Monday, May 3, 2010

What Goes Without Saying


People will do anything, no matter how stupid, in order to avoid facing their own souls. -- Carl Jung

In this week's Sift:
  • The Thing Behind the Thing. Lying behind the issues we argue about are the issues we take for granted. When those get challenged, things get ugly.
  • Oil Spill. It's too soon to say much about the spill other than: Nobody had a plan for this.
  • Guest Workers. If we need workers, why can't we just let people immigrate normally, become citizens someday, and vote?
  • Chickens for Check-ups. Sue Lowden's idea is silly even without the chickens.
  • Short Notes. The economy muddles along. Nova's "Mind Over Money". How lobbyists corrupt government. Covering Virginia's racy state seal. A survey of crazy state legislation. Soldiers go GaGa. And more.

The Thing Behind the Thing
Politics is like marriage in some ways.

In marriage, the most unbridgeable differences are the ones that go without saying -- the stuff that everybody knows, or should know; the unstated (maybe even unconscious) assumptions about how the world works. One spouse assumes that marriage leads immediately to children, the other that a long negotiation will happen first. In either case, it's just what people do; anything else would be weird. Of course Mom will live with us when she can't take care of herself any more. Of course we'll move across the country when I get that big promotion. Of course we'll buy a minivan and a house in the suburbs when the baby comes.

Of course. It goes without saying.

Politics is like that too. We have a lot of very public issues and debates going on in this country: what to do about immigration, energy, health care, unemployment, the deficit, and so on. But behind them all lurk a few issues that we don't talk about, because they just seem to be common sense. When someone disagrees with us on those underlying issues, we aren't puzzled or fascinated or motivated to gather evidence and make our case more clearly. We get mad. We feel violated. What kind of villains are we dealing with here?

This week I'm going to try to tease out a few of those issues and see how they play out in immigration and in the Tea Party. Maybe in future Sifts I'll think about how to get a conversation started.

The Law. Where does the Law get its authority?

In one view, the Law comes from Beyond. Maybe it was ordained by God. Maybe evolution has encoded it in our genes. Maybe the Universe is set up in such a way that only one kind of society really works. For whatever reason, the True Law exists in some place that we can't touch. The statutes written in our law books deserve our allegiance only to the extent that they mirror this "natural" law. Arguments about social good miss the point, because it doesn't matter who gains or loses. The Law is the Law.

In the other view, the Law is a social contract. We obey it because it protects us, and we obey the parts that work to our personal disadvantage because overall a lawful society works to everyone's advantage. Or at least it should. But if the-Law-as-a-whole works against you -- say, by making you a slave or trying to wipe out your people -- it loses its hold on you. Law-makers (and all citizens in a democracy) are obligated to offer everyone as fair a contract as possible. To the extent that the Law fails that test, it loses its authority.

That sounds very abstract, but look at illegal immigration through these two lenses. Picture a young Mexican couple living in poverty under a corrupt government, seeing no opportunity for a better life no matter how hard they work. Across some invisible line in the desert is America and all that America represents.

What's their obligation to the American law that would keep them out? If the Law is the Law, if "there is no authority except what God has established," then they become villains the instant they set foot our country. But if the Law is a social contract, when did they consent to that contract and what benefit have they ever received from it? In that view their obligations to American law begin after they get here, when the Law begins to protect and benefit them. We may choose to enforce the Law on border-jumpers for our own purposes, the same way that we might chase crows out of our corn. But the crows aren't villains; they just don't participate in the system that declares the corn to be ours.

Punishment. Conservatives believe instinctively that if something has gone wrong, someone should be punished. (Except possibly the rich.) That urge to punish after 9-11 provided the energy for our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it forms the resistance to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants: Illegal immigration causes problems, so we have to punish someone. I haven't seen the numbers, but I'll bet there's a huge correlation between people's opposition to amnesty and the importance of Hell in their religion.

The People. Tea Party types are constantly talking about the American People: Government should listen to the People. Government has turned its back on the People. The People need to take their country back.

But who are "the People"?

"The People" is a code whose meaning is mostly unconscious: "The People" are straight white Christians. Straight white Christians voted for McCain/Palin by a wide margin, particularly in rural areas and in the South, the center of Tea Party activity. And yet somehow they have wound up being governed by Barack Obama, who is not white and whose Christianity they find suspect.

Clearly America has ceased to be a democracy, because "the People" no longer rule.

Straight white Christians were such a large majority for so long that they got used to the idea that they are America. But they can't defend that point consciously, so they have to make up all kinds of nonsense about Obama to justify their feelings. They deny up and down that it's really about race, and most of them even believe it.

Look at the article A Stranger in Our Midst by a retired polysci professor. It appeared Thursday on a fairly popular right-wing blog and was recounted at length by Rush Limbaugh. Its tone is not angry or hateful; this is a thoughtful person trying to get to the bottom of his discontent -- and failing. He's trying to put his finger on what feels wrong about "the Obama administration and its congressional collaborators" and concludes that they feel like "a foreign occupying force". But of course "It is not about Obama's birthplace. It is not about race, either;" it's about his "outsider values".

And the evidence for these "outsider values"? The author can't bring himself to endorse the Birther nonsense outright, so he points to Obama's "hazy personal background", his "enduring friendship" with Bill Ayers, his "bowing to foreign potentates", the health-care bill that "consumes one-sixth of our GDP" and will result in a "swarm" of "recently hired IRS agents", the idea that community activism or its long-dead strategist Saul Alinsky are somehow un-American or anti-American, or that Obama has now "sided with illegal aliens over the State of Arizona". This stuff has been debunked repeatedly: It's all either made up, wildly exaggerated, similar to what previous presidents did, or just plain wacky. (Has Cuban-American Tea Party hero Marco Rubio also sided with illegal aliens against Arizona? What about Jeb Bush?)

The fact that Nancy Pelosi represents San Francisco -- rather than someplace in America -- "exacerbates the strangeness." And somehow it is Obama's personal responsibility that trust in government has been falling for decades in all industrial democracies.

Why all the nonsense, even among people who ought to know better? Obama generates these feelings because he symbolizes an unthinkable fact: In the 21st century straight white Christians (particularly in the South and in rural areas) are out of touch with America. America is now a country where racial minorities, religious minorities, feminists, gays, urban cosmopolitans, and various other once-out-of-the-mainstream groups now constitute a sizable majority. They are America now, as much as anybody is.

But that explanation is unacceptable, so there has to be another one -- anything, no matter how stupid.

Oil Spill
I'm reluctant to say much about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, because it continues to expand and we don't know how bad it will get. It's still a day-to-day story, not a weekly. TPM has a good summary of how the crisis has unfolded and collects some spectacular photos.

But already this much is becoming clear: When we drill in water this deep, we're just counting on something like this not happening. Now that it has happened, there is no plan. Even the "experts" are flying by the seat of their pants.

[Full disclosure: I own stock in Transocean, the company that leased the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. All the corporations involved are already pointing fingers at each other. Transocean built the rig, Halliburton installed it, BP operated it -- any or all of them may be at fault. In classic corporate PR style, Transocean's web site began its discussion of the 11 deaths -- including 9 Transocean employees -- like this: "Of the 126-member crew, 115 were safely evacuated."]

Best lines. Brad Johnson, on the approval of the Cape Wind offshore wind farm:
I'm worried about all those wind turbines blowing up and leaving a wind-slick on the coast of Cape Cod.
David Letterman (via Politico Playback):
The good news is that they think now that the oil spill will be diluted by the melting ice caps.
Jimmy Kimmel (also from Politico Playback):
This is exactly why I keep saying that America must end its dependence on domestic oil. ... Right? Let's just buy the stuff from countries that hate us. If it spills on them, good!
Jay Leno (also from Politico Playback):
The oil companies are promising to clean this whole mess up. And believe me, if you've ever been to a gas station restroom, you know how good they are at cleaning up messes.
Bill Mahr (at about the 1 minute mark of the first video):
I'm mad at the people who go "Drill, baby, drill." And by the way, they should turn up on the Gulf Coast and start cleaning up the birds with their "Drill, Baby, Drill" t-shirts.

Grist collects conservative comments on the spill.

Guest Workers
Now that we've started talking about comprehensive immigration reform again, the idea of a guest-worker program has resurfaced. It's usually presented as a common-sense, middle-of-the-road idea that shouldn't be controversial.

And yes, having guest workers with some legitimate legal status would be an improvement on illegal immigrants who are shut out of our legal system, can't complain if they're abused, and are afraid to seek treatment when they get sick. (Imagine if H1N1 really had been the great plague the epidemiologists are worried about. How do you vaccinate or quarantine people whose existence you can only guess at?)

But if we need more workers (which is debatable considering our unemployment rate), why shouldn't we bring in people who will become citizens eventually?

Ever since capitalism and democracy started cohabiting, capitalists have dreamed of a labor force that can't vote. That may be great for capitalism, but it's bad for democracy. Bringing people in to do our dirtiest jobs and then sending them home undermines a core American value: the dignity of work. If working to keep American society going doesn't earn you a stake in that society, then what does?

A program that brings in temporary workers only makes sense if the need for those workers is temporary. If our citizens were mobilized to fight a World-War-II type war, then I could see bringing in workers that we expected to send home when the war was over. If we needed more workers at the peak of an economic boom and we expected those jobs to go away in the next recession, then I could see temporary workers. One-of-a-kind jobs where we need to import a particular specialist for a few years, fine. But if our society has a long-term need for people to pick our vegetables, sweep our floors, watch our children, and mow our lawns, then why shouldn't those roles be filled by long-term residents who eventually become citizens and vote?

The only answer I can see is either that we don't respect those roles, or we don't respect the racial/ethnic groups who come to this country to fill those roles. Neither position is anything to be proud of.

Major newspapers apparently don't fact-check their op-eds at all these days, so you have to read them very carefully. Example: Thursday's NYT had an op-ed defending Arizona's immigration law written by Kris Kobach the former John Ashcroft aide who apparently wrote the law. The article rebutted several criticisms, including that the law "will allow police to engage in racial profiling."

No, no, no, Kobach writes.
Actually, Section 2 provides that a law enforcement official “may not solely consider race, color or national origin” in making any stops or determining immigration status.
The link goes to the text of the law. If you chase it, though, you might notice that the end of the sentence is "except to the extent allowed by the United States and Arizona constitution."

In other words, an official may consider race, color, or national origin to the full extent allowed by the state and federal constitutions. Since a mere statute can't over-rule a constitution anyway, this is as far as the Arizona legislature can possibly go to allow racial profiling, not to ban it.

Arizona swiftly passed a revision of the law -- also apparently written by Kobach -- to blunt some of the most unanswerable criticism. But it doesn't help much. For example, the word "solely" is taken out of the sentence quoted above. If the sentence had protected anybody to begin with, it would protect more people now. But, as I note above, the "except" clause at the end makes its apparent protections meaningless, then and now.

Atlantic's senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates deserves to be quoted at length:
Defenders of the law will say that police still have to stop you for something, and they still have to "suspect" that you did something. Forgive, but I don't find that comforting. Amadou Diallo is dead because the police "suspected" he was drawing a gun. Oscar Grant is dead because the police "suspected" he needed to be tased. My old friend, Prince Jones, Howard University student and father of a baby girl, was murdered by the police in front of his daughter's home because police "suspected" he was a drug-dealer. (The cop was not kicked off the force.) Only a year ago, I was stopped in Chelsea, coming from an interview with NPR, because police "suspected" I was the Latino male who'd recently robbed someone. ... I don't want to be cheap here, but it needs to said that when you actually know decent people who are dead because of our insane drug war, your perspective on police power changes. This is a multi-million dollar lawsuit waiting to happen. Someone is going to get killed. And the fact that "the vast majority of police are awesome" will not bring them back.

Chickens For Check-Ups
Nevada senate candidate Sue Lowden has taken a lot of heat for her chickens for check-ups suggestion that you barter with your doctor, and she deserves it. But the problem with her thinking is more serious than just the ridiculous image of chickens in the doctor's office.

Let's give Lowden the full benefit of the doubt. Within a small town or a close-knit church community, maybe a doctor who knows you and understands your financial problems would give your kid a check-up in exchange for ... OK, not a chicken, but piano lessons or car repair or some other bit of barter.

So what? Healthy people paying for check-ups isn't the real problem in health care. That's not what pushes so many people into bankruptcy. The problem is how you'll pay if they find something seriously wrong with you. What are you going to barter to get kidney dialysis or chemotherapy or the 24/7 care your dad might need in the late stages of Alzheimer's?

Let's do a back-of-the-envelope maximum-cost calculation: There are about 300 million Americans. Suppose we all get a check-up every year (which we don't). Say that a simple check-up without lab tests costs $200. That's $60 billion a year. In any other context $60 billion is a lot of money, but as a nation we spend more than $2 trillion on health care each year -- more than $7,000 per person.

In other words, even if doctors would agree to make check-ups free, it wouldn't put a dent in the overall cost of health care. So even without the silly imagery, Lowden's talk about negotiating with your doctor is just a distraction. Like all the other Republican health-care "solutions", it's not on the same scale as the problem.

Here's what you're up against when you back an argument with statistics: Conservative think tanks get unlimited amounts of corporate funding to fuzz things up. For example, I just mentioned the large number of medical bankruptcies. Well, that's a myth, say researchers at the Fraser Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. If medical expenses were causing American bankruptcies, the bankruptcy rate in Canada (where they have socialized medicine) would be much lower. In fact, the Canadian bankruptcy rate in 2006 and 2007 was higher than our rate.

Take that, Obamabot socialists!

Well, not so fast. Maybe our bankruptcy rate was lower in 2006 and 2007 because we changed our laws in 2005 to make bankruptcy much harder to declare. The Rabble News Service checked, and it turns out that 2006 and 2007 were the only two recent years when Canada had a higher bankruptcy rate. For the six years before the 2005 law took effect, our rate was about 75% higher than Canada's. And by 2008, it was back to being higher.

Hmmm. I wonder why the conservative think tanks didn't notice that.

Short Notes
This good summary of where the economy is comes from The Big Picture blog. The gist: recovery, but still a spotty and sluggish one.
If you have a decent broadband connection, you can watch Nova online whenever you want. Check out their Mind Over Money episode about the role of emotion in markets. If you design the rules cleverly, people will bid $28 for a $20 bill, markets will assign a positive value to securities everybody knows are worthless, and much much more.
Matt Yglesias sums up Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson's position on financial reform:
So he wanted the same thing Berkshire wanted, and he owns shares in Berkshire, and Berkshire is located in his home state, and he filibustered the bill, but he didn’t filibuster the bill because of Berkshire’s concerns. It’s just a big coincidence. Now we’re clear.

A site worth paying attention to is the Sunlight Foundation, whose motto is "Transparency in Government". (The mission statement fleshes that out a little: "The Sunlight Foundation uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.") They have a blog and a press center.

Their Revolving Door From Capitol Hill to Big Banks article is worth reading. It discusses the 145 former government employees who are currently working as lobbyists for the six biggest banks. If you ever wonder why not even retiring congressmen seem to have much independence from the special interests, that's why. A congressman who plays ball can retire into a lucrative lobbying career. It's perfectly legal, because nothing so gauche as a bribe is necessary. A former colleague stops by for a chat and lets you know how well Goldman Sachs pays him to do nothing more than wander around chatting with people. You get the message.
Thanks to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Roman goddess on the state seal will no longer expose her breast.
Lest you think that the Arizona immigration law is an aberration: They just passed another law banning ethnic studies programs and preventing teachers with "heavy accents" from teaching English. Back in the 90s Arizona recruited a lot of Spanish-speaking teachers for bilingual education, but then in 2000 the voters passed a referendum banning bilingual ed. Now the plan seems to be to force out the teachers who managed to get absorbed into the English-only program.
And lest you think Arizona has a monopoly on crazy, TPM collects nutty legislation introduced or passed in other states. My favorites: California, Wisconsin, and North Dakota have passed laws against the forced implantation of microchips in human beings, in spite of the fact that this seems only to happen in paranoid fantasies. And in Georgia you can now carry your licensed firearms into airports, all the way up to the security check-point where the feds take over. If there's a shoot-out in front of the Cinnabon, wouldn't you hate to be left out?
Viral video: Soldiers in Afghanistan remake Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video.

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