Monday, July 26, 2010


The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye. The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In this week's Sift:

  • The Ground Zero Mosque. Mainstream opponents of the mosque rely on a lot of unstated assumptions. Uglier voices go ahead and state them.
  • If Republicans Take the House. Remember the Clinton years? That's what they've got in mind.
  • Disinformation Watch. The Shirley Sherrod incident lowlighted a big week for disinformation, but there was some encouraging pushback.
  • Short Notes. June and climate change were both too hot for the Senate; Jane Austen's Fight Club; Judge Napolitano says Bush should have been indicted; don't take your gun to mass; Arizona shows what Tea Party principles are like in practice; Ohio's giant Chia pet; more bogus trends; my news fantasy; and Top Secret America.

The Ground Zero Mosque

One tactic of polarization is for each side to trumpet the nastiest stuff on the other side -- as if this kind of extremism is typical among your opponents, who all think this way when they're not trying to present a reasonable public image.

And so an offensive YouTube video often gets more attention from its foes than its fans. That happened back in 2003 when MoveOn sponsored a "Bush in 30 Seconds" competition to make and upload your own anti-Bush video. Somebody uploaded an ad comparing Bush to Hitler, which MoveOn decided was offensive and took down -- but not before conservatives had grabbed it and prominently displayed it on their own web sites as an example of MoveOn's liberal extremism. (It's still being used that way.) So the Bush/Hitler video has probably been viewed far more often by conservatives than by liberals.

I try to keep that example in mind while I sift the news, because my goal is to keep Sift readers well-informed, not just pissed off. So when I run across some example of right-wing hate or ignorance, I try to ask myself: How important is this? Is it an example of an attitude that is widespread and influential, or is it just a few crazies representing no one but themselves?

This long build-up is necessary because the debate over the proposed Cordoba House, a.k.a, the Ground Zero Mosque, has pulled a lot of the nasties out of their holes. The protests range from mainstream Republican leaders like Sarah Palin, who issued this joycean tweet:

Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate

to the lunatic fringe, who are virulently anti-Muslim. The question is how much attention those harsher voices deserve: Do they have an actual following? And is there a clear division between what they're saying and what the mainstream voices are saying, or are they fleshing out what Palins and Gingrichs merely hint at?

In this case I've decided that the ugly voices do have a sizable following, and that often they are saying explicitly what the mainstream voices only imply.

The main idea behind all the anti-mosque activists -- ire against a mosque visible from Ground Zero makes no sense otherwise -- is collective guilt. Muslims blew up the World Trade Center in 2001 and now Muslims are building a mosque nearby. We are supposed to think of them as the same people. This ad, put out by the National Republican Trust (no direct connection to the Republican National Committee), makes it clear:

On September 11, they declared war against us. And to celebrate that murder of three thousand Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.

Who? They.

This video, whose reasonable-sounding narrator is nobody famous, but whose message has been viewed more than 2 million times, takes it a step further. Muslims -- even apparently secularized, Westernized American Muslims -- are not just tainted with collective guilt, they are actually rooting for the downfall of the United States:

Those of you who know -- personally -- who know Muslims close enough to where they can tell you what they really think, you know this is actually quite common: Good citizens in public, not-so-good citizens in private. Interestingly, this dual Muslim nature is advocated in the Koran.

So if you think that Ali (who has lived next door or worked with you for years) is actually a good guy -- think again. His religion tells him to be tricky. Secretly he was dancing for joy when the Twin Towers went down.

The second, related idea is that we're not chasing down a conspiracy of international criminals, we're at war with Islam itself -- all 1.5 billion Muslims. Newt Gingrich, for example, blogged this:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

This only makes sense if you assume several incredible things.

  • The Christendom and Judaism are at war with Islam.
  • The United States plays a role in that war comparable to Saudi Arabia's; churches and synagogues are "ours" while mosques are "theirs".
  • Religious intolerance is a valuable tactic in that war, a source of strength.
  • We have handicapped ourselves by swearing off this tactic while our enemy uses it.

I don't see how else to reach Gingrich's remarkable conclusion that the United States ought to take Saudi Arabia as its model, basing our behavior on what they do. And it's not just Newt. If you watch Fox News or read the comments on just about any online article about the Ground Zero mosque, you'll find many people echoing his point: We ought to be intolerant because the Muslim countries are.

Mayor Bloomberg has the right answer:

I think our young men and women overseas are fighting for exactly this. For the right of people to practice their religion and for government to not pick and choose which religions they support, which religions they don't.

To which I would add this: We respect religious freedom not as part of some deal with the rest of the world, but because that is the American way. We see it as a source of strength, not weakness, and we'll do it whether anybody else does or not.

The Founders would be horrified at the idea that we might give up on religious freedom because some other country doesn't practice it. At the time they were writing that principle into the First Amendment, no other country was practicing it.

Juan Cole gives this example:

Ben Franklin … wrote in his Autobiography concerning a non-denominational place of public preaching he helped found “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”

I wondered whether there were any English-speaking Christian churches in Hiroshima. Yes, there are.

Ground Zero is just the tip of an iceberg. New mosques are being protested all over the country.

If Republicans Take the House

What can we expect if the Republicans take control of the House? We got some indications this week that they want to do what they did during the Clinton administration: investigate everything until they can find an excuse to impeach the president. Thursday, Michelle Bachman told the GOP Youth Convention: "I think that all we should do is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another."

Impeach Obama. The same day the flagship conservative newspaper, the Washington Times, had not one but two editorials (by Jeffrey Kuhner and Tom Tancredo) demanding President Obama's impeachment. Each editorial is long on rhetoric, but the specific high crimes and misdemeanors to be prosecuted are hard to decipher.

Tancredo says Obama is "an enemy of our Constitution" who "does not feel constrained by the rule of law". He objects to the Obama Justice Department giving the "weakest possible defense of the Defense of Marriage Act", the auto bailout, the off-shore drilling moratorium, "his appointment of judges who want to create law rather than interpret it", and large deficits -- without saying what specific laws these policies might violate.

Obama's "most egregious and brazen betrayal of our Constitution" is his immigration policy, which Tancredo says violates his constitutional responsibility under Article IV "to protect states from foreign invasion". So Tancredo's impeachment case seems to rest on interpreting the "invasion" metaphor literally.

Kuhner accuses Obama of "erecting a socialist dictatorship".

We are not there - yet. But he is putting America on that dangerous path. He is undermining our constitutional system of checks and balances; subverting democratic procedures and the rule of law; presiding over a corrupt, gangster regime; and assaulting the very pillars of traditional capitalism.

The specific policies Kuhner mentions are mostly acts of Congress like health-care reform (which he claims funds abortions), that could be thrown out by the courts if they are actually unconstitutional. (But they won't be, so impeachment is necessary.) Comprehensive immigration reform will make 12-20 million new citizens -- "shock troops for his socialist takeover". The administration is not just a "gangster regime" but also a "fledgling thug state". Kuhner closes with what sounds to me more like a call for assassination than impeachment: "The usurper must fall."

So far Congressional Republicans have not shown any inclination to resist the wilder ideas that come from the Right. Will they resist this one if they get the power to pursue it? I'm not optimistic. A Republican House will take as an axiom that Obama should be impeached; they'll search until they can find an excuse.

Repeal everything. High-ranking Republicans have pushed repeal of health care reform and Wall Street reform. They can't actually do either, of course, without 60 votes in the Senate and enough popularity to intimidate an Obama veto. But what they could do is refuse to fund implementation.

Return to Bush policies. The basic Republican ideas are still to cut rich people's taxes, let corporations regulate themselves, and stand behind Big Oil.

Will they? The Intrade Prediction Market is giving Republicans a 55% chance of taking the House, which seems high to me. But it all hangs on this bit of framing: If the 2010 elections becomes a referendum on whether or not people are happy, with voting Republican as the way to register unhappiness, the Republicans will win. If it becomes a contest between the Democratic vision of the future and the Republican vision, the Democrats will win.

The reason I think 55% is high is that most voters still do not know who their candidates will be and what positions they will take. So polls are still mostly an am-I-happy-with-things measure. As we get closer to election day, I expect more voters to compare candidates' visions.

The model here is the Nevada Senate race. A few months ago, when that race was just about Harry Reid and his responsibility for how things are, Nevadans wanted him out. Now that he has an opponent -- Tea Party extremist Sharon Angle -- he has forged into the lead.

Disinformation Watch

This week had a major disinformation story: the Shirley Sherrod incident. Tuesday, Rachel Maddow did a good job of covering the collapse of the original Obama-official-is-racist spin, and then she did an even better job Wednesday of connecting the dots:

What is the same about the four Fox-News-initiated "scandals": Van Jones, ACORN, the New Black Panther Party, and Shirley Sherrod? What's the same about these four stories?
This isn't about racism, this is not a story about picking on black people. This is a story about political outcomes, the tried and true political strategy of not targeting black people, but targeting white people. white voters, or white would-be voters to feel afraid of black people. To feel afraid of African-American people as if they're not fellow Americans, but rather a threat to what white people have.

This tactic goes way back. Maddow traces it to George Wallace and the segregationists, but she could walked it back to the early days of the labor movement, when hard-working people who wanted a living wage and a safe workplace were painted as dangerous communist revolutionaries.

You can't rally your side by standing for inequality, for keeping other people down. If you want to oppose equality, you have to pretend that you're the ones in danger. That's what Fox is pitching to whites: telling them over and over again that black people threaten them, and proving that point by making up facts as necessary.

Andrew Breitbart, the well-connected conservative blogger who promoted the doctored Sherrod video (and the doctored ACORN videos before it) has a defense: His dishonest smear wasn't aimed at Sherrod, it was aimed the NAACP in order to discredit their criticism of racism in the Tea Party.  I'm glad he cleared that up. (And BTW, what he's saying about the NAACP is also false.)

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum comments on the Right's unwillingness to police itself:

When Dan Rather succumbed to the forged Bush war record hoax in 2004, CBS forced him into retirement. Breitbart is the conservative Dan Rather, but there will be no discredit, no resignation for him.

Frum blames this on the "closing of the conservative mind" -- an unwillingness to face difficult facts. But Digby has another explanation:

this phenomenon is clearly less a matter of narrow-mindedness and ignoring of unwelcome fact than a conscious decision to lie for political ends. The [conservative] rank and file are misinformed because they are being purposefully led astray by the same conservative intelligentsia which owns and operates the right wing media.

The other big current disinformation story is Journolist. Journolist was a private email discussion list with (according to Wikipedia) "400 journalists, academics and others, all with political views ranging from centrist to center-left to leftist."

The list was set up to be private, but sensationalized excerpts are being released on Tucker Carlson's conservative blog The Daily Caller by Jonathan Strong. (Latest one here.) On the Right, this is seen as evidence of the great left-wing media conspiracy that they have always known existed.

That story has a few holes. First, this is like Climategate: a large collection of private emails excerpted to make the writers look bad. But unlike Climategate, the full collection is not available to the public. So when Strong mixes quotes with paraphrases (often the quote is only damning in the context of the paraphrase) we can't check whether the paraphrase is fair.

(This, BTW, is an important point to remember in any scandal story: Can you check the source material, and if not, why not? Who is controlling your access and what is their motive?)

Second, the Daily Caller headlines exaggerate. Salon observes:

Today's Caller headline — "Liberal Journalists Suggest Government Shut Down Fox News" — is objectively untrue. Simply reading the e-mails quoted in the story show that a non-journalist asked an academic question — whether the FCC had the authority to shut down Fox — and was quickly shot down by the journalists involved in the discussion.

Finally, the Caller's stories rely on the reader's imagination to connect the dots. A real expose' would start with a Journolist comment and show how it led to some particular biased news coverage by the commenter or his/her organization.

Without such dot-connecting, even the cherry-picked excerpts sound like beleaguered liberal academics and opinion journalists (not reporters) trying to catch up to the better-organized conservative spin machine. They only seem sinister if you already know in your gut that biased coverage elected Obama.

Elena Kagan has not been "promoting the injustice of Shariah law" -- or wearing a turban.

Lower taxes don't lead to more revenue, as this simple graph shows. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defines his own reality:

there's no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy.

Rachel Maddow shows numerous Republican politicians making this tax-cuts-pay-for-themselves point and numerous conservative economists denying it. It's exactly what George H. W. Bush called "voodoo economics".

Only sleight-of-hand allows Republicans to claim that President Obama has "quadrupled the deficit". They are comparing the current deficit to the 2008 deficit of $459 billion. But the government's fiscal year begins in October, so the 2009 budget was actually made under President Bush, not Obama. Bush's last budget projected a $1 trillion deficit, which (due to the recession being worse than expected) had increased to $1.2 trillion by the time Obama took office.

Short Notes

As the Senate gives up on even a very stripped-down climate-change bill, we discover that last month was the hottest June ever recorded.

The fake movie trailer is getting to be an art form of its own, and they don't get much better than Jane Austen's Fight Club..

Talk about straying from the reservation: Former judge and frequent Fox News guest Andrew Napolitano recently said on C-SPAN that Bush and Cheney "absolutely should have been indicted. For torturing, for spying, for arresting without warrants."

Because one body is enough and more blood is not necessary, Louisiana Catholics won't be taking advantage of their new right to carry concealed weapons during mass.

Harper's puts its articles behind a subscription wall, so you read the whole thing online, but "Tea party in the Sonora" is incredible. It describes the sad result of the low-tax, low-regulation, and nativist principles (i.e. Tea Party principles) that have guided Arizona's legislature for several years now.

Here's the detail that paints the whole picture: Arizona doesn't own its own state capitol. They did a sale-and-leaseback arrangement in January to raise cash for the current budget.

Now, why didn't I already know that? Back in September The Daily Show did a great piece about putting the capitol building on the market. "What happens next year?" Jason Jones asks a state senator. "You're killing me here," she answers..

Instead of a concrete noise wall, Ohio is constructing the world's largest Chia pet.

It's been a while since we've checked in on Jack Shafer and the ever-increasing number of bogus trends.

To illustrate the point that non-Americans have almost as much to lose from the decay of the American press as we do, I wrote a fake news story in which foreign governments bail out American journalism. "If the American people continue to be so misinformed," says my fake Swede, "they're just going to keep screwing up the world."

More people should be reading/viewing the Washington Post series Top Secret America.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at

Monday, July 19, 2010

Powers That Ought To Be

Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be.

--Sydney J. Harris

In this week's Sift:

  • My Journalism Reading Project: a work in progress. In a democracy, the People are supposed to be sovereign and the news media is supposed to be their intelligence agency. I'm trying to figure out why it's not working that way.
  • What's Really Wrong With America: Too Many Free Books. When I think about government waste, I don't usually think about libraries. But some people do. And other people wonder whether facts make any difference.
  • Respectable, Sensible Bigotry. Accusations against Mel Gibson and the Tea Party are not just political correctness run wild.
  • Disinformation Watch. It's a shame that anybody has to waste time keeping track of the made-up stories in the news, but somebody does.
  • Short Notes. The Times is still keeping an eye on Palestine. The Palins do soap opera way better than the Clintons. And Nate Silver graphs same-sex marriage.

My Journalism Reading Project: a work in progress

Imagine, for a moment, that you're the sovereign of your own little country. You're queen or generalissimo or president-for-life or something. If you wanted to do your job well, how much would you want to know about your country?

Silly question, right? You'd want to know everything you could. To the extent that your administration could afford them, you'd want to have agents of all sorts bringing you information: people who kept track of all your government's projects and how they were progressing, who kept you up-to-date on the business climate, who monitored the health and safety of your citizens, and so on. You'd also want experts compiling statistics and noticing trends so that you could stay ahead of events. Outside your borders, you'd want agents keeping track of all the foreign countries that affected your homeland -- trade partners, allies, threats, rivals.

And what would happen if you didn't have that information? People who did would manipulate you into serving their interests rather than yours or your country's. You'd sign things you didn't understand. You'd empower underlings to go off and do God-knows-what. Even when you thought you were deciding things, you wouldn't be; someone else would have laid it all out for you so that you really only had one choice.

Well, guess what? You are a sovereign. That's what democracy is supposed to mean: the people are sovereign; they rule. You rule.

And there is an army of agents out there bringing you information. That's what the news media is supposed to be: your intelligence agency. They're supposed to be gathering the information you need to rule, figuring out what it all means, and presenting it to you in a way that you can absorb and use. And when they don't, you and your country are at the mercy of whoever does have the information.

And so You the People, We the People, find ourselves going to war for reasons that turn out to be false, or being stampeded into covering the multi-billion-dollar losses of dishonest investment banks. When we try to do something in our own interests, like guaranteeing each other's access to health care or heading off global warming, it's incredibly difficult because of all the disinformation we have to wade through -- death panels, Climategate, and much, much more.

So our intelligence agency has been letting us down. And things are getting worse: news agencies are closing bureaus and laying off reporters to save money. Can you picture any other sovereign allowing that? After 9-11, when it looked like the CIA and FBI had fallen down on the job, did the U.S. government respond by slashing their budgets and firing a bunch of agents? No, quite the opposite.

In many ways this is a big, complicated topic, but this much of it is simple: We the People haven't been taking our sovereignty seriously. And we've tolerated both our government and the media corporations not taking it seriously either. We haven't demanded the high-quality information that we need to do our jobs.

Scads of books have been written in the last few years about the sorry state and poor prospects of American journalism, and lately I've given myself the project of trying to read them. I'll be telling you what I learn in dribs and drabs rather than saving it all for one big report.

Here's one thing I've picked up already: Chapter 3 of McChesney and Nichols' The Death and Life of American Journalism contains some American history I had never run across before: Apparently the Founders really did take the sovereignty of the people seriously, and did consider the press to be the People's intelligence agency.

That wasn't just pious rhetoric. They spent serious money to subsidize that era's equivalent of the Internet: the Post Office. Under the early presidents, America built the best postal service in the world, and had one of the highest literacy rates. That wasn't just the result of our rugged individualism or our protestant desire to read the Bible for ourselves; it was social policy. Because, as Jefferson put it:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
In particular, the federally-funded Post Office charged practically nothing for shipping newspapers and pamphlets, and the debate among the Founders was whether it should charge anything at all. At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Rush said:
It should be a constant injunction to the postmasters to convey newspapers free of all charge for postage. They are not only the vehicles of knowledge and intelligence, but the sentinels of the liberties of our country.
Today we hear a lot from the Tea Party about the Founders and the Constitution and how "freedom isn't free" -- which always means that we have  to fight a war somewhere. To the real Founders, though, freedom wasn't a strong military (quite the opposite) but an educated public with access to high-quality information.

And that brings us to the next story.

What's Really Wrong With America: Too Many Free Books

Like a lot of states, Illinois and its cities have budget problems. And Fox Chicago has spotted a fat pile of government waste: public libraries.

There are 799 public libraries in Illinois. And they’re busy. People borrow more than 88 million times a year.

But keeping libraries running costs big money. In Chicago, the city pumps $120 million a year into them. In fact, a full 2.5 percent of our yearly property taxes go to fund them.

That's money that could go elsewhere – like for schools, the CTA, police or pensions.

But why spend more money on education when the schools could eliminate their own wasteful shelves of books? Bob Herbert quotes the AP:

As the school budget crisis deepens, administrators across the nation have started to view school libraries as luxuries that can be axed rather than places where kids learn to love reading and do research.

And he comments:

What a country. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the bankers keep living the high life and swilling that Champagne while at the same time we’re taking books out of the hands of schoolchildren trying to get an education.

Could anything be more unfaithful to the vision of the Founders or the sovereignty of the People? (See previous article.) All our discussions about the value of education for the individual miss the point. If we were a monarchy, we would spare no expense educating the Crown Prince, and consider ourselves fortunate if he showed any interest in our efforts.

In a democracy, the children collectively are the Crown Prince. We are educating the future sovereign -- not for his or her benefit, but for ours. Far more than sending troops to distant corners of the world, educating American children to wield their future sovereignty wisely is the cost of freedom. We should pay it, even in hard times.

Now let's talk about libraries. A lot of Americans don't really need libraries any more. If we're rich, we can buy all the books we want. If we're middle-class, we can afford a broadband internet connection. Probably our homes have at least one quiet room where we or our children can think and study.

But if you're poor, or just struggling, you may not have any of that. Lots of children are growing up in homes without books, without the internet, and without quiet places to do their homework. They may or may not use the library for those purposes -- that's up to them and their parents. But as long as the library is open, the door to our culture is not completely closed.

What's that worth to you? What's that worth to our country?

While we're talking about education and democracy, it's worth looking at an article in the Boston Globe from last week:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds.

They studied popular political falsehoods (like "we found WMDs in Iraq") and whether people who believe them change their opinion when given the facts. For the most part they don't, and many people just dig in deeper, believing even more strongly after someone has tried to correct them.

I'll quibble with the idea that this is a "recent" discovery. My journalism reading project includes Walter Lippmann's 1921 classic Public Opinion:

The orthodox theory holds that a public opinion constitutes a moral judgment on a group of facts. The theory I am suggesting is that, in the present state of education, a public opinion is primarily a moralized and codified version of the facts. I am arguing that the pattern of stereotypes at the center of our codes largely determines what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see them

When I think about how majority stereotypes of women, blacks, and gays/lesbians has changed since my childhood in the 1960s, though, I despair less about democracy than the Globe does. Stereotypes change, but only when people are confronted with new facts again and again, over a period of years.

Democracy works, but it works slowly, and only if lots of people are willing to insist on the truth day-in, day-out, while talking to their friends and co-workers over coffee.

Which brings us to the next story.

Respectable, Sensible Bigotry

Ever notice how often somebody portrayed as an innocent victim of political correctness turns out later to have been a flaming bigot all along?

Frank Rich connects the Mel Gibson dots. Critics who found Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" anti-Semitic were themselves tarred as anti-Christian bigots -- until Mel got drunk and started ranting to police about "the f**king Jews". More recently, tapes of Mel's verbally abusive remarks to his girl friend have come out, laced with the N-word and other slurs.

That poor guy, victimized by those over-sensitive Jews and their baseless charges.

This week, it's the Tea Party. The NAACP passed a resolution asking the Tea Party to "repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches".

So of course recent Tea Party Express VP Mark Williams was all over the airwaves telling us who the real racists are: the NAACP, making their hateful charges against the fine upstanding white people of the Tea Party. Centrists and even some liberal pundits were taking a head-shaking why-did-you-have-to-start-this attitude towards the NAACP.

Then Williams overplayed his hand: He posted a parody letter from the NAACP president to President Lincoln asking to have slavery back:

We had a great gig.  Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house.  Please repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let us get back to where we belong.

Yeah, that's not racist. It's -- you know -- funny. Right? And so was the suggestion that the NAACP finds tax cuts racist because ...

How will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?

Hilarious. Where does that humorless NAACP get off implying folks like this are racists?

I'll let Ta-Nehisi Coates wrap up:

Racism tends to attract attention when it's flagrant and filled with invective. But like all bigotry, the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping--positioning the bigot as the actual victim. So the gay do not simply want to marry, they want to convert our children into sin. The Jews do not merely want to be left in peace, they actually are plotting world take-over. And the blacks are not actually victims of American power, but beneficiaries of the war against hard-working whites. This is a respectable, more sensible, bigotry

His point: We can't let that grade-school "I'm not but you are" taunt intimidate us away from pointing out bigotry wherever it shows up.

Immigration Economics

Do illegal immigrants help or hurt the U.S. economy? Arguments both ways sound very convincing, but have a lot of holes. I haven't yet found an analysis I can endorse wholeheartedly.

report put out by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) finds that illegal immigrants get a net government subsidy (benefits minus taxes) of $113 billion a year. But if you crunch some numbers in the report itself, you find that $38 billion of that goes to educating the American-citizen children of the immigrants. Thats us investing in our citizens' future, not a "benefit" to illegal immigrants. I've got to wonder how many similar factors inflate the numbers.

report by the Perryman Group estimated that making undocumented workers suddenly vanish (as in the movie A Day Without a Mexican) would lower GDP by $245 billion a year. However, its assumptions about the labor shortage in the native-born population are a lot less convincing now than they were when the report was published two years ago.

Since I can't find or generate any trustworthy economic analysis, I'll have to settle for a more anecdotal understanding.

One of the main characters in Nick Redding's nonfiction book Methlandis Roland Jarvis, a native-born white American who starts out working in a meat-packing plant in Iowa, making $18 an hour with benefits. Over several years, the plant gets sold and resold, with each new owner slashing jobs and cutting wages (under the threat of closing the plant or moving it to Mexico), until workers make $6.50 an hour with no benefits. Jarvis tries to keep up his lifestyle by working extra hours (and smoking meth for extra energy), but eventually he gives that up to cook and deal meth full time.

A bunch of the people who take the low-wage no-benefit meat-packing jobs are illegal immigrants with some kind of phony paperwork. They do a hard, dirty and sometimes dangerous job that used to pay enough for an American worker to support a family and also pull his or her weight in the larger community through taxes. Now it doesn't, so the plant workers (legal and illegal alike) are generating the kinds of costs the FAIR report tabulated: Their emergency-room visits and their kids' education cost government more than their taxes cover. In essence, the workers are subsidized.

But who's getting really getting that subsidy? Looking at the work and lifestyle of the immigrants, I don't think it's them. They earn what they get, and probably more.

Here's what I see happening: The company pays its workers less than a living wage, and the government makes up the difference. To the extent that the meat-packing industry is competitive and efficient -- not all industries are -- the cost-reduction gets passed on to the consumer as lower meat prices. The rest is profit.

I think that's typical. Whether we're talking about cheap factory work, cheap child-care in our homes, cheap kitchen workers in our restaurants, cheap janitors in office buildings -- the presence of illegal immigrants drives down costs. Some of that shows up in increased business profits and some in a lower cost-of-living for the rest of us. But it costs the government money.

It also costs unskilled American workers by driving down their wages -- though it's hard to tell how many of those jobs would just vanish overseas (maybe to be done by the same people who come here to do them now) if wages were higher.

Summing up: The subsidy FAIR noticed is just the visible piece of a larger social/economic policy decision to have a low-price low-wage economy. If we had an economy that respected hard work -- one that paid workers a wage that allowed them to support both their families and the larger community -- the subsidy would go away. But things would cost more.

In the absence of reliable numbers, I'll just give my gut impression: I think middle and upper-class Americans do well out of illegal immigration, the working class not so well.

Disinformation Watch

Most people don't want health care reform repealed.

Illegal votes by felons did not give Al Franken his seat in the Senate.

The "scandal" about the Justice Department "protecting" the fringy New Black Panther Party is completely trumped up. Newsweek concludes:

it's not about a real investigation; it's about staging an effective piece of political theater that hurts the Obama administration.

New British and Dutch reports say the same thing as every other official investigation: The only scandal in Climategate was stealing the researchers' emails. Unfortunately, they can't get the front-page coverage that the bogus stories got.

And finally, I'm not sure how you debunk something this nutty: A Republican Congressional candidate in Missouri claims Obama and the Democrats are taking away "the freedom -- the ultimate freedom, to find your salvation, to get your salvation. And to find Christ, for me and you." Don't look at me -- I said at the time that deporting the Holy Spirit was a bad idea.

Short Notes

Follow-up to last week: The NYT has yet another Israel/Palestine article with no precipitating event. Like the Kristof column I quoted last week, these reporters see the blockade failing to undermine Hamas:

Today Hamas has no rival here. It runs the schools, hospitals, courts, security services and — through smuggler tunnels from Egypt — the economy.

The best soap operas always find some way to stay fresh. Unwed pregnancy, break-upacrimony, drug charges, nude photos -- and now the Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston wedding is back on.

Meanwhile, those family-values-destroying Clintons are having a wedding of their own: Former first-daughter Chelsea is getting married at age 30. There's no baby. She's just marrying a guy she's known since her teens, after getting her bachelors from Stanford and a masters from Oxford. Dull, dull, dull.

An illuminating graph from Nate Silver:


The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at

Monday, July 12, 2010

Crimes Uncovered

We must make atonement for all the terrible crimes we read of in the newspapers. We must make atonement for the still worse ones, which we do not read about in the papers.

-- Albert Schweitzer

In this week’s Sift:

Tortured Coverage: Two Problems in 21st Century News

Two recent stories about torture expose different aspects of what’s wrong with American journalism.

In the first, a study by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government demonstrated that major newspapers’ characterization of waterboarding abruptly changed in 2004, when it came out that the U.S. government was doing it. Prior to public knowledge of American involvement, 44 out of 54 New York Times stories that mentioned waterboarding characterized it as torture, but only 2 out of 143 subsequent articles did. The LA Times was also studied and its numbers showed a similar pattern.

The raw numbers are bad enough, but then you get to the NYT's self-justification:

As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture. When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.

Translation: The Bush administration told us not to call it torture, so we stopped. Similarly the Washington Post:

After the use of the term 'torture' became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

What’s wrong here? Waterboarding-as-torture didn’t become “contentious” because some new information threw previous judgments into doubt. It became contentious because an interested party -- the U.S. government -- started contending against it in defiance of all previous objective standards.

And the major newspapers buckled. By backing off of a word the government didn’t want them to use, reversing their previous judgments about its meaning and proper use, they did take a side in the political dispute. I’ll let Glenn Greenwald sum up:

We don't need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task: once the U.S. Government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term. That compliant behavior makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary.

The second story is also about torture, but on a much smaller scale: A former Chicago police lieutenant was just convicted of torturing sometimes-false confessions out of suspects, some of whom have subsequently been released from death row and won a suit against the city. The case came out of a series of articles investigative reporter John Conroy wrote for the Chicago Reader, starting in 1990.

Chicago public radio station WBEZ lucked out in its coverage of the trial: Conroy was available to blog about it because he’s unemployed. Like most big-city papers, the Reader has been laying off reporters -- obviously not just the deadwood.

So who’s going to catch the next torturing cop? And who’s going to look into the stories of the people who are still in jail based on their tortured confessions? Not Conroy -- now that the trial’s over, he needs to go find a job.

Immigration Reform: Comprehensive or Cartoon?

The Obama administration did two things to push the immigration issue forward in the past two weeks: President Obama gave a speech outlining what immigration reform ought to look like, and the Justice Department filed suit to keep Arizona from enforcing its papers-please law, S.B. 1070. [text of federal complaint. text of 1070]

The course of the immigration debate boils down to this: The problem is simple to describe, and there’s a simple-minded solution that feels satisfying but is cartoonishly unrealistic. Nobody wants to hear complicated answers this year, so every discussion founders on why we can’t just do the cartoonish thing.


Here’s the simple problem: Millions -- nobody’s sure exactly how many millions -- of people came to this country illegally and live here either under false identities or off the books entirely. This has both good and bad effects on our economy (which I’ll discuss next week). It creates a big hole in our homeland security (because malevolent foreigners might hide in the crowd of harmless people who sneak into the U.S. and live here illegally). And it undermines our worker-protection and public-health laws (because undocumented workers won’t complain to the authorities, and who knows whether their children get vaccinations).

The simple-minded solution is that you build a wall at the border, then pick up the millions of illegal immigrants and dump them on the other side. Patrol the wall with enough troops to shoot anybody who tries to come back. Done.

As soon as you start adding details to that picture, though, the whole thing falls apart. For instance: If a wall will solve the problem, then why is there an illegal Chinese immigrant problem in Israel? They didn’t walk there.

We want foreigners to come here as tourists, students, and on business of various sorts. And we want to be the kind of open society where the government doesn’t keep track of our every move and force us to keep proving that we’re legal. So unless we’re willing to assign Soviet-style minders to every foreign family that goes to Disney World, we’re going to have illegal immigrants.

Now start imagining the Gestapo you’d need to round up millions of people, many of whom have been here for years and have friends and relatives who are legal residents with attics and basements. At a bare minimum, you’d need national ID cards, surprise house-to-house searches, and big penalties for those giving shelter. Where does that go? Years from now, high school students in Germany might be reading the tragic diary of some teen-age Anna Francisco from Indianapolis.

So if you think about the issue for more than a minute or two, you begin to see that we can’t solve this problem unless the vast majority of our undocumented residents cooperate. We can track down some of them, but we’ll need most them to come in voluntarily and register. And that means that our program has to have more carrots than sticks.

Conservatives hate that, because their instinctive reaction to any problem is to punish some non-wealthy person who doesn’t resemble them. But no punishment-based program can solve this problem.

We need what President Obama (and President Bush before him) described: a comprehensive plan that tightens the border, cracks down on employers, and offers undocumented residents legal status if they jump through a series of hoops. Such a program won’t bring the undocumented population down to zero -- nothing short of ethnic cleansing will. But it should cut the problem down a few sizes.

Unfortunately, you have to get past the Wile E. Coyote solutions before you can even talk about anything realistic. And even Republican senators who know better aren’t willing to stand up to their radical base.

The federal suit against Arizona has a simple point: Regulating immigration is a federal responsibility, and the federal government needs to have the discretion to handle it. For example, it’s federal policy not to deport refugees who come here fleeing oppression. The Arizona law has no provision for that.

The best place I’ve found for studying the immigration issue is the Immigration Policy Center.

Obama’s immigration enforcement techniques are less showy and more effective than Bush’s.

The NYT has a fascinating article about the long-term unemployed. On the third page we find this:

“I would take a gardening job,” said a 58-year-old woman who had earned $24 an hour as an office manager. “I would clean toilets if I could, but I can’t take that job. Millions of people in California are illegal and they’re taking our jobs.”

A long list of factors went into explaining what had happened to the American economy so that former professionals conversant in spreadsheets and mutual funds were now chagrined to be denied the opportunity to scrub toilets. To a student of macroeconomics, the arrival of illegal immigrants seemed far down the list, somewhere after weak long-term job growth and the near collapse of the financial system.

But to unemployed people trying to divine a cause through the miasmatic haze of their own situations, the presence of illegal immigrants was the explanation they could see most clearly. You could spot them on street corners, waiting for work. You could see them crammed into rental homes, or hear their music blaring from pickup trucks. Joblessness was disorienting. Illegal immigrants formed the only putative cause that lived next door.

DOMA is Unconstitutional

Thursday, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that a big chunk of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

The case. It’s easy for the facts of a case like this to get lost in the subsequent debate, so I’ll state them up front: Seven same-sex couples who are legally married in Massachusetts applied for federal benefits that opposite-sex married couples routinely get (like family health insurance for federal employees), but they were denied because of DOMA. Three surviving same-sex spouses applied for federal survivor benefits under Social Security and were also denied.

Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that they should get their benefits (with one exception on a technicality). From here the case will almost certainly go to an appellate court and then to the Supreme Court before it is finally resolved.

DOMA. Congress passed DOMA in 1996, shortly after a case in Hawaii raised the possibility that same-sex marriage might become legal in that state. (It still hasn’t happened. Hawaii’s governor vetoed a same-sex civil-union law Tuesday. Same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004 and is now also legal in Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Wikipedia has the details.)

DOMA says two main things:

  • States don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
  • Every reference to “marriage” in federal law means opposite-sex marriage.

Judge Tauro ruled that the second is unconstitutional. The first provision is also constitutionally suspect (Article IV: “Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.”), but it didn’t come up in this case, so it is unaffected.

The reasoning. Most of the coverage of this decsion has emphasized the 10th Amendment states-rights angle. (In ratifying the Consitutiton, the states never surrendered their right to define marriage.) But that’s not the argument that does the heavy lifting.

If you’ve read any other decision that defended same-sex marriage, this one looks a lot the same. They all start with the 14th amendment, which promises “equal protection under the laws” to every person under the jurisdiction of the United States.

In practice, this means that if the government treats one class of citizens differently from another, it needs to have a good reason. How good a reason depends several factors, but the lowest hurdle a law has to jump is the rational basis test:

A law that touches on a constitutionally protected interest must be rationally related to furthering a legitimate government interest.

In other words, Congress can’t pass a law just to screw with some group it doesn’t like. For example, the laws against burglary were passed in order to protect property (a legitimate government interest), not just to screw with burglars because their lifestyle offends Congress’ sense of morality.

Judge Tauro went through the reasons originally given when DOMA was passed, plus a couple of others put forward by the Justice Department (which defended the case on behalf of the government -- more about that later), and found that denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples is not rationally related to any of those goals.

[For example, the administration argued that the federal government has an interest in the simplicity of standardizing benefits state-to-state. Judge Tauro found that the federal government had never before worried about the different standards for marriage in the various states, and does not now worry about it with respect to any other issue:

a thirteen year-old female and a fourteen year-old male, who have the consent of their parents, can obtain a valid marriage license in the state of New Hampshire. Though this court knows of no other state in the country that would sanction such a marriage, the federal government recognizes it as valid simply because New Hampshire has declared it to be so.

Worse, this new desire to choose which state-approved marriages it will recognize has actually complicated the federal government’s process rather than simplifying it.]

Putting Tauro’s conclusion very simply: The disadvantages DOMA inflicts on married same-sex couples aren’t unfortunate side-effects of a law with some other good purpose. Disadvantaging same-sex couples is the purpose of the law. And that’s not rationally related to any legitimate government interest.

The Obama Administration’s Role. This case puts the administration in a difficult position. The executive branch has an obligation to defend the laws as written. (Article II, Section 3: The president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”) So when someone sues to have a law declared unconstitutional, the Justice Department defends.

On the other hand, President Obama is on record saying that DOMA ought to be repealed. One way to get rid of it would be not to defend suits against it. But that’s a bad process, and is exactly the kind of abuse of executive power I complain about in other contexts.

Taken to an extreme, this practice would allow the president and one federal judge to repeal any law they don’t like: You file a test case in the judge’s district, and then the president orders the Justice Department not to appeal when the judge finds the law unconstitutional. Bye-bye law.

Imagine, say, a President Palin or Huckabee refusing to defend a suit against the insurance mandate of the health care reform law. We don’t want to go there. The administration should hold its nose and appeal, and I’m sure they will.

Israel, Palestine, and the New York Times

Without any intention on my part, this week’s whole Sift revolves around the virtues and vices of the New York Times. Maybe I’m just reading articles I used to skim or skip over, but it looks to me like the Times made a conscious decision to deepen its Israel/Palestine coverage after the Gaza flotilla raid.

Usually our news media looks at the world through frogs’ eyes. It only sees motion, so issues can drop out of its sight just by standing still. Israel/Palestine is exactly the kind of topic it covers badly: an ongoing situation where one day looks a lot like the next. These situations may be important, but they’re not “news” in the very literal sense that nothing new happened today.

That was the whole point of the Gaza flotilla. The Israeli government has been very good at pressing the Palestinians without making news, and the flotilla was an attempt to create a newsworthy event that would draw attention to the larger situation.

It’s been working, at least at the NYT, which lately has been sending people out to cover Palestine-related situations that lack any eye-catching event. On July 5 it published a long article about American charities aiding West Bank settlements that the Israeli government considers illegal. Israelis would not be able to get tax deductions for making such contributions, but Americans do.

The money goes mostly to schools, synagogues, recreation centers and the like, legitimate expenditures under the tax law. But it has also paid for more legally questionable commodities: housing as well as guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles to secure outposts deep in occupied areas.

Interestingly, some of the most radical of the American groups are evangelical Christians, known as Christian Zionists.

This article was followed up on July 7 by a “Room for Debate” segment where eight writers answered the question: “Do U.S. donors drive Israeli politics?

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof has been spending time in the region. Thursday’s column drew attention to dissident opinion within Israel, like Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis For Human Rights.

Rabbis for Human Rights has helped Palestinians recover some land through lawsuits in Israeli courts. And Rabbi Ascherman and other Jewish activists escort such farmers to protect them. The settlers still attack, but soldiers are more likely to intervene when it is rabbis being clubbed.

Kristof draws attention to something that I also have been struck by as I’ve dug deeper into these issues:

The most cogent critiques of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians invariably come from Israel’s own human rights organizations. The most lucid unraveling of Israel’s founding mythology comes from Israeli historians. The deepest critiques of Israel’s historical claims come from Israeli archeologists (one archeological organization, Emek Shaveh, offers alternative historical tours so that visitors can get a fuller picture). This more noble Israel, refusing to retreat from its values even in times of fear and stress, is a model for the world.

In Kristof’s previous column he visited a smuggler’s tunnel on the Egyptian side of Gaza. He reports that there are many such tunnels running 24/7 -- enough that “shops are filled and daily life is considerably easier than when I last visited here two years ago.”

Far from hurting Hamas, Kristof claims, the blockade has created a tunnel economy that Hamas can more easily tax and control, while ruining the Gazan business community that otherwise might be a moderating force.

Short Notes

The Sift has a new look online. That's partly because I decided to redesign, and partly because changes in Google Docs broke the way I used to do things. Comments are welcome both on the overall look and on things that don't work they way you expect them to.

More and more people -- the NYT, for example -- are starting to notice that judicial activism is a conservative vice, not a liberal one.

It’s dangerous to heckle a comic.

Bonddad gives a primer on the lagging employment picture. And here’s another link to that NYT article about long-term unemployment.

Sharon Angle is working hard to blow what should be an easy job: beating Harry Reid in Nevada in an anti-incumbent year. Salon lists her latest blunders.

This one’s my favorite: After winning the Republican primary, she scrubbed her web site of a lot of the wacky right-wing positions that would hurt her in the general election. OK, everybody does stuff like that to a certain extent. But Harry Reid had saved the old Angle web-site material, and when he reposted it, Angle threatened to sue. How dare Reid make Angle’s previous positions available to the voters in her own words!

You know who’s most likely to walk away from a bad mortgage? Rich people.