Monday, March 23, 2015

Survival and Democracy

I have not yet heard ... a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.

-- President Barack Obama

This week everybody was talking about Netanyahu's re-election


What that means is the subject of this week's featured post "What Just Happened?". My main take-away from the election is that the problem in Israel isn't Netanyahu, it's the electorate.

One of the things I don't discuss in that article is the early exit polls, which predicted a much closer election. Whenever that happens, suspicious people start charging fraud. In this case, though, it looks like late-and-early voters just voted differently than mid-day voters.



Now, a surge just before polls close is sometimes evidence of a different kind of fraud, but I haven't seen any supporting evidence for that. In the U.S., you'd be talking about the difference between people who have day jobs and the rest of us. But in Israel, Election Day is a national holiday, so that's not it.

I wouldn't jump to conclusions here. If something is actually wrong, Israelis will probably figure it out for themselves.

and debates about the budget


It will be interesting to see whether Republicans in Congress can agree with themselves on next year's budget; then we can worry about whether Democrats will filibuster or Obama will veto.

The basic political problem of the budget is that Americans grossly overestimate how much the government spends on things they don't like. So cutting government spending sounds good in the abstract, but the vast majority of federal spending goes for stuff that is widely popular, like defense, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and highway construction. A lot of the rest is spent on stuff that is useful and necessary: air traffic control, disaster relief, disease control, food safety, and so on. You may not think about it very often, but as soon as somebody dies of Ebola or a batch of tainted food hits the market, everybody wonders why the government doesn't have this under control already.

What's left is mostly spent on poor kids and poor sick people. When it's made clear what a spending cut will do, in terms of kids going hungry and sick people dying, cutting there isn't all that popular either.

So if you want to make major cuts, the best way to do it is to hide what you're cutting. The two main tricks for doing this are the block grant and the magic asterisk. The proposed Republican budget (which achieves balance by 2025) has both.

The magic asterisk is an unspecified $1.1 trillion cut over ten years in "Other Mandatory" spending. The WaPo's Wonkblog explains:
Other than health care and Social Security, mandatory spending includes a range of programs such as food stamps, disability payments for veterans, the earned income tax credit, and Pell grants for college students. The budget document did not specify which would be cut.

So if you're a disabled veteran wondering if this means you're going to be cut off -- or anybody else who might be affected -- your Republican congressman can assure you: "No, we meant other Other Mandatory spending." He can say that to everybody.

The problem with magic-asterisk budgeting is that when it comes time to pass an appropriations bill, the Republicans will discover they can't: They never really agreed on specific spending cuts, they just agreed on the abstract idea of spending cuts.

Block grants just push the sleight-of-hand down to the states. Ezra Klein explains:
A block grant takes money the federal government is already spending on a program and gives it to the states to administer — usually with fewer rules and conditions. That's it. The hope is that states will use the money more efficiently. But block grants can cost more, cost the same, or cost less than the funding mechanisms they replace. Block grants changehowmoney is spent, not necessarily how much money is spent.

... There's nothing magic about block grants that makes Medicaid cost $700 billion less; it just sounds better to say you're going to save money by block-granting Medicaid and food stamps then by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and food stamps.

The reason these kinds of tricks are necessary is that the federal budget is generally money well spent. If there were trillions budgeted for bridges to nowhere, Republicans wouldn't have to hide what they're cutting.

and I finally got around to paying attention to Hillary's emails


I've had trouble getting interested in this story, because I know lots of people in Clinton's generation who think email is magic. They use their mail app and something happens; they can't be bothered with what it is. Colin Powell also used a private email account to do business as Secretary of State, because, well, who knows why? He didn't think his email was broken when he became Secretary, so he didn't fix it.

Nobody really cares about government email archives unless some other story makes them care. If you're a Benghazi conspiracy theorist, for example, the fact that there might be a hidden trove of conspiratorial Clinton emails somewhere is a big deal; it keeps your fantasies alive. But none of those people were going to vote for Clinton anyway.

Another reason people might care is if Hillary were running as some squeaky-clean good-government reformer. Then the idea that she might have cut a corner somewhere would spoil the image she's trying to project. But that image was never going to work anyway, and Clinton surely knew that already.

So there's the possibility that the email story might feed into some other story later, and that people might care about it then. But until then, it's no big deal.

What the story does point out, though, is the risk of Democrats putting all their eggs in the Clinton basket so early in the process. If tomorrow Jeb Bush were caught in a tryst with an underage boy, Republicans would shake their heads sadly and move on to the next candidate. But if some scandal or unexpected medical problem put Hillary out of the race, Democrats would be scrambling.

and you also might be interested in ...

Alternet points out one thing that's wrong with our national discussion of education policy: Often nobody in the room is an actual educator. No teachers, no principals, no education researchers, no professors of education -- just "individuals from influential right-wing think tanks, with little to no scholarly work or graduate-level degree work in education."

That's not just on TV, it's in fairly highbrow publications like The Economist. So that's something to keep in mind the next time you watch or read a piece about how our education system needs to be completely re-organized: Is there any reason to believe that these people know what they're talking about? Are the people presented as "experts" any more knowledgeable than someone you might meet at a bar?




While we're on the subject, ThinkProgress observes that "Every Claim In This Ted Cruz Statement Is Completely False". The statement is about the Common Core education standards, which Cruz says he will "repeal every word" of.

When someone asked his office what that could possibly mean, since Common Core is not a law and so can't be "repealed", a Cruz spokesperson said:
Common Core is a federally created curriculum that the state's 'Race to the Top' grants are tied to," offered Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz. "So if the state does not adopt the standards, it gives up the grant money. But since the federal government created this mess, there should be a way to undo it.

And that's the statement that is completely false. CC is not federally created, it's not a curriculum, Race to the Top didn't tie grants to it, and since the grants are almost all spent already anyway, there can't be any penalty for a state to un-adopt the standards if it wants to.

But if none of the claims are true, they're all "truthy" to Cruz's right-wing target audience. So I'm sure he'll keep repeating them.




Still on education: Remember Dave Brat, the Tea Party insurgent who upset Eric Cantor in a primary? He's in Congress now, and he says education funding isn't necessary, because "Socrates trained Plato on a rock."

Aside from just being false -- Plato was a aristocrat, and had a lot of expensive teachers before Socrates -- Brat's remark is evidence of a serious problem in his thinking: Are we just trying to train a handful of aristocratic geniuses, or do we want to have an educated society? Or does he think we could hire a Socrates for every child in America? If we could, maybe we could teach them on rocks.




Proof the NFL concussion problem is considered serious: 24-year-old Chris Borland, who was a well-regarded rookie linebacker for the 49ers last season, announced his retirement. He's had only one concussion, described as "minor", but: "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

He's worked most of his young life to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL, and now he's in a position to make millions. But it's not worth the risk.

and let's close with a moment of Zen

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dangerous Things

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

-- Terry Pratchett


This week's featured post is "The Other Half of American History", in which I review Edward Baptist's amazing recent book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

This week everybody was talking about a letter to Iran



Forty-seven Republican senators signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran, advising them on American governance, so that they won't be fooled into making a peace agreement with our wily President Obama. Exactly why they felt it necessary to advise Iran is not clear. Maybe they're angling for contracts with the Iranians after they retire from the Senate and achieve their dream of becoming high-rolling lobbyists.

OK, that was snarky of me. It was obvious why they wrote: They want the Iranians to walk away from the proposed deal -- the end of negotiations would be "a feature, not a bug" according to the letter's author -- so that we can have another Middle Eastern war, this time with a country three times the size of Iraq and much more spirited. It'll be great: The Iranian people will greet us as liberators, just like the Iraqis did.

Still too snarky. Conservative WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, while recognizing that the letter had "all the gravity and deliberation of a blog posting" and "raises questions about the Republican majority’s capacity to govern", tried to put the best face on the 47's motives and goals: Yes, they want the current negotiations to fail. But
The alternative to a bad nuclear deal is not war; it is strong sanctions and covert actions to limit Iranian capacities until the regime falls (as it came close to doing in 2009) or demonstrates behavior change in a variety of areas.

A more realistic assessment -- illustrated by the history of our failure to keep North Korea from getting the bomb -- comes from Foreign Policy's Jeffrey Lewis: The "better deal" in which all of Iran's centrifuge's go silent
is a fantasy, a unicorn, the futile pursuit of which ends with a half-assed airstrike against Iran, a region in flames, and eventually an Iranian nuclear weapon. ... A Republican administration, if given a chance, would negotiate exactly the same agreement that this administration is negotiating, with all its flaws and shortcomings. ... The outlines of any deal with Iran are largely determined by the relative power of the parties — how advanced Iran’s nuclear programs are, what U.S. military options look like, the vitality of the sanctions regime, etc. — not the personal qualities of the presidents we elect. You can believe that George W. Bush’s flinty gaze would have stared down Hassan Rouhani or that Ali Khamenei will understand that Barack Obama is a transformational figure of historic importance. You can believe those things, but you’d be an idiot.

The idea that the Iranian government might fall soon, or that it came close to falling in 2009, is highly speculative -- especially when you put it together with American or Israeli attacks, covert or otherwise. Given the Iranian history of British colonialism and American interference, any direct foreign intervention will cause the Iranian people to rally around their government, the same way Americans rallied around President George W. I-Lost-the-Popular-Vote Bush after 9-11.


The Nation's William Greider asks the obvious question you seldom hear: What about Israel's nukes? Israel has never admitted having the bomb, but it is widely believed to have hundreds of nuclear warheads. Nobody knows for sure, because Israel submits to no international inspections.
I asked another friend (a well-informed journalist sympathetic to the Palestinian cause) why reporters don’t talk about the Israeli bomb. “Groupthink,” he said. “It’s almost as though Israel gets a bye from the media.”

The Iranians, he added, have raised the issue of the Israeli bomb many times in the past, but their complaints were generally ignored in the Western press.

The Iranian people may not like the sanctions Iran's nuclear program has led to, but the premise of the sanctions -- that Iran achieving parity with Israel is unthinkable -- has to rub them the wrong way. If the Iranian government is seen standing up for the principle that Iran is a nation equal to any other nation, that's got to raise its popularity, not invite a revolution.




There's been much online discussion about whether the senators' letter violates the Logan Act of 1799, which bans Americans from undermining government policy through "correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof".

As satisfying as it may be to yell "Treason!" or imagine Mitch McConnell doing a perp walk, HuffPost's Monica Bauer describes Logan Act talk as "click bait for liberals" rather than a serious matter, and MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell rejects the Act as "unenforceable because it is obviously unconstitutional and absurd on its face".

I have to agree. The Adams administration had a penchant for restrictions on its citizens' freedom of speech. The Logan Act is of a piece with the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Obama is right not to try to enforce it.




But even if it's not treason or otherwise illegal, the letter is unpatriotic. The signers hate Obama more than they love America.

There is an underlying separation-of-powers issue about whether this agreement ought to be a treaty and require ratification by the Senate, rather than an executive agreement that does not. But it isn't the constitutional crisis Republicans like to claim. Presidents of both parties sign executive agreements. They aren't enforceable by the courts, as a treaty would be under Article VI of the Constitution. But presidents are highly motivated to keep their predecessors' agreements to maintain the credibility of their own agreements.

By impugning executive agreements in general, Republicans continue down the path towards making the United States ungovernable that I talked about two weeks ago.

The Yalta agreement on the re-organization of Europe after World War II is an example of a far-reaching commitment that was made without Senate ratification. Watching FDR balance the constitutional issues in his post-Yalta message to Congress is instructive: He affirms that the U.N. charter, whose general outlines the Yalta agreement affects, will have to be ratified by the Senate. But other aspects of Yalta are not submitted for ratification.

and reactions in Ferguson


It's been fascinating to watch Ferguson react to the Justice Department's scathing assessment of its police and courts (which I described last week). Both the city manager and the police chief have resigned, but the mayor is determined to hang on. He isn't even convinced the city has a serious problem:
The report stated there was probable cause to believe the police and court routinely violate people’s civil rights. But, Knowles said, “that’s not proof.” He added that “there is probably another side to all of these stories.”

But we don't know that side yet because it's so hard for white mayors and policemen to get their stories out in our black-dominated culture, I suppose.




Similarly, National Review assures us that the problem in Ferguson is "predatory government", not racism. It's just kind of a coincidence that predatory government happens to show up and be tolerated in a majority-black community with a white power structure.




They charged a guy with shooting two policemen during a protest in Ferguson Thursday. He has a great defense: He claims he was shooting at somebody else.

Notice one key difference between shootings like this and the shootings police do: No major figure is stepping up to say that the victims had it coming.

and a racist frat incident in Oklahoma


University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat got in deep trouble after a video surfaced of the brothers singing on a bus:

There will never be a nigger SAE.
There will never be a nigger SAE.
You can hang them from a tree,
but they'll never sign with me.
There will never be a nigger SAE.

The guys on the bus seem to know the words, so you've got to figure this wasn't the song's world premiere. After the video went viral, University President David Boren closed the house and expelled the two students identified as leading the singing.

National SAE back-pedaled as fast as it could, saying it has "zero-tolerance for any kind of discrimination" and claiming that 20% of its national membership is non-Caucasian. It's also been editing its history page to play down its origin as a Confederate frat. According to an earlier version of the page:

The fraternity had fewer than 400 members when the Civil War began. Of those, 369 went to war for the Confederate States and seven for the Union Army. Seventy-four members of the fraternity lost their lives in the war.

Think Progress lists previous race-related incidents involving SAE, including

In 2009, Valdosta State University in Georgia hosted a community forum on “Heritage, Hate or Fear?” that was inspired by the university’s SAE chapter’s practice of flying a Confederate Flag on its front lawn.

The Oklahoma State University SAE chapter is taking flack for a Confederate flag posted on a member's wall in such a way as to be visible from the street.

So it sounds to me like this isn't just two guys. SAE's Confederate heritage is more than a historical footnote. It's part of the frat's "charm" and attracts a certain element.


There's a side issue here about the media, which gives me an opening to discuss my policy on The Weekly Sift. This CBS/AP article refers to SAE members "engaging in a racist chant" but doesn't say what the chant was, a practice I've noticed on several news outlets. Others refuse to print or say nigger, replacing it with references to "the N-word" or "n****r".

I first had to decide whether to use nigger in my writing in 2007, when I was still posting as Pericles on Daily Kos. My policy -- which applies not just to nigger, but to bitch, faggot, or any other epithet -- is to ask myself this question: If I replace the word with a euphemism, who am I protecting?

My 2007 post described the racial atmosphere of my 1960s working-class childhood. Saying something like "We used the N-word" would have protected myself more than the fragile sensibilities of my readers. I mean, Jackie Chan used the N-word in Rush Hour; it was hilarious. But my truth was much starker: We told nigger jokes. Saying anything less would just give my readers room to imagine that what I did really wasn't that bad.

Same thing here. Describing the video in some oblique way just protects the frat boys. A "racist chant" could be eeny-meeny or some other childish thing where the racism isn't the point. Describing the incident that way opens the possibility that "racist" might be nothing more than some journalist's debatable interpretation. So I think you have to print it the way they sang it.

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Rest in peace, Terry Pratchett. Most obituaries highlight his Discworld series, which is tremendously amusing. But my personal favorite Pratchett novel isn't set on Discworld, it's Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman about the coming of the Antichrist. (Well, there is one Discworld connection: Discworld's Death character shows up as one of the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse.) Imagine if Left Behind was short, clever, and had a sense of humor.




Israel holds elections tomorrow, and it's anybody's guess who will win. It's a parliamentary system, so we might not know right away. Even if Netanyahu's party isn't the top vote-getter, he still might wind up as the leader of a majority coalition.

Paul Krugman points out that internal economics may play a bigger role than the Palestinian or Iranian issues Americans are focused on. He references an amazing statistic:
According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market.

and let's close with a moment I'm sorry I missed


As spring approaches, let's remember that winter hasn't been all bad. Like this massive snowball fight in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Money and Motion

What was the law, when bright shiny money was in sight?
Money make the train go.
-- Charley Barbour,
quoted in The American Slave, a Composite Autobiography
This week's featured post is "Justice in Ferguson".

This week everybody was talking about Ferguson again

The Justice Department published two reports Wednesday, one about the Michael Brown shooting and the other about the Ferguson Police Department. I discuss them in detail in "Justice in Ferguson", but the short version is that Darren Wilson's story is plausible and he shouldn't be indicted, while the FPD is a predatory institution that needs drastic reform.

and Selma

Tens of thousands of people marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
President Obama's speech was a marvelous expression of the liberal vision of America.
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. ... That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional. ... That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.
Meanwhile (and Obama referred to this) the achievements of fifty years ago are threatened. The Supreme Court has gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the Republican Congress continues to refuse to fix it. The hole that the Court blew in the VRA has invited voter suppression of all sorts.

and Netanyahu vs. Iran

The politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress has been widely discussed, both here and in Israel. But reading the text, I found myself thinking more about the content: Is he right about Iran?
Some of what he had to say was obviously exaggerated. Like this:
In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked more will surely follow.
Juan Cole examines this claim capital-by-capital, but the gist is that Iran has given material support to factions in local conflicts that it did not start. (In Baghdad, we started it.) Those factions have been successful in varying degrees, but in none of the four cases has there been anything like an Iranian conquest or occupation, nor is there likely to be. Iran is playing the Great Game, just as we are and Israel is.
A more interesting notion lies in the background of Netanyahu's remarks, and in most neo-con discussion of Iran: the idea that an Iranian bomb would be uniquely horrible, because Iran's nature as an Islamic Republic makes it immune to the kind of deterrence that kept the Soviet Union in check. In this telling of the story, Iran's leadership is motivated by an apocalyptic theology that would happily use nukes against Israel and glory in the ensuing end-of-the-world destruction when Israel retaliated with the nukes it has never admitted it has.
Having discussed just two weeks ago how another force in the region -- ISIL -- is motivated by apocalyptic theology, I can't just reject this argument as absurd. But is it true? Is Iran essentially a nation-sized suicide bomber?
Other people have studied this question, and the answer seems to be no. Back in 2011, Matthew Duss wrote "The Martyr State Myth" for Foreign Policy.
The "martyr state" myth is based upon two flawed assumptions. First, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been uniquely willing to endure the deaths of its own citizens in order to achieve its policy goals. Second, that the Iranian Shiite regime’s End Times theology actually induces it to trigger a conflagration.
Quoting previous studies, he finds that Iran's willingness to sacrifice its citizens pales in comparison to the Soviet and Chinese regimes that were deterred by retaliation, and that claims of the Iranian regime's desire for martyrdom
are unsupported by anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did like to talk in apocalyptic terms, but he
  • is not president any more
  • didn't have control of Iranian military policy when he was president
  • was criticized for his apocalypticism by the ruling imams.
By contrast, Iran's Supreme Leader is in no particular hurry to be Supreme Leader of a pile of rubble.

and the Supreme Court looking at ObamaCare again

The oral arguments in King vs. Burwell have begun. The case hangs on one sentence in the Affordable Care Act, which (if interpreted without reference to anything outside that sentence) would mean that ObamaCare subsidies could only go to people in states that had their own ObamaCare exchanges, rather people living in states whose exchanges were set up by the federal government.
There has been a certain absurdity to the case from the beginning, since there is ample evidence that no one in Congress intended that result. So the plaintiff's arguments have all been a little like "You didn't say 'Simon says'."
The Obama administration's counter-argument is that the executive branch has a responsibility to interpret laws in ways that work, rather than in ways that don't work, so the IRS has acted correctly in interpreting the law as it has. The precedents seem to be on its side, and I don't believe this case would ever have reached the Supreme Court without a number of activist conservative judges seeking to repeal laws they don't like.
The big thing we've learned from the justices' questioning is that there is a conservative reason reject the case, hinted at by Justice Kennedy and drawn out further by Justice Sotomayor: Congress may not have had the power to pass the law as the conservative activist judges have been interpreting it, at least not under a conservative interpretation of the relationship between the federal government and the states.
If the law really did only subsidize people on exchanges states set up, that would be a substantial penalty to states that refused to set up their own exchanges. That kind of monetary pressure (to set up state exchanges) was precisely why (when ObamaCare reached the Court in 2012) the Court threw out the provisions of the law that pushed the states to expand Medicaid.
The legal principle Chief Justice Roberts invoked when he cast the deciding vote to save ObamaCare in 2012 was that the courts have to presume that Congress intended to pass laws that are constitutional. So if one interpretation of a law makes it constitutional and another unconstitutional, courts should favor the constitutional interpretation.

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Correction: Last week I identified FBI agents as potential victims of a Homeland Security shutdown. As a commenter pointed out, the FBI isn't in DHS, it's in the Department of Justice.
Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner relented and allowed the House to vote on a clean bill to fund DHS through September. It passed, as it would have weeks ago, without any sturm und drang. The problem for Boehner was that his caucus wanted to continue holding the country's security hostage: Republicans voted against the clean funding bill 167-75.
Vox added this example to its list of "every major crisis or near-crisis that's been resolved by Boehner giving up on conservatives and passing a bill with Democratic support."

Next up: the debt limit. Mitch McConnell says it will pass, but he also says:
We'll figure some way to handle that and hopefully it might carry some other important legislation that we can agree on in connection with it.
In other words, there's going to be another hostage crisis. You can replace "other important legislation" with "list of demands".
I could repeat everything I said last week about Republican governance, but I think I'll just link to it.

Jonathan Waldman in the NYT says "Don't Kill Keystone XL, Regulate It".
"Pipelines are the safest way to move oil," he says, and they could be made better if regulators insisted on the best technology. I have no argument with that. But he takes one thing as given:
[B]locking [the pipeline] won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil. Ours is an energy-thirsty world, and when demand eventually drives up the price of oil, out it will come.
I'm not willing to grant that. Canada is going to extract some of its tar sands oil. How much it makes sense to extract at a given oil-price depends on transportation costs, which depends on infrastructure like Keystone XL. And alternative fuels are competitive enough to keep the price of oil from going to infinity.

An incident at UCLA has raised discussion about anti-semitism on campus. Anti-semitism in America is a tricky thing to measure and document, because American Jews tend to be above average in many kinds of achievement and representation. It also gets tied up with political opinions about Israel and America's support of Israel.
I've been mostly silent about anti-semitism not because I've decided it doesn't exist or doesn't matter, but because I don't have a good handle on it. I'm still thinking and reading, so maybe that will change.

A fifth-grade teacher in Chicago writes a letter of apology to her students before inflicting on them the latest round of standardized tests.
I do not agree that these tests will tell me what I really need to know about you as a learner or as a human being. I do not agree that these tests will make me a better teacher. I do not agree that these tests will improve our schools. I do not agree that you need to sit in front of a computer for over five hours in order for the government to find out what you know and what you can do. I do not agree that you should not have a choice in how you are able to show all of the things that you are capable of doing. I do not agree that in order for the state to know that I am doing my job that you have to suffer through tests that could quite possibly ruin much of the hard work that we have done together in building your confidence this year and in helping you to see yourselves as readers and writers. I do not agree with these tests.

and let's close with something amusing

I believe no dogs were harmed in the making of "12 Dogs Who Really Didn't Expect the Snow to Be This Deep".

Monday, March 2, 2015

Partisans

We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.
-- Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address (1801)
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America.

This week's featured post is "The Myth of Republican Governance". The big issues in this week's summary have all come up (and been discussed in detail) before, so I'm going to linking to a lot of previous Sift articles.

This week everybody was talking about funding Homeland Security


Late Friday night, Congress avoided a shutdown of the Homeland Security Department by passing a one-week continuing resolution. So we get to do the whole thing over again this week.

As in previous shutdown confrontations, the Senate passed a "clean" bill funding DHS for the rest of the fiscal year (through September), without attaching any riders rolling back President Obama's executive actions on immigration. The Senate bill almost undoubtedly would have passed in the House, ending the crisis, had Speaker Boehner allowed it to come to the floor. According to CNN, doing so might have sparked House conservatives to oust him as Speaker, but National Journal says no.

Conservative rhetoric says they are "defending the Constitution" by trying to reverse President Obama's "lawless" re-prioritization of immigration enforcement. In fact, the administration studied the legal limits of executive action and made a strong case that it was staying within them, as I outlined in November. The rhetoric is another example of what I described in "A Conservative-to-English Lexicon":
Like the Bible, [the Constitution] means whatever conservatives want it to mean, regardless of its actual text.
Conservatives jurisdiction-shopped to find a federal judge who agrees with them, so there is an injunction temporarily halting Obama's executive actions. Slate's Eric Posner gives it "little chance of withstanding appeal". If conservatives truly believed their rhetoric about constitutionality, they could let the conservative majority on the Supreme Court handle it.

and Net Neutrality

A little over a year ago, the headlines were saying that net neutrality was dead, killed by an appeals-court ruling. If you read the ruling, though, things still seemed up in the air. As I wrote at the time:
The gist of the court ruling is that the FCC has classified cable companies as information-services providers, but that its net-neutrality rules regulate them like telecommunications carriers. So the FCC’s net-neutrality rules can’t stand. But — and this is the observation that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat — it’s totally within the FCC’s current powers and mandate to just reclassify the cable companies. So net neutrality is dead. But if the FCC wants to revive it, all they have to do is issue new rules.
And that's what they just did: reclassified internet providers as utilities, like the telephone companies. Now, I don't want to minimize how courageous that was, given the amount of money and influence Verizon and Comcast have been throwing around. But it was always within the FCC's power.

So now we have net neutrality rules again, and the same court decision that threw out the old rules defends the new ones. The non-profit Mozilla Foundation celebrates "a major victory for the open web", and Ezra Klein explains what that means.

and the Keystone Pipeline

President Obama vetoed a bill that would have given the government's go-ahead to the Keystone Pipeline, but he did it on procedural grounds:
Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.
So don't get excited that Obama has finally taken a stand on the pipeline; he hasn't. He's just said it shouldn't be approved this way.

My position on the pipeline hasn't changed since I wrote "A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline" two years ago: We can't burn all the fossil fuels without doing catastrophic damage to the climate, so some will have to stay in the ground. The tar sands whose product Keystone would transport are good candidates.

The case for Keystone revolves around the number of jobs it would create. Estimates vary, but the important thing to realize is that the vast majority would be temporary construction jobs that might last six months to a year, plus some other jobs for people providing services to those temporary workers (who would probably eat a lot of Big Macs before they moved on). Politifact assessed Van Jones' claim that the pipeline would provide only 35 permanent jobs, and judged it to be true. On the other hand, the risk of oil spills and groundwater contamination will be permanent, as well as the environmental damage from the carbon released.

The hardest thing to assess about projects like this are the net effects. For example, in the absence of a pipeline, probably less oil will be recovered from those fields to begin with. (The last oil produced from a field is typically the most expensive; whether it gets pumped out at all depends partly on transportation costs.) That's how the pipeline relates to leaving oil in the ground.

But the oil that is recovered will be transported some other way. Those other ways have their own environmental downsides, and their own employment upsides. The 35 long-term pipeline jobs might be outweighed by the lost railroad and trucking jobs, making the pipeline a net job destroyer. But it's also hard to guess how many train-car accidents a pipeline would prevent, and what their environmental impact would be.

In a sane world, you could imagine a deal that allowed everyone to save face: Keystone in exchange for environmental concessions elsewhere. Michael Bloomberg outlines one deal. May Boeve explains why it would be a bad deal. But neither has an answer for the "sane world" problem.

and Netanyahu's speech

It's happening today, maybe as you read this. Vox gives the background.

and Bill O'Reilly

Bill O'Reilly's defining characteristic is his lack of self-awareness. He stands in his yard and throws stones without ever noticing the glass house behind him.

So when NBC's news anchor Brian Williams got into trouble for telling tall tales about his past reporting experiences, O'Reilly pounced, misrepresenting Williams' exaggerations as being part of his live reporting, and implying that Williams was reporting falsely for ideological purposes:
When hard news people deceive their viewers and readers to advance a political agenda, that's when the nation gets hurt.
[To be fair, O'Reilly didn't make the Williams-is-a-lying-ideologue charge in so many words. He just segued directly from this abstract statement to the Williams scandal, as if the two had something to do with each other.]

Well, it turns out that O'Reilly also tells tall tales about his past reporting. The biggest exaggeration concerns a demonstration in Buenos Aires in 1982, when Argentines were upset by their government's surrender in the Falklands War. Nobody else considered the demonstrations that big a deal; fellow CBS reporter Eric Engberg described is as "the chummiest riot anyone had ever covered". But O'Reilly has described Buenos Aires as "a war zone", and often uses that mischaracterization to justify claiming that he has "been there" in combat.

His specific retrospective claims about that day -- that police fired live ammunition into the crowd and killed many people -- are contradicted by the news coverage at the time and by the accounts of everyone else who was there.

But of course O'Reilly is not going to admit -- or even recognize -- that he did anything wrong, or that he did precisely what he condemned Williams for doing. Instead, he claims that evidence supports him (when in fact it does no such thing), and that the issue is not his personal dishonesty, but an attack on all of Fox News because "Fox gives voice to conservatives and traditional people". That makes it an us-against-them issue, not a Bill-is-a-serial-liar issue, so it calls threats and intimidation against journalists who try to investigate.

And of course Fox News is going to stand by him rather than suspend him as NBC did Williams. Columbia Journalism Review draws the obvious conclusion:
Fox has made clear that it doesn’t see itself bound by the same rules of public accountability it calls on other news organizations to uphold.
And that, in turn, demonstrates an even more general principle: Moral standards are just lower on the Right. To give a second example: Eliot Spitzer's upward-trending political career ended within days after it came out that he had seen a prostitute. A similar scandal was just a blip for David Vitter, who continued in the Senate and was re-elected. And there is no liberal-media-star parallel to Rush Limbaugh's drug history.

Once the idea got broached that O'Reilly makes exaggerated claims, other examples have followed: hearing the gunshot when a JFK-assassination witness committed suicide, and seeing the execution-style murders of Salvadoran nuns.

and you also might be interested in ...

RIP, Leonard Nimoy. May your legacy live long and prosper. Also dead this week: Earl Lloyd, basketball's Jackie Robinson.

Thursday, Senator Inhofe (R-Exxon-Mobil) proved global warming is a myth by throwing a snowball while speaking to the Senate. Vox described it as "the dumbest thing that happened on the Senate floor today" and performed the thankless task of explaining rationally why Inhofe is wrong.

Sometimes these kinds of incidents make me mad, but this time I'm just embarrassed. This is the Senate of the United States of America. My country has put complete idiots in positions of power.

The American Family Association has created a "Bigotry Map" to identify "groups and organizations that openly display bigotry toward the Christian faith." The icons mark atheist groups, humanist groups, "anti-Christian" groups, and "Homosexual agenda" groups.
This is just a screen capture. The original is much fancier, allowing you to zoom in or out and click on icons to identify the groups closest to you. (I'm right between Lowell Atheists and GLSEN New Hampshire. AFA seem to have missed the Concord Area Humanists; I'm sure my friends on the steering committee will be miffed.) Friendly Atheist comments:
Not a single one of the atheist/Humanist/LGBT rights groups that I can see on the map have ever supported violent acts or taking away rights from Christians. They’ve always been on the side of tolerance and inclusivity. They want non-Christian beliefs to be treated by the government the same way Christianity is treated, with no group getting special privilege. This is how desperate right-wing groups are to show the fictional marginalization of Christians. They think criticism is the same as bigotry. They think neutrality is the enemy.
The map is also an example of privileged distress: As a group becomes less dominant and has less power to lord it over others, that slippage feels like persecution. I mean, imagine if the government starts to treat Jesus' birthday with the same respect it shows to, say, Buddha's or Krishna's. What's next? Death camps?

Evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy's son, says on Fox News that the White House (along with several unspecified European governments) has been "infiltrated by Muslims". But he can't name any.

Every year around this time, Pastor Kenneth Swanson's 2012 radio rant against buying Girl Scout cookies (because he claims the Scouts promote lesbianism) shows up in my Facebook news feed. This year, it got me wondering what Rev. Swanson has been up to lately.

On Feb. 20, he interviewed Rev. Marion Clark, whose new book The Problem of Good: when the world seems fine without God explores the disturbing conundrum that non-Christians aren't constantly doing evil, and may even be nice people.
SWANSON: There are a lot of unbelievers -- neighbors, co-workers -- they're nice. They're nice people. How do you explain that, Marion?
CLARK: Well, that was the question that really troubled me. And I'll say that the problem of good, which you're talking about, troubled me more than the problem of evil. Evil exists; it's out there. But what kept tripping me up were my nice neighbors, nice family members, people who -- I would hate to say it -- were nicer than I was. And yet they were unregenerate. And how could that be?
How indeed? It's like seeing the inverted image of Greg Epstein's Good Without God.

Gerrymandering explained:

Male privilege explained:
And a young man explains men's responsibility for preventing sexual assault

and let's close with something funny

Australian comic Jim Jefferies on gun control.

Monday, February 23, 2015

True Love

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

- James Baldwin

This week's featured article is "The Islamic State: Separating Insight from Stereotype".

This week everybody was talking about what the Islamic State wants


It all started with "What ISIS Really Wants" in The Atlantic. The reason that article inspired so much back-and-forth is that it's the hardest kind of article to sort out: one that contains both major insights and major flaws. So I want to encourage you both to learn from it and not to be fooled by it. Hence this week's featured article.

and who loves America


One measure of our democracy's lack of vitality is the triviality of the things we talk about. This week at a Scott Walker event, Rudy Giuliani said:
I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

Walker avoided committing himself, saying that he doesn't know whether Obama loves America. He also doesn't know whether Obama is Christian.

People who had any substantive vision of their own to put forward wouldn't be talking about stuff like this.

And if we're going to talk about loving America, consider this: After 9-11, President Bush's approval rating shot above 90%, because when the country was threatened, liberals lined up behind a president they didn't like and didn't even necessarily believe had legitimately won the election. How many conservatives love America like that?

and Netanyahu's upcoming speech to Congress


It's really a weird situation: Congress is providing a platform for a foreign leader to campaign for re-election by denouncing American policy. Rabbi David Teutsch has responded with his "first fully public statement criticizing a sitting Israeli government official".
Netanyahu has stated that in coming to speak to Congress, he represents the voice of world Jewry. At best, that claim is a delusion, and at worse, a self-serving lie. There has never been any one person able to speak for world Jewry, an ideologically, theologically, and culturally diverse group of communities. He surely does not speak for me, nor for thousands of active, Jews committed to Israel.

Back when JFK was running for president, anti-Catholic rhetoric said that Catholics couldn't be loyal Americans, because their first loyalty was to the Pope. Anti-Semites say the same thing about American Jews and Israel. This kind of rhetoric from Netanyahu doesn't help. M.J. Rosenberg responds:
If American Jews feel that they are being forced to choose between the United States and Israel, there can be little doubt that they will choose the country they live in and to which they have always been devoted. Netanyahu is playing with fire when he even hints at such a choice.

On the substance of the issue Netanyahu wants to talk about -- a nuclear deal with Iran -- see James Fallows.

and you also might be interested in ...


One question that I hope gets raised repeatedly in the 2016 presidential campaign is: Can conservatives acknowledge past mistakes and learn new lessons?

Paul Krugman raised that question with regard to economic policy. He notes that Scott Walker and Rick Perry have been courting the supply-side economics crowd, whose predictions have been consistently wrong for the past eight or nine years: Not only didn't they see the real-estate bubble or the Great Recession coming, but they have spent the Obama years warning about the return of inflation and high interest rates -- the exact opposite of what has been happening.

It also came up this week when Jeb Bush made a lackluster foreign policy speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. (He read the text as if his speechwriters had left it sitting on the podium and he was seeing it for the first time.) His claims to be his "own man" clashed with his list of foreign-policy advisers, nearly all of whom were architects of his father and brother's foreign policy -- including Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney's only rival for the title "The Man Most Consistently Wrong About Iraq".

Krugman sums up:
Across the board, the modern American right seems to have abandoned the idea that there is an objective reality out there. ... If anything, alleged experts seem to get points by showing that they’re willing to keep saying the same things no matter how embarrassingly wrong they’ve been in the past.

Whether they share his name or not, Republican presidential candidates (other than maybe Rand Paul) still seem to be running for George W. Bush's third term. Even after eight years to think about it, they have announced no lessons that they have learned from the across-the-board failures of his first two terms.


Matt Yglesias has a good analysis of the gender wage gap.




Ben Carson says that all's fair in war. I'm afraid to ask him about love.

OK, that was too flip. What Carson actually did was object to fighting a "politically correct war". Instead, he said: "If you’re gonna have rules for war, you should just have a rule that says no war. Other than that, we have to win."

What is lost in this point of view -- and marks Carson as dangerously naive in military affairs -- is that the tactics of war have to serve the objectives of war. If your objectives are more subtle than just "kill everybody and come home", you need rules of engagement, and you need to punish soldiers who break those rules.

and let's close with a simple sex fantasy

Monday, February 16, 2015

Undying Legacies

Did I die?

-- Jon Stewart, 2-11-2015


This week's featured article "When Hate Stays in the Closet" is my attempt to answer some of the more well-intentioned arguments against same-sex marriage.

This week everybody was talking about war



Once in a while, it's instructive to take the long view and consider how different the world is from the one the Founders envisioned. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but makes the the President commander-in-chief. Today, that separation of powers tilts in the President's direction. But originally it tilted towards Congress.

In the Founders' vision, the United States wouldn't have much of a peacetime military. State and local militias would handle smaller-scale stuff like Indian raids, slave uprisings, and criminal gangs -- that's what the 2nd amendment was really about* -- while the federal military would only come into play in the event of a war with a distant power like Britain, France, or Spain. Wars on that scale took a long time to develop, so as long as we had an officers corps to build a larger force around, a big standing army wouldn't be necessary.

Most of the time, then, the President would be commander of not very much. To move towards war, he'd have to ask Congress for a larger military appropriation or to federalize the state militias (a power that Article I, Section 8 assigns to Congress). Probably it would probably say no unless it was ready to declare war.

That's all turned around now. There's huge standing military establishment, which the President needs to be able to put into action instantaneously, without waiting for Congress. (During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could have destroyed most of the country by the time Congress could assemble.) And once hostilities begin, Congress has a hard time refusing to support a war the President has already committed forces to.

So we wind up with after-the-fact debates like the current one about whether Congress should authorize the ongoing air war against ISIL. President Obama has been fighting that war since September, under the authority that he claims was granted by the AUMF Congress passed immediately after 9-11, against
those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

That's kind of a stretch, since ISIL didn't exist in 2001, but might be considered a successor of Al Qaeda. President Obama says he'd ultimately like Congress to repeal that open-ended AUMF and replace it with a narrower authorization. This week he proposed a more specific ISIL authorization, which would include a repeal of the 2002 authorization to use force in Iraq.

Obama's proposal has some good features that I hope will be in any future AUMFs: It's time-limited, for example, so Congress would need to re-authorize it (or not) in three years. But it may still be too broad. Politico has a good discussion of the issues involved.




* The 2nd amendment starts "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State ..." The NRA thinks that means that in order to maintain their freedom, the People need to have the weapons necessary to rebel against an oppressive central government. But originally it just meant that locally-controlled militias would eliminate the need for a large peacetime army that might tempt a President (or some general) to start a military coup, as Rome's Praetorian Guard often had.

and news anchors, real and otherwise



Jon Stewart announced he is leaving The Daily Show later this year. That inspired a number of tributes and summaries of his 17-year run, prompting Stewart to ask, "Did I die?"

Meanwhile, Brian Williams has been suspended for six months by NBC News, following the revelation that his account of being on a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003 was not true. Subsequently, questions are being raised about his claims that he flew with Seal Team 6, that he was present when the Berlin Wall came down, and that he saw a dead body float by in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Except for the Katrina piece (which seems unlikely, but is not obviously untrue), the questions are not about his news reporting, but about exaggerated accounts of his experiences that he gave later. (His original report of the RPG incident appears to have been accurate: He was in a copter that was behind the one that was hit.) So given what we know so far, NBC's response seems to be based on a Caesar's-wife principle: The public ought to be able to trust everything that NBC's news anchor says, no matter where he says it.

Humorist P. J. O'Rourke was a little less outraged, and observed that all correspondents tell tall tales about the dangers they've faced.
Welcome, Brian Williams, to the International Association of Guys Who’ve Been to War – And Lied About It Later in the Bar. (I.A.G.W.B2W. -- L.A.I.L.) Membership includes everybody who’s been to war or near a war or in rough proximity to something that is remotely comparable to the dangers and hazards of war, such a being a teenage volunteer fireman who saved puppies from a smoky building.

A more biting response came from Scott Long at Mondoweiss:
What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?

Or, as Jon Stewart put it:
I am happy. Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War. Finally. Now, it might not necessarily be the first person you'd want held accountable on that list. But never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn't have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual f--king war.

What will we do without you, Jon?




This is a good time to look back at Atlantic's discussion of why there's no conservative Jon Stewart. It's a little more complicated than just the observable fact that conservatives aren't funny, but not a lot more complicated.

and a government shutdown


When the 2014 elections completed the Republican takeover of Congress, a lot of ink was spilled about governing responsibly and not playing chicken with government shutdowns.

Well, now John Boehner is starting to talk about shutting down the government. Not the whole thing, just the part that keeps us safe.

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Not all of us in New England are as happy about the weather as the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore was when he recorded thundersnow -- or as happy as the toddler who watched him do it.




Science is still too suspicious an activity for a Republican presidential candidate to associate himself with. Asked if he believed in the theory of evolution, Scott Walker replied "I'm going to punt on that one."

Here's a question I'd like to ask every candidate who courts the Religious Right: "Do you believe we are in the end times described in the Book of Revelation?" And if the answer is yes, follow up with: "How will that affect your foreign policy? In particular, if events in the Middle East seemed headed towards the Battle of Armageddon that heralds the return of Christ, would you regard that as a good thing or a bad thing?"


Bad Astronomy explains why the adjustments scientists make to temperature data are just good science, and not the "scandal" that global-warming deniers claim.




Authorities are still trying to figure out whether the murder of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, NC was a hate crime or not. The alleged shooter's alleged Facebook page is full of anti-religious stuff, but a quick scan didn't reveal anything uglier than what comes across my news feed every day from people who don't seem particularly dangerous. I didn't see any threats of violence or Muslims-must-die messages. Neither did atheist blogger Michael Nugent, who has done a more thorough search.

Still, the idea of an self-described "anti-theist" turning violent has captured the dark side of the public imagination (and promoted some introspection among atheists). For example, what happens if someone takes literally a text cherry-picked from, say, Sam Harris' The End of Faith:
Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.

(The quote is really there, but the link argues -- I'm not sure how convincingly -- that it isn't nearly so bad in its larger context.)

Secularist groups (including a local one I have spoken to and am a not-terribly-active member of) have been debating whether to issue a statement denouncing hate crimes against believers, or whether such statements might cement the public's speculative interpretation that this really was an atheist hate crime. On the flip side, I'm not aware of any atheist group that has endorsed the murders. (I'm sure that would make headlines, so I'll go out on a limb and say it hasn't happened.)

Whatever the facts turn out to be, one lesson to draw from this is that there are violent people in every religious and/or political movement. If you yourself are non-violent and see the essence of your movement as non-violent, it stings to suddenly feel like the public is picking out that one lunatic to be the poster boy who represents you.

If you've ever had that experience, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The next time somebody from a different religious/political group does something horrible, don't hold everybody from that group responsible -- or cherry-pick the movement's favorite texts to find justifications.




Meanwhile, somebody burned down a Muslim school in Houston.


TPM's Ed Kilgore sees the religious-right's freak-out over President Obama's prayer breakfast remarks as an attack on liberal Christianity in general.

and let's close with something amazing


Linsey Pollack shows TedxSydney how to turn a carrot into a clarinet. (Why do I think this is harder than he makes it look?)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Sanctifying Power

Christianity did not "cause" slavery, anymore than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.

-- Ta-Nehisi Coates,
"The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama's Prayer Breakfast Speech" (2-6-2015)


This week's featured post is "The Individual and the Herd".

This week everybody was talking about vaccinations


The week was a lesson in the unpredictability of presidential campaigns. When Chris Christie planned his trip to London, it probably never occurred to him that the headline would be his comments on vaccinations, or that before it was all said and done, just about all the other Republican hopefuls would have to respond.

In "The Individual and the Herd" I discuss what I think is really behind this argument: Many Republicans want to use an extremist rhetoric of individual freedom without being willing to go where it leads. In particular, you can't understand public health without looking at things from the point of view of society and the public good. If all you can see are individual trees, any discussion about the health of the forest is going to go over your head.

But, politics of the issue aside, there really is a measles problem developing. We had this disease beaten, and now we don't.



And let's face it: To the extent that we are unable to come to terms with public-health and public-good problems like this, we're uncivilized. The rest of the world sees this clearly.

and Christian/Muslim history


Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama gave a wonderful talk that I recommend everyone read. You can skip past the loosening-the-room-up humor to where he starts to get serious: "And certainly for me, this is always a chance to reflect on my own faith journey."

Several times (most recently two weeks ago) I've focused on the difference between liberal religion and fundamentalist religion. One aspect of that difference is summed up in a quote often attributed to President Lincoln:
My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.

In fundamentalism, it's obvious which side is God's: It's all spelled out very clearly in a "literal" interpretation of scripture. So there's no problem problem going to extremes, because you begin with 100% certainty.

But in liberal religion, how to bring the spirit of your faith into the nitty-gritty of human experience is always a bit mysterious, and you constantly have to re-examine your actions and motives to be sure you're still getting it right. That's what Obama is talking about:
We should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

He goes on in that vein, in a way that I find beautiful.

But you'd never know that from the public discussion of his talk, which focused on this small excerpt, one that comes right after Obama has criticized ISIL and "those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends":
Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

That statement is entirely accurate historically. But Christian-good/Muslim-bad is a central tenet of American conservatism these days, so this response from former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was far too typical:
The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.

Apparently one value Gilmore thinks "we all share" is to regard whatever story makes us feel good as "history", no matter what actually happened. And he's right: Obama doesn't believe in that. But neither do I or a lot of other Americans ... or even a lot of "believing Christians".




The theory that Islam is an inherently violent religion runs head-on into a study showing that the murder rates in Muslim countries are much lower than in non-Muslim countries.




Some secularists segued from Obama's criticism of Christianity to a denunciation of religion in general: They all have been used to justify wars and atrocities at one time or another, so they should all be done away with.

This is where I think the Ta-Nehisi Coates quote at the top of this post fits in: People seeking power or exercising power are always going to justify what they do in whatever way things get justified in their culture. (Stalinists used to describe their version of Marxism as "scientific" and make reference to the "laws of History" rather than the will of God.) For most of history, that's meant justification in religious terms. But getting rid of religion wouldn't change the underlying dynamic. Rationalization will use whatever tools are at hand.

And religiously-justified atrocities are never going to convince ordinary people stop practicing religion. It's like drinking alcohol: If you regularly enjoy a glass of wine at dinner without it ever leading to anything horrible, hearing about drunk drivers who kill innocent children or alcoholics who wreck their own lives isn't going to persuade you to stop. Your own positive experiences are always going to trump horror stories about somebody else.

and the budget


From the news coverage, you'd never know that President Obama has proposed a budget for the next fiscal year. It fleshes out some of the ideas he floated in the State of the Union, like free community college and a middle-class tax break. Given that Republicans control Congress, the Obama budget probably isn't going anywhere. But Paul Ryan's budgets have also been doomed the last few years, and they got quite a bit of coverage.

The Dealbook blog at the NYT highlights Obama's corporate tax reform proposal, and explains why no corporate tax reform is likely to be passed, no matter how much each party calls for it.

The basic idea of corporate tax reform is simple: Compared to other countries we have a high nominal corporate tax rate, but the tax code also has so many special breaks in it that few corporations (and really few large corporations) pay anything like the nominal rate. (According to Citizens for Tax Justice, when you aggregate the years 2008-2012, General Electric, Verizon, and Boeing paid a negative tax rate on their very large profits.) In theory, American business in general would benefit if we could lower the nominal rate while getting rid of loopholes.

The problem is, neither party really wants to do that. Democrats mainly want to reverse the long-term slide in the percentage of revenue the government gets from corporations, while Republicans want revenue to slide further. The corporations whose campaign contributions call the tune in Congress just want to pay less tax; preferably they'd get lower tax rates and more loopholes. Or maybe the loopholes could go away temporarily and then get put right back in.

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Rick Perry's case for becoming president rests on his record in Texas, which he says created 1/3 of all the new jobs in America during his tenure, and claims as proof that his keep-taxes-low and get-government-out-of-the-way policies work. Another view, though, is that he was governor of an oil state during a time of high oil prices. Now oil prices have fallen, so it will be interesting to see if the Texas "miracle" continues.

The collapse of oil prices is happening on his successor's watch, though, so Perry may be able to avoid blame for the consequences. But Louisiana's Bobby Jindal is not so lucky. He's still governor, his state is still largely dependent on oil, and it faces a projected $1.6 billion deficit in the coming year, caused partly by the big tax cuts he pushed through during the boom part of the boom-and-bust cycle. Jindal's presidential prospects will end if he raises taxes, and Louisiana already ranks near the bottom of all states in per capita education and health-care spending (and in results; the people of Louisiana are relatively unhealthy and uneducated, compared to other states), so it will be interesting to see what he does.




It looks like that Oregon bakery is going to have to pay damages to the same-sex couple it refused to make a wedding cake for. (The amount is still to be determined.) Salon's Gabriel Arana is not sympathetic.
At heart, what the religious right is asking for with its “religious liberty” campaign is to rewrite our secular code to allow the practice of refusing service to members of society for no substantive reason other than to express moral disapproval. They are unlikely to succeed. That’s because this is a debate we’ve already had and settled. ... As a society, we decided, after more than a century of wrangling, that our civic code required citizens to treat each other equally in the arenas of commerce, housing and public accommodations—even if your religion says you don’t have to, or that you shouldn’t.

... The problem with these [anti-gay religious liberty] bills is that it’s impossible to write them in a way that doesn’t also uphold the right to discriminate against people on the basis of race; you either have to use broad language to write the bill so it can’t be construed as singling out gay people, or specify that all other forms of discrimination are bad except discrimination against gays.

These attempts to write prejudice into our civic code will fail. We long ago decided the mantle of religion does not override our basic duty to be decent to one another.

and let's close with something creative


Steven Benedict did a smash-up of lines from Coen brothers movies to create a conversation. As he describes it:
The characters talk to one another across the films so we can more clearly hear the Coens’ dominant concerns: identity, miscommunication and morality. Taken as a trinity, these elements indicate that the Coens’ true subject is the search for value in a random and amoral universe.