Monday, April 14, 2014

Roberts at the Bat

I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

-- John Roberts (2005)

This week's featured articles are "This is What Judicial Activism Looks Like" and "Who Should Be Beyond the Pale?"

These last two weeks everybody has been talking about the Supreme Court


By now you've undoubtedly heard about the Court's McCutcheon decision, which I discuss in "This is What Judicial Activism Looks Like".

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the plurality's opinion; his reasoning revolves around protecting the right of citizens to give the maximum $5200 per election cycle to as many candidates as they choose. But of course, the only citizens whose rights are actually affected are those who would like to give more than $123,200 to candidates, parties, and PACs during the 2013-2014 election cycle. According to the Federal Election Commission, only 646 people reached the limit during the 2011-2012 cycle. It goes without saying that these are 646 very wealthy people. So if you read Roberts' opinion, I recommend doing a global-search-and-replace on the text to replace "citizens" with "very wealthy citizens". For example:
The Government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combatting corruption and its appearance. We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the Government’s efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of very wealthy citizens to choose who shall govern them.

I think that makes the meaning much clearer.

and ObamaCare passed its sign-up goal


Yes, after all that angst about the web site, after the Koch brothers and their allies spent massive amounts of money on an unprecedented disinformation campaign, after the media fell for countless false ObamaCare horror stories, the number of sign-ups hit 7.5 million, somewhat more than the CBO's original projection of 7 million. The reason is pretty simple: A lot of Americans need affordable health care, and the Affordable Care Act provides it.

That success allowed Kathleen Sebelius to resign with a rosy glow rather than slinking out of town defeated. Her replacement has already been named, but you can expect the confirmation hearings to be a circus, as Ted Cruz is looking on this as yet another chance to repeal ObamaCare. I think Democrats should sell popcorn for this circus, because it's going to be a public orgy of mean-spiritedness that will not do the Republican Party any good. One of the reasons I haven't been panicking about the projections for the fall elections is that the whole Republican strategy revolves around exploiting the failure of ObamaCare. What if we get to November it's obviously not failing?

In fact, what if Democrats hit back hard? I suggest something like: "According to independent research, Republicans' refusal to expand Medicaid has killed X Floridians this year." They'll squeal like stuck pigs, but I like the conversation where they're saying "No, we're not killing people." (Yes, they are killing people.)

It's not like Republicans are running away from this fight: Those in the Virginia legislature are threatening to shut down the state government rather than start saving the lives of the working poor.

Republicans are of course hanging on to the trainwreck narrative. But it's worth pointing out that the point where the whole program explodes keeps receding into the future. Every prediction they've made that is checkable hasn't panned out.

and equal pay


Last Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, the theoretical point where working women have finally made as much money as men did in 2013, given an average wage 77% of a man's wage.

There's been a lot of discussion of that number these last two weeks, with conservatives arguing that it's meaningless, because women do different jobs, have different qualifications, choose a different career path, and so on.

I tried to understand the statistics myself a couple years ago, and my overall conclusion was that you can shrink the gap by normalizing for various factors, but you can't make it go away. Discrimination continues to be a real, measurable thing. That's more-or-less the conclusion ThinkProgress comes to also. It's also not clear that you should normalize for everything you can possible normalize. Yes, women congregate in poorer-paying professions and interrupt their career paths to have children. But some of that is just discrimination of a different sort: "Women's work" pays less (at least in part) because it has traditionally been women's work, not because it's inherently less valuable. And we could set up the economy in such a way that interrupted career paths wouldn't be punished as much as they are, but we don't.

The Republican position on this is that of course they are for equal pay for women, they're just against any effort to help bring that about. Bill O'Reilly laid out the overall strategy
I strong believe in fighting for equality and I also believe that institutional bias should be against the law. What I oppose is government trying to impose equality.

To which Stephen Colbert responded:
I agree with every single word you're saying, even if those words don't agree with each other. You see, I also believe that institutional bias should be against the law. And, at the same time, that government shouldn't do anything about it.

and taxes are due tomorrow


Ezra Klein explains how the IRS could just send you a bill (which you could ignore and send them a 1040 instead if you wanted). For most people, it would be easier and cheaper than keeping records and sending the IRS a bunch of information it already has. But tax-preparation companies would lose out, and they have lobbyists. So it's not going to happen.

and you also might be interested in ...


How I spent my week off: I talked about "Acceptance and Action" at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.




The Heartbleed bug really does seem to be worth paying attention to. Change your online passwords; it doesn't hurt anything.

Here's my best advice for picking easy-to-remember hard-to-guess passwords: Think of some line or quote or song lyric that you'll never forget, and turn it into an acronym. Example: "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth" produces the password ItbGctH&tE. In your own mind, call it "the Genesis password" and if you put it on a list somewhere, just write down "Gen". (Needless to say, I'm never using that one.)




If you don't follow the conservative media, you miss all the exciting inside-the-bubble stories that the regular media doesn't cover ... because they're not true. Example: Attorney General Eric Holder isn't pushing for gun owners to wear tracking bracelets. Imagine that you hear four or five similarly outrageous stories each week, and that the oh-never-mind retractions don't always reach you. Think what that would do to your worldview.




One of the reasons I'm not willing to give conservatives credit for being principled is that their principles have an odd way of evaporating whenever other conservative priorities are in the picture. Digby points out how conservative defenses of states rights somehow exclude a state's right to legalize marijuana.

and let's close with a visual pun

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fiendishly Rational

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear April 13.

The record of thousands upon thousands of people arrested in this way is everywhere in the South. In the fall, when it was time to pick cotton, huge numbers of black people are arrested in all of the cotton-growing counties. There are surges in arrests in counties in Alabama in the days before, coincidentally, a labor agent from the coal mines in Birmingham is coming to town that day to pick up whichever county convicts are there.

-- Douglas Blackmon,
Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

And this system is one that I think in many ways needs to be understood as brutal in a social sense, but fiendishly rational in an economic sense. Because where else could one take a black worker and work them literally to death, after slavery? And when that worker died, one simply had to go and get another convict.

-- Prof. Adam Green, University of Chicago
quoted in Slavery By Another Name


This week's featured articles are "Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor" and "Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs".

This week lots of people were talking about the Supreme Court


The Court began hearing arguments in Hobby Lobby case testing the ObamaCare contraception mandate. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick is pessimistic:
The rights of millions of women to preventive health care and workplace equality elicit almost no sign of sympathy or solicitude from the right wing of the bench today. Nor does the possibility that religious conscience objections may soon swallow up the civil rights laws protecting gay workers, women, and other minorities. Religious freedom trumps because we’re “only” talking about birth control.

In general, it's a mistake to read too much into the questions the justices ask. When the constitutionality of the individual mandate was argued before the Court, I don't remember anyone predicting that Chief Justice Roberts would save it.

and the ObamaCare deadline


Sort of. It was supposed to be today, but if you were in the process of applying and got hung up by the technical problems on the web site, you get to finish.
Administration officials ... compare it to the Election Day practice of allowing people to vote if they are in line when the polls close.

According to the L.A. Times, 9.5 million previously uninsured Americans now have coverage: some directly through the ObamaCare marketplaces, some directly from insurance companies, some through the expansion of Medicaid, and some because the law allows more young people to stay on their parents insurance plans.

A series of ObamaCare horror stories have gotten national attention, mostly to be debunked later. But it's about time that people start paying attention to the success stories.

It's also time to make state-level Republicans pay the price for not expanding Medicaid. In an article on the Health Affairs blog, three public-health professors and a medical student run the numbers:
We estimate the number of deaths attributable to the lack of Medicaid expansion in opt-out states at between 7,115 and 17,104. Medicaid expansion in opt-out states would have resulted in 712,037 fewer persons screening positive for depression and 240,700 fewer individuals suffering catastrophic medical expenditures. Medicaid expansion in these states would have resulted in 422,553 more diabetics receiving medication for their illness, 195,492 more mammograms among women age 50-64 years and 443,677 more pap smears among women age 21-64. Expansion would have resulted in an additional 658,888 women in need of mammograms gaining insurance, as well as 3.1 million women who should receive regular pap smears.

and the Christie administration's report on the bridge scandal


which came to the unsurprising conclusion that Governor Christie did nothing wrong. "Our findings today are a vindication of Gov. Christie," said the report's author, Randy Maestro.

In response, all of Chris Christie's critics said, "I'm glad that's settled, let's move on."

No, seriously, Christie's critics were appalled that he spent taxpayer money to produce such a self-serving report, and the word "whitewash" keeps cropping up. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who claims the administration withheld federal relief money from Hoboken after Hurricane Sandy to pressure her to approve a deal favoring Christie's private-sector allies, said:
Randy Mastro could have written his report the day he was hired and saved the taxpayers the million dollars in fees he billed in generating this one-sided whitewash.

And the New York Times editorial page was equally unkind:
We can now add this expensive whitewash to the other evidence of trouble in Mr. Christie’s administration. If Mr. Christie really wants to win back public trust, he and his political allies can start by paying for this internal inquiry out of their own pockets. Then the governor and these lawyers can make all emails and any other crucial information available to federal and state investigators.

Investigations by the New Jersey legislature and the U.S. attorney will continue.

and (for some reason) a raft of sports-and-labor stories


beginning with the ruling that Northwestern's football players are employees who can unionize. I cover this in "Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs"

and you also might be interested in ...


A federal appeals court in Texas found the state's new regulations on abortion clinics constitutional, in spite of the fact that they have caused a third of the state's abortion clinics to close and have little medical evidence supporting their value. The court found that living three hours away from the nearest clinic was not an undue burden on a woman's right to have access to abortion services.

A similar law in Wisconsin has been found unconstitutional by that district's appeals court. Since a law can't be constitutional in one part of the country and unconstitutional in another, the Supreme Court will have to resolve the difference.

Lately I've been on a reading jag centering on the Confederacy and the Reconstruction Era. (You'll be hearing about it. Today's book review is just the start.) I can't help noticing the similarities between the current campaign against abortion rights and the South's post-Reconstruction campaign against the rights former slaves were granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. In both cases, the strategy was to leave the rights on the books, but make them impossible to claim. The post-Reconstruction Supreme Court winked at that. We'll see what this era's Court does.




Once you convince yourself that sexuality is a choice, all sorts of otherwise innocent things start to look like advertising for the gay "option". AlterNet's Katie Halper collects the "10 Weirdest Things the Christian Right Thinks Will Turn Your Kids Gay".

One that deserves special attention is a 4000-word screed on the "Well-Behaved Mormon Woman" blog, which decodes the gay message encrypted in the Disney movie Frozen, and particularly in its hit song "Let It Go". (The movie clip isn't YouTubed, but a great cover is here.)

I haven't seen the movie, but in WBMW's retelling the plot centers on a princess whose parents insist her socially-unacceptable magic power be hidden, and how she finds liberation. What could a hidden power symbolize, other than lesbianism?

Actually, it might symbolize sexual desire in general, as dancing does in Footloose. Or maybe creativity, like the color in Pleasantville. Or the symbolism might vary from one viewer to the next. Maybe you were a reader in an anti-intellectual family, a rationalist in a religious family, or even a religious seeker in a rationalist family. (In this season of The Americans, it's been fun watching the KGB-mole parents freak out as their daughter explores Christianity.) If you made it out the other side of adolescence, probably at some point you wondered whether the world could accept what you were finding inside yourself.

For Harry Chapin, the magic power of music might be locked inside an ordinary taxi driver:
Oh, I've got something inside me

To drive a princess blind.

There's a wild man wizard,

He's hiding in me, illuminating my mind.

Oh, I've got something inside me,

Not what my life's about.

'Cause I've been letting my outside tide me

Over 'til my time, runs out.

But to WBMW, a hidden magic power must be homosexuality. Personally, I agree with the analysis in Tom Lehrer's "Smut": "filth ... is in the mind of the beholder".
When correctly viewed,

Everything is lewd.

I could tell you things about Peter Pan,

And the Wizard of Oz -- there's a dirty old man.
[Defending the gay agenda since 1963.]

One of her commenters wonders what WBMW will make of The Lego Movie, which I have seen. It really is propaganda in favor of a society that can reconfigure itself rather than be Krazy-glued into a single "ideal" arrangement. But then, if you squint really hard, Legos themselves are propaganda for that.

And I hope WBMW never takes a hard look at the mythology underlying the X-Men. You see, sometime in adolescence, previously normal kids discover that they're "mutants" with special powers. Society is afraid of them and wants to kill them just for being what they are. So they stay hidden and band together secretly with other mutants.

How gay is that?




Whenever I'm tempted to complain about NYT conservative columnist Ross Douthat, I recall that he replaced Bill Kristol and count my blessings. Douthat's columns often imply some outright falsehood or rely on an outrageous leap of logic, but do seem to represent an intelligent person trying to make sense of the world.

For example, Sunday's "The Christian Penumbra" -- his two cents on "religious freedom". He makes a point that I first heard in Robert Putnam's American Grace: The benefits of religion come not from belief or even faith, but from practice and community. He goes on to blame the dysfunctionality of the Bible belt (high divorce rates, high teen pregnancy, high sexually transmitted diseases) on non-practicing believers. And then he completely loses me by arriving at some conclusion about Hobby-Lobby-style religious freedom.

Oh well, it's better that whatever Bill Kristol would have written.


ThinkProgress argues with the people who think Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series is ignoring creationism. He's not saying the word, but the things he's choosing to talk about are strongly influenced by the claims of creationists. I think this what Joseph Campbell meant by his term "invisible counterplayer".

and let's end with something amazing


If you've got the will to rock, it doesn't matter that you only have two cellos and it's the 18th century.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Drifting Towards Oligarchy

The risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism

-- Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

This week's featured post: "The Real Politics of Envy".

These last two weeks everybody has been talking about the missing airliner

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has become the very model of the news stories I try to avoid covering. It fits perfectly into the distraction/obsession/hype trap I outlined three years ago in "A Hard Week to Sift".
  • Most articles and TV segments on the story reveal nothing new. (Or at least nothing new that also happens to be true.)
  • Unless you know someone on the flight, the story has no relevance to your life.
  • Even if you do take an interest, there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing you learn about Flight 370 is going to change either your behavior or your worldview.

So 99% of the coverage is what The Guardian's Michael Wolff has labelled "anti-journalism". He explains: "Journalism exists to provide information." But anti-journalism promotes "obsessive interest in the unknowable." (The fate of Flight 370 may eventually become knowable, but right now it isn't.)

Last Monday the NYT quoted an anonymous CNN executive shamelessly crowing about Flight 370 as "a tremendous story that is completely in our wheelhouse." Hunter on DailyKos responded with this priceless piece of snark:
Little actual information to be conveyed? Check. New "facts" constantly being trotted forth, only to be retracted as false a few hours or days later? We got that. Rampant uninformed speculation, often by people with absolutely eff-all expertise in anything remotely resembling the actual topic at hand? Oh yeah. (Why Rep. Peter King in specific has needed to weigh in on multiple occasions on multiple networks in order to say that he knows exactly the same amount of jack-squat that any person off the street might, now that is a topic all its own, and ought to be seen as evidence of just how inexplicably invested both Peter King and the national media are in putting Peter King on the teevee as an authority on things. As opposed to, say, not doing that.)

If you entertain the possibility that Bill O'Reilly might actually be doing performance art rather than commentary, this is genius also: Network news is focusing on the Flight 370 story because they don't want to cover "important stories like the IRS and Benghazi." [links added]

Eugene Robinson got it right:
when we don’t know the answer, we should just say so — and then shut up.

So what should CNN be doing? It should limit itself to a chyron, which it could run below all the other stories it could cover with the airtime it was reclaiming: "Still nothing definite on Flight 370."

and Crimea


Occasionally the networks managed to devote a minute or two to the Russian takeover of Crimea, which (even if you're not Crimean or Russian or Ukrainian) ought to interest you because it might mark the start of a new Cold (or even hot) War.

Briefly: Crimea had its referendum on joining Russia. It won, though it's not clear whether it would have made any difference if it had lost, since "stay with Ukraine" was not on the ballot. That's probably why the Tatar minority (and probably a bunch of Ukrainians) boycotted the referendum, which consequently got 95% of the vote.

Russia followed up by seizing a Ukrainian naval base on the Black Sea. Ukraine has subsequently decided to abandon its military bases in Crimea, even though it officially holds that Crimea is still part of Ukraine.

It's always problematic to make Hitler comparisons, since I don't want to claim that death camps and genocide are on Putin's agenda. But Hillary Clinton was basically right: There is a resemblance to the Sudetenland crisis of 1938. Then, Hitler identified an ethnically German region of Czechoslovakia that bordered his Reich. He encouraged local leaders to protest against the Czech government and claimed they were being persecuted and needed his protection.

The claim that one nation is the global protector of an ethnic group, even members outside its borders, is inherently dangerous. And if you take on that role, it's one thing to provide a refuge (as Israel does for persecuted Jews), but quite another to claim sovereignty over a region because your compatriots live there.

As for what the United States or NATO can do, even Iraq-War-architect Paul Wolfowitz acknowledges that "we're not going to get Putin out of Crimea" and the point is to make the economic price high enough that he won't seize more Russian-majority territory in eastern Ukraine.

I keep looking at the Tatars, whose roots go back to the Mongol invasions, and who are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union because Stalin expelled them from Crimea. Isn't Putin creating the new Chechens? And isn't this a good time for the original Chechens to demand the kind of referendum the Crimeans just got?

and Paul Ryan


In the last Sift I read between the lines of Paul Ryan's report on federal poverty programs. Later that week, he made close reading unnecessary and went straight for racial dog whistles:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

In support of that view, he referenced the work of Charles Murray, who may not be quite the white supremacist some would claim he is, but certainly has that reputation. So if you happen to be a white supremacist who thinks poverty is all about lazy blacks who don't deserve any help, you listened to Ryan and said, "Hell yeah!" Meanwhile, he gets to deny that's what he intended. ("There was nothing whatsoever about race in my comments at all — it had nothing to do with race.") That's how dog whistles work.

Charles Blow responds:
By suggesting that laziness is more concentrated among the poor, inner city or not, we shift our moral obligation to deal forthrightly with poverty. When we insinuate that poverty is the outgrowth of stunted culture, that it is almost always invited and never inflicted, we avert the gaze from the structural features that help maintain and perpetuate poverty — discrimination, mass incarceration, low wages, educational inequities — while simultaneously degrading and dehumanizing those who find themselves trapped by it.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates isn't willing to give progressives a pass on this issue either.
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

I wish more people were connecting the dots on corruption


Now that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is raising money for him, Senator Lindsey Graham is taking an interest in banning internet gambling.

In other corruption news, the Keystone XL Pipeline would connect the Canadian oil sands to the world market. You know who two of the foremost owners of those sands are? The Koch brothers, who are spending near-limitless money to elect a Republican Senate majority that will support building the pipeline. But don't worry about their motives: Senator David Vitter assures us that the Kochs are "two of the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth". Money can't buy praise like that ... or maybe it just did.

and you also might be interested in ...


During my week off from the Sift, I gave a sermon-length answer to a critical comment on "The Distress of the Privileged".




I thought this was classy. When Westboro Baptist Church went on its first protest after the death of founder Fred Phelps, counter-protesters modeled the civilized behavior we'd like to see from the Phelps-ites.

Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, also stayed classy:
The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much. But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it. I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.

Religion is easy when you can say "My enemies are God's enemies, and God hates all the same people I do." But religion shouldn't be that easy.




In honor of the fourth anniversary of ObamaCare, Think Progress' Igor Volsky goes blow-by-blow through the full Republican effort to repeal, disrupt, or otherwise sabotage the law. And TPM notes that there's still no Republican replacement bill on the horizon. They float an occasional vague idea, or occasionally maybe even the framework of a proposal, but nothing they're willing to spell out, bring to the floor, and vote on.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is pushing a new ObamaCare horror story. Many similar stories have proved to be bogus in the past. Let's see what happens to this one.




Funny or Die presents a brief message from Comcast, in which it responds to your concerns about its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable: "From the people who answer our phones to the people who write our TV shows, we do not give a f**k. ... Hey America, go f**k yourselves."


Ebola is back. 59 people are dead in West Africa.




I haven't finished Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century yet. But Paul Krugman has.




No, I don't think creationists are going to get equal time on Cosmos. At least not until scientists get equal time on The 700 Club. Or maybe they already are getting equal time -- in the alternate universe where the evidence supports their views.

and let's close with something fun


Mitch McConnell's campaign released some wordless video of their candidate, apparently for the "independent" SuperPACs his campaign isn't supposed to be coordinating with. But now that it's out there, Jon Stewart has pointed out that anybody can add their own soundtrack. He's even given this new art form a name and a hashtag: #mcconnelling.

Stewart provided a few soundtracks to get the idea across. ("Behind Blue Eyes" is my favorite.) But it's gone a long way from there. This one's pretty good.

Or you could go for a compilation. I think "Wrecking Ball" is the best one there.

Monday, March 10, 2014

False Choices

The Left is making a big mistake here. What they're offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.

-- Paul Ryan at CPAC, 3-6-2014

No Sift March 17


I'll be spending the week working on the talk "Recovery From Privilege" that I'm giving Sunday at First Parish Church in Billerica, MA, and preparing to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.

In other Sift news, "What Should Racism Mean?" became the third Weekly Sift post to get more than 25,000 page views. (And started another run yesterday. My thanks to the unknown Facebook bellwether who got it started.) Largely because of the new readers that post attracted, the number of people who subscribe to the Sift via WordPress went over 1,000 for the first time.

The next set of articles will appear March 24.

This week everybody was talking about Ukraine


Russia appears set to annex Crimea, and may get away with it. On Sunday, Crimeans will vote on a referendum to join Russia. Crimea has an ethnic-Russian majority and was part of Russia until 1954. Russian and/or pro-Russian troops currently control the country, including Crimean television stations, and access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked. So the join-Russia side has a distinct advantage.

Ukraine says the referendum is illegal. Russia counters that the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovych (currently in Russia) and the election to replace him on May 25 are also illegal, so claims based on the Ukrainian Constitution are specious.

Some political observers are portraying this as some kind of masterstroke for Russian President Putin, but those who take a more economic view are skeptical: The Russian stock market has plunged, the ruble is down 10%, and the Russian central bank has had to raise interest rates to 7% (from and already-high 5.5%) to keep Russian currency from devaluing further. The Russian economy was not in great shape to begin with, so an interest-rate spike is likely to cause a serious recession. All that is prior to any economic sanctions that might come from the EU or the United States.

So one of the things being tested here is how much economic pain Putin is willing and able to impose on the Russian people. Maybe the surge of nationalistic pride in regaining Crimea balances that, or maybe it doesn't.


Another consequence of Crimea leaving Ukraine would be to take a bunch of pro-Russian voters out of the Ukrainian political system, thereby guaranteeing that the remainder of Ukraine will shift towards the European Union.




I've occasionally channel-scanned through the RT (Russia Today) network, and I think I've probably even linked to it sometime or other. Most days, it looks like just any other cable news network, and not the government-funded vehicle it is. But apparently RT has been laying it on a bit thick as the Ukrainian crisis developed, leading this American reporter to resign on the air.

You've got to think somebody in the production booth could have pulled the plug and didn't. I wonder how his or her career is going.




With the propaganda flying as thick as it is, everyone is looking for their own authentic sources on the ground. I got a comment last week from Fedor Manin, author of the Fourteen Flowers and a Manatee blog. He has translated a post "On the Brink of War" from the blog of a Russian-speaking Crimean woman, Svetlana Panina.
Please, everyone who loves Crimea, everyone who loves Russians in Crimea. Help me carry this thought through to every heart. The Russians in Crimea didn't ask Russian soldiers to come to our homes! No one attacked us! We were living quietly and well! We were waiting for our summer guests from Russia and Ukraine, and from other countries all over the world, after all, Crimea is a gem that belongs to the whole planet.

She takes a train (with what appear to be a bunch of Ukrainian women and children escaping Crimea) from Crimea to Kiev, and reports the wild rumors flying around each place about what is happening (or about to happen) in the other.

Someone from my church has a friend in Yalta, and forwarded an email he had gotten from her. She reports that Crimean Russians, especially the older generation, are eager to join Russia and believe that the new Ukrainian government contains a neo-Nazi element that wants "to exterminate all Russians living in Ukraine". If I believed extermination was a possibility, I'd see Putin as the Russians' protector and support the referendum too.

All this makes me wonder about the timing of the Crimean referendum: Maybe Putin needs it to happen before the panic has a chance to settle down.

and CPAC


One media mystery is why the annual Conservative Political Action Conference gets so much national coverage, while gatherings of liberal activists (like, say, Netroots Nation) don't. I suspect it's that far-right activists have much more influence in the Republican Party than far-left activists have among the Democrats, but Josh Marshall offers another reason:
In recent years, especially since Obama became President, CPAC's wild press popularity and attention has been driven by what we might call a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we'll be outraged. And everyone will be happy. (After all, crap like this doesn't happen by accident.) This has become even more the case as the contemporary Conservative Movement has become less a matter of ideology than a sort of performance art.



Rand Paul won the CPAC presidential straw poll, getting 31% to Ted Cruz' 11%. Paul's vote was up from the 25% he got last year. Marco Rubio's support collapsed from 23% last year to 6%. (Rubio made the mistake of trying to pass a law rather than just posture about ideology. His subsequent decision to oppose his own immigration bill didn't win back his CPAC fans.) Chris Christie's support was up to 8% (from 7% in 2013) because he's having such a good year.

To understand the significance of Paul's victory, I looked up the 2010 CPAC straw poll: Rand's Dad Ron Paul also got 31% (to Mitt Romney's 22%), and as we all know, went on to win the 2012 Republican nomination and become president.

I'm trying not to obsess about 2016 already, but I will say this: Rand Paul is not a threat. Put him on a debate stage and Ted Cruz will eat his lunch. Rand just isn't as smart as he thinks he is, or as his Dad was. He hasn't really thought through the implications of his libertarian beliefs. And that gets him sidetracked into arguments he can't win, like defending a restauranteur's right to run a segregated lunch counter.




Paul Ryan only managed 3% in the straw poll, but he was responsible for the video clip liberals most love to hate, which has got to count for something.

What [the Left is] offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. ... This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. ... She once met a young boy from a very poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn't want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the Left doesn't understand. ... People don't just want a life of comfort, they want a life of dignity.

Never mind that the story is mis-attributed. (Chris Hayes interviews the woman who really played the Eloise role.) Or that key elements have been fudged. (The government wasn't involved.) That's in the fine tradition of Ronald Reagan and John McCain. Expecting politicians to check their touching anecdotes is like expecting Bostonians to stop at red lights when there's no traffic.

Liberals around the country objected to an implication that may or may not have been there: that poor kids don't have parents who care about them.

A better objection is that this is the usual conservative sleight-of-hand: It makes the Best the enemy of the Good, as if the Best will appear by magic as soon as the Good is eliminated. Specifically, how is emptying stomachs going to fill souls?

If that imagined child doesn't already have a caring parent, how is taking away his lunch going to give him one? It's like when Newt Gingrich said "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Taking away someone's food stamps isn't going to get her a job. So yes, people want lives of dignity -- liberals understand that quite well. But we also understand that inflicting discomfort on them is not going to help them get it.

Ryan is also performing a second standard conservative sleight-of-hand: severing the moral connection between the people who pay taxes and the people who receive benefits. Free school lunches exist because Americans do care about poor kids. The government isn't some soulless black hole that sucks up taxes in one universe and regurgitates benefits in another. The government is a structure through which We the People manifest our desire to help each other.

So if Eloise actually had met such a boy, here's what she should have said: "You have this lunch because people do care about you. All over the country, people have pictured kids like you going without a lunch and decided they want to pay taxes so that you won't have to be hungry. I pay taxes, and let me tell you, this is exactly what I had in mind."

and you also might be interested in ...


Edwin Lyngar posted a touching article "I Lost My Dad to Fox News" on Salon.
My father sincerely believes that science is a political plot, Christians are America’s most persecuted minority and Barack Obama is a full-blown communist. He supports the use of force without question, as long as it’s aimed at foreigners. He thinks liberals are all stupid, ignorant fucks who hate America.

I don’t recall my father being so hostile when I was growing up. He was conservative, to be sure, but conventionally and thoughtfully so. He is a kind and generous man and a good father, but over the past five or 10 years, he’s become so conservative that I can’t even find a label for it.

What has changed? He consumes a daily diet of nothing except Fox News. ... I do not blame or condemn my father for his opinions. If you consumed a daily diet of right-wing fury, erroneously labeled “news,” you could very likely end up in the same place. ... To some people the idea of retirees yelling at the television all day may seem funny, but this isn’t a joke. We’re losing the nation’s grandparents, and it’s an American tragedy.

A less extreme version of the same thing happened to my parents in their 80s. They continued to identify as New Deal Democrats and knew Fox was slanted, but for some reason they watched anyway. CNN bored them, MSNBC wasn't part of basic cable, and they found hosts like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity reassuring and comfortable. I think even if MSNBC had been an option, Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki would have seemed like smart-alec kids to them, and I doubt they'd have gotten past their surface impressions of an intense black woman like Melissa Harris-Perry or an unrepentant lesbian like Rachel Maddow.

If you are old and white, Fox News may produce long-term anxiety, but it sneaks up on you. The immediate optics of MSNBC are far more challenging, and my parents watched cable news for companionship, not challenge.

Fox never changed my parents' philosophy, but little-by-little it shaped their perceptions. They wondered why the Democrats couldn't find any good leaders -- not realizing that everything they saw about Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Joe Biden was selected and edited to make them look silly and unappealing. They wondered why President Obama always emphasized the wrong issues and couldn't come up with any persuasive messages -- never able to compensate for the fact that they only saw Obama through the eyes of his enemies. The important issues -- the ACORN videos, the Tea Party protests, ObamaCare's death panels -- left Democrats with nothing much to say. And what made today's liberals so hostile to Christianity?




The New Hampshire's Republican-majority Senate finally accepted a plan to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. According to The Concord Monitor:
The bill goes next to the House Finance Committee on Monday. The Democratic majority there is supportive of the bill, as is Gov. Maggie Hassan

I'm sure our minimum-wage workers and our hospital administrators are breathing easier. If we get this done, and if the plan of Pennsylvania's Republican Gov. Tom Corbett passes, then Maine will be the only holdout in the Northeast. Campaign on that, Gov. LePage.




It will soon no longer be a felony for married couples to have oral or anal sex in Virginia.


The Daily Show's Aasiv Mandvi destroys the claim that "America has the best health care system in the world."




Not everyone who agrees with Ayn Rand's politics is a sociopath, but the underlying worldview is sociopathic.




For those of you waiting for Game of Thrones to get going again, here's where the Dothraki language came from.

and let's end with something funny

Jimmy Kimmel puts together the National Teachers' Day message a lot of teachers probably wish they could send the country.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Service Plan

As Christians, our most deeply held religious belief is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death. So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people. ... I fear that we've lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the right to refuse service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.

-- Rachel Held Evans
back in 2012, I recommended Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town

This week's featured post: "Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality"

This week everybody was talking about Arizona's S.B. 1062


Jan Brewer's veto message is here. Lots of religious-right types didn't like her veto one bit.

Two pieces by Christian writers are worth looking at. The first is the source of this week's quote: "Walking the Second Mile: Jesus, Discrimination, and Religious Freedom" on Rachel Held Evans' blog.

The second is "How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions" by United Church of Christ minister Emily C. Heath. None of the ten questions fits this situation exactly, but it's not hard to follow the template and make one up: "My religious liberty is threatened because A) the law allows people like me to be singled out and treated worse than the general public; B) the law doesn't allow people like me to single out others and treat them worse than the general public."

Rev. Heath explains:
If you answered "A" to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality -- not your superiority.

If you answered "B" to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

and Ukraine


I'll stick mainly to background; I don't think I can compete with CNN covering breaking news. Short version: After the leader Russia supported had to flee Kiev, Russian troops occupied Crimea, an ethnically Russian (and highly defensible) part of Ukraine. President Obama and the leaders of the EU are upset, but since nobody really wants to send troops, it's not clear what they can do.

The underlying situation is a lot like the Georgian crisis of 2008, which I explained in "Unstacking the Matroyshkas". Ancient empires have a fractal quality: There’s some group on top, which the empire’s various other groups feel oppressed by and want to be independent of. But if one of them succeeds in becoming independent, their territory will have its own minorities, who will see the group dominating the newly independent country as oppressors and want independence from them. And so on.

So now that Ukraine is free from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, the southeastern part of Ukraine has a sizable Russian minority. That's where Yanukovych's support came from when he was elected in 2010. The recent protests that toppled him were largely in northern, ethnically Ukrainian cities like Kiev. The NYT's "Ukraine in Maps" shows this really well.

Crimea is the Florida of the old Soviet Union, and is known for its Black Sea resorts. It's 58% Russian and only 24% Ukrainian with a 12% Tatar minority. (So a Russian-backed takeover is not necessarily unpopular.) The Ukrainian Constitution makes Crimea an "autonomous republic", but also says it is "an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine". Crimean history is largely independent of the rest of Ukraine, going back to the Crimean Khanate established by the Mongol invasions.

The fascinating backstory of Crimea concerns those Tatars. They're a Turko-Mongol group that joined up with Genghis Khan. (In the West they became known as Tartars, probably by association with the mythic Tartarus -- if you were on the other side, they seemed like warriors from Hell.) They dominated Crimea during the Khanate, and usually sided with the Ottomans against the Russians. The Khanate fell in the 1700s and Russians started moving in. Stalin exiled the Tatars to Uzbekistan in 1944, but they've been drifting back ever since. They're not too happy about the Russians coming back to power.

You know more Crimean history than you think. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Florence Nightingale. The Yalta Conference.

and a shrinking the Army


One result of the sequester was that the Pentagon shared in the across-the-board cuts. (That was supposed to make the sequester unacceptable to Republicans and bring them to the negotiating table. It failed.) So Secretary Hagel has put forward a plan to shrink the Army from 522,000 to less than 450,000.

However, by any reasonable assessment, the United States is not neglecting defense.

and the bankruptcy of an institution you've never heard of before


I've had a hard time figuring out what to make of the failure of the world's largest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, because I had never figured out what to make of bitcoin to begin with. Quartz explains how it works here, but the more important issue is Brad DeLong's question: "Placing a floor on the value of bitcoins is… what, exactly?"

Bitcoin enthusiasts will tell you that every currency has that problem, and they're right. After all, what if you took your dollars to the mall and discovered that all the merchants felt they had enough dollars and didn't want any more of them? How exactly would you convince them that your engraved portraits of Alexander Hamilton are actually worth more than the pair of jeans you want? But DeLong explains how other currencies address the issue:
Underpinning the value of gold is that if all else fails you can use it to make pretty things. Underpinning the value of the dollar is a combination of (a) the fact that you can use them to pay your taxes to the U.S. government, and (b) that the Federal Reserve is a potential dollar sink and has promised to buy them back and extinguish them if their real value starts to sink at (much) more than 2%/year

In jails, POW camps, and (apparently) China cigarettes can become a currency. Even if you don't smoke, somebody will want to smoke them, and that puts a floor on their value. (For moral reasons, luxury commodities make the best currencies, because they're more hoardable. You might be willing to hoard your cigarettes in the face of smokers in nicotine withdrawal, but hoarding your water while people are dying of thirst is more problematic.)

The advantage bitcoin has over gold or cigarettes or government currencies is that (if all the associated technology works, which seems to have been an issue in Mt. Gox' bankruptcy; The Verge claims "more than 1 out of every 20 bitcoins in the world vanished without a trace") bitcoins are easy to transfer across borders, hard to steal, and your ownership of them is easy to hide. So it's a convenient currency for transactions you want to keep secret: drug deals, money laundering, tax evasion, etc. (You can do any kind of transaction you want in bitcoin, including boring legal ones, but covert transactions are where it has unique value.)

Again, compare to the dollar. What you're betting on when you hold dollars is that (if all else fails) there's a floor of value under the dollar because somebody is going to want dollars so that they can pay taxes to the U. S. government. Similarly, what you're ultimately betting on when you hold bitcoins is that somebody is going to want bitcoins to buy drugs, launder money, and avoid taxes.

The difference is that the dollar has a monopoly on the American-taxes market, while bitcoin is merely one possible private digital currency. If something like the Mt. Gox bankruptcy causes the shadow economy to favor some competitor, then the floor under bitcoin vanishes.

and you may have heard that the Republicans have a tax plan


Or at least one Republican does. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have already rejected their own party's plan. As with health care, Republicans would rather campaign on vague feel-good notions than make a serious attempt to govern the country.

Reasonable people would not have a hard time working out a tax compromise: Make a list of the most outrageous tax breaks (carried interest would be at the top of my list), then spend half the new revenue to on infrastructure and use the other half to cut tax rates.

and you also might be interested in ...


Back on January 13 when everybody was talking about the polar vortex and the airwaves were full of deniers explaining why the cold weather disproved global warming, I wrote this:
Even when 2014 was just a few days old and wind chills were below zero for most of the country, there was a bet you could make that was almost a sure thing. No matter how it started, by its end 2014 will be yet another warm year. And by warm I mean: The global average temperature will wind up well above the 50-year average and the 20-year average.

Well, I didn't have to wait for the end of the year. According to the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
The combined global land and ocean average temperature during January 2014 was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average. This was the warmest January since 2007 and the fourth highest since records began in 1880. This marks the ninth consecutive month (since May 2013) with a global monthly temperature among the 10 highest for its respective month.
Slate's Eric Holthaus elaborates: January was the 347th month in a row -- every month since February, 1985 -- that the global average temperature has been above the 20th-century average.




If you're ready to give up on this planet, NASA just found 715 new ones, including a few that are more-or-less Earth-sized and might have reasonable gravity. Set a course, Mr. Sulu.




You can add Texas to the list of states whose same-sex marriage ban has been found to be unconstitutional. Judge Garcia's ruling is almost a carbon copy of all the other post-Windsor rulings: The state does have an interest in creating a favorable setting in which to raise children, but banning same-sex marriage has no rational relationship to that goal. After a long string of losses around the country, the religious right needs to either give up or find a new rationale for its position.

and let's close with something from the Daily Show


When Fox's Judge Napolitano spewed a bunch of Confederate revisionist history, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore set him straight in a hilarious way.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Worth and Respectability

It may be well and proper, that a man of worth, honesty, industry, and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of [negro] blood should be confined to the inferior caste.

-- Justice William Harper of the South Carolina Supreme Court
State v. Cantey (1835)

This week's featured post is "Are You Sure You're White?", a review of Daniel Sharfstein's The Invisible Line: a secret history of race in America.

This week everybody was talking about the Ukraine


As I've said before, a one-man blog is not the ideal operation for covering breaking news, so I mostly don't try. But the wall of fire during the Kiev protests was impossible to ignore.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmJIV5qfifU]

And when Olympic skier Bogdana Matsotska left Sochi intending to join the protests, she raised even more attention.

By Saturday, President Viktor Yanukovych had been voted out of office and left the capital. New elections are planned for May. For the moment it looks like the good guys have won, but as we saw with the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, it's hard to turn street protests into a functioning democracy. Best of luck to the Ukrainians.

ThinkProgress provides background on what this was all about.




BuzzFeed reports that the Yanukovych government had been trying to buy favorable coverage from right-wing blogs. This fits the pattern I discussed in "Keeping the Con in Conservatism".

For the record, I received no money to mention Ukraine in this post.

and (oddly) not Venezuela


A new reader pinged me with his hope that I'll explain what's going on in Venezuela, which left me too embarrassed to say "Is something going on in Venezuela?" It weird how little coverage this is getting.

As in Kiev, there are massive street protests in Caracas. Here's some background from BuzzFeed. And the latest from Reuters.

The current president, Nicolás Maduro, has been in office ten months after succeeding the late Hugo Chavez.

and Ted Nugent


I try to stay away from the outrage-of-the-week, but this week I failed. The front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor in Texas campaigned with Ted Nugent, who recently called President Obama a "subhuman mongrel", a phrase that had more zing in the original German. (Subhuman is untermenschen and mongrel is mischling.)

Nugent is a clown who doesn't deserve my attention or yours, but a state attorney general and potential governor of Texas is another matter. Wolf Blitzer (who is Jewish and knows how the phrase translates to German) reacted with as much reserve as he could muster:
Shockingly, Abbott's campaign brushed aside the criticism, saying they value Nugent's commitment to the second amendment issuing a statement, "Ted Nugent is a forceful advocate for individual liberty and constitutional rights, especially the second amendment rights cherished by Texans. While he may sometimes say things or use language that Greg Abbott would not endorse or agree with, we appreciate the support of everyone who supports protecting our constitution."

The incident raised the question of whether there is any criticism of Obama that conservatives will denounce, or any right-wing personality who is too hateful to associate with. Fortunately, Rand Paul and John McCain decided the line had been crossed. But it was sad to watch Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and other Republicans dance around a clear condemnation.

If anybody wants to do a liberals-do-it-too comment, start with who the Ted Nugent equivalent is and what they said that equals "subhuman mongrel". Then find me a Democrat as highly placed as Greg Abbott who campaigned with them.

and a raft of discrimination-against-gays-is-OK bills


A bunch of states are passing laws to meet the "religious freedom" needs of people whose God demands that they treat gays badly. The most extreme is Arizona, where Governor Brewer is weighing whether or not to sign the bill. (The business community is against it, perhaps fearing another boycott similar to what happened after Arizona passed its anti-immigrant law.) But similar bills are being debated in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The text is here. It's short and sweeping, and does not directly mention gays at all. The key section is:
A person that asserts a violation of this section must establish all of the following:

1. That the person's action or refusal to act is motivated by a religious belief.

2. That the person's religious belief is sincerely held.

3. That the state action substantially burdens the exercise of the person's religious belief.

"State action" has been expanded to mean a court's enforcement a civil rights claim. Proponents are trying to fix what they see as the injustice of a New Mexico case, in which a photographer was sued and lost after refusing to deal with a gay couple.

Reading the Arizona law, I fail to see why it wouldn't apply to a restaurant owner who wanted to turn away black people, if his white supremacism were religiously based. (There are certainly churches you can join if you want to claim that right.) And even if I'm missing some legal distinction, I don't see the moral distinction. The only justification I can see for separating the anti-gay bigot from the anti-black bigot is to argue that religious white supremacism is wrong, but religious rejection of homosexuality isn't. And I don't think the government should be empowered to decide whose religion is true.

In the larger view, I've stated my opinion before: I think this is all passive aggression.No one sincerely believes that his or her immortal soul is imperiled by taking pictures of gay couples or putting two grooms on the top of a wedding cake. It's an exaggerated sensitivity invented to control the actions of others and justify acts of bigotry.

and looked back at the stimulus


It's been five years since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law, so it was time to restart the argument about what it accomplished.

The point hardly anybody appreciates is that when you combine state and federal spending, there was no stimulus. Federal spending just replaced state cutbacks. The graph below shows the number of employees at all levels of government. (The blip in 2010 is temporary workers for the census. You can find a similar blip during the previous census in 2000.)


Overall, federal employment has been down slightly during the Obama years. State and local employment dropped drastically when the recession hit, and would have fallen much further if not for money in the stimulus that went to the states. People ask: "Where are the jobs from the stimulus?" A lot of them are the teachers, police, firefighters, and nurses who didn't get laid off.

So the main thing the stimulus did was prevent a massive deflationary cut in government, like what happened so disastrously in Europe.

but I'm still thinking about racism


"What Should 'Racism' Mean?" became the fifth post in Weekly Sift history to go over 10,000 page views. Last I checked, it had over 19,000, which made it the fourth-most-popular Sift post ever.

It's been drawing a number of comments, including objections, which I've been trying to answer as best I can.

Here's the thing that has struck me in the negative comments. It would be entirely possible to look at the examples I gave (of President Obama and his family being denounced for things previous presidents have done without incident) and say: "Yeah, there is a small group of racially motivated folks who claim to be conservatives so that they can attack the black president, but that’s not really who we are. Real conservatives have plenty of legitimate objections to Obama and don’t have to stoop to this stuff."

Instead, many commenters identify with anyone criticizing Obama for whatever reason and circle the wagons around them. As a result, it becomes easier to paint all conservatives as racists, which is not at all what I claimed.

This week I continued to focus on race in Are You Sure You're White?, a review of Daniel Sharfstein's The Invisible Line. I also ran across this great video illustrating the implicit bias I talked about last week.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge7i60GuNRg]

In a hidden-camera experiment, three young people try to steal a bicycle in a well-traveled public park. The young white man draws a few questions but no one makes a serious effort to stop him or call the police. The young black man draws a crowd and the police are called. But most hilarious is what happens to the young white woman: Men stop to help her. That poor girl, she'll never saw through that chain on her own.

Here's a similar hidden-camera test where black and white men try to steal a car in broad daylight.

and you also might be interested in ...


This 99-year-old Bulgarian spends every day on the street begging, but not for himself.




I love Rachel Maddow, but I have to agree with Bill Maher in this conversation when Rachel was a guest on his show: MSNBC is over-covering the Chris Christie scandal. Like Bill, I think BridgeGate is a legitimate scandal and I want to get to the bottom of it, but there's not a whole segment (or more) worth of new developments every night.

I regularly tune in to Rachel's show or Chris Hayes' or Steve Kornacki's , but these days I often think "Jesus, not this again." Partly it's the generic cable-news tendency to over-hype stories and try to get us hooked on every new detail. And I'm willing to be convinced that Rachel is accurate when she says that she covered Democratic governor Rob Blagojevich's scandal just as intensely. But I found Blago's villainy more amusing, and even so, I remember getting sick of that story too.

If you are similarly ignoring MSNBC and/or Bridgegate these days, I'll let you know when something important happens.




Salon's Brian Beutler blows up another ObamaCare horror story, and then suggests the obvious question:
I know the right is heavily invested not just in ignoring Obamacare success stories, but in cultivating the very horror stories they then use to attack the law. This, at least, doesn’t appear to be a case of the latter. I’m perfectly willing to believe that the Affordable Care Act has really left some people in categorically horrible situations. Given the numbers involved, I’d be pretty surprised if such people didn’t exist. But at some point it’s worth asking whether the apparent difficulty conservatives have finding them suggests that maybe the law isn’t wreaking all the devastation they want you to believe it is.



Wonder why other countries have faster, cheaper internet? Big cable companies like the proposed Comcast/Time-Warner monolith, and an FCC that caters to them.




Michael Sam won't be the first openly gay player in a major American professional sport after all. The Brooklyn Nets picked up Jason Collins' contract, and he played briefly Sunday. ESPN New York reports how strangely normal it all was.
Sure there was applause, and a few folks who stood up to recognize the magnitude of the moment, but if you didn't know what was happening, you really would've had no idea something historic had just happened.

Economist Jared Bernstein challenges the idea that jobs are going unfilled because Americans aren't trained for them.
When you hear employers complaining about how they can’t find the skilled workers they need, remember to plug in the unstated second part of the sentence, “…at the wage I’m willing to pay.”

Atlantic's Garrett Epps points out that the Hobby Lobby case is open-and-shut if the Supreme Court follows its own precedents:
If so, Hobby Lobby and the other challengers don’t even get out of the starting gate. The Burger, Rehnquist, and Roberts Courts have all been clear: These plaintiffs have not suffered any injury worthy of redress under the Constitution.

However, that's not how this Court's conservative majority behaves. Witness the ObamaCare decision of 2012. In prior cases, the Commerce Clause clearly allowed such laws; constitutionality was not even seriously discussed when the law was being passed. But magically, a new legal theory appeared just in time to disallow the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause, and five Supreme Court justices signed on to that brand new interpretation. Chief Justice Roberts had to find a different justification to avoid invalidating the law completely.

Maybe the same thing will happen here. Law isn't supposed to be suspenseful like this.

and let's end with something fun


I never knew NBC's Brian Williams did a cover of "Rapper's Delight". (Compare to the original.)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Déjà vu

If I had ever been here before
I would probably know just what to do.
Don't you?

-- David Crosby, "Déjà vu" (1970)

This week's featured posts are "Sam We Am" and "What Should 'Racism' Mean?"

This week everybody was talking about Michael Sam and the NFL


I cover this in detail in "Sam We Am". It's part of this week's déjà vu theme: The arguments we're hearing against Sam joining the NFL are the same ones that get trotted out -- and usually defeated -- whenever some new group wants to be included somewhere. And they're almost exactly the ones that the public just rejected in 2011 when Don't Ask Don't Tell was being repealed. As a result, public discussions that used to take months to play out are happening in days.

Friday we got a better view of what Sam might be walking into with the release of the independent report the NFL commissioned on the locker-room culture of the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins bullying story broke in November, when Jonathan Martin left the team and Richie Incognito was suspended.
After a thorough examination of the facts, we conclude that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman, whom we refer to as Player A for confidentiality reasons, and a member of the training staff, whom we refer to as the Assistant Trainer. We find that the Assistant Trainer repeatedly was targeted with racial slurs and other racially derogatory language. Player A frequently was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching. Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.

and more advances for same-sex marriage


In another example of déjà vu, you can add Virginia to the list of states (Utah, Oklahoma, ...) where federal judges have thrown out the state constitution's same-sex-marriage ban after last summer's Windsor decision. And Kentucky now has to recognize marriages performed in other states.

Like the debate over Michael Sam, these cases have a same-old-same-old quality. No matter how many times judges shoot down their arguments, traditional-marriage-only advocates offer nothing new. In her Virginia decision, Judge Allen repeated what all the other judges have been saying:
The legitimate purposes proffered by the Proponents for the challenged laws -- to promote conformity to the traditions and heritage of a majority of Virginia's citizens, to perpetuate a generally-recognized deference to the state's will pertaining to domestic relations laws, and, finally, to endorse "responsible procreation" -- share no rational link with Virginia Marriage Laws being challenged.

These arguments have become batting-practice pitches, not serious attempts to strike the same-sex couples out. The obvious implication is that the Religious Right's quiver is empty, and that (while there's still considerable mopping up to do) the national debate is over, at least as far as the law goes.

and -- surprise! -- a clean debt ceiling extension

President Obama signed it Saturday. The Tea Party can't hold the world economy hostage again until March 15, 2015.

John Boehner allowed this vote in the House (and was one of only 28 Republicans to vote yes) and Mitch McConnell voted to kill Ted Cruz' filibuster. You've got to figure they looked at the political fallout of the October crisis and said, "We're not doing that again."

It probably also means that Mitch McConnell is more afraid of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes than of his Tea Party challenger in the Republican primary. Still, outside-group ads like this one from the Senate Conservatives Fund can't be doing McConnell any good.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukyCjMv8iqc]

There's a rude justice to lines like: "Mitch McConnell is trying to bully conservatives just like the IRS is." The GOP leadership helped create this fantasy world. Now they have to live in it.

and the Republican Civil War starting to get real


The NYT reported:
“I’ve been told by a number of donors to our ‘super PAC’ that they’ve received calls from senior Republican senators,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, which is supporting challengers to Republican incumbents across the country. The message from these donors was blunt: “I can’t give to you because I’ve been told I won’t have access to Republican leadership,” Mr. Kibbe said. “So they’re playing hardball.”

Interfering with the donor base really is hardball. TPM commented: "It's hard to overstate the animosity that House GOP leaders feel for outside tea party groups these days."

and the Michael Dunn verdict

Guilty, but not of murder. It's hard not to see this as another racial statement by a Florida jury. If a black adult had sprayed bullets around a car of white boys, I find it hard to imagine a jury taking his I-thought-I-saw-a-gun defense seriously.

Sunday on MSNBC's "Disrupt with Karen Finney", Faith Jenkins reacted like this:
Every racial stereotype you could possibly advance about a young black teen, Dunn used it: thug, gangster, rap music. ... We see from the Zimmerman trial and now with this trial, some sort of perfect defense emerging when you kill a young black kid. All you have to do is say, "I was in fear for my life." "They were reaching for my gun." or "They had a gun." ... and then "They said they were going to kill me." ... That seems to be the perfect defense now.

and Comcast's bid to take over Time Warner Cable


The deal valued at $45 billion says a lot about the way antitrust law has been interpreted since the Reagan administration. Comcast argues that the two cable companies don't compete in many markets (and it's willing to spin off the TWC franchises in those areas), so consumers shouldn't see any difference.

But the full impact of the merger hits in two ways: It limits the number of companies who might come up with a new model entirely; but more important, it gives the new Comcast an even larger bulk it can throw between producers and consumers. I talked about this phenomenon in 2012 in "Monopoly's Role in Inequality". In that piece I argued for transparent markets that would make common carriers out of middlemen like the cable companies. Instead, we have opaque markets, where giant media conglomerates duke it out with giant distribution networks.
In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain.

At the time, I used a skuffle between Viacom and DirectTV to illustrate.
Maybe you couldn’t watch Jon Stewart for a week, but the problem had nothing to do with either you or Jon Stewart. He wasn’t asking for a raise; you weren’t balking at the price of watching the Daily Show. But both you and Jon were irrelevant when two giant middlemen had a power struggle. ... These middlemen outweigh both you and Jon Stewart. If Jon doesn’t work for one of the six big media companies, he can’t reach a major audience. If you don’t deal with either DirectTV or a cable monopoly, your TV choices shrink considerably.

That's the threat. Not that you'll have fewer companies to deal with in your town, but that the industry will continue to re-configure for the benefit of middlemen rather than producers or consumers.

I hope The Week and Quartz are right when they predict the merger won't go through.

and you also might be interested in ...




Robert Draper's profile of Wendy Davis in the NYT Magazine puts her in a good light, but its title -- "Can Wendy Davis Have it All?" -- exemplifies the gender double-standard he criticizes. Nobody ever asks whether a male candidate can "have it all".


The WSJ's Valentine's Day advice to women comes from Susan Patton.
Think about it: If you spend the first 10 years out of college focused entirely on building your career, when you finally get around to looking for a husband you'll be in your 30s, competing with women in their 20s. That's not a competition in which you're likely to fare well.

I think your first mistake was looking for relationship advice in The Wall Street Journal.




I know you're all just dying to know what connection religion might have to porn addiction, so here it is:
There was no connection between the religious devotion of the participants and how much porn they actually viewed, the studies showed. However, stronger religious faith was linked with more negative moral attitudes about pornography, which in turn was associated with greater perceived addiction.



Three Republican senators have outlined a plan to replace ObamaCare -- years after Republicans floated the "repeal and replace" slogan. We'll see if the GOP leadership actually gets behind the plan, or if it's just a we-have-a-plan-too puff of smoke.

The WaPo suggests several reasons the plan would be worse than ObamaCare, but in some sense that misses the point. ObamaCare, after all, is based on the Republican alternative to HillaryCare in the 1990s. That Republican "plan" evaporated as soon as HillaryCare was off the table, and when Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House during the Bush administration, they did not pursue it. When Obama gave them a serious opportunity to implement the ideas they had said they supported, they denounced it as "socialism" and claimed it was unconstitutional.

Voters need to ask themselves whether the same thing would happen here. I think it would: The day Republicans successfully repeal ObamaCare, their "alternative" will be history ... until a future Democratic president revives it in 2030 and it becomes socialism too.


Republicans in the Missouri legislature have a new plan for pushing schools to "teach the controversy" about evolution.




I keep thinking that someday, as the 1% accumulate more and more power, workers are going to rediscover unions. Well, it didn't happen this week in Chattanooga: The UAW failed to organize the VW plant, in spite of VW's neutrality in the matter.

You know who wasn't neutral? Tennessee's Republican Senator Bob Corker, who claimed that unionization would send production of a new VW SUV to Mexico -- even though VW management had claimed otherwise. Also Republican State Senator Bo Watson, who threatened a loss of state incentives if the plant went union.

Whether those threats swayed the election or not, it hard to argue with Business Week: "If the UAW couldn't win this one, what could they win?"