includes $104 billion of extended unemployment benefits, grants for renewable energy projects, and various tax credits targeted at low-and-middle-income people. This is good both in terms of compassion and economic stimulus (because poor people spend their tax credits while the rich may not).

Another $22 billion is for letting businesses write off their investments faster. This is good stimulus, because it might have a multiplier effect: The $22 billion in tax cuts might motivate a much larger amount of business investment. But I question listing it as “our” part of the deal rather than “theirs”. (Paul Krugman laments: “how, exactly, did we get to the point where Democrats must plead with Republicans to accept lower corporate taxes?”) This money will also go to the rich (though it will be in exchange for them stimulating the economy, rather than just a tribute to their wealth), so their take is really $136 billion. (114 + 22 = 136)

The remaining $112 billion on the stimulus side goes to the “payroll tax holiday”, which is the most controversial part of the package. This lowers the tax that wage-earners pay into the Social Security fund from 6.2% to 4.2% for the next year. It replaces that contribution with money from the general fund, so that the solvency of Social Security isn’t affected.

Whether this is a good idea or not depends on whether you look at it economically or politically. Economically, it is a very effective form of stimulus: Working people will see more money in their paychecks, which many of them will spend.

Politically, the question is what this is going to lead to. The plutocrat tax cut is for two years, the payroll holiday for one. So what happens a year from now? Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation worries:

Particularly if the economy remains weak, as seems likely, few politicians of either party will want to oppose an extension of the payroll tax holiday for another year. Because payroll taxes are taken straight out of paychecks, both a reduction in them and then a return to current levels would be highly noticeable to most workers.

Under that scenario, what would happen if the Republican candidate won the presidency? Given the conservative movement’s long-standing hostility toward Social Security, the likely next step would be to make the payroll tax cut permanent, while no longer replenishing the Social Security trust fund to make up for the lost revenue. That basic strategy of slashing the payroll taxes that support the program has been a central plank of right-wing think tanks for decades, but until this point it has never succeeded.

So the tax holiday could undermine the political case to preserve Social Security — especially if it gets extended beyond one year, as it probably will. The reason we all feel so strongly that we deserve our Social Security benefits is that we paid for them already. If instead the Social Security trust fund is being filled out of the general coffers, then Social Security becomes more of a welfare program for old people, and the case against cutting benefits loses a lot of its force.

Michelle Bachman has a knack for spelling out the ridiculous stuff that other Republicans merely imply:

I don’t think letting people keep their own money should be considered a deficit.

In other words, the laws of addition and subtraction should bend to conservative ideology. The deficit is expenses minus revenue, but cutting revenue shouldn’t increase it.

The standard Republican line about tax cuts ignores the deficit completely, but says that tax cuts don’t have to be balanced with specified spending cuts because it’s “letting people keep their own money”.

The proper response to the “it’s my money, not the government’s money” line is “it’s your government”. This isn’t the English king imposing taxation-without-representation on the 13 colonies. The government is Us — We the People. That’s what the Constitution is all about: establishing a structure by which we can make these kinds of collective decisions. Saying “it’s my money, not the government’s” is saying that the Constitution failed.

We the People spend our money in two ways: as individuals and collectively through public programs supported by taxes. Both are legitimate, but we can’t spend the same money twice. If our democratically elected government-of-the-People has already spent the money, then it isn’t “our money” any more to spend as individuals.

The most interesting response to the tax deal came from the market for U.S. government bonds, which plunged. The yield on 10-year bonds rose to 3.32% at Friday’s close, up from 3.02% a week earlier.

I don’t think markets are omniscient, but I do think they are honest. People might bluster in their public statements, but if an idea makes them move their money, they must really believe it.

If you don’t speak bond-market language, let me interpret: The U.S. government wants you to give them dollars today, with the idea that they’ll give those dollars back in ten years. How much extra you want in order to agree to that deal depends on two things: what you think dollars will be worth in ten years, and whether you think the government will be solvent in ten years.

If the interest rate goes up, that means investors are worried about those two factors. If it goes up quickly (and an increase of 1/3 of a percent in a week is quick in a market that is ordinarily very stable), that means that investors were not only worried, they were surprised. (If they’d been expecting to be this worried now, they’d have been only slightly less worried last week.)

So the bond market believes this deal is bad for the future value of the dollar and the future solvency of the federal government. And it didn’t expect a deal quite this bad.

Kevin Drum isn’t worried about what the payroll tax holiday does to Social Security.

Too Good, Too Easy, But …

This sounds way too good and too easy to be true, but I don’t see any holes in it. Discover reports on a simple classroom exercise that seems to undo the pernicious effect of stereotyping. It was originally developed to help black high school students, and has now been tested on female physics students. In short: groups that had a persistent test-score gap saw that gap substantially diminish when they did this exercise.

It’s not some intensive coaching thing and has nothing to do with the subject matter of the course: Take 15 minutes and write about values that are important to you and why they are important. A University of Colorado physics class had students do this twice near the beginning of the term, and then proceeded normally.

The point, as I understand it, is to change the mindset of the student in that class. Having recalled and validated your core values brings your whole being into the room, and banishes the I-don’t-belong-here mindset.

It sounds like another one of those new-agey things that never actually work when I try them, but here’s what makes me give it some credence. Decades ago, as a teacher and graduate student in one of the prime gender-gap subjects (mathematics), I got to observe some of the nuts-and-bolts of the problem-solving process. Solving a hard math problem is a little like investigating a crime: First, you figure out who did it, and then you assemble a case to convince a jury.

In my experience, the mathematics gender gap was in figuring-out-who-did-it part. That kind of thinking is all speculative, and it collapses whenever the overall uncertainty overwhelms you. To succeed, you need to postulate something on intuition, and then have enough faith in your intuition to keep postulating on top of it until you have the outline of a solution.

My female students had a higher tendency to throw one speculative idea out there — maybe even a correct one — and then get stuck because they weren’t sure they were right. Often the only coaching they needed was, “OK, suppose that’s right. Then what?” Men were more likely to have the arrogance necessary to keep building their castle of speculation even though the foundations hadn’t been established yet.

So this quote in the Discover article made a lot of sense to me:

if someone can’t hammer in a tricky nail, it might not be because their arm isn’t strong enough. It might be that they constantly have to look over their shoulders while they work.

Why the writing exercise solves this problem so easily is still a little mysterious, but it doesn’t look as magical as it did at first glance.

Elizabeth Edwards

You probably already know that Elizabeth Edwards died. In a Facebook post a few days before her death she wrote:

The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious.

I met Elizabeth Edwards once, briefly, when one of my friends held a house party for her husband’s campaign. And I heard her speak several times, with and without John. She wasn’t the smile-and-wave type of political wife. She was passionately committed, knowledgeable, and she had to be careful not to outshine the candidate, who had a pretty good public persona of his own.

Back in March, 2007, when I first heard about her cancer, I recalled my wife’s experience with breast cancer and wrote a blog post advising John and Elizabeth to rethink this whole presidential-campaign thing, even though it was probably Elizabeth’s last chance to see John in the White House. That post is as much about cancer and marriage as it is about politics, and I think it holds up pretty well from the perspective of three-and-a-half years.

Given how John’s career flamed out, it can be embarrassing to remember that I supported him. But when I look back at what he was saying in 2007, it holds up pretty well too. Talking about the vested interests in the health care industry and the Powers That Be in general, he said:

If you give them a seat at the table, they’ll eat all the food. You have to beat them. … You can’t be nice to these people. We’ve been nice to them. That’s the problem. And they haven’t given up anything voluntarily.

Three years later, they still haven’t.

Watching Cate Edwards eulogize her mother, I thought: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I didn’t know that poise and presence were inheritable, but apparently they are.

Short Notes

In November, we continued marching on towards the hottest year on record. So much for that “global warming ended ten years ago” canard.

Sarah Palin told us there would be death panels, and sure enough there are. But it’s got nothing to do with ObamaCare and everything to do with spending cuts. Governor Brewer has cut the Medicaid funding for transplants in Arizona. One guy who needed a bone marrow transplant is dead already, and Randy Shepherd is waiting for a heart transplant.

It’s important to focus in on these personal stories, because conservative rhetoric wants you to think of “government” as some black hole that has nothing to do with people. So spending cuts only hurt “government” and “bureaucrats”.

But spending cuts do hurt real people, sometimes fatally.

Here’s another personal story that is not quite so horrible. It’s just an everyday account of what working people have to do to get by these days. Your household needs two incomes to keep the house, but it only has one. You have a job, and your spouse has a 2-year offer far away. So: My Husband is Leaving Me.

I’m separating this from my Elizabeth Edwards piece, because I don’t want it dirtied with partisan sniping. But John Edwards is a good example of how the standards are higher on the Left.

John cheated on his dying wife, and his career is over. Newt Gingrich did exactly the same thing, and he’s on the short list 2012 presidential candidates.

Remember those promises of action to improve mine safety after 29 West Virginia miners died in April? Umm, never mind.

According to NPR, the Upper Big Branch mine that collapsed had “more serious safety violations than any in the country. But lawmakers say loopholes in the system allowed the company to file lengthy appeals that delayed penalties.” And so miners died.

But changing the law is still “premature” according to Republicans. This is where we’ve gotten: Instituting a new regulation on a corporation requires a higher standard of proof than invading a country.

For some reason I haven’t quite fathomed, there are things you just can’t say in American politics. They’re not false or disloyal or immoral, but announcing them in public is heresy of the first order.

One of those taboo statements is: “An awful lot of the federal budget is money well spent.” That’s heresy, because everybody knows that all non-military government spending is waste.

Well, it’s fascinating (in an anthropological sort of way) to watch the new Republican majority in the House start coming to terms with this fact without admiting it. It’s showing up particularly in their discussion of earmarks, which (as we all know) are worst kind of waste, bridge-to-nowhere type waste.

Now that they have the power to end all that waste, they want to, really. But then they have to wonder about the worthwhile projects in their own districts that have been funded so far by earmarks. Politico reports:

many Republicans are now worried that the bridges in their districts won’t be fixed, the tariff relief to the local chemical company isn’t coming and the water systems might not be built without a little direction from Congress.  So some Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban

WalMart stores are showing this strange video from the Homeland Security Department. “Homeland security begins with hometown security,” says Janet Napolitano. So you should report to WalMart managers anything “suspicious” you see in the store or parking lot. Because, I guess, Al Qaeda must be just dying to hit some WalMart in the middle of Montana.

Here’s the suspicious behavior I see at WalMart: Americans working for low wages and no health care. They have jobs, but they’re on food stamps and Medicaid. The company is making billions, but intimidating its workers out of forming a union.

Report that to a manager.

Apparently the bizarre “War on Christmas” idea has reached the UK, and the BBC’s Marcus Brigstocke is having none of it.

Last week I made the case that corporations are sociopaths, and observed how hard it would be to follow Martha Stout’s advice on dealing with sociopaths — namely, don’t; get them out of your life as fast as you can.

Yes magazine’s April Dávila demonstrated that when she tried to live without Monsanto. Monsanto’s genetically modified corn, soybean, sugar beet, and cotton seeds are planted by countless farmers, and the resulting foods and fibers are very hard for a consumer to trace. Just about any processed food has high-fructose corn syrup in it, and probably there’s some Monsanto corn in there somewhere. Going organic helps avoid Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone (given to dairy cattle), but legally “a Monsanto seed that is grown organically is still organic.”

The whole point of a market economy is that consumers are (as Milton Friedman’s book says) “free to choose”. But more and more the market resembles a computer game: We are not actually free, we are just given options within a scripted scenario. Deciding you don’t want to deal with Monsanto or don’t want to support genetically modified crops isn’t in the script.

By the way, here’s a cool thing about Yes magazine: People vs. corporations is a category on their web site.

Also from Yes: a call for a constitutional amendment to undo the Citizens United decision that allowed corporations to spend unprecedented amounts in the recent elections.

This is another example of the difference between real freedom and options-within-the-script. Polls show a significant plurality of people support such a constitutional amendment. Will that get it onto the public agenda? In the normal course of things, no. That option is not in the script. Getting an issue like this on the public agenda, so that candidates have to take positions on it and low-information voters realize they should have an opinion on it, will take some creativity — much more stuff like the Target Ain’t People protest and video.

I doubt you’re shocked to hear that Fox News slants its coverage. But now we have the internal emails to prove it.

The week’s strangest opinion piece: Slate’s Daniel Sarewitz laments the lack of Republican scientists (OK so far), and thinks that scientists need to do something about this. The fact that Republicans have consistently chosen ideology over truth has nothing to do with it.

You don’t have to be a sports fan to be amazed by the video of the Metrodome’s inflatable roof collapsing under snow.

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.