Monday, April 4, 2011

No Chance

"Is this a game of chance?"

"Not the way I play it."

-- W. C. Fields, "My Little Chickadee" (1940)

In this week's Sift:

  • Heads They Win, Tales You Lose. The conservative movement trumpets its principles. But those principles are easily reversed when they disadvantage the rich or benefit Democrats.
  • Betting on Bachmann. For months I've been looking at the Republican 2012 field and saying that none of them can possibly win the nomination. Now I've spotted the first candidate who can, and she's not who you think.
  • Short Notes. Wish I could tell you something about the possibility of a government shutdown. Budget ignorance. Defending regulation. Walker wriggles, then finally decides to obey a court order. Wisconsin votes tomorrow, and may vote again when all the recall petitions are validated. Jon Stewart identifies what kind of people corporations are. Save the tree octopus! Televising Katie Couric's colonoscopy. A radiation chart. A Fox News confession. And Corning's cool-but-creepy vision of the future.
  • This Week's Challenge. Here's wishing a unchallenging week to all of us.

Heads They Win, Tales You Lose

There are some honest and principled differences in American politics. Some people really believe that a newly fertilized ovum has the same moral value as a baby. Some people believe less government is always better. Some believe that America has both the ability and the moral responsibility to install democracies in troubled countries. Some believe that an unfettered free market system would be so productive as to make up for its other failings.

I don't believe any of those things. But I know people who do, and they seem to be sincere about it.

Those aren't the people I want to talk about right now. Instead, I want to focus on all the situations where a principle is held sacred when it benefits the right people, and yet is easily reversed when it benefits the wrong people.

Small government. Rachel Maddow has been beating this drum for some while now, but she really pulled it all together on Tuesday night's show (video, transcript). Conservative rhetoric is all about small government. But in practice conservatives love big government when they can use it to force their values on others or hassle people they don't like.

The issue where Rachel usually makes this point is abortion, where legislators who supposedly favor small government have no trouble forcing women to attend anti-abortion counseling sessions or to view an ultrasound of their fetus. But Tuesday she showed how the same phenomenon plays out in many other issues.

So: Florida Governor Rick Scott has just signed an order mandating quarterly drug tests for state workers. This will cost the state a lot of money (much of which will go to a company Scott's wife owns, which does drug tests), is not based on any state-worker drug scandal, and is unconstitutional as well -- but it's anti-drug and hassles state workers, so it's all good.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is another big-government conservative:

If the Snyder administration so declares, if they declare a financial emergency in your town, a financial emergency czar will be appointed, not elected by you, but appointed, sent to your town, given the power to abolish your town. The town can be dissolved on the say so of the governor‘s financial emergency person. Anyone you elected locally to represent you can be dismissed. All contracts, all unions, all rights of people who worked for that town can be dissolved on one person‘s say so if Governor Rick Snyder gives the nod. He is taking that much power.

Rachel then moved to the Republican effort to get access to the emails of Wisconsin history Professor William Cronon:

taking a law designed to make law transparent to the public and instead using it to force into the public e-mails written by a university professor whose academic writings put him on the wrong side of the Republican Party on an issue they feel quite sensitive about.

You speak out, the government will use all the leverage it can muster over you to pry open your life.

This isn't a one-of-a-kind thing:

in Virginia, it has been Governor McDonnell‘s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, who has demanded to search e-mails of a Virginia science professor, a professor whose research on climate issues apparently did not meet with government approval.

And back in Michigan:

The labor studies faculty at the University of Michigan, at Wayne State University, and at Michigan State have all just had their e-mails demanded by a right wing think tank, specifically demanding to see any e-mail from any professor at the labor faculty at any of these schools, any e-mail that includes the words: Scott Walker, Wisconsin, Madison, or Maddow.

Yep, mention Rachel in an email, and you're on the target list. About all this, she asks:

Is that small, leave-me-alone government, or is that big, intrusive government?

Money in politics. In the Citizens United decision of 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money campaigning for or against political candidates. The logic behind the decision was basically that free speech is good, and more money in a campaign means more speech. By limiting what corporations could spend, laws like McCain-Feingold were restricting how much free speech voters could hear.

Now, there are a lot of ways to argue against this point of view. (I'm reminded of the Anatole France quote I have used to lead off the Sift before: "The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." Well, the Supreme Court demonstrates its even-handedness by allowing the poor as well as the rich to spend unlimited amounts of money on politics.) But you could at least imagine that someone might hold it honestly.

Now we get to McCommish v Bennett, which the Supremes are mulling over now. The gist of this case is Arizona's law providing public financing for campaigns for state offices. Arizona has had a long history of political scandals, and the public-financing law (passed by voter referendum) was seen as a way to create the possibility for a candidate to get elected without taking vast sums from special interests.

The system works like this: A candidate for a contested office gets a fixed amount of public money in exchange for promising not to raise and spend additional money. Candidates who opt out of the system remain free to raise and spend as much as they want. But if they do spend more than the amount allowed to their publicly financed rivals, the amount of public funding goes up.

The idea here was that the public-funding system would not be attractive if it were essentially a strait-jacket that forced a candidate to spend less than his privately financed rivals. So as the amount of private spending goes up, the amount of public spending goes up.

So: Everyone is still free to buy as much free speech as he or she can afford. The only thing you can't do is swamp your publicly financed rivals with private money. The public is just adding money to the campaign, and more money equals more speech. So the courts should be happy. The 9th Court of Appeals, whose ruling is being appealed to the Supremes, is happy:

there is no First Amendment right to make one's opponent speak less, nor is there a First Amendment right to prohibit the government from subsidizing one's opponent, especially when the same subsidy is available to the challenger if the challenger accepts the same terms as his opponent.

In particular the five conservative judges who wrote the Citizens United decision should be happy. But it looks like they're not.

Nothing has been decided so far, but in the questions they have raised during public hearings, the five conservative justices seem to be positioning themselves to overturn the appeals-court decision and declare Arizona's system unconstitutional.

The problem? While rich people can spend as much as they want, the fact that their spending could trigger more funding for a candidate they hate might inhibit them. The whole point of spending vast amounts is to swamp your poorer opponent, and if the law takes that option away, why would a rich person spend? So Justice Kennedy (usually the swing vote on the Court) asked: "Do you think it would be a fair characterization of this law to say that its purpose and its effect are to produce less speech in political campaigns?"

Slate's Richard Hasen comments:

If you are looking for a common thread between the "more speech is better" theory underlying Citizens United and an expected "more speech is unfair" ruling for the challengers in McComish, it is this: Five conservatives justices on the Supreme Court appear to have no problem with the wealthy using their resources to win elections—even if doing so raises the danger of increased corruption of the political system.

Property Rights. Matt Yglesias nailed this one:

If I walked over to David Koch’s lawn and tore up all the grass, he’d probably feel that the basic principles of a free market society require me to be punished. After all, that’s his property. ... And yet somehow the coalition merchants of the contemporary right, financed by the Kochs and other industrialists, have constructed a conception of free markets and property rights such that trying to stop them from wrecking Ouachita River constitutes a defense of those things.

Their property rights allow them to defend their property, but if they use their property to harm the public's property, property rights protect them then too.

Taxes and health care. Again and again in discussions of the budget deficit, conservatives have argued that tax cuts don't have to be offset. In other words, deficits are only bad when they are caused by spending. When a deficit is caused by tax cuts, that's fine.

That's very close to a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument right there, but it gets worse. There are a number of taxes included in the Affordable Care Act. There is general agreement that some of them were poorly designed and should be changed or even eliminated. But Republicans are adamant that any lost revenue needs to be made up. So: tax cuts don't have to be offset with spending cuts, unless we're talking about cutting spending on health care.

Betting on Bachmann

This week I had a strong temptation to open an account on InTrade, the predictive-market exchange that lets you bet on all kinds of political developments. The reason? Earlier this week, shares that would pay $10 if Michelle Bachmann gets the 2012 Republican nomination were going for 50 cents.

But the mainstream media discovered the Bachmann candidacy this week, so this morning her shares were up to 70 cents. But they've got a lot further to run.

I'm not saying I'm sure she's going to win the nomination. But I will predict this much:

  • Mitt Romney will not be nominated. Yes, his campaign will have plenty of money, he looks like central-casting's idea of a president, and Republicans have a history of nominating the person who finished second last time around. But it's not going to happen. From the beginning, the religious right has had trouble trusting a Mormon, and he isn't going to be able to explain the difference between ObamaCare and RomneyCare (because there isn't one). His rivals can attack Romney and Obama in the same sentence, and that's going to be deadly when the campaign starts in earnest.
  • Sarah Palin will not run. I've been saying this for months. Campaigning is hard work, and you spend money rather than make it. Then if you get elected, you have to work even harder at governing (unless you quit). But being a Fox News pundit from your home studio, letting somebody else ghost-write your books, and tossing off an occasional tweet while you watch the money roll in ... that's more Sarah's style.
  • Bachmann will win the Iowa caucuses. The same stuff that works on Republicans in Minnesota works in Iowa. Her only competition for the religious-right vote is Huckabee, and easy-going Huck can't channel the mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-any-more wave as well as Bachmann can.
  • At some point it's going to come down to Bachmann against one or two other Republican candidates. She wins Iowa, somebody else upsets Romney in New Hampshire, and maybe there's a third candidate who finished close enough in both to keep going.

Put all that together, and I'd be amazed if those Bachmann shares didn't make it to at least $3 at some point.

Now, I know some of you will think this is a crazy idea. Michelle Bachmann is one of the outright loons in the Republican Party. She is only slightly more knowledgable than Palin, and occasionally gets this wild-eyed look that should scare the pants off any sane voter.

But if you think that eliminates her from consideration for high office, you haven't been paying attention. Bachmann is a level-headed genius compared to Christine O'Donnell, who beat a sensible Republican in the Delaware senate primary. From my perspective, Bachmann is the only Republican candidate so far who doesn't immediately bring to mind some reason he or she can't win the nomination.

The religious right and the rank-and-file Tea Partiers (mostly the same people, in spite of the media coverage saying otherwise) are looking for a candidate with authenticity. They have a semi-justified/semi-paranoid fear that candidates are saying things they don't really believe just to woo them. So they are looking for conviction, and they are looking for details in a candidate's biography that show seriousness about religious-right issues. Newt Gingrich can talk about defending marriage, but he's on his third wife. Romney is a Mormon who supported socialized medicine. Even Huckabee looks like somebody who would play nice with the Marxist-atheist Democrats in Congress.

If you believe all the crazy stuff religious-right Tea-Party people believe, and you want somebody who says that stuff proudly in public, someone who will stand up against the reality-based folks who say you're crazy -- then you want Bachmann. What looks like craziness to liberals is actually just shamelessness; Bachmann will state as fact whatever she wants to be true. That's a virtue on the right these days.

Meanwhile, she doesn't offend the other power bases in the Republican Party. Corporatists like the Koch brothers have always been suspicious of Huckabee. (What if he really means all that Christian-compassion stuff?) But Bachmann makes the big-bucks crowd comfortable. (That's how she manages to raise so much money). And the neocons don't have anything against her either.

The only Republicans who would mount a defend-the-Alamo campaign against Bachmann are the sane ones -- the ones who want to appeal to the center and beat Obama. But in a Republican primary, they're nowhere near a majority any more.

Short Notes

Will Congress make a deal to avoid a government shutdown next week? This is important enough to deserve an article, but I have no idea.

The whole budget issue would be much easier to handle if the American people had any idea what the government really spends money on.

First-time poster ramblinman explains The Case for Regulation on Daily Kos. This is the kind of common-sense justification liberals need to do more often:

The simple contradiction, my conservative friend, is this: You can not make the selfish man the paradigm of your economic theory and then expect that same selfish man to self regulate.

He makes the analogy to sports: It's only a fair competition if there are rules and an impartial referee.

So don’t tell me about watering the tree of liberty and a tossed salad of incompatible isms. Just tell me if you accept my sports analogy, and if not, what is it about economic competition that makes it so fundamentally different from sport competition that no rules are required.

In a comment I pushed his analogy a little further:

The rulebook of football is huge and complicated. It has to be, because a lot of very competitive people are doing whatever they can to get an advantage. Why would anyone think that the rules of economic competition could be simpler?

To the surprise of no one, Judge Maryann Sumi was not pleased that the Walker administration in Wisconsin started implementing its new union-killing bill in spite of her restraining order. The Wisconsin State Journal reports:

"Apparently that language was either misunderstood or ignored, but what I said was, ‘the further implementation of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 is enjoined,' " Sumi said. "That's what I now want to make crystal clear. … Now that I've made my earlier order as clear as it possibly can be, I must state that those who act in open and willful defiance of the court order place not only themselves at peril of sanctions, they also jeopardize the financial and the governmental stability of the state of Wisconsin."

spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Justice said, "Whether the Department of Administration or other state officers choose to comply with any direction issued by Judge Sumi is up to them." But Walker has since backed down from a direct clash with the judiciary.

Meanwhile, the voters are getting a chance to weigh in. Tomorrow Wisconsin elects a Supreme Court justice, and the main issue is that the incumbent, David Prosser, is a Walker partisan. The dispute over the union-busting law is going to make it to the state Supreme Court soon, so the race is nearly a referendum on it.

Another vote to watch tomorrow is the election for Walker's old job: Milwaukee County executive. The Democrat was a sizable underdog until he started linking his opponent to Walker. Now, who knows?

The effort to recall Republican state senators has had its first success: A petition calling for a recall of La Crosse Senator Dan Kapanke was filed Friday, apparently with enough signatures to trigger a recall election. It won't be the last.

Jon Stewart responds to the idea that corporations -- 2/3rds of whom pay nothing in corporate income taxes already -- need a tax break, or they'll ship jobs overseas even faster than they already are.

I know the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people, but what I didn't realize is that those people are assholes.

But if Jon read the Sift, he would have known since December that Corporations are Sociopaths.

The University of Connecticut studied internet gullibility by assigning students to write a report about the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus -- which has never existed. (You can't get more endangered than that.) Researching the topic was easy, because the UConn researchers had also put up a web site to publicize the plight of the tree octopus. Students easily Googled up the fake site and wrote their report about "this intelligent and inquisitive cephalopod", with most having no idea they had been scammed. (The tree octopus gift shop was a nice touch.)

Katie Couric combines serious with hilarious when she brings a camera crew along for her colonoscopy.

xkcd produces a chart to help us keep our radiation dangers in perspective.

A Fox News executive admits to saying things on camera that he didn't really believe during the 2008 campaign. He's not sorry; he's just letting his fellow conservatives in on the joke.

Corning's vision of the near future: A Day Made of Glass. Sort of cool, sort of creepy. Do you really want email showing up on the bathroom mirror while you brush your teeth?

This Week's Challenge

I'm hoping for an unchallenging week myself, so I'll wish one to everybody else.

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.


Michel S. said...

But if Jon read the Sift, he would have known since December that Corporations are Sociopaths.

And if he had watched the documentary The Corporation, he'd have known since 2003!

I've been reading your column for the past few weeks, after landing here from your UU World column. Something to look forward to at the beginning of the work week!

kimc said...

Well, the Supreme Court demonstrates its even-handedness by allowing the poor as well as the rich to spend unlimited amounts of money on politics.
Could we make a case for this ruling to imply that we must now spread the money around evenly so that everyone does, indeed, have equal free speech?