Monday, December 27, 2010

The Yearly Sift

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 Barber, Consumed (2007)

all the Sift quotes of 2010 are collected here

This is the 49th and last Sift of 2010. Time to look back at where we've been.

In this year's Sifts:

  • The Theme of the Year: Concentration of Wealth. I never set out to explore a theme over the course of a year, but it happens on its own. This year, a number of Sfits ended up being about the concentration of wealth -- that it's happening, how it's happening, and what problems it's causing.
  • Update on Last Year's Theme: Corporatism. The battle between corporations and humans continued this year. The Citizens United decision helped make 2010 a good year to be a corporation.
  • Secondary theme: Propaganda. By now I expect Sift readers to know that large swaths of the population believe things that are flat-out false. But why do they believe them? How do they believe them? I kept coming back to those questions all year long.
  • The Sifted Books of 2010. There were a lot of them this year. All the links are collected here.
  • Short Notes. The Sift's biggest hit in 2010. My biggest mistake. And a couple of current notes: Obama moves towards embracing indefinite detention, a consequence of DADT repeal crosses my FaceBook news feed, and Barney Frank runs rings around a hostile reporter.

The Theme of the Year: Concentration of Wealth

In 2010 there were two economies. If you were a Wall Street banker, happy days were here again. Even if you were just an investor, things were pretty good -- the Dow is up nearly 1000 points this year, almost 10%. But if you were unemployed, it was a different story. Close to half of the unemployed -- 6.3 million of them -- have been out of work for more than 6 months.

That's just the most recent step in a journey America has been on since late in the Carter administration: The rich have been getting richer, but everyone else has been working harder and producing more for little extra money -- and sometimes less. The so-called "Bush boom" was the first time since the Depression that median household income dropped over a complete business cycle.

A lot of  people, including me, have talking about that for years. But in September a bunch of recent data got popularized in Timothy Noah's series The Great Divergence on Slate and in the newly published Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

The interesting point in this data is that the "vanishing middle class" phenomenon is only the part of the problem most of us are in a position to see. If you have the data, you realize that the super-rich are pulling away from everyone else, not just from the poor. If the world were a village of 1000 people, one guy would have made 1/8th of the money in 2008, nearly five times the share he got in 1973. (Increasingly that guy -- or the super-rich class he represents -- lives in a different world from the rest of us, as Robert Frank chronicled in Richistan.)

When you realize that hyper-concentration of wealth is the essence of the phenomenon, then most of the standard explanations fall away: It's not global competition or education or immigration or automation, because none of that separates the top tenth of a percent from the top percent. Competition from illegal aliens isn't preventing millionaires from keeping up with billionaires.

Hacker and Pierson lay the blame at the feet of the government: Republican and Democratic administrations alike have favored capital over labor, finance over industry, corporations over consumers, lenders over borrowers, fine-print-writers over the naive -- in short, the very rich over everybody else.

Thomas Geoghagen's Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? demonstrates that it doesn't have to be that way. Europe is subject to all the same economic winds we are, but countries like Germany and France and Sweden have built much more egalitarian societies, which Geoghagen argues are better places for ordinary people to live.

Typically, concentration-of-wealth is argued as a moral issue: Why should some people be allowed to waste the world's resources on ridiculous luxury while others can't get necessities? (This is the point of view of The Moral Underground by Lisa Dodson. She tells the stories of middle-managers who -- recognizing the injustice of it all -- break or otherwise circumvent the rules to make life livable for the working poor. Conservatives are well defended against this moral argument, as I explain in How to Speak Conservative: Class Warfare.)

But Robert Reich's Aftershock argues that concentrated wealth is bad in purely economic terms: In a healthy economy, mass production and mass consumption go together; money cycles naturally because people who make stuff can afford to buy stuff. (Similar ideas are in Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal.)

But when wealth gets too concentrated, money piles up in the accounts of people who don't spend it. At first they might invest it in new production, which is good, but even that slows down once it becomes clear that demand isn't keeping up. (Why expand a factory if you can't sell what it's making now?) Instead, the surplus of the rich gets drawn into speculative bubbles, as they look for investments that don't depend on increased consumption. (I explain what's wrong with the contrary view -- that rich people create jobs -- in Where Jobs Come From. These days, it's customers who create jobs, not investors.)

That low-demand, underemployed, bubble-driven economy is typical of both the last decade and the 1920s, the previous time wealth was over-concentrated. The 20s ended in the Great Depression, and the "Bush boom" nearly had the same result. Unless we can start de-concentrating wealth -- as happened accidentally due to World War II -- Reich makes the case that future business cycles will be similar: speculative bubbles followed by collapse.

Finally, we get to the moral case libertarians make for capitalism and the so-called free market: that the market gives people what they deserve, and that changing the market result is some form of theft. The best refutation of this idea is the book Unjust Deserts by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, which I reviewed in April.

Alperovitz and Daly start with the question of why today's economy is so much more productive than, say, America in 1800. It seems unlikely that the billionaires of today are hundreds of times harder working or smarter than the businessmen of 1800. The more sensible explanation is that society as a whole is benefitting from the accumulation of knowledge and social capital. The inventions of people alive today make a difference, but a much bigger difference is that we've gotten better at using things invented or discovered generations ago. (For example, we make really good wheels and fires these days.)

In short, our advantage in productivity is largely a collective inheritance from our ancestors, so diffuse that it's not even attributable to individual bloodlines. What happens under capitalism, though, is that our collective inheritance benefits a relatively small number of people. What looks like individual earning is largely a usurpation of an inheritance that rightfully ought to belong to everybody. (We should all be getting our share of royalties on the Wheel. I made a similar argument last year in a talk called Who Owns the World?)

Another financial theme: I looked at a number of explanations of how the real-estate bubble grew and then popped, most notably The Big Short by Michael Lewis and ECONned by Yves Smith.

In April, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pulled a bunch of these themes together in a talk at the Kennedy School of Government.

Update on Last Year's Theme: Corporatism

Last December was the first time I noticed an annual theme in the Weekly Sift. Over the course of 2009, I had become more and more radicalized about the opposition between corporations and human beings.

2010 started with the Citizens United decision, which I characterized as Judicial Activism: The Supreme Court Invents New Corporate Rights. That week I was also inspired to write The Book of Corporation, a re-telling of Genesis in which God creates the Eden Corporation, which in turn hires the Serpent as its CEO. Eventually the Babel Project succeeds and God is ousted by the Serpent.

In the Citizens United decision, the Court's conservative majority anticipated that transparency would allow voters to evaluate the sources of campaign advertising, but that didn't happen. Instead, Republicans managed to block the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate. Consequently, the fall elections saw a flood of anonymous money, nearly all of it spent on negative ads against Democrats. I covered this in Quotations of Chairman Anonymous.

The other big corporate/human conflict story of the year was the West Virginia mine disaster. Having reviewed Doubt is Their Product last year (followed by Merchants of Doubt this year), I saw the miners' deaths differently than the mainstream media:

This is the current level of corporate ethics: If they can make money by killing their workers or customers, they will. It's not just a few bad apples; it's standard operating procedure. … Current law is more concerned with protecting the mine owners from frivolous claims than protecting the lives of miners.

That's still true. A new mine safety bill was proposed after the miners' deaths, but Republicans managed to defeat it.

Another place where corporate lobbying worked against the public interest this year was with regard to net neutrality:

The point here is to create many new choke-points where toll booths can be set up. That -- and not innovation and competition -- is how big corporations make big money.

I finally summed up my picture of corporations a few weeks ago in Corporations are Sociopaths. I don't intend that to be a rhetorical insult; I propose it as a diagnosis. Like sociopaths, corporations can be useful and entertaining if you meet them in circumstances where they can't benefit by harming you. But if you look at the diagnostic criteria for sociopathy, they correspond to traits of corporate governance.

Secondary Theme: Propaganda

In a way, propaganda is always a theme of the Sift. Nearly every week I'm pointing out some widely publicized or widely believed "facts" that have no basis in reality: that the stimulus bill gave favorable treatment to districts represented by Democrats, for example, or that Obama quadrupled the deficit Bush left him. Occasionally I do a whole set of Disinformation Watch notes to list false things currently passing for truth.

But (having noticed how often new fake facts appear to replace the ones we manage to knock down) this year I tried to delve deeper into the mechanisms of the propaganda that surrounds us. Who believes it? Why? Who promotes it? How? And what are the false narratives that support and are supported by all these fake facts?

Part of the mechanism of propaganda is the cooperation of the media, or at least its submission. That was the theme of Tortured Coverage: A Harvard study documented how major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post stopped calling waterboarding torture when the Bush administration told them not to. The term became "contentious" rather than "objective" because the administration chose to contend against it.

Another level of mechanism is the network of right-wing think tanks and institutes that have been established by corporate and billionaire money. It is an entire system of apparent "experts" whose connections to their sponsors are rarely traced by the mainstream media, but whose opinions always fall in line with the interests of their sponsors. (This was the mechanism of Propaganda Lesson, in which the bogus scandal about stimulus funding was the result of "research" done by a "scholar" at the Manhattan Institute, funded predominantly by the billionaire Koch brothers.)

Similarly, large-scale corporate and billionaire money funded the Tea Party movement, but funded it through mechanisms that allowed the mainstream media to describe the movement as "grass roots". In this way, disgruntled McCain voters who had never liked Obama were put forward as "independents" who had been "shocked" into opposition by the "radical" Obama administration. (What Money Buys)

The ultimate conservative infrastructure is the right-wing media, epitomized by Fox News, but embracing talk radio, newspapers like the Washington Times, and other outlets. This media empire has reached the point where Senate candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada could ignore the mainstream media entirely, refusing to answer any questions not posed by sympathetic voices. Fortunately, no major candidate who adopted such a strategy won a competitive race this year. But if Sarah Palin runs for president in 2012, we may see this strategy tested on a national scale. (The Private Campaign)

At the narrative level, I looked at the image of "government spending" which is always "out of control" and "wasteful". This narrative is so well established by now that no facts are needed to support it. And so in the fall campaign right-wing candidates were able to run on a "cut spending" message without identifying any actual spending cuts other than the most trivial. They were pledged to cut "waste", which the narrative tells us is everywhere. In an article titled simply Spending, I outlined how the supposedly "untouchable" parts of the budget were already enough to have caused a deficit in 2010.

In The Thing Behind the Thing I outlined three sets of largely unconscious assumptions underlying Tea Party rhetoric: that the authority of the Law comes in some way from God or Nature rather than from a social contract; that the punishment of transgressions is a good thing in and of itself, not requiring any justification in terms of its results; and that "the People" (as in "the People need to take this country back") are straight white Christians.

Propaganda Lessons from the Religious Right was an attempt to get at some of the deep assumptions that make outlandish conspiracy theories believable to those on the religious Right: Belief in a Devil makes it unnecessary to provide a motive for the conspiracy, because it can literally be "demonized". (How else to explain those terrorists who "hate progress and freedom and choice and culture and music and laughter"?) Also, a template like "reverse discrimination" can be promoted over decades, so that when an individual issue is identified as reverse discrimination, the pieces of the template snap into place without needing evidence to establish them. The lesson is that good framing doesn't just happen because you coin a clever slogan. Templates of thought can take decades to build up.

Why Democrats Are Always on Defense makes a similar point in a different way. Here the phenomenon to be explained is: Democrats think they must "move to the Right" when they lose or fear losing, while Republicans never have to move to the Left, no matter how badly they get beaten. The piece is a re-introduction of George Lakoff's notion of frames, and explains how a poll-driven approach to an issue can change the poll it is based on. (When liberals take what polls say is a "centrist" position, they can shift the public debate to the Right, moving the center away from the position they just took.)

Finally, last week I took a look at one of the deep conservative frames: class warfare. The phrase evokes an entire mythology on the Right, which liberals who argue against it are largely unaware of.

The Sifted Books of 2010

I went wild reviewing books this year: 16 of them in all. Some have already been mentioned in the previous sections: Aftershock by Robert Reich, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? by Thomas Geoghagan, Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, ECONned by Yves Smith, The Big Short by Michael Lewis, Unjust Deserts by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, Richistan by Robert Frank, The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman, The Moral Underground by Lisa Dodson, and Merchants of Doubt by David Michaels.

Other Sifted books of 2010 were:

Washington Rules by Andrew Bacevich. Surprisingly, this is the only military or foreign-policy book that I reviewed in 2010. Bacevich is a retired colonel who has begun to doubt the necessity or wisdom of America policing the world. This book retells American military history since World War II in an attempt to explain how perpetual war became acceptable to the public, in spite of the fact that our wars seldom proceed as expected or achieve what was desired.

The Living Constitution by David Strauss. Strauss explains the common-law method of interpreting the Constitution, and presents it as a practical alternative to the better-known-but-impractical theory of originalism. At least we don't have to try to imagine what the Founders would have thought about the Internet.

Democracy, Inc. by Sheldon Wolin. Wolin outlines what he calls "managed democracy", in which the people don't actually rule, but only ratify the decisions of their leaders.

The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. Greer discusses the end of civilization as we know it and stays calm about it. How exactly does the trip to Hell in a handbasket go? And what should you do when you get there?

Methland by Nick Reding. Reding interprets the crystal meth problem as a symptom of larger problems: the collapse of the social contract and the inability of government to do sensible things that would interfere with corporate profits. The result is a threat to the survival of small towns in America.

Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen. A NASA climate historian explains why global warming is even more serious than most people think.

Short Notes

The Sift article that made the biggest splash this year was My Reservations about the Market Economy. I used Open Table, a web site for making restaurant reservations, as an example of how the market economy rewards gatekeepers, not producers.

A regular Sift reader posted a link on Reddit, which for some reason took off. (Go thou and do likewise.) The Sift got 5000 hits that week (rather than a more normal 200-400).

My biggest mistake in 2010 was in refusing to believe for most of the year that the generic-ballot polls showing a Republican landslide in the House would predict the election. In the Senate, things turned out more-or-less as I expected: Republicans gained, but didn't win the Senate, because the crazy candidates they nominated (Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell) couldn't live up to the public's image of a "generic Republican".

Many House battles, on the other hand, never got beyond the generic race, and Democrats were unable to make hay out of the wild positions the Republicans were taking or had taken. But the main thing my crystal ball failed to pick up was that the Democrats would completely refuse to defend their actions. I expected a real debate about the health-care law, and pre-election votes that would tie the Republicans to unpopular pro-wealth positions. None of that happened.

In current news: According to Pro Publica, the Obama administration is drawing up an executive order that will formalize a process of indefinite detention for suspected terrorists.

I was against this when W wanted to do it, and I'm against it now. No matter how conscientious an executive-branch process you set up, everybody with any power in it takes orders from the President. You can't deprive somebody of liberty forever one the say-so of one guy.

A lot of the claims people make about "the Constitution" are partisan. (Just about all the Tea Party folks, for example, started worrying about the Constitution on Inauguration Day, some time around noon.) But this is a real constitutional issue, and a good test of whether somebody really cares about the Constitution. You can't seriously worry about whether the Constitution allows Congress to make you eat your vegetables and not worry about whether it allows the President to lock you up and throw away the key.

It was one of those innocuous things that come across my FaceBook news feed all the time. One of my friends updated her status to say she's in a relationship. One of my friends in the Navy.


And speaking of the DADT repeal, Barney Frank totally eats the lunch of a reporter from the right-wing CNS network when he springs a gotcha question about gay and straight soldiers showering together.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, December 20, 2010


All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

-- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

In this week's Sift:

  • How to Speak Conservative: Class Warfare. When Republicans charged that repealing the Bush tax cuts would be "class warfare", they seemed to believe they were packing a lot into those two words. They were.
  • Is Health Reform Unconstitutional? One federal judge thinks so. Two others don't. The issues are simple but fundamental, and only the Supreme Court can decide them.
  • Short Notes. DADT is gone and soon to be forgotten. A Patriot takes up retail to sell his own jersey. How Newt Gingrich raises money. When great athletes shared in public sacrifices. The 2012 primaries are shaping up to be wild. Cheaper food doesn't necessarily raise quality of life. Another damning Fox News leak. And how to wrap a cat for Christmas.

How to Speak Conservative: Class Warfare

Tuesday, as Congress debated the (now passed) tax compromise, Politico's chief political correspondent Roger Simon wrote a piece called Class Warfare is not the Ticket in which he claimed:

Congressional Democrats want us to hate the rich for being rich.

Class warfare is one of those phrases in American politics that a dictionary will not help you decipher. Like appeasement, quagmire, political correctness, and a handful of other loaded terms, its meaning comes not from a definition, but from a long history of usage. Such terms evoke not just concepts, but entire stories with settings and plots and characters.

If you don't happen to be part of the subculture that uses the phrases and tells the stories, you can easily get lost: What are these people talking about? How do they get from A to M to Z without mentioning any of the letters in between?

Simon, for example, quotes no congressional Democrats saying anything hateful about the rich. It's just not necessary. (It's also probably not possible. I didn't hear a lot of tycoon-and-debutante-bashing during the tax debate. The main thing Senator Bernie Sanders was saying during his filibuster was that cutting rich people's taxes doesn't help the economy.) It's not necessary because hatred of the rich is a long-standing part of the story of class warfare. Once an issue has been identified as class warfare, it goes without saying that one side hates the rich.

The same process is at work in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, where Peter Wehner writes:

One cannot help but conclude that even if lower tax rates for the wealthy led to strong economic growth, more jobs, and a higher standard of living for everyone, it wouldn’t matter. Punishing “the rich” would remain a top priority.

What started Wehner down the road from which "one cannot help but" reach this remarkable conclusion? He quotes Senator Mary Landrieu saying that her opposition to the tax deal "is about justice and doing what's right." Apparently Wehner can imagine no other meaning for these words than that Landrieu wants to punish the rich -- even if it hurts everybody else too.

History and mythology. So what is the class-warfare story and what does it have to do with the Bush tax cuts? Class warfare is one translation of the German klassenkämpfen used by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto of 1848:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. … [O]ppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Lenin and Stalin turned Marxism into Soviet Communism, which often did result in "the common ruin of the contending classes." (The killing fields of Cambodia is one outstanding example.) As a result, in American politics the term class warfare is now used only on the Right, as a way of identifying the Left with ruinously destructive policies.

As it is used on the Right, class warfare refers to poor and middle-class people who are so overwhelmed by their envy of the rich that tearing the rich down is an end in itself. Identifying a policy as class warfare implies that envy of the rich is its real motivation, and so invokes a morality tale in which a desire to harm others rebounds against the person who harbors the desire. Rand Paul, for example, said:

You can't punish rich people. You end up punishing the people who work for them, or you punish the people who they buy things from. It makes no sense

Hating the rich doesn't hurt them, the class-warfare story claims, it just hurts the haters and their communities. But the haters are so far gone that they don't care; they'll destroy themselves and everyone around them in their effort to destroy the rich.

(Liberals sometimes try to turn the phrase back on conservatives, arguing that conservative policies that hurt the poor are class warfare. We can see now why this response never hits home: Obviously the rich aren't spiteful about the poor. They'd happily forget about the poor.)

If you want to understand the emotional essence of the class-warfare myth, you need to read some of the classic right-wing novels, like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. In Rand's world, we're not even really talking about the rich any more, we're talking about the Best People -- the talented, motivated visionaries. Just by being better than everybody else, they become targets of spite and envy.

The Fountainhead's hero, for example, is Howard Roark, a visionary architect who lives simply and (due to his own uncompromising idealism combined with persecution by people like the wannabee-great-architect Peter Keating) never gets rich. Atlas Shrugged's hero John Galt is an inventor who could have gotten rich, but decides instead to lead a strike of the world's productive geniuses, leaving the envious wannabees to flounder in a failing world economy. (The productive geniuses follow Galt because they don't really care about money either. They just want the freedom to produce ingeniously.)

So the full class-warfare myth goes like this: Some people are better than the rest of us. They are smarter, more insightful, more driven, and more talented in a thousand different ways. Because American society is free, these people rise to the top and achieve the success they so richly deserve. But in doing so they draw the attention of spiteful people who lack the virtues that make the best people successful. These envious wannabees will try to tear the best people down to their level -- even if they have to tear down the rest of society to do it. And they will have to tear down the rest of society, because the success of everybody depends on that small number of productive visionaries.

The unpopularity of class warfare. Naturally, when you lay it out that way, more people identify with the productive geniuses than with the no-talent haters. This is Roger Simon's point:

Some Democrats hate the rich. Most Americans, on the other hand, would like to become the rich. … Which is why class warfare doesn’t work in America and why congressional Democrats are being stupid. In America, the class structure is fluid. You don’t have to stay in the economic class into which you were born. People don’t really hate the rich, and we don’t really want to confiscate their wealth.

I imagine he's completely correct. If we had a referendum asking "Should the government confiscate the wealth of anyone with more than X dollars?" I'm sure it would fail, no matter how big X was.

Envy is not a big motive for most Americans, and to the extent it is, we feel guilty about it. We certainly don't want to march in the streets for envy and build a political movement around spite. If we feel like we're getting a fair shake, and that people in general are getting fair shake, then the fact that somewhere there are 400-foot yachts where people drink 200-year-old wine served by supermodels in bikinis -- we don't care. If they're not hurting anybody to do it, we even like the idea that somebody is keeping that fantasy alive.


Needed revenue. That's where the whole class-warfare myth breaks down. What if we don't feel like we're getting a fair shake or that people in general are getting a fair shake? What if people are dying of curable diseases because there is no money to pay for their treatment? What if people who want jobs can't find them? What if teachers are getting laid off, equipment is breaking, and class sizes are growing because there's no money in the school budget? What if houses are burning down while firemen watch, because of money? What if college is out of reach, even for families that have worked and saved? What if libraries are closing? What if we can't afford to train special-needs students to be productive citizens in decades to come? What if our bridges are in danger of collapsing and our stadium roofs are falling in? What if we don't know where our energy is going to come from, and the energy we're using is pushing us closer to disaster?

An essential piece of the class-warfare interpretation of tax increases is that we don't actually need the revenue. Government is just a big black hole into which we pitch our taxes.

So take that, rich people. I'm going to flush your money down the tax hole. Nyah, nyah, nyah.

But if important things are going undone for lack of revenue, or if we can only do them by writing IOUs that future generations will have to make good, then raising taxes on those who can afford to pay is just good sense. What's childish is describing it as "punishment".

Productivity. Another essential piece of the myth is that the rich are uniquely productive. But in fact it's very difficult to find a John Galt type, who invents something miraculous that otherwise wouldn't exist for decades. It's obviously ridiculous to talk about the Walton heirs that way. We could argue about the impact Sam Walton had on the economy (for good and ill alike), but his children add nothing to American productivity.

Some of the rich -- the financiers who brought down our economic system and then profited from the government bailout, for example -- are just parasites. Getting them out of the picture would make America more productive, not less.

Bill Gates is often seen as the exemplar of the productive rich, but does anybody really think there wouldn't be personal computers or office-productivity software without him? He out-maneuvered other would-be moguls and captured $66 billion of the wealth created by the computer industry, but did he produce $66 billion of value personally? Don't be silly.

Similarly, H. L. Hunt didn't put that oil under Texas; he just found a lot of it. Somebody would have, sooner or later.

So Rand's image of the rich as Atlas -- lonely figures holding up the sky for the rest of us -- is just nutty. The vast majority of human wealth comes from some combination of the fecundity of nature, the natural resources of the Earth, the knowledge base handed down from past generations, and the way society is organized -- not the heroic individual struggles of the rich.

Capitalism and taxes. The capitalist system works by encouraging people to compete and then rewarding the winners. That's fine, and history shows that it works better than a Soviet-style command economy. But history also shows that you can levy substantial taxes on those rewards without mucking things up. In the better-dead-than-red 1950s (under that radical Marxist Dwight David Eisenhower) the top tax rate was over 90% (compared to 35% now and 39.6% under Bill Clinton). American capitalism flourished, and the rich, I am told, survived their punishment.

What people like Roger Simon don't get is that the American acceptance of inequality is really an acceptance of the system that produces it. If that system is working well overall, if it gives ordinary people an acceptable chance to achieve an acceptable life, then OK. If it also grants undeserved good fortune to a handful at the top, so what?

But as wealth continues to concentrate and the benefits of progress go to fewer and fewer people, that acceptance is breaking down. More and more Americans are seeing that for lack of money and lack of opportunity, they can't take care of their loved ones or give their children a fighting chance at success.

And once you come to that conclusion, those 400-foot yachts look very different.

An obvious question is: What do you do when someone you know starts throwing around loaded terms like class warfare? In general, I think this stuff works well as mythology and less well the closer you get to reality. So I recommend making your friends and relatives and co-workers say out loud the outrageous stuff that the class-warfare myth just implies. Rather than counter-attack, draw them out. Make them apply the stereotypes to you and to specific people you both know. If they're not too far gone, they'll be embarrassed.

Even if you don't usually chase the links in Sift articles (many of them are like the endnotes in a book -- they're just here to prove that I'm not making this stuff up), check out this one: The New Yorker's John Cassidy asks: What good is Wall Street?

Is Health Reform Unconstitutional?

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on last week's Sift, federal district court Judge Henry Hudson ruled that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

As I've described in the past, the ACA isn't just a menu of unrelated provisions. It all fits together, and you can't get rid of the unpopular parts without making the popular parts unworkable. In particular, if insurance companies can't discriminate against pre-existing conditions (the most popular provision in the ACA), then the clever thing to do is to wait until you get sick before you buy insurance. If enough people do that, they undermine the assumptions insurance is based on. The individual mandate (charging uninsured people extra on their income tax) is a way to prevent that.

Just about every state with a Republican attorney general is claiming that the mandate is unconstitutional, hoping that a conservative activist judge will scrap the whole health reform plan. Two of these suits have already been rejected at the district court level, but Virginia's found Hudson to be a friendly judge. (Maybe that's because he has a substantial conflict of interest.)

The constitutional basis for the ACA rests on three clauses in Article I, Section 8: the commerce clause (which authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce), the elastic clause (which authorizes Congress to do whatever is "necessary and proper" to carry out its other duties), and possibly the taxing clause ("Congress shall have the power to lay and collect Taxes").

In the past, courts have interpreted these clauses expansively. Even people growing wheat or marijuana for their own use have been found to be participating in interstate commerce, simply because there are interstate markets in wheat and marijuana, and those markets are affected by people who grow for their own use.

One key issue is whether the mandate is a tax on uninsured people or a penalty levied against people for not buying insurance. (That sounds like hair-splitting, but the taxing clause is very open-ended, so if the mandate is a tax, it's clearly constitutional.) Both sides have been hypocritical about this. During the debate in Congress, Republicans charged that the mandate was a new tax, and Democrats denied it. Now that judges and not voters are the audience, the parties have traded positions.

Hudson ruled that the mandate is a penalty, and that the commerce clause only allows Congress to regulate activity, not inactivity. Failure to buy health insurance is inactivity, so it is beyond Congress' power to regulate or penalize.

Two other district judges have ruled on similar lawsuits, and both have found the ACA constitutional. Judge George Steeh commented on the "inactivity" argument:

The plaintiffs have not opted out of the health care services market because, as living, breathing beings, who do not oppose medical services on religious grounds, they cannot opt out of this market. As inseparable and integral members of the health care services market, plaintiffs have made a choice regarding the method of payment for the services they expect to receive.

The cases are headed for several different appellate courts, and ultimately to the Supremes, who will rule in about two years.

The private insurance mandate was originally a conservative idea, launched as an alternative to single-payer health-care proposals. It is currently part of the Massachusetts health-care system signed into law by Mitt Romney.

Kevin Drum notes that a mandate is also part of many conservative proposals to privatize Social Security. In that setting, its constitutionality does not seem to bother anyone.

Short Notes

Don't Ask Don't Tell is history. Prediction: In ten years, no one will remember defending it. Does anyone remember defending racial segregation? Did anyone's ancestors own slaves?

That ordinary-looking guy at Modell's trying to sell you the Danny Woodhead Patriots jersey -- he might be Danny Woodhead.

TPMMuckracker looks at Newt Gingrich's issue-advocacy group "American Solutions for Winning the Future", and it's not pretty. ASfWtF pulled in $14.5 million in contributions last year. $9.2 million came through the telephone-fund-raising group InfoCision, which kept $7.9 million for expenses and profit. Another $1.5 million went to a jet-chartering company to fly Newt around in style. So at most 1/3 of the money contributed -- and probably a lot less -- went towards advocating actual issues.

Where did most of the $5.3 million in non-telemarketing contributions come from? Polluters. Oil, coal, and electric companies, mostly. If there's a Gingrich administration, I'm sure their investment in "winning the future" will be amply rewarded.

The death of baseball great Bob Feller gets TPM's David Kurtz reflecting on how war was different in that generation:

Like many athletes of his era, Feller lost several years of his prime to World War II, when he was a chief petty officer aboard the USS Alabama. Our reporter Eric Lach, a big baseball fan, just remarked to me: "Sometimes I imagine how'd we'd feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if LeBron and Derek Jeter were riding Humvees."

One more sign that the Republican 2012 primaries will be a circus: John Bolton is thinking about running.

Republican primary attack ads will have lots of material, because many of the candidates used to concern themselves with reality before pledging themselves to conservative ideology instead. So, for example, Mike Huckabee used to believe in controlling carbon emissions, even though he denies it now. (Governor, we've got the tape.)

Grist's Tom Philpott examines the food-industry's point that unregulated agribusiness leads to cheaper food which raises Americans' quality of life. Well, we do spend a smaller percentage of our income on food, but we also have more a lot more obesity, diabetes, and death from heart attack and stroke than France, Spain, or Germany. So the truth is more nuanced: We have cheap but unhealthy food, with corresponding positive and negative effects on our quality of life.

Obama to a group of 20 CEOs: "When you do well, America does well." Has he looked around lately? CEOs are doing great, ordinary Americans not so hot.

Somebody leaked another Fox News memo instructing its "journalists" to slant the news.

In case you were planning to give somebody a cat for Christmas, here's how you wrap one.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Safe Ground

Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.

-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman's Bible (1898)

In this week's Sift:

  • The Deal. We now know what President Obama got by agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts. The agreement is defensible economically, but you have to wonder what's going to happen politically a year from now. Also, how to answer the "it's my money, not the government's" line.
  • Too Good, Too Easy, But … For years, educators have been working to close gender and racial performance gaps. A new technique seems to do just that … but it has nothing to do with the subject matter of the course. Why I'm not totally skeptical.
  • Elizabeth Edwards. I can't say I knew her, but I did meet her once. Her death gives me flashbacks to my wife's cancer battle.
  • Short Notes. Hottest year ever. Death panels in Arizona. Republicans rediscover earmarks. Suspicious behavior at WalMart. The difference between freedom and options. Living without Monsanto. The lack of Republican scientists. A smoking gun at Fox News. And more.

The Deal

Last week I expressed my bewilderment that the administration was planning to give in to the Republican demand to extend the Bush tax cuts for all income rather than just the first $250,000 of income. Well, the full deal was announced this week, and much argument has ensued. Let's see if we can sort this out.

As usual, the best spokesman for White House economic policy is Austin Goolsbee at the White House White Board. His basic message is that President Obama wanted another economic stimulus and the Republicans wanted another handout to the rich (whose stimulative effect is questionable). In the compromise, Obama got $238 billion of stimulus, while giving up $114 billion of handouts to the rich. (The rest of the $900 billion deal is the middle-class tax cuts that both sides claimed to support. Ezra Klein has a pie chart.)

The $114 billion for the rich means that they pay $91 billion less in income tax and $23 billion less in estate tax than if the Bush cuts had been allowed to expire.

The $238 billion of stimulus includes $104 billion of extended unemployment benefits, grants for renewable energy projects, and various tax credits targeted at low-and-middle-income people. This is good both in terms of compassion and economic stimulus (because poor people spend their tax credits while the rich may not).

Another $22 billion is for letting businesses write off their investments faster. This is good stimulus, because it might have a multiplier effect: The $22 billion in tax cuts might motivate a much larger amount of business investment. But I question listing it as "our" part of the deal rather than "theirs". (Paul Krugman laments: "how, exactly, did we get to the point where Democrats must plead with Republicans to accept lower corporate taxes?") This money will also go to the rich (though it will be in exchange for them stimulating the economy, rather than just a tribute to their wealth), so their take is really $136 billion. (114 + 22 = 136)

The remaining $112 billion on the stimulus side goes to the "payroll tax holiday", which is the most controversial part of the package. This lowers the tax that wage-earners pay into the Social Security fund from 6.2% to 4.2% for the next year. It replaces that contribution with money from the general fund, so that the solvency of Social Security isn't affected.

Whether this is a good idea or not depends on whether you look at it economically or politically. Economically, it is a very effective form of stimulus: Working people will see more money in their paychecks, which many of them will spend.

Politically, the question is what this is going to lead to. The plutocrat tax cut is for two years, the payroll holiday for one. So what happens a year from now? Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation worries:

Particularly if the economy remains weak, as seems likely, few politicians of either party will want to oppose an extension of the payroll tax holiday for another year. Because payroll taxes are taken straight out of paychecks, both a reduction in them and then a return to current levels would be highly noticeable to most workers.
Under that scenario, what would happen if the Republican candidate won the presidency? Given the conservative movement’s long-standing hostility toward Social Security, the likely next step would be to make the payroll tax cut permanent, while no longer replenishing the Social Security trust fund to make up for the lost revenue. That basic strategy of slashing the payroll taxes that support the program has been a central plank of right-wing think tanks for decades, but until this point it has never succeeded.

So the tax holiday could undermine the political case to preserve Social Security -- especially if it gets extended beyond one year, as it probably will. The reason we all feel so strongly that we deserve our Social Security benefits is that we paid for them already. If instead the Social Security trust fund is being filled out of the general coffers, then Social Security becomes more of a welfare program for old people, and the case against cutting benefits loses a lot of its force.

Michelle Bachman has a knack for spelling out the ridiculous stuff that other Republicans merely imply:

I don't think letting people keep their own money should be considered a deficit.

In other words, the laws of addition and subtraction should bend to conservative ideology. The deficit is expenses minus revenue, but cutting revenue shouldn't increase it.

The standard Republican line about tax cuts ignores the deficit completely, but says that tax cuts don't have to be balanced with specified spending cuts because it's "letting people keep their own money".

The proper response to the "it's my money, not the government's money" line is "it's your government". This isn't the English king imposing taxation-without-representation on the 13 colonies. The government is Us -- We the People. That's what the Constitution is all about: establishing a structure by which we can make these kinds of collective decisions. Saying "it's my money, not the government's" is saying that the Constitution failed.

We the People spend our money in two ways: as individuals and collectively through public programs supported by taxes. Both are legitimate, but we can't spend the same money twice. If our democratically elected government-of-the-People has already spent the money, then it isn't "our money" any more to spend as individuals.

The most interesting response to the tax deal came from the market for U.S. government bonds, which plunged. The yield on 10-year bonds rose to 3.32% at Friday's close, up from 3.02% a week earlier.

I don't think markets are omniscient, but I do think they are honest. People might bluster in their public statements, but if an idea makes them move their money, they must really believe it.

If you don't speak bond-market language, let me interpret: The U.S. government wants you to give them dollars today, with the idea that they'll give those dollars back in ten years. How much extra you want in order to agree to that deal depends on two things: what you think dollars will be worth in ten years, and whether you think the government will be solvent in ten years.

If the interest rate goes up, that means investors are worried about those two factors. If it goes up quickly (and an increase of 1/3 of a percent in a week is quick in a market that is ordinarily very stable), that means that investors were not only worried, they were surprised. (If they'd been expecting to be this worried now, they'd have been only slightly less worried last week.)

So the bond market believes this deal is bad for the future value of the dollar and the future solvency of the federal government. And it didn't expect a deal quite this bad.

Kevin Drum isn't worried about what the payroll tax holiday does to Social Security.

Too Good, Too Easy, But ...

This sounds way too good and too easy to be true, but I don't see any holes in it. Discover reports on a simple classroom exercise that seems to undo the pernicious effect of stereotyping. It was originally developed to help black high school students, and has now been tested on female physics students. In short: groups that had a persistent test-score gap saw that gap substantially diminish when they did this exercise.

It's not some intensive coaching thing and has nothing to do with the subject matter of the course: Take 15 minutes and write about values that are important to you and why they are important. A University of Colorado physics class had students do this twice near the beginning of the term, and then proceeded normally.

The point, as I understand it, is to change the mindset of the student in that class. Having recalled and validated your core values brings your whole being into the room, and banishes the I-don't-belong-here mindset.

It sounds like another one of those new-agey things that never actually work when I try them, but here's what makes me give it some credence. Decades ago, as a teacher and graduate student in one of the prime gender-gap subjects (mathematics), I got to observe some of the nuts-and-bolts of the problem-solving process. Solving a hard math problem is a little like investigating a crime: First, you figure out who did it, and then you assemble a case to convince a jury.

In my experience, the mathematics gender gap was in figuring-out-who-did-it part. That kind of thinking is all speculative, and it collapses whenever the overall uncertainty overwhelms you. To succeed, you need to postulate something on intuition, and then have enough faith in your intuition to keep postulating on top of it until you have the outline of a solution.

My female students had a higher tendency to throw one speculative idea out there -- maybe even a correct one -- and then get stuck because they weren't sure they were right. Often the only coaching they needed was, "OK, suppose that's right. Then what?" Men were more likely to have the arrogance necessary to keep building their castle of speculation even though the foundations hadn't been established yet.

So this quote in the Discover article made a lot of sense to me:

if someone can’t hammer in a tricky nail, it might not be because their arm isn’t strong enough. It might be that they constantly have to look over their shoulders while they work.

Why the writing exercise solves this problem so easily is still a little mysterious, but it doesn't look as magical as it did at first glance.

Elizabeth Edwards

You probably already know that Elizabeth Edwards died. In a Facebook post a few days before her death she wrote:

The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious.

I met Elizabeth Edwards once, briefly, when one of my friends held a house party for her husband's campaign. And I heard her speak several times, with and without John. She wasn't the smile-and-wave type of political wife. She was passionately committed, knowledgeable, and she had to be careful not to outshine the candidate, who had a pretty good public persona of his own.

Back in March, 2007, when I first heard about her cancer, I recalled my wife's experience with breast cancer and wrote a blog post advising John and Elizabeth to rethink this whole presidential-campaign thing, even though it was probably Elizabeth's last chance to see John in the White House. That post is as much about cancer and marriage as it is about politics, and I think it holds up pretty well from the perspective of three-and-a-half years.

Given how John's career flamed out, it can be embarrassing to remember that I supported him. But when I look back at what he was saying in 2007, it holds up pretty well too. Talking about the vested interests in the health care industry and the Powers That Be in general, he said:

If you give them a seat at the table, they'll eat all the food. You have to beat them. … You can't be nice to these people. We've been nice to them. That's the problem. And they haven't given up anything voluntarily.

Three years later, they still haven't.

Watching Cate Edwards eulogize her mother, I thought: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I didn't know that poise and presence were inheritable, but apparently they are.

Short Notes

In November, we continued marching on towards the hottest year on record. So much for that "global warming ended ten years ago" canard.

Sarah Palin told us there would be death panels, and sure enough there are. But it's got nothing to do with ObamaCare and everything to do with spending cuts. Governor Brewer has cut the Medicaid funding for transplants in Arizona. One guy who needed a bone marrow transplant is dead already, and Randy Shepherd is waiting for a heart transplant.

It's important to focus in on these personal stories, because conservative rhetoric wants you to think of "government" as some black hole that has nothing to do with people. So spending cuts only hurt "government" and "bureaucrats".

But spending cuts do hurt real people, sometimes fatally.

Here's another personal story that is not quite so horrible. It's just an everyday account of what working people have to do to get by these days. Your household needs two incomes to keep the house, but it only has one. You have a job, and your spouse has a 2-year offer far away. So: My Husband is Leaving Me.

I'm separating this from my Elizabeth Edwards piece, because I don't want it dirtied with partisan sniping. But John Edwards is a good example of how the standards are higher on the Left.

John cheated on his dying wife, and his career is over. Newt Gingrich did exactly the same thing, and he's on the short list 2012 presidential candidates.

Remember those promises of action to improve mine safety after 29 West Virginia miners died in April? Umm, never mind.

According to NPR, the Upper Big Branch mine that collapsed had "more serious safety violations than any in the country. But lawmakers say loopholes in the system allowed the company to file lengthy appeals that delayed penalties." And so miners died.

But changing the law is still "premature" according to Republicans. This is where we've gotten: Instituting a new regulation on a corporation requires a higher standard of proof than invading a country.

For some reason I haven't quite fathomed, there are things you just can't say in American politics. They're not false or disloyal or immoral, but announcing them in public is heresy of the first order.

One of those taboo statements is: "An awful lot of the federal budget is money well spent." That's heresy, because everybody knows that all non-military government spending is waste.

Well, it's fascinating (in an anthropological sort of way) to watch the new Republican majority in the House start coming to terms with this fact without admiting it. It's showing up particularly in their discussion of earmarks, which (as we all know) are worst kind of waste, bridge-to-nowhere type waste.

Now that they have the power to end all that waste, they want to, really. But then they have to wonder about the worthwhile projects in their own districts that have been funded so far by earmarks. Politico reports:

many Republicans are now worried that the bridges in their districts won’t be fixed, the tariff relief to the local chemical company isn’t coming and the water systems might not be built without a little direction from Congress.  So some Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban

WalMart stores are showing this strange video from the Homeland Security Department. "Homeland security begins with hometown security," says Janet Napolitano. So you should report to WalMart managers anything "suspicious" you see in the store or parking lot. Because, I guess, Al Qaeda must be just dying to hit some WalMart in the middle of Montana.

Here's the suspicious behavior I see at WalMart: Americans working for low wages and no health care. They have jobs, but they're on food stamps and Medicaid. The company is making billions, but intimidating its workers out of forming a union.

Report that to a manager.

Apparently the bizarre "War on Christmas" idea has reached the UK, and the BBC's Marcus Brigstocke is having none of it.

Last week I made the case that corporations are sociopaths, and observed how hard it would be to follow Martha Stout's advice on dealing with sociopaths -- namely, don't; get them out of your life as fast as you can.

Yes magazine's April Dávila demonstrated that when she tried to live without Monsanto. Monsanto's genetically modified corn, soybean, sugar beet, and cotton seeds are planted by countless farmers, and the resulting foods and fibers are very hard for a consumer to trace. Just about any processed food has high-fructose corn syrup in it, and probably there's some Monsanto corn in there somewhere. Going organic helps avoid Monsanto's bovine growth hormone (given to dairy cattle), but legally "a Monsanto seed that is grown organically is still organic."

The whole point of a market economy is that consumers are (as Milton Friedman's book says) "free to choose". But more and more the market resembles a computer game: We are not actually free, we are just given options within a scripted scenario. Deciding you don't want to deal with Monsanto or don't want to support genetically modified crops isn't in the script.

By the way, here's a cool thing about Yes magazine: People vs. corporations is a category on their web site.

Also from Yes: a call for a constitutional amendment to undo the Citizens United decision that allowed corporations to spend unprecedented amounts in the recent elections.

This is another example of the difference between real freedom and options-within-the-script. Polls show a significant plurality of people support such a constitutional amendment. Will that get it onto the public agenda? In the normal course of things, no. That option is not in the script. Getting an issue like this on the public agenda, so that candidates have to take positions on it and low-information voters realize they should have an opinion on it, will take some creativity -- much more stuff like the Target Ain't People protest and video.

I doubt you're shocked to hear that Fox News slants its coverage. But now we have the internal emails to prove it.

The week's strangest opinion piece: Slate's Daniel Sarewitz laments the lack of Republican scientists (OK so far), and thinks that scientists need to do something about this. The fact that Republicans have consistently chosen ideology over truth has nothing to do with it.

You don't have to be a sports fan to be amazed by the video of the Metrodome's inflatable roof collapsing under snow.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Carefully Restrained Creatures

Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters. … He mocks the people who proposes that the Government shall protect the rich and that they in turn will care for the laboring poor.

-- President Grover Cleveland, The State of the Union, 1888

In this week's Sift:

  • Corporations are Sociopaths. It's tempting to think that there are good and bad corporations in the same way that there are good and bad people. But it's not true.
  • Wikileaks. The craziest thing in the WikiLeaks story is the bloodlust directed at Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.
  • The Tax-Cut Twilight Zone. Wonder why the Democrats are about to abandon a position that is both sensible and popular? Me too.
  • Short Notes. OK, it didn't land on one wing. McCain's moving goalposts on DADT. Cheney gets indicted. A masterpiece of data visualization. A Tea Party leader literally wants to disenfranchise me. Stephen Colbert's Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude. Anti-Christmas-music music. And more.

Corporations are Sociopaths

Yesterday I once again saw the Budweiser Christmas commercial. You've probably seen some version of it in previous years: It's classy. Not a word about beer or anything else you might buy from them, just those iconic Clydesdales pulling an old-fashioned beer wagon down snowy lanes, hauling a Christmas tree up to some lovely country manor, while a narrator sends holiday wishes "from our family to yours."

It's hard not to be touched. What a great bunch of folks those Budweiser people must be.

Miller made a similarly non-commercial Christmas commercial (though they did end on an image of a six-pack): Christmas lights at their brewery flashing on and off to the tune of "Wizards of Winter". Coke has had so many touching Christmas commercials that it's hard to pick a favorite. Ditto Pepsi. Even Victoria's Secret manages to produce something appropriately heart-warming at Christmas.

We all have feelings about corporations sometimes. Our economy forces us to have relationships with them, and it's hard not to project a human personality onto anything you have a relationship with. So while we easily recognize that some corporations are our enemies, we also can't help thinking of some of them as our friends.

For example, there's the corporation whose product you hope someone gives you this year. Or the one that made that one special car that you had all those adventures in -- it ran for years and years and never gave you any trouble. Or the corporation you worked for and maybe still work for -- you served your customers well and got paid for it; wasn't that good? What about Google, who provides all those useful tools for free? Personally, I have soft spots for Apple and Sony -- it's fun to wander around their stores at the mall and see what's new and cool.

Almost every week I say something nasty about corporations, and occasionally I review books like Merchants of Doubt or Doubt Is Their Productthat explain how corporations make products that kill people -- and then manipulate the situation to make sure they can go on killing people as long as possible. But that can't be all corporations, right? Corporations are probably like people. There are good ones and bad ones, corporations that make cigarettes or asbestos, and other ones who just want a chance to put out an honest product at a fair price. Right?

It would be nice to think so, but no. I believe that when you come down to it, all corporations are fundamentally the same: They're sociopaths.

A sociopath (or, if you want to get technical, someone with antisocial personality disorder) is a person without a conscience, who lacks any authentic empathy for other people, and is motivated mainly by a desire to "win" at some social game of his or her choosing.

Just like corporations, the vast majority of human sociopaths are not serial killers. As psychologist Martha Stout describes them in The Sociopath Next Door, they can appear to be pillars of the community -- businessmen, teachers, ministers, and even psychologists. In fact, if appearing to be a pillar of the community helps them win whatever it is they're trying to win, then they'll learn how to cast that image. If that means they have to do some actual good deeds once in a while, they'll manage.

So if you meet a sociopath in a tightly controlled social environment, chances are he or she will behave perfectly, even charmingly. If you were in their way and they could easily get away with it, they might kill you. (I mean, why not? It's not like it's wrong or anything.) But most of the time, killing people is way more trouble than it's worth, so they don't bother.

Just like corporations.

Diagnostic criteria for sociopathy include symptoms like: persistent lying or stealing, apparent lack of remorse or empathy, cruelty to animals, recurring difficulties with the law, disregard for right and wrong, tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others, irresponsible work behavior, and disregard for safety.

Any of that sound familiar? Or what about the behavior that Stout says is the most surefire way to spot a sociopath:

[T]he combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person's forehead as you will ever be given.

Keep that in mind and then read this reaction to the BP oil spill:

It should be obvious that BP is by far the leading victim, but I've yet to see a single expression of sadness for the company and its losses.

Sociopathy isn't the aberrant behavior of a few corporations. It's in every corporation's DNA, and whether it gets expressed is purely a matter of environment and opportunity. A sole proprietor could decide to run his or her business in a moral way, even if it made less money. But having a conscience violates a CEO's duty to his stockholders. One entrepreneur told this story about the "angel investors" who funded his start-up:

I was in one board meeting, and I said, "I started this to do positive things with the world and to do good in the Amazon, not necessarily to get a big payout." And one of these guys looked me in the eye and said, "Well, the problem is, then you went out and took $9 million of other people’s money.“

In other words, investors are counting on CEOs to behave like sociopaths, to win the money-making game at any cost. Perversely, then, a moral CEO is cheating his stockholders of the sociopathic management they bargained for.

Thom Hartman claims this is why executive pay is so high:

[W]hat part of being a CEO could be so difficult -- so impossible for mere mortals -- that it would mean that there are only a few hundred individuals in the United States capable of performing it? In my humble opinion, it's the sociopath part.
CEOs of community-based businesses are typically responsive to their communities and decent people. But the CEOs of most of the world's largest corporations daily make decisions that destroy the lives of many other human beings.
Only about 1 to 3 percent of us are sociopaths -- people who don't have normal human feelings and can easily go to sleep at night after having done horrific things. And of that 1 percent of sociopaths, there's probably only a fraction of a percent with a college education. And of that tiny fraction, there's an even tinier fraction that understands how business works, particularly within any specific industry.
Thus there is such a shortage of people who can run modern monopolistic, destructive corporations that stockholders have to pay millions to get them to work. And being sociopaths, they gladly take the money without any thought to its social consequences.

Stout's best advice for dealing with sociopaths is to get them out of your life. But that's impossible, because most of us couldn't function in today's economy without corporations. So given that we have to deal with them, we should try to meet them only in situations where their lack of conscience has no freedom to operate.

That's the rationale behind government regulation and behind antitrust laws that keep the marketplace competitive. The idea that corporations should be free to do what they do best is incredibly stupid: What they do best is to act without conscience or remorse. Instead, we need them to be, in President Cleveland's phrase, "carefully restrained creatures of the law", so that we may interact with them only in tightly controlled settings.

Don Blankenship, the anti-union anti-safety-regulation CEO who last April presided over the deadliest American coal-mining disaster in 40 years, has announced that "it is time for me to move on." He rides into the sunset without expressing the slightest remorse to the families of his 29 dead employees.

I'm sure some of you are getting ready to point out to me that there is no Budweiser family, except maybe in the Czech Republic.


People who have been reading my stuff for a while know that I am a fan of Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971. I'm also a fan of Mike Gravel, the Senator who entered the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record so that they couldn't be suppressed. I'm also a fan of James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, the New York Times reporters who told the world that the Bush administration was spying on American citizens without a warrant. I don't know who their sources were, but I'd be happy to buy them a drink too.

It's not that I think governments shouldn't keep secrets. If, say, the CIA has a mole inside the Iranian nuclear program, I'm content not to know his name or anything else about him. And the codes that President Obama could use to launch all the missiles -- don't tell me. I really don't want to know.

But as soon as there is a process for keeping secrets, the temptation to abuse it is overwhelming. Far too often, the only people being kept in the dark are the voters.

That's why we need whistle-blowers. In the old days, whistle-blowers would deliver their leaks to journalists, who would take months or years verifying and packaging their revelations for the public. WikiLeaks is removing the middleman. By putting vast numbers of leaked documents on the web, WikiLeaks makes it possible for anybody with time and patience to be Woodward and Bernstein.

The latest WikiLeaks dump is a quarter million US diplomatic cables, which so far the NYT describes as "Good Gossip and No Harm Done".

But what I find amazing is the virulent responses that have been unleashed against Julian Assange, who is a public spokesman for WikiLeaks and is sometimes described as its founder, but whose actual significance is not known. Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner has called for his assassination:

we should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him.

Sarah Palin asks why Assange has not been "pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?"

Kuhner also regrets that WikiLeaks alleged source, Pfc. Bradley Manning, "was not interrogated aggressively" -- tortured, in other words. This says a great deal about how things have changed since the idyllic days of the Nixon administration: Ellsberg was harassed illegally, but I can't recall any public discussion of torturing him. Potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee thinks Manning has committed treason and "anything less than execution is too kind a penalty."

For links to more threats against Assange, see Glenn Greenwald. The best ongoing coverage of WikiLeaks is in Greg Mitchell's blog at The Nation.

Glenn Beck tied WikiLeaks to his ongoing conspiratorial fantasy about George Soros. Soros, you see, has some tenuous connection to Wikipedia, which Glenn has mistakenly confused with WikiLeaks.

Daniel Ellsberg says that "silence and lies", not leaks, are what endanger lives.

A James Bond element comes into this story from looking at the servers on which much of the WikiLeaks material has been stored: It's in a former Swedish bomb bunker drilled into a mountain. See the slide show.

The Tax-Cut Twilight Zone

The Sift's motto is "Making sense of the news one week at a time." But this week I'm failing in that mission, because I can't make any sense at all of the Democrats' strategy on the Bush tax cuts. In particular, I can't explain why they aren't willing to risk a confrontation.

Let me summarize: The Democratic position is that the Bush tax cuts should be extended for families making less than $250,000 and for individuals making less than $200,000, but that wealthier people should go back to paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton administration. Republicans want the Bush tax cuts extended for everybody, and are blocking the whole deal in the Senate -- threatening to raise taxes on everybody, even if the Democrats compromise to let the cuts expire only for millionaires -- if they don't get what they want for their rich benefactors.

I'm with Senator McCaskill on this:

I feel like I am in the twilight zone. It’s depressing to me that we have gotten to this level of posturing, that they are saying if you do not give people a tax break on their second million, that nobody gets one.

Everything is on the Democrats' side. If you're worried about the national debt, the Republican plan will add hundreds of billions more to it over then next decade. If you're worried about jobs, economists say that tax cuts -- particularly tax cuts for the wealthy -- are among the least effective kinds of stimulus. Wayne State University's Linda Beale writes:

The idea that tax cuts for those at the very top of the wealth and income distribution will trickle down to create jobs for all is part of the policies that got us into this mess. We’ve tried that approach for four decades: U.S. workers have contributed to significant productivity gains, but the owners and managers have kept those gains for themselves.

And you don't need to be an academic egghead to see that: Since we passed the Bush cuts in 2001, job growth has been awful. If you aren't clear about why that is, let a small businessman explain it to you:

My tax rate doesn’t affect hiring. If I think I can do more business, I hire more workers. … So if Congress wants to help my company — and other small businesses — create jobs, it should support tax and economic policies that boost broad-based consumer income and spending.

Broad-based, not focused on the rich, as the Bush tax cuts are.

Finally, if you're a congressman who doesn't care about what's best for the country and just want to do what's popular -- the Democratic position is overwhelmingly more popular. Not even all the billionaires support the billionaire tax cuts. There is literally no reason for Democrats not to take a stand here.

But the way it looks now, the Democrats will cave on this and extend the tax cuts even for zillionaires. The deficit will run higher because of it. And in 2012 the voters will blame the Democrats for the deficit. Go figure.

Paul Krugman can't make sense of a Democratic cave-in either.

Short Notes

Department of Corrections: The myth-checking web site believes that the one-wing-landing video I linked to last week was fake. This annotated version describes how it might have been done. Still a great video, though. Remember when seeing was believing? (Thanks to David Wiegleb and Charlie Frean for the links.)

General Electric has come up with a radical strategy for getting its profits back to where they were in 2007: GE wants to make stuff people want and sell it to them.

Bill in Portland Maine assembles John McCain quotes about don't-ask-don't-tell since 2006.  Basically, McCain consistently takes what sounds like a reasonable position against repealing DADT: He's willing to repeal the policy if the right people in the military tell him to, but until then he wants to continue throwing gays and lesbians out.

The problem is that who "the right people" are keep changing. As soon as someone like Colin Powell or the Secretary of Defense or the current head of the Joint Chiefs tells him to repeal DADT, they're not the right people any more, and he needs someone else's approval.

Jon Stewart has the video to back this up.

A German company claims to have made the most secure bikelock in the world. Watch the video.

Whenever Dick Cheney has a health crisis, he probably imagines people like me rooting against him. Not so, Dick. I want you to live long enough to stand trial. I hope you make it to 100, if that's what it takes.

This isn't the case I had in mind, but Nigeria has indicted Cheney for a bribery scandal that involved Halliburton while Cheney was its CEO. (Maybe that's why that Nigerian guy needs my help getting money out of the country.)

Kevin O'Rourke on what the Irish did wrong: They backed up their private banks with a public commitment. "Now … it is the State rather than the banking sector which is insolvent." And the Irish have essentially lost their sovereignty to the EU and the IMF.

The reaction to the news that Irish taxpayers are to be squeezed while foreign bondholders escape scot-free has been one of outraged disbelief and anger. … Iceland is an obvious model for us. In a referendum, her voters have already rejected a proposal to pay back their banks’ creditors, who will take major losses. Now they have elected a constitutional assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. Ireland probably needs this more than does Iceland; I wish I were more confident that we will follow the latter’s example.

The BBC's Hans Rosling presents an amazing feat of data representation: 200 years of country-by-country health and wealth data animated.

Stephen Colbert answers the War on Christmas with his Blitzkrieg On Grinchitude.

Of course we all know the real hazard of the Christmas season: Overdoses of Christmas music can rot your brain. I recommend you inoculate yourself. Whenever you worry that one more dose of "Jingle Bells" might make you strangle an elf, start humming "Christmas at Ground Zero", "I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus", or my personal favorite "I Found the Brains of Santa Claus".

OK, but what about Hanukkah music? I mean, Hanukkah in Santa Monica is cute, but shouldn't there be a pop song that explains what the holiday is about?

When Tea Partiers talk about restoring the vision of the Founders, they don't usually mention the unsavory parts of that vision: slavery, no votes for women, and so on.

But sometimes they do. Here, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Philips says on the radio that "it makes a lot of sense" to restrict the vote to property owners. (That leaves me out. I rent.)

Matt Yglesias pulls together some Krugman analysis with a chart explaining why Social Security cuts would be a direct attack on the working class.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.