Monday, November 17, 2014

So Much That Ain't So

It is better to know less than to know so much that ain't so. -- Josh Billings
(ironically, the line is usually attributed to Will Rogers or Mark Twain)


This week's featured post is "Rethinking Immigration".

This week the audacity of hope was back


With his administration's final election behind him, President Obama has started acting like he's President of the United States or something. I'm picturing him like the high school girl who finally gives up on getting asked to the big dance, and goes back to acing her tests, running cross country, working on her novel, and just generally being her amazing self again.

I guess we'll never know whether a Democratic Party centered on this Obama would have done better in the midterm elections. Anyway, here's what he's been up to.

Net neutrality. It started Monday with his net neutrality statement. He called on the FCC to implement net neutrality rules that preserved four principles: no blocking (if a web site is legal, an ISP can't keep you from accessing it), no throttling (an ISP can't intentionally slow down some sites and speed up others), increased transparency (monitoring what happens to internet traffic up and down the line, rather than just at the "last mile"), and no paid prioritization (a web site or internet service can't pay a fee to have its content delivered faster).

What this comes down to is a debate over what kind of economy we want to have and how we want people to make money: Do you get rich by creating innovative new products that people want, or by getting control of a choke-point where you can charge a big toll? (I described that choice here two years ago.) Comcast and Verizon are building a big toll gate that will prosper at the expense of whoever is creating the next FaceBook or NetFlix. Net neutrality is about preventing that.

In order to have the legal authority to implement these net neutrality principles, the FCC needs to re-classify ISPs as providing a telecommunications service rather than an information service. Courts have already said the FCC can do that (as I explained here).

The FCC is an independent agency that can do what it wants. So Obama's statement is a bully-pulpit thing, not a unitary-executive thing. But net neutrality is a struggle between organized people and organized money. If it happens in the dark, Comcast/Verizon money will certainly win. So the spotlight Obama is shining on the issue might make a big difference.

Funny or Die has the cleverest approach to this issue: "Porn Stars Explain Net Neutrality". Whether it's safe for work or not depends on where you work.

Carbon and China. Until Wednesday, the final argument of the do-nothing-about-global-warming crowd was: "Even if we cut our carbon emissions, it won't make any difference because China won't." On Wednesday night's All In, Chris Hayes collected video clips of congressional Republicans making that argument.

That framing makes climate change fit the barbarians-at-the-gates story I described last week: Environmentalists want to handicap the United States in its economic death-struggle against the Yellow Peril. It never made sense, though, because China has an internal motivation to get its emissions under control: Its major cities are choking on their own coal dust. According to the Boston Globe:
China now holds two seemingly contradictory titles: It creates the most greenhouse gas pollution of any country, and it has developed more renewable energy than any country.

It is the largest producer of wind turbines, followed by the United States and Germany. It produces the most photovoltaic solar panels. It has shut down inefficient old manufacturing plants. And the agreement it announced Wednesday follows other ambitious — and largely successful — long-range planning goals to cut carbon.

But Wednesday, the U.S. and China agreed on mutual goals for carbon-emission reduction. Vox gives more context, and Grist outlines the pressure the U.S./China agreement puts on India.

Next up: Immigration and Impeachment. Speculation is always more fun than reporting on something real, and you never have to issue an embarrassing correction when your speculation turns out to be wrong. (Just move on and speculate about the next thing.) So most of the media jumped ahead to the immigration executive order Obama hasn't issued yet, and how Republicans will respond to it. They speculate that the order will be bigger than most people expected, and that the Republicans will respond by either shutting down the government or starting impeachment proceedings.

This should all sound familiar. Two years ago, when Obama was about to issue an executive order about guns, right-wingers panicked that he was going to order an unconstitutional confiscation and threatened to impeach him when he did. His actual order was well within his powers and the Republican response was minimal. So let's wait until he does something before we get excited.




Among people upset about Obama's possible immigration moves, National Review's Mark Krikorian takes it to a whole other level:
With all due respect to Andy McCarthy, impeachment is out of the question; there is almost nothing the first black president could do that would lead to his impeachment. Yes, it’s a double standard, but Obama was only nominated and elected because of his race, so his de facto immunity from impeachment should not come as a surprise.

Because when white presidents like Ronald Reagan did the exact same thing, they were impeached immediately. Weren't they?

This is how the racial thing has played out all through the Obama administration. The Right doesn't hate him because he's black; they hate him because everything he does seems unique and horrible to them. And it seems that way because he's black.

Meanwhile, everybody was talking about a comet


The European Space Agency landed an unmanned probe on a comet, which had never been done before. (Remember when we used to lead the world in stuff like that?) Unfortunately, the solar-powered probe landed in a shady spot, so its battery is dead now (though it may get enough occasional light to perk up later). Sky and Telescope gives full geeky details, and Vox explains why the mission is already a huge success.

and Democrats were talking about fixing the Party


Here's one plan:



But I'm going in a different direction. Last week's "Republicans have a story to tell. We're stuck with facts." was the kick-off to a long, vague project that will proceed at no particular pace: What story of America should Democrats be telling?

The reason it will proceed at no particular pace is that I want the historical parts of the story to be true, and its projections into the future to be based on the way the world actually works. If the problem were just to make up some bullshit that might fool some low-information voters into voting Democratic, I could probably do that now, and so could a lot of other people.

So this week's "Rethinking Immigration", which reviews Aviva Chomsky's Undocumented, is part of the background for that project. We need to understand how things really are before we start trying to explain them to the public.

Meanwhile, other people have been outlining the biggest problem that needs to be addressed: Why doesn't rising productivity lead to higher wages, like it used to? (That's a root cause of the pervasive middle-class anxiety I described last week.) Josh Marshall posted this graph:

and commented:
[A] stark reality: Democrats don't have a set of policies to turn around this trend. Republicans don't either, of course. But they don't need to. Not in the same way. As a party they are basically indifferent to middle class wages. ... But you cannot make middle class wage growth and wealth inequality the center of your politics unless you have a set of policies which credibly claims some real shot at addressing the problem. At least not for long.

Economist Alan Blinder lists "Seven ways to raise wages", but whether his plan -- education, unions, higher minimum wage, fiscal stimulus -- would fix things or just tinker around the edges, it doesn't sound like a fix. And that's a big chunk of the problem.

One thing did come clear to me from reading these articles: The standard Republican response to any of the stuff on Blinder's list is that it would hurt productivity growth. We can argue, but that's not the right conversation to have. The right answer to the productivity objection is: "So bleeping what?" If increases in productivity don't benefit ordinary people any more, why should we care about them?

and ObamaCare's second season


ObamaCare enrollment season started Saturday, which of course means that the second-year premiums are out. How to read those numbers varied a lot from one source to the next. One set of NYT writers led with the negative:
The Obama administration on Friday unveiled data showing that many Americans with health insurance bought under the Affordable Care Act could face substantial price increases next year — in some cases as much as 20 percent — unless they switch plans.

While another NYT writer led with the positive:
Early evidence suggests that competition in the new Affordable Care Act marketplaces is working, at least in some areas. Health insurance premiums in major cities around the country are barely rising.
TPM was positive with caveats:
Taken in the aggregate, Obamacare premiums for the 34 states using Healthcare.gov are almost completely level in 2015 compared to 2014, according to a new analysis from Avalere Health.

That comes with a lot of caveats. Premium changes vary widely from state to state, and individual consumers who are re-enrolling might need to shop around to avoid substantial spikes in what they pay next year.

But ThinkProgress was just positive:
For the second year in a row, Obamacare premiums are lower than anticipated and millions of Americans can expect to find affordable health insurance options during the second open enrollment period.

And CBS was just negative:
With the Affordable Care Act to start enrollment for its second year on Nov. 15, some unpleasant surprises may be in store for some.

That's because a number of low-priced Obamacare plans will raise their rates in 2015, making those options less affordable.

The gist, as best I can piece it together from these Rashomon-like accounts, is that a few insurance companies are raising rates substantially, but even if you are one of the affected consumers, you should be able to keep both your cost and level-of-coverage relatively stable if you are willing to switch to another insurer. Averaged over the whole country, premiums will increase, but far less than the average premium was increasing before ObamaCare.

I guess that must make a crappy headline or something.

and you also might be interested in ...


I know that what everybody was really talking about: Kim Kardashian's internet-breaking photo shoot. I tried to come up with an insightful comment about that story's deep cultural significance, but I got nothing. I thought about not even providing a link, but that would just be acting out against the trivialization of news, which is a real thing. Go ahead and look. Promise me you'll come right back.




October numbers are in: another global temperature record. 2014 continues on pace to replace 2010 as the hottest year ever.




Former coal executive Don Blankenship was indicted for his role in the safety violations that killed 29 miners in 2010. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Subtext in this story: why industry can't regulate itself, and why we need to get money out of politics. Here's an account of Blankenship buying a state supreme court judgeship for an ally in 2004.

and let's close by singing the blues


or maybe by letting a toddler sing them for us.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Broken Pieces of Truth

A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.

-- Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale


This week's featured post is "Republicans have a story to tell. We're stuck with facts."

This week everybody was wondering how that happened


The Republicans not only took control of the Senate -- either 52-48 or 53-47, depending on the Louisiana run-off -- but they re-elected some of the worst governors in the country: Sam Brownback in Kansas, Paul LePage in Maine, Rick Scott in Florida, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. And they nearly knocked off Senator Mark Warner in Virginia, a result that would have surprised both parties.

Good people lost. The best, in my opinion, being Mark Udall in Colorado. And some absolute loons are going to the Senate, the worst being Joni Ernst of Iowa. You'll hear a lot more from her in the next six years, because she will be at the forefront of every act of right-wing craziness. And since conservatism has its own perverse form of affirmative action, I suspect she's going to wind up on the short list for Republican VPs next year.

So how did that happen? As in the Republican sweep of 2010, they didn't do it by changing people's minds; they did it because the Democrats' target audience didn't vote.
Comparing yesterday’s exit polls to those of 2012, the first thing that jumps out at you is a big shift in age demographics: under-30 voters dropped from 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 13 percent in 2014, while over-65 voters climbed from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2014. That’s quite close to the age demographics of 2010.

In terms of race and ethnicity, the white share of the electorate increased modestly from 72 percent in 2012 to 75 percent this year, not quite back up to the 77 percent whites represented in 2010. And interestingly enough, Republican performance among white voters didn’t change at all from the 59/39 margin achieved by Mitt Romney.

There are two possible responses to this. One asks, "What's wrong with those people?" What's wrong with young people and non-whites, that they're letting Republicans they disagree with take over the country? The other asks, "What's wrong with the Democrats' message, that it's not motivating their voters to get out and vote?" I take the second approach in "Republicans have a story to tell. We're stuck with facts."

and what will happen next


Back in the waning days of the Soviet Union, leading up to Gorbachev, a series of short-lived old men filled the top chair: Andropov, Chernenko, and some other geezers even I don't remember. Every time a new one took over, the same story would get leaked to the Western press: The new boss only appeared to be a faceless party functionary; actually he had been a behind-the-scenes force for liberalization and better relations with the West. It was never true, but feeding people's fantasies like that was good PR.

Well, this week we heard that Mitch McConnell wants to fix the broken Senate and get things done. He swore off the brinksmanship of the past: "There will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt." It's as if the filibuster-everything McConnell never existed, and the Ted Cruz wing of the party didn't control enough votes to leave McConnell without a working majority. It's good PR.

In the short term, what will happen is that the Senate will have one more session before the new Republican majority arrives in January. Harry Reid will try to approve as many Obama nominees as possible, maybe including Loretta Lynch to replace Attorney General Holder. Republicans will claim that this use of the Senate's constitutional power is illegitimate, because they only venerate the Constitution when it suits them.

Longer term, the interesting question isn't whether the Republican agenda and the Obama agenda will intersect enough to get some laws passed and signed, but whether there will be a Republican agenda at all. What unites Republicans is hatred of Obama, not loyalty to their own leaders or to any particular plan of action. Again and again since he became Speaker four years ago, John Boehner has tried to negotiate with Obama, only to discover that he didn't have the votes to pass what he offered. (I love Steve Benen's summary: "the right hand doesn't know what the far-right hand is doing.") Now Mitch McConnell can join those games.

Case in point: ObamaCare. "Repeal and replace" makes a good slogan, and occasionally someone on the Republican side releases a sketch of a replacement. But any attempt to fill in the details always starts an argument that goes nowhere, and no actual replacement law ever gets voted on.

The argument about whether to pass laws or to continue monkey-wrenching everything to create issues for a 2016 presidential nominee has already started. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says Republicans need to "prove we could govern", while National Review warns about "the governing trap": Any attempt to find common ground with President Obama or Democrats in Congress should be avoided in favor of maneuvering for 2016.
not much progress is possible until we have a better president. Getting one ought to be conservatism’s main political goal over the next two years.

Here's the only reason for optimism: Mitch finally has the job he wants, and maybe he'll want to keep it. The 2016 Senate map look as bad for Republicans as 2014's did for Democrats. To hold the majority, McConnell will need to defend blue-state Republican senators like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Mark Kirk in Illinois. If he wants to help his party win the White House in 2016, he won't want to create jobs or do anything else that the outgoing Democratic administration can take credit for. But if he wants Ayotte and Kirk and the rest of his 24 incumbents to have some accomplishments to run on, he will.

OK, one more reason: Boehner's larger majority in the House means that he has a little room for error. He no longer needs the vote of every last Tea Party lunatic, every Louie Gohmert and Steve King, to pass a bill. So there's a chance he could actually deliver on a deal with Obama. Maybe.




The best thing I can hope for from President Obama these next two years is that he'll take an aw-fuck-it attitude and just do what he thinks is right, without worrying how the Republicans or the commentariat will react. His net neutrality statement seems like a good start.

and talking about the Supreme Court

Marriage equality is going to the Supreme Court sooner rather than later. That became inevitable Thursday when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals bucked the consensus of the other appellate courts and upheld several state bans on same-sex marriages.

You may remember that I have been consistently critical of Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Windsor, which came out in 2013. It produced the immediate results I wanted, but its legal reasoning was mushy; it didn't lay out clear principles that lower courts could follow in future cases. But since then -- until Thursday -- lower courts all over the country had ruled in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, finding that although Windsor didn't establish such a right, it left marriage equality's opponents without a place to stand.

As long as all the appellate courts agreed with that assessment, the Supremes could avoid the issue. But now, same-sex marriage bans violate equal-protection and due-process rights in some states, but are fine in others. There could be a ruling by the end of the term in June.

The disagreement between Sixth Circuit Judges Jeffrey Sutton (for the 2-1 majority) and Martha Daughtrey (dissenting) is stark. Sutton's opinion has a general air of condescension, like an elder uncle explaining something you kids are too young to understand: that courts are not legislatures, so they shouldn't be changing the "traditional definition of marriage". (Already there, you can tell he's going nowhere good, because there is no "traditional definition of marriage". Marriage has meant something different in every generation. In 1765, for example, it meant, "the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage".)

Sutton's opinion revolves around the question "who should decide" whether and how "the traditional definition of marriage" should change. He concludes that such social engineering is not his job, so he leaves state same-sex marriage bans in place. Daughtrey reminds Sutton that actually they both have a different job: American citizens have come to court asking for their rights, and the judges owe them an answer.
the majority treats both the issues and the litigants here as mere abstractions. Instead of recognizing the plaintiffs as persons, suffering actual harm as a result of being denied the right to marry where they reside or the right to have their valid marriages recognized there, my colleagues view the plaintiffs as social activists who have somehow stumbled into federal court, inadvisably, when they should be out campaigning to win “the hearts and minds” of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee voters to their cause. But these plaintiffs are not political zealots trying to push reform on their fellow citizens; they are committed same-sex couples, many of them heading up de facto families, who want to achieve equal status -- de jure status, if you will -- with their married neighbors, friends, and coworkers, to be accepted as contributing members of their social and religious communities, and to be welcomed as fully legitimate parents at their children’s schools. They seek to do this by virtue of exercising a civil right that most of us take for granted -- the right to marry.
ObamaCare. The Court will hear King v Burwell, the case that claims ObamaCare subsidies don't apply in the 36 states that left the federal government to set up the state exchanges. The case hangs on a quirk of wording in the Affordable Care Act. Traditionally, the Court has given the executive branch wide latitude to interpret a law in a way that succeeds in fulfilling Congress' intention in passing a law, rather than in a way that fails. And neither the record of congressional debate nor anything ACA sponsors have said afterwards lends credence to the idea that Congress intended to limit the subsidies in this way.

But no matter. When the Court first considered the ACA, it embraced an interpretation of the Commerce Clause that Congress never considered because it did not exist when the ACA was passed, and only a clever application of the Taxing Clause by Chief Justice Roberts saved the law. Four justices, it seems, will do whatever it takes to scuttle ObamaCare. The question is whether they can get a fifth.

Vox summarizes the situation here, and Balkinization provides a theory of what might be going on behind the scenes.

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The Ebola scare in Dallas is over. Friday, "the last person being monitored for symptoms of Ebola in Dallas was cleared by officials".

Nationally, the U.S. has had nine Ebola cases. One died, seven recovered, and one is still in treatment -- Dr. Craig Spencer, who returned to New York from Guinea and is in NYC's Bellevue Hospital. He is said to be improving and is listed in stable condition.




According to an exit poll, 63% of American voters believe that our economic system favors the rich. I wonder what the rest believe, and what color they think the sky is.




The voter-suppression group True the Vote distributed a smart-phone app to its members before the election, to help them document the massive "voter fraud" the organization ostensibly exists to fight. If anything, they documented the exact opposite.

and let's close with a warning from Ned Stark



With the Halloween line breached, nothing can stop it. Its carols and jingles are already echoing throughout the land.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Little by Little

Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.

-- Benjamin Franklin


This week's featured posts are "Vote. It's not nearly enough, but it's something." and "The Case for Voting Democrat".

And this is what I did during my week off.

This week everybody has been talking about the election


In case the non-stop TV ads haven't gotten through to you, the election is tomorrow. In many states you can vote today. Control of the Senate is up for grabs, there are a lot of cliff-hanging governor's races, and everybody has a House race. My case for voting is in "Vote. It's not nearly enough. But it's something." My more detailed case for voting for Democrats is in "The Case for Voting Democrat".

Normally, I do a viewer's guide for watching the election returns. But this year has so many weird Senate races that are close for their own unique reasons that I have no idea what's going to happen. The Democrats need an upset somewhere to hold the Senate, but there are a lot of places where that upset could happen. If the election had been held two weeks ago, when the nation was suffering a mysterious epidemic of fear, I think Republicans would have won easily. Since then, the stock market has recovered to a new high, ISIS has mostly been out of the headlines, and the news about Ebola has been more good than bad. So I think fear has receded and we're back in anything-can-happen territory.

Anyway, here's Daily Kos' map of poll-closing times.



 

and Ebola


The big story this week was the symptom-free nurse in Maine fighting Governor LePage's effort to quarantine her in her home. A court sided with the nurse. An NBC/WSJ poll says that 71% support quarantining health-care workers who come back from Ebola-afflicted areas. There's no reason to think such a quarantine is medically necessary, and it will intimidate American doctors and nurses who might otherwise take a month or two to go to Africa and fight this virus on the front lines. But people like to respond with decisive action when they're scared.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Sift's claim that Rand Paul had called for cuts in the CDC budget back in 2011 drew the attention of Politifact. (That's the first time my name has appeared in that column.) They judged the claim to be True. So I guess I can tell people that my Politifact score is 100%.




One of the stranger Tumblr pages is "Women Against Feminism". In the manner of "We Are the 99%", it consists of pictures of (mostly) young women holding up pieces of paper explaining why they don't need feminism. The fact that some young women feel that way isn't what's weird; it's a big country, a few people are bound to think almost anything. But here's the weird thing: Many of their self-described philosophies could be definitions of the feminism they say they don't need. Like:
I don't need feminism or masculism because the only thing that should determine my life is my own potential, not my gender (or race). We are all human and we should all be equal.

If you replace "I don't need feminism or masculism because" with "I am a feminist because", the quote makes perfect sense. I read this whole page not as a comment on feminism, but as a measure of just how successful the Right has been at tarring the word feminist. Women who by any reasonable definition are feminists have been convinced that they're anti-feminists, because feminism is ... some other damn thing.

The best counter I've heard -- not specifically to this Tumblr, but to similar stuff from celebrities like Shailene Woodley -- is this YouTube by marinashutup.




In what Jonathan Chait says may be "the craziest idea ever proposed by a Fox News personality", Fox' resident psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow called for "an American jihad". Because our constitution is a "sacred document" and our nation's founding is a "miracle", we have a "manifest destiny not only to preserve our borders and safety and national character at home, but to spread around the world our love of individual freedom and insist on its reflection in every government." That might mean fighting a bunch of wars, but they'd be justified, "Because wherever leaders and movements appear that seek to trample upon the human spirit, we have a God-given right to intervene — because we have been to the mountaintop of freedom, and we have seen the Promised Land spanning the globe."

Liberals have been saying for a while that the Right -- especially the Religious Right -- resembles the Taliban. But now at least one of them seems to be embracing that comparison himself.




The only possible thing I can follow that with is satirist Andy Borowitz:
President Obama is coming under increasing pressure to apologize for a controversial remark that he made on Tuesday, in which he said that the nation’s Ebola policy should be based on facts rather than fear.

and let's close with some wonderful Halloween costumes

Monday, October 20, 2014

Witch Problems

As there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials?

-- Judge Richard Posner

No Sift next week. The next articles will appear November 3, which is election eve.

This week's featured article is "7 Liberal Lessons of Ebola".

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

It's hard to know what to do when panic hits like this, except just keep repeating facts. Here are the new developments this week: a second nurse at the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Duncan has tested positive for the disease. She flew from Dallas to Cleveland and back during a period when she might have been contagious. So far no one she was in contact with has tested positive, though several schools closed because either students or parents had some connection to one of those flights; that response seems completely over-the-top. There was a brief scare surrounding a Yale student who got sick after returning from Liberia, but tests showed she did not have Ebola. Another scare concerned a cruise ship passenger, who also tested negative. Meanwhile, there still appears to be zero contagion from the three Ebola cases (Americans who caught the disease in Africa, then came home for treatment) treated at Emory University. Two have been treated and released. The third is expected to be released soon. A fourth case treated at the Nebraska Medical Center Biocontainment Unit is reported to be recovering, and likewise, seems not to have infected anyone else. There's been a serious attempt by conservatives to re-interpret "airborne contagion" so that it can apply to Ebola, which does not propagate through the air. The most egregious case of this was George Will, who reinterpreted "airborne" to mean fluid projected through the air. So yes, if you are on a plane with an Ebola-infected person, you might catch the disease if that person sneezed or spit or vomited directly on you. But if that's "airborne contagion", then blunt force trauma is also an airborne contagion, because I can throw a brick through the air.

and voting rights

It was a mixed week for the right to vote. It was bad in Texas, where a new voter-suppression law will go into effect, the Supreme Court having failed to block it. But Wisconsin's law will not be in force for the fall elections. It's been a good week for dissenting opinions, though. Justice Ginsberg and Appellate Judge Richard Posner (a conservative Reagan appointee who has been called "the most widely cited legal scholar of the 20th century" ) each took apart the justifications for these kinds of laws.

and the Catholic Church's Synod on the Family

A question everybody was asking after Francis became Pope was: "He says things that sound good, but is he actually going to change anything?" That picture is starting to come into focus. He hasn't been changing doctrine. In other words, women still can't be priests, birth control is still wrong, and so forth. But he's been trying to change emphasis -- making poverty and justice higher-priority issues than sex -- with mixed results. Witness the recent Synod on the Family, which assembled many Catholic bishops in Rome. Draft reports that were proposed for the Synod's approval did not change the Church's vision of the ideal family: a man and woman marrying one for life, staying together, and raising children. But it tempered the Church's approach to households that differed from that vision. It leaned towards meeting people where they are -- divorced, living in sin, or refusing to have children -- but appreciating what they are doing and trying to do with their lives, and then showing them the value of the church's vision, rather than just condemning their inability or refusal to measure up to the church's standards.
Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.
Similarly for same-sex couples, the document did not approve or endorse their relationships, but recognized that they express many of the same characteristics that the Church admires in its ideal marriages. The draft raised the question of how to welcome gays and lesbians while remaining true to Church teachings. None of those paragraphs garnered the 2/3s support necessary to make it into the final document, which has been interpreted as a defeat for Francis. But the conversation has been changed, and the momentum will be with Francis, who, after all, is responsible for appointing new bishops and cardinals. If he stays in office long enough, the hierarchy will slowly turn in his direction, even if he doesn't announce new infallible doctrine. While Francis may not have personally picked the more moderate Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to replace outspoken culture-warrior Timothy Dolan as the head of the U. S. Council of Bishops (the bishops elected him themselves), his election was clearly a move by the U.S. bishops to get in line with their Pope. Friday we got confirmation that the Pope has replaced another conservative American: Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been the head of the Vatican's highest court. This isn't over.

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2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record. So much for the claims that global warming ended in 1998, which should never have continued past 2005 and 2010.
Salon collects links from John Oliver, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert poking fun at the clueless ads aimed at getting women or young people to vote Republican.
As someone who has attended the Keene Pumpkin Festival -- which I recall as a quaint, family-oriented event -- two or three years ago, I'm embarrassed that it devolved into "destructive and raucous behavior" Saturday and resulted in police using tear gas. Interesting tongue-in-cheek response from TPM's Josh Marshall:
White culture of violence on harrowing display as New Hampshire college pumpkin festival degenerates into violence, mayhem and arrests.
That kind of captures white privilege right there. It never occurs to us that we might be called to answer for "white culture", but if a majority-black event goes awry ... well, what can you expect from those people? Raw Story captures a lot of snarky tweets related Keene to Ferguson, with the obvious difference: None of the white kids defying the police had to pay with their lives.
Meanwhile, it's not over in Ferguson.
The NYT wrote a major report on the injuries U. S. soldiers in Iraq received from chemical weapons that the Saddam regime had either lost or disposed of improperly. Some Bush apologists jumped on it to claim vindication on Bush's WMD claims, but Vox explains why they're wrong.
Rather, today's story reveals only that Iraq was sprinkled with aging, forgotten, and long-discarded warheads from Saddam's shuttered 1980s chemical weapons program — and that the Bush and Obama administrations have systematically covered up discoveries of those warheads, including the wounds they've caused American soldiers.

Paul Krugman wrote "In Defense of Obama" for Rolling Stone.
Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.
As you can tell from that paragraph, a positive view of Obama depends on judging him compared to what was possible or what other presidents have done, rather than holding him up to an ideal or comparing him to your own Inauguration Day fantasies.

and let's close with something inspiring

There are a bunch of great stories told on public radio -- way more than you hear on any one public radio station -- and most of the them eventually show up on the Public Radio Exchange web site. Here's a piece, "3rd Grade Audio" from the PRX series HowSound. Who but 3rd-grade reporters can explain the three ways to get a magnet back out, after you've stuck it up your nose? Afterthought: My sister (who taught elementary grades in the Chattanooga public schools) points out that this wonderful class is happening at a private school where tuition is well over $20K per kid per year. I guess when the rich choose a school for their own kids, they don't insist on the data-driven, teach-to-the-test model that billionaires like Bill Gates and Sam Walton's heirs want to impose on the public schools. I wonder why not.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Exaggeration

People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.

-- Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear


This week's summary is abbreviated because the two featured articles already exceed my targeted word count. They are "Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam" and "Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?"

Meanwhile, August's most popular post "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" keeps perking along. Last week it had its 150,000th page view, and is running slightly ahead of the pace of the Sift's most popular post ever, 2012's "The Distress of the Privileged", now at 336K views.

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola


From googling around and talking with my wife (who specializes in risk management), I've concluded that risk theorists do a bad job coming up with catchy names for common fallacies. Let me suggest that the principle in the opening quote be called "the Ebola fallacy". (If you already know a name for this, please leave a comment.)

Wednesday was the first time a person died of Ebola in the United States. Thomas Duncan (who flew here from Liberia) was also the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. (The handful of previous cases were Americans who contracted the disease in Africa, were diagnosed there, and returned to the U.S. for treatment.) Sunday, we got the first report of someone catching Ebola in this country: one of the people who treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

This is about what you'd expect from a hard-to-catch disease like Ebola. As CDC Director Tom Frieden explained: "Ebola has been in existence for decades—and has predominantly infected remote areas lacking basic health infrastructure."

And yet, from the public reaction you'd think Ebola was the biggest health problem in the country. It's all over the news. Lakeland Industries, which makes hazmat suits, has seen its stock soar 160% this month. Republican political candidates are citing the Ebola threat to support clamping down on the Mexican border. (So far there have been no Ebola cases in Central America. But when Republicans think about disease-carriers, Hispanics leap to mind.) And three Democrats joined 24 Republican members of Congress in calling for banning travelers from western Africa, and possibly quarantining Americans for three weeks after they return from western Africa .

And that's just the reaction from people who are trying to look respectable. The conspiracy theorists are going completely crazy. "The CDC is working with Border Patrol authorities and the Department of Homeland Security to disappear potential Ebola victims attempting to cross the border into the United States."

Meanwhile, about 700 Americans die in traffic accidents each week.

Want to be safer and live longer? Use seat belts. Don't smoke. Don't drink and drive. Eat better. Get the sleep you need. Exercise regularly. And if you need any additional motivation not to touch the bodily fluids of people who are visibly ill, maybe then you should think about Ebola. But stop obsessing about distant-but-horrible threats that have almost no chance of affecting you.

and the Senate


A few months ago, the political experts thought they understood the battle for the Senate: It would come down to four races where incumbent Democrats elected in 2008 were trying to hang on in a state Obama lost in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. If Democrats held two of those seats, they'd hold the Senate.

Things have gone crazy since then. Independent candidates are threatening supposedly secure Republican seats in Kansas and South Dakota. Republican challengers are running stronger than expected in Colorado and Iowa (despite the fact that the Iowa candidate is a loon). And Democratic challengers who were expected to fade in Georgia and Kentucky are stubbornly making a race of it.

Don't expect me to sort it out. Just vote, keep working for your favorite candidates, and be prepared for anything on Election Night.

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Grist's David Roberts rains on the parade of those who think they've found a way to talk to conservatives about climate change.
Clever messages that work on polls and in labs will only do their work if they can penetrate the bubble. Until you solve that dilemma, you can’t say you’ve found a way to appeal to conservatives, not in the real world, anyway.

And even if you can get some message through the bubble, can you get a true message through?
There’s a message on climate change that appeals to conservatives: We can confine ourselves to market mechanisms, we don’t need to raise taxes or regulate anything or redistribute any wealth, we can all make money. If we act on climate change, the socioeconomic and cultural systems you know can be preserved. There’s a message that works, but it is a lie.



The International Secret Intelligence Service is changing its name.




Another week, another clueless Republican ad aimed at women.

And let's close with a economics lesson

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Chinese Menu

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

-- Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed


This week's featured post is "A Conservative-to-English Lexicon, 2nd Edition".

This week everybody was talking about Hong Kong

Protests continue in Hong Kong, but they seem to be shrinking. The basic issue is simple: Rather than allow Hong Kong to choose its own leaders through elections (under what has been known as the "One Country, Two Systems" policy), the Chinese government wants limit voters to the choices it nominates. I'm reminded of a couplet from a song by Cake:

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.The wacky morning DJ says democracy's a joke.


I'm rooting for the protesters, but it's going to be embarrassing if China does the Occupy thing better than America. Here's something else that I expect to embarrass me: If the government puts the hammer down, I'm sure they'll justify themselves by pointing to how our cops dealt with our Occupy protesters.

Remember this guy?

and Ebola


The U.S. has its first case of Ebola, a man who flew here from Liberia. But as it says on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't Panic."

Let's start with the basics: Ebola is not something you catch easily, like the flu. You can't get it through the air; you have to be in physical contact with an infected person or his/her bodily fluids. You typically don't catch it from people who aren't showing symptoms yet, the way you might catch a cold.

If you get it, it's nasty. It kills about 60% of the people infected. It's a virus, so antibiotics don't work. Some people have been cured, but there's no well-established magic bullet. But it's also not like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. It's not going to sweep the country overnight and kill us all.

There have been a number of outbreaks over the years in Africa, because it lives there in bats, apes, and a few other wild species, and humans can catch it from handling an animal corpse or eating the undercooked meat of an infected animal. (Have you eaten any raw bats lately? Good. Stay away from Ozzy Osborne.) Outbreaks among humans normally get contained -- even in densely populated parts of Africa that have inadequate medical systems -- by good hygiene protocols.
Ebola can completely disappear from humans for years at a time. For example, there were zero recorded cases of Ebola in 2005 or 2006.

So as I was saying, the odds of a pandemic in the U.S. are pretty small.

But the idea of Ebola is scary, so opportunists are using it as an excuse to do what they want to do anyway: keep foreigners out of the country. As a representative from the anti-immigration scare group the Center for Immigration Studies wrote:
Our government must simply deny admission to any non-U.S. citizen who has been in the afflicted countries in the recent past, until the crisis is over. The most fundamental purpose of immigration controls is to protect our homeland, and our leaders must end their chronic reluctance to use them.

Shame on the NYT for giving CIS a platform. As the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out:
[CIS's] studies have hardly been neutral. One of them concludes that because foreign women ("Third World gold-diggers") can obtain work permits by marrying American citizens, it's obvious that fraudulent marriage applications are "prevalent among terrorists." Another claims that because many immigrants have worked in Georgia since 2000, it's clear that unemployment among less educated native workers is up. A third says that because immigration levels have been high recently, immigrants make up a growing share of those drawing welfare.

But every one these claims, each of them at the heart of a different recent report from CIS, are either false or virtually without any supporting evidence. That came to fore again last September, when CIS organized a panel to accompany the release of yet another new report, this one claiming that municipalities in substantial numbers were permitting non-citizens to vote. When challenged, the panelists could only come up with a single possible example of the purported trend.

"CIS' attempts to blame immigrants for all of the U.S.'s problems have been laughable," said Angela Kelley of the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.

and Eric Holder's successor


A Huffington Post article suggests a number of qualified people. But one nutty idea making the rounds is that President Obama should name a Republican.
naming an attorney general from the opposite party would tend to make the administration of justice bipartisan, and would provide considerable reassurance, as Holder’s tenure in office emphatically did not, that the powers of law enforcement were not being abused in service of partisan ends.

The model here is what FDR did during the lead-up to World War II: name Republican Harry Stimson as Secretary of War. By doing this, Roosevelt was pointing out that defending the country was really not a partisan issue.

But the administration of justice is a partisan issue, because Republicans do not want to enforce civil right or voting rights laws. (Neither party has the audacity to enforce antitrust laws against our corporate masters, but that's a different article.) Find me a Republican who will stand up for the right of Texas Hispanics to vote, or who wants to do something about the racial injustice that makes our prisons overwhelmingly black, and then we can talk.

and the Secret Service


Like Ebola, you might think the Secret Service would be beyond partisanship, because we all agree that our president and his family should be kept safe. Guess again. Speaker of the North Carolina House and Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis:
It’s just another example of failures in this administration. They need to start getting serious about homeland security and national security.

Yep. President Obama is not "serious" about protecting himself or his family against assassination.

but not enough people are talking about jobs


If they were, President Obama would be more popular. The latest job report was good, and the unemployment rate fell below 6% for the first time since the housing bubble collapsed at the end of the Bush administration.

A month out from the fall elections, the headlines have turned away from pocketbook issues like the success of ObamaCare, the economy's improvement, or proposals to raise the minimum wage. The federal deficit has fallen from $1.4 billion in FY 2009 to a projected $500 billion in FY2014. But who's paying attention? Instead, we're focused on fear issues like ISIS and Ebola. This can't be good for Democrats.

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Can't anybody spell these days? If there's a coven of these people, I really worry about what they might inadvertently conjure up. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was bad enough.




So: It is possible to convict a white man of murdering a black teen in Florida. William Dunn is guilty and faces life in prison, even though Jordan Davis was 17, black, and in an SUV with other young black men. The jury determined that playing music too loud in a gas station parking lot was not a sufficient provocation. A previous jury had deadlocked.


The Daily Mail explains in one map how children's freedom to roam has collapsed in recent generations. If this continues, the next generation of kids will never leave their homes without adult supervision.




So in the future we're going to be competing with a major economic power in which all universities are tuition-free.
“Tuition fees are socially unjust,” said Dorothee Stapelfeldt, senator for science in Hamburg, which scrapped charges in 2012.

“They particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

In particular, young Americans of the 99%, your German rivals are not starting their careers in debt slavery. States here in America used to do something similar, back before the Reagan Revolution. If your parents went to a state university, ask them how much it cost.




You have until Halloween to submit your entry to National Geographic's annual photo contest. The Atlantic provides 32 examples of what you'll be up against.



 

and let's close with something incredible


When wolves returned to Yellowstone after a 70-year absence, they didn't just change the bio-system, they changed the geography.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Appeasement

Conservatives love to vilify anyone who doesn't want to immediately throw down as "appeasers". But when you're dealing with terrorists whose aim is to bait us into overreaction, and you oblige them, aren't you the appeaser?

-- Bill Maher


This week's featured posts are "A Conservative Lexicon with English Translation" and "Classism and Corporal Punishment".

This week everybody was talking about Eric Holder


The Attorney General is retiring as soon as President Obama names and the Senate confirms a replacement. So this week was a time for retrospectives on Holder's tenure.

If you are liberal, you criticize Holder for not prosecuting fraud on Wall Street and failing to protect civil liberties against NSA snooping, but you admire his defense of voting rights against voter-suppression laws. If you're conservative, Holder is the villain of countless conspiracy theories like Fast & Furious, and you hate his defense of voting rights against voter-suppression laws.

One Holder policy is already showing results: This year the number of Americans in federal prison dropped for the first time since 1980. The U.S. incarceration rate "leads" all major nations (behind only Seychelles among countries of any sort) with 707 per 100K. Canada manages to avoid anarchy with only 118 inmates per 100K, so our rate could probably stand to come down.




If Republicans gain control of the Senate, confirming Holder's replacement could be a major headache, no matter who it is. Republicans are already raising the constitutionally bizarre idea that it would be illegitimate for the Senate to confirm Holder's replacement in the lame-duck session after the election.

Historically, cabinet appointments have been confirmed without much fanfare, unless some scandal is found in the appointee's background. Only during the Obama administration have appointments been contested in general, independent of the individual appointed. Compare, for example, President Bush's most difficult appointment: John Bolton as U. N. ambassador. Senate Democrats objected to Bolton personally, not to the idea of Bush appointing an ambassador to the U.N.

and war


The air war against ISIS expanded to Syria this week. Vox observes:
This is a huge success for Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader has now convinced the world's most powerful country, which was threatening to bomb him just a year ago, to instead bomb his enemies. There is a strong indication that this was his plan all along.

And we also attacked a Syrian jihadist group not previously in the headlines: Khorasan, which the administration claims is plotting attacks inside the U.S.

Consensus opinion is that ISIS can't be defeated purely from the air; somebody is going to have to provide troops. The Kurdish Peshmerga is effective fighting force in the Kurdish region of Iraq, but it remains to be seen whether they will want to advance into Kurdish regions of eastern Syria ... or what will happen if they do. Kurdish unity and independence is one of the longstanding issues of the region, and our NATO ally Turkey is firmly against it.

and the fall election


Apparently Republicans believe women vote by falling in love with a dreamy candidate, rather than by thinking about issues like men do. At least, that's the image this ad presents: a young, pretty, woman of indeterminate race who's ready to "break up" with Obama and vote against "his friends" in 2014.

Naturally, the ad was created by one man (Rick Wilson) and paid for by another (John Jordan). Because who understands women better than men do, amirite? Joan Walsh calls it "condescending" and Vox finds it "weird". I wouldn't be surprised if more liberal blogs are linking to it than conservative ones.

It's hard to imagine that any woman who isn't already anti-Obama will be swayed, but maybe that's the point. Maybe Republicans are trying to keep their already-committed women in line, lest they defect to a female senate candidate like Kay Hagan, or to a male candidate who respects them like Mark Udall.




Dr. Ben Carson hasn't formally announced yet, but he seems to be running for president. This is the kind of thoughtful commentary you can expect in the 2016 Republican primaries:
WALLACE: You said recently that there might not even be elections in 2016 because of widespread anarchy. Do you really believe that?

CARSON: I hope that that’s not going to be the case. But certainly there’s the potential because you have to recognize that we have a rapidly increasing national debt, a very unstable financial foundation, and you have all these things going on like the ISIS crisis that could very rapidly change things that are going on in our nation. And unless we begin to deal with these things in a comprehensive way and in a logical way there is no telling what could happen in just a couple of years.

Saturday, Carson finished second to Ted Cruz in the presidential straw poll at the Values Voters Summit.

and spanking


The Adrian Peterson controversy provoked me to write "Classism and Corporal Punishment".

and occasionally people have been talking about this blog


I hope someday it will seem like no big deal to notice Digby's Hullabaloo or David Brin (you'll have to scroll down some) discussing a Sift post, but that day has not yet come. I still get little chills from stuff like that.

but not nearly enough people talked about the People's Climate March


If you'd ever bought into the idea of liberal media bias, the People's Climate March should have snapped you out of it. Hundreds of thousands of people (organizers claimed 400K, but I haven't found a disinterested estimate) turned out last Sunday (the 21st), with supporting rallies in over 200 cities around the world. The network news shows that day discussed it not at all.

Imagine if the same number had showed up to demand a balanced budget or a new Benghazi investigation or something. It would have driven ISIS off the front pages.

Nothing to see here. Move along.


At least Jon Stewart talked about it, and connected it to the infuriating display of stupidity that is the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
How far back to the elementary school core curriculum do we have to go to get someone on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology caught up? Do we have to bring out the paper mache and the baking soda so you can make a fucking volcano? Is that what we have to do?

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

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Another amazing John Oliver rant, this time about the Miss America Pageant.




A can't-miss interview with the Notorious RBG.


A very thought-provoking article by Ezekiel Emmanuel, the director of clinical ethics at NIH: "Why I Hope To Die at 75". He's my age (57) and in good health. He's not proposing suicide, euthanasia, or medical rationing. He's just saying that extending your life past 75 comes with an ever-increasing risk of disability, depression, or dementia.

The article has drawn a lot of my-Dad-is-89-and-doing-great comments -- and hey, look at RBG at 81 -- but that misses the point. Emmanuel thinks extended life is a bad gamble, so personally, he plans to start cutting back on medical tests and treatments as he approaches 75. If he turns out to be healthy as a horse at 90 anyway, great -- he won the lottery.

Because of Emmanuel's role in drawing up ObamaCare, his article has also draw a lot of weird we-knew-there-were-death-panels comments from the tin-foil-hat people, including the predictable National Review types, whose bizarre fantasies and nightmares often get in the way of understanding what anyone else says.




The bogus Obama "scandals" I talked about in "What Should Racism Mean?" are still happening.




I've had a soft spot in my heart for Emma Watson ever since she punched out Draco Malfoy. But her UN speech opens the door to a more mature admiration.
I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.

Then there was that whole little drama about someone threatening to release nude photos of her in revenge for that speech -- which turned out to be a hoax leading to another hoax, neither of which had anything to do with Watson.

What is the world coming to when you can't even trust the people threatening to release nude photos of celebrities? I'm reminded of the sad comment bank robber Willie Sutton made in his autobiography Where the Money Was, explaining why his accomplices kept turning him in. "You involve yourself with a very low grade of person when you become a thief." Maybe the same is true when you go looking for involuntary porn.


As a former high school newspaper editor, my sympathies are with Neshaminy High School student editor Gillian McGoldrick and her faculty supervisor, who have both been suspended over the paper's refusal to use the name of the school's team: Redskins.

The school administration is giving you a fabulous education, Gillian. The lesson they're teaching is not the one they think they're teaching, but you will value this experience for the rest of your life.

As for the faculty advisor Tara Huber: You probably knew that lesson already, but I hope it's some comfort to realize that your students will never forget you.




Two recent novels have interesting stuff to say about technology about the possibly destructive interplay between new technology and giant corporations. In The Circle by Dave Eggers, the Circle is a Google/Amazon/Apple/Facebook/Twitter combination that is idealistically trying to "complete the circle" by making all human experience available to everybody. "Privacy is theft" because it denies other people information they have a right to know. The novel recounts the narrator's gradual absorption by the cultish corporate culture, where "smiles" and "frowns" from strangers replace all genuine human relationships.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon examines the issue of letting corporations control access to our cultural heritage. (Picture Amazon's control of book distribution, or NetFlix' increasing monopoly on our film library.) What if a monopolistic online "word exchange" drove dictionaries to extinction? The corporation would then have an interest in seeing language change quickly, so that you'd have to look up more words. And then things get out of hand.




It's been blocked on YouTube, but you can still see Greenpeace's rising-seas version of "Everything Is Awesome", a song from The Lego Movie.




Privatization in action: The multinational corporation that bought the operating rights to the Indiana Toll Road just filed for bankruptcy. It turns out that things don't get magically more efficient as soon as government is out of the picture.




We used to say, "If we can send a man to the Moon, why can't we ... ?" Maybe the new version should be "If India can send a spacecraft to Mars for less than a billion dollars, why can't we ... ?"

and let's close with something amazing


When you watch Ana Yang perform, and then consider what she must know about the tensile strength of various liquids and the ways their bubbles behave when blown up with certain gases, it brings home the old Arthur Clarke adage: Sufficiently advanced technology really does look like magic.