Monday, January 31, 2011

More Perfect Union

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America

-- the Preamble of the United States Constitution

In this week's Sift:

  • SOTU: Government as Us, Not Them. President Obama didn't announce any big new policy agenda, but instead laid out a counter-narrative to the Tea Party's stop-the-government rhetoric. Obama appeals to national pride by framing government as how We the People act together to do things we can't do as individuals.
  • Egypt. Whatever government comes out of the current unrest is going to be very difficult for the American media to portray accurately. That's why I've started watching Al Jazeera.
  • Demoting the General Welfare. Rand Paul has given us a Tea Party budget. It's an opening salvo against the general idea that we are a nation with national interests.
  • Short Notes. House Republicans redefine the rape exemption for Medicaid abortion funding. No more secret holds in the Senate. Rabbis denounce Fox. Clarence Thomas' ethical problem. Utah gets a state firearm. A territorial turkey. And more.

SOTU: Government as Us, Not Them

President Obama's State of the Union address (delivered Tuesday night) was a framing speech, not a policy speech. It told us not so much what the administration is going to do over the next two years, but how it is going to present its case to the American people.

As much as I'd like to hear a big policy agenda from the President, I think he made good use of the setting. The central battle of the next two years is going to be a battle of narratives. Republicans want the American people to think of government as a Them; government takes "our" money, and we may need to shut the government down to get it to stop. Democrats need to present government as an Us; in a democracy, government is how We the People do things together that we can't do as individuals.

When Obama said "We do big things," the "we" was America -- an undivided America where the public and private sectors work together smoothly. By talking about a "Sputnik moment", he made an analogy between our current economic challenges and the space race (in which we started out behind, but got to the Moon first anyway).

I agree with frame-guru George Lakoff: It's a brilliant frame if he can make it stick: The space race could not have been won -- or even run -- by the free market. And it produced one of America's greatest moments of national pride, the Moon landing. When government and the private sector work together, we do big things indeed.

The government-is-us-acting-together frame exposes the weakness of the conservative message, which can evoke national pride only through war. Conservatives are saying -- and should be made to say publicly, again and again -- that we can't have the things other nations have. We can't have national health care. We can't have bullet trains. We can't have clean, well-equipped parks or libraries or schools. We can't take care of our old people or send our young people to college. We can't have safe bridges or smooth highways. We can't have clean energy.

Other nations can, but not us. We're too poor.

That's a losing message, particularly at a time when the rich are richer than ever. Americans can see where the money has gone. And we don't want to be told that other nations are better than we are, that they can do things we can't. Americans want to do big things.

If you haven't already seen it, the best place to watch the State of the Union is on the White House web site, which has annotated the speech with appropriate images and graphs.

Then watch President Obama's speech at the Health Action 2011 conference, where he lets his hair down a little and mocks conservative disinformation about health reform. "Granny is safe," he pledges.

And this sign is pretty good.

None of the Republicans who responded to Obama did themselves any credit. Rep. Paul Ryan was earnest but dull; his official response was forgotten almost as soon as it was delivered. CNN conservative pundit Ed Rollins lamented: "He's the one we should be talking about tonight, and yet we're talking about Sarah Palin saying something very stupid."

Rep. Michelle Bachmann, representing the Tea Party, was wild and woolly. Among other distortions, she trotted out the long-ago-debunked charge that "16,500 IRS agents [may be] in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill."

The biggest flop, though, was Sarah Palin, representing herself. Responding to Obama's "Sputnik moment" quote, Palin garbled history that is well known to everyone but her:

He needs to remember that, uh, what happened back then with the communist U.S.S.R. and their victory in that race to space. Yeah, they won but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union

So the Soviets won, but that's why they collapsed in 1991, 34 years after Sputnik? (Maybe that was when the bonds came due.) With generous interpretation, parts of that statement can make sense. (Sputnik won the race to space for the Soviets, but not what is usually called "the space race", which we won.) But no interpretation pulls it all together into a coherent thought.

Then Palin rolled on to advocate more "Spudnut moments" -- a reference to a doughnut shop. I'll let the WaPo's Alexandra Petri respond:

President Obama is talking about competing with the rest of the world. He's pointing out that we need to get our act together and try to commit to education and research that will allow us to make innovative strides comparable to the ones we made after we got that wake-up call from Sputnik. And you are -- rambling about bakeries with names that sound sort of similar? I guess? It's just not a responsible comparison.
Yes, we need more Spudnut moments. We need self-sufficiency, work ethic, and delicious donuts here at home. But if we really want to get the economy back on track, we need a better-educated workforce, one that knows that the Space Race didn't bankrupt the Soviet Union, understands syntax, and doesn't just bloviate about bakeries.

I'm reminded of the dogs in the Pixar movie Up. Palin just suddenly yells out "Squirrel!" and is off on something else entirely.

I've speculated before that Sarah Palin will not run for president. Well, I think Michelle Bachmann is already running. She spoke to Iowans for Tax Relief in Des Moines on January 21, and if you watch Part I of that talk on YouTube, you'll see a campaign stump speech. Eventually she gets around to selling her vision, but in Part I she's selling herself -- explaining her connection to Iowa, telling her family's heroic immigration story, sprinkling in as many Iowa town and county names as she can, and in general looking more charming than I've ever seen her. The Iowa Caucuses are a year from Sunday, and she'll be there.

Bachmann has taken a lot of heat for what she says in Part II (around the 9 minute mark). Anderson Cooper said she flunks history, and "that's just not true." But it's actually more dangerous than that. Bachmann is in that George W. Bush region where her words, if put in their full context and parsed very generously, can be defended. But the listener almost certainly goes away with a false impression.

Here's what caused the trouble:

And our ancestors when they arrived on these shores -- just think of it -- they spoke different languages, they had different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions. But unbelievably, they all bound themselves back to this tradition, this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact, this covenant that we re-published in the Declaration of Independence. How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point for people-groups from all across the world! It didn't matter the color of their skin. It didn't matter their language. It didn't matter their economic status. It didn't matter whether they descended from nobility or whether they had a higher class or a lower class. It made no difference. Once you got here, we were all the same.

Now, obviously the color of your skin did matter, and even among whites the Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants were not really equal. In a generous context, though, Bachmann is talking about the ideal of America, not the practice. She mentions slavery as a "stain on our history" and then stretches the facts to claim "the very Founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States."

Well, maybe Franklin and a couple others, but Washington and Jefferson kept their slaves, and the Founders as a whole worked tirelessly to push the question off to later generations. But the larger point Bachmann is making, that we were "self-correcting" on this issue, is more-or-less true, in the sense that no foreign power had to come in and free our slaves.

It's a Bush-like 10% truth that easily slides into 1% truth and then into outright fantasy. Dangerous.


Breaking news isn't something the Sift can do well, so instead I'll point you to my favorite source for up-to-the-minute coverage of the Egyptian uprising. Sad to say, it's not any American news organization or even the BBC -- it's Al Jazeera. My cable system doesn't carry it, so I've been watching Al Jazeera live online.

In general, Egypt is a tough issue for the American media to cover clearly, because the reality over there runs perpendicular to a lot of our myths. For example, we think of ourselves as representing democracy and often (especially on the Right) think of Islam as our enemy. But in Egypt (as in many Arab countries) a corrupt dictator has been propped up for decades by America. And (as in any country with an authoritarian government and a religious tradition) many Egyptians look to religion for a moral authority higher than the tyrant, and as a source of values higher than money and power. In Poland, that religious tradition was Catholicism; in Egypt, it's Islam. (Check out this photo of protestors praying while police stand over them.)

So to the extent that Egyptians ever get a government that truly represents them, that government will be part-secular, part-Islamist, suspicious of America, and cautiously hostile towards Israel -- a little like Turkey's government, only moreso. It's hard to imagine American media recognizing such a government as democratic, no matter how free the elections might be.

Over here, this situation is making heads explode across the spectrum. The administration sounds unconvincing as it tries to distance itself from a former tyrannical ally without unnerving our other tyrannical allies (like the Saudis). Meanwhile, right-wingers are simultaneously claiming the uprising as evidence that Bush was right about spreading democracy in the Middle East, and saying that we have to support Mubarak. Israeli commentators are already tagging Obama as "the president who lost Egypt".

The other feature to watch about the uprising is its pan-Arabian nature. It spread to Egypt from tiny Tunisia, and there are already demonstrations in Yemen. Places like Jordan and the Emirates have to be worried. Cairo is the traditional center of thought and learning in the Arab world, and any movement that took hold in Egypt would have strong appeal.

Right now, Americans need to educate ourselves about Egypt and similar countries, so that we're not easily stampeded by the propaganda that will surely erupt against whatever government replaces Mubarak, assuming he falls. This 2004 article in the New Yorker seems like a good place to start. Send me links as you find them.

Demoting the General Welfare

I am still looking for the source of the quote that goes something like "If you want to know an organization's values, look at its budget." Rand Paul's newly submitted  "A Bill to cut $500,000,000,000 in spending in fiscal year 2011" is the closest thing to a Tea Party budget we have. It says a lot about Tea Party values.

The first thing to note is that Paul is cutting half a trillion out of the current fiscal year, the one that we're already four months into. (Federal fiscal years start on October 1.) If it were to pass (unlikely), federal agencies already four months into their budgets would get  rude surprise.

The bill itself is only 12 pages, and gives no details beyond naming a piece of the government and then saying how much less money it gets. For example:

Amounts made available to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for fiscal year 2011 are reduced by $1,165,000,000.

To get any kind of explanation, you need to go to Paul's overview document. At 37 pages, it is also terse. But there are themes: Agencies should return to their original missions, no matter how much the world has changed in the meantime. Any program that is not solving its problem should be eliminated rather than fixed or replaced, regardless of the effect on the underlying problem. And beyond defense, there is no such thing as a national interest; the states are like 50 bison that have clumped together in a herd for safety.

But sometimes you don't get even that much justification, and the cut seems to be based on little more than an ideological assumption that waste must be in there somewhere. Take the CDC again. It's our front line against plagues and epidemics, the folks we depend on to helicopter down in astronaut suits if SARS or ebola breaks out or drug-resistant tuberculosis gets out of hand. It has a total budget of $6.342 billion in 2011, so $1.165 billion represents a 28% cut for the final 2/3 of the year (assuming Paul's bill could be passed immediately).

How should the CDC fulfill its mission with 28% less money? Given how disastrous a mistake could be, you might hope for some kind of expert justification, maybe a new strategy based on a medical study or two. Nope. The overview just suggests "focusing on domestic priorities rather than spending billions on overseas initiatives." So basically, the CDC should stop worrying about plagues in other countries, and wait until they show up here. In Rand Paul's world, that kind of thinking saves money.

There's a lot of nostalgia in Paul's worldview. The Department of Education should be eliminated because we didn't have one in the first half of the 20th century, when "America ranked among the most educated population in the world," while now "the U.S. now ranks far below other economically developed countries." Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

The National Park Service can be cut 42% by returning public lands "to the states or the private sector".

In short, there is no national interest in things like education or infrastructure or research, and if Arizona wants to sell off the Grand Canyon (like it sold its state capitol building), that's no more my affair than if Peru privatized Machu Picchu. It's a state treasure, not a national treasure.

The people who promote this vision claim to get it from the Founders, but it's really older than that. It's the vision not of not the Constitution, but of the Articles of Confederation that the Constitution replaced. The Articles created less perfect union, a "firm league of friendship" more like NATO than a nation. Dissatisfaction with the Articles motivated founders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to push for a constitution with broad national goals like "promote the general welfare".

When was the last time you heard the consitution-quoters of the Tea Party talk about promoting the general welfare?

Short Notes

Wild turkeys, it turns out, are territorial. This one wants to drive the Postal Service eagle away.

The latest example of the IOKIYAR (It's OK If You're a Republican) principle: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Over five years his financial disclosure forms failed to declare nearly $700K of his wife's income from conservative groups. It's a crime, technically lying under oath, and it's got people wondering if he voted on cases where he had a conflict of interest, most notably Citizens United. I'm not holding my breath until the wage of outrage comes.

400 rabbis put an ad in the Wall Street Journal calling on the Journal's owner, Rupert Murdoch, to sanction his Fox News employee Glenn Beck for portraying Holocaust-survivor George Soros as a Holocaust-collaborator: "It is not appropriate to accuse a 14-year old Jew hiding with a Christian family in Nazi-occupied Hungary of sending his people to death camps." More generally:

you diminish the memory and meaning of the Holocaust when you use it to discredit any individual or organization you disagree with. That is what Fox News has done in recent weeks

Jon Stewart also called attention to the frequent Nazi references on Fox, particularly by Beck. Meanwhile, Beck's ratings are sagging. A year ago he often drew 3 million viewers a night, but lately he has had trouble breaking 2 million. (That's still high compared to other cable news shows; 1 million viewers is a good night for Rachel Maddow.)

I've complained before about essays that get padded out to book length just because there's a market for books. Well, now there are Kindle Singles: shorter works available for $1-3. With its typical optimism, Wired says this "saves long-form journalism". Maybe. First let's see if Nook and iBook follow suit.

Mother Jones explains the House Republicans' proposed abortion bill: "If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion." An NYT editorial lists the ways in which this bill would make it harder to find and pay for any insurance policy that covered abortion.

Nicholas Kristof tells the story of St Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, which got stripped of its affiliation with the local Roman Catholic diocese after performing an abortion to save a woman's life and refusing to repent for it. This was the bishop's escalation after excommunicating a nun on the ethics board didn't bring the hospital to heel.

The push to end the filibuster comes to nothing, but at least the Senate got rid of secret holds -- a parliamentary maneuver by which a senator could block legislation or nominations without taking a public stand.

Injured pitcher Gil Meche walks away from the $12 million the Royals were contracted to pay him next year. "Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million... it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

In Utah, the state bird is the California gull, the state flower is the sego lilly -- and soon the state firearm will be the Browning M1911 pistol.

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, January 24, 2011

Coping With the Future

The present is already too much for me. I can't cope with the future as well.

-- Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown

In this week's Sift:

  • Social Security. Two kinds of people look ahead 75 years: actuaries and science fiction writers. We need to be a little bit of both to avoid getting stampeded into a "middle way" solution.
  • State Bankruptcy Gains Support. Republicans want to let states opt out of their union contracts the same way bankrupt companies do. This only makes sense after you demonize government workers. Plus, updates on the budget problems in Texas, Nevada, and Arizona.
  • Conservatives Start Eating Their Own.For years conservatives have been encouraging anti-Muslim paranoia. Now that chicken is trying to roost.
  • Short Notes. The Tea Party was all about the culture war after all. John Adams mandated government health care. Palin makes Texas a battleground state. Repealing health care won't save jobs. And more.

Social Security

This week the second supposedly bipartisan or nonpartisan plan for fixing Social Security came out, and it looks a lot like the first one (see slide 45): Dire warnings of what will happen if we do nothing, followed by calls for a higher retirement age, means-testing benefits, lowering cost-of-living increases, and a variety of other measures, including raising benefits for the poorest recipients to avoid looking like Scrooge.

This plan comes from the Third Way organization, which claims to "advance moderate policy and political ideas" that are not "defined by the rigid or outdated orthodoxies of both the left and right."

Because Third Way and the co-chairs of President Obama's bipartisan budget commission are saying the same things, there's a possibility that this plan could cascade. The media could pick it up as the consensus of reasonable people, and nonsupporters would have to explain why they were being unreasonable. The assumptions behind the plan could become part of what "everybody knows" -- the way we all "know" that tax cuts promote growth or government is full of waste or the US has a responsibility to police the world. When you challenge such ideas, you don't get evidence in response; people just chuckle at how uninformed you are.

Does this view of Social Security deserve that kind of status? I don't think so, but to explain why I have to back up and give a primer on how to look at these kinds of things.

Getting Started. Only two kinds of people look 75 years into the future -- actuaries and science fiction writers. When you think about the future of Social Security, you need to keep a handle on both points of view. It's the actuary's responsibility to answer the question: "What if we keep doing what we're doing for a long, long time?" And it's the sci-fi writer's responsibility to remind us that in fact we won't. We never do.

It's like drawing up a 10-year household budget. The best you can do is imagine that your income and expenses will stay steady or continue increasing at the same rate they have been increasing for the last several years. They won't, of course. It's ten years; you're bound to have triplets or inherit Uncle Lester's fortune or change professions a couple of times. Something will make sure that you don't wind up with the net worth the budget predicts.

Which is not to say that long-term projections are useless; you just have to know how to use them. They aren't plans or even predictions, really. They're reference points. The question they really answer is: If we could keep doing what we're doing for a long, long time, what would happen?

You also need to understand one other thing: Any time you assume recent trends will continue into the distant future, you wind up with an exponential graph -- the kind that starts out almost flat and then goes wildly up or down. That's just math; it's got nothing to do with the topic, whatever it is. Exponential graphs make you giddy if they're going the way you want, and scare you silly if they aren't, because they always wind up at some astronomical number, either positive or negative. But that's not how reality works; it's just an artifact of the current-trends-continue assumption.

The $44 Trillion Hole. So, for example, the Third Way folks display this horrifying graph, where the Social Security Trust Fund winds up $44 trillion in the red by 2085. $44 TRILLION!!! Oh my God! We have to do something drastic immediately!

But slow down and think like a science fiction writer for a minute: Even adjusted for inflation, $44 trillion might be pocket change by 2085. 75 years ago was 1936. Imagine telling somebody from 1936 that people of 2011 can be overweight and have color TVs and cell phones and still be considered poor.

Third Way gets its data from the Social Security Trustees report. But it doesn't sound nearly as bad there:

For the combined OASDI Trust Funds to remain solvent throughout the 75‑year projection period, the combined payroll tax rate could be increased during the period in a manner equivalent to an immediate and permanent increase of 1.84 percentage points

Retiree/worker ratio. Third Way presents this evidence that the current program is unsustainable:

In 2010, there were 3.5 taxpayers per Social Security recipient. By 2030, the ratio declines to 2.5 per beneficiary, and holds constant for several decades.

That's mainly because people will live longer, so the over-67 segment of the population will grow. But a sci-fi author would consider this analogy: In 1930 about 25% of Americans lived on farms. Today about 2% do. Are we having food riots, or are we struggling to come up with ways to use our corn surplus?

The most relentless thing in the American economy is productivity growth, which continued right through the recent recession. Improved technology keeps giving us more output per hour worked. So as a society, we can either consume more and more all the time, or work less and less. Working less can mean either longer retirements or higher unemployment (as it has recently). So I think a future in which Americans work for 30-40 years and then have the option to retire for 20-30 years sounds pretty reasonable.

Again, the Trustees' Report presents the same data more calmly:

OASDI cost is estimated to rise from the current level of 4.8 percent of GDP to about 6.1 percent in 2035, then to decline to 5.9 percent by 2050, and to remain between 5.9 and 6.0 percent through 2084.

Is that bad? Why? Public pension spending (defined to be broader than Social Security) was 6% of GDP in the US in 2005, but 12.4% in France, 11.4% in Germany, and 8.7% in Japan. None of those countries is collapsing.

The Shell Game. Scary exponential graphs are not the only tricks to watch out for in this discussion. The most common is the entitlement/Social Security switch. Third Way does it like this:

Social Security reform must be achieved in the context of an entitlement system that is dangerously on autopilot.

"Entitlements" include Medicare and Medicaid, which are part of the health-care mess that the Affordable Care Act was only the first step in sorting out. Social Security is doing quite well by comparison. But it's common to bundle them together, declare a crisis, and then insist Social Security needs to be cut. (A better solution would be instituting German or French style socialized medicine, which delivers better care for about 2/3 the cost of our system.) It's like saying, "As a group, you and two terminal cancer patients are in bad shape. So as a first step in dealing with that crisis, you need to stop eating french fries."

Conclusion. I think we're being stampeded into "fixing" something that is working reasonably well, and we're being herded in the direction of spending cuts when tax increases on the well-to-do make more sense. (Third Way acknowledges that "many on the progressive side" believe Social Security can be fixed by eliminating the rule that exempts earnings over $106K from Social Security taxes. It never refutes that point, but instead brushes it away with calls for unspecified "growth-oriented investments" instead.)

Worse, supposedly "progressive" elements of the reform package -- means testing, extra benefits for lower-income people -- undermine the we're-all-in-this-together aspect of Social Security and make it more of a welfare program for old people who didn't save enough. Once that's done, Social Security beneficiaries become a "them" rather than an "us". Then the demonization can start -- listen to what they've been saying about unemployment insurance recipients -- and then benefits can be cut further.

Conservatives have always hated Social Security, because it's a big government program that works and is popular. They'd rather that it not work and be unpopular. Any "middle way" that compromises with them is not good for the program.

State Bankruptcy Gains Support

An idea that I mentioned last week but didn't take very seriously -- establishing a bankruptcy process for states -- is apparently getting serious attention in Republican circles, according to Thursday's NYT. The story's lead attributed the interest to "policymakers", but the only names that come up are Senator Cornyn, Newt Gingrich, and Harry Wilson -- all Republicans. An article in the conservative Weekly Standard is mentioned, and I linked to a column on the conservative site last week. It's a Republican idea.

The point is basically for a state to get out of debt by voiding the contracts it has with state workers, possibly even renegotiating "existing pension benefits" according to the Weekly Standard article. Breaking union contracts is an important reason corporations go bankrupt, and Republicans want states to have the same option.

Let me explain why this idea is loony. In a corporate bankruptcy, the underlying idea is that the corporation can't come up with all the money it is committed to pay. Corporate money ultimately comes from customers, and the customers aren't committed to anything. So if the corporation tried to raise its prices to get enough money to meet its obligations, the customers would just refuse to buy.

In a state, however, the customers and the stockholders are the same people -- the citizen-taxpayers of the state. What stops the state from coming up with more money is that its citizens (through their representatives in the legislature) are refusing to pay higher taxes. So basically, a state bankruptcy allows the citizens to refuse to pay the people who work for them just because they don't want to.

It would be one thing if we were talking about some massive external disaster -- a hurricane, an earthquake, a plague -- that was unimaginable when the contracts were signed. But nothing of the sort has happened, and in states like Texas or Arizona, the fiscal problems follow large tax cuts.

The only reason state bankruptcy makes sense to anyone at all is that the Right has done a such marvelous job of demonizing government workers over the last several decades. But government workers are not fundamentally different from any other kinds of workers, and they have as much right to paid for their work as anybody else. If promises were made to them, those promises should be kept. A comment on the NYT story said it well:

I am a state employee nearing retirement age. All of my life, especially in the 90's, I have heard this: "Well, if you work for government (God love you, you poor dumb little country mouse) you will never get rich, but at least you have good benefits and a steady job." Starting in the 80's, we heard that American workers needed to become more productive - and we did, by every measure.

Texas. The New York Times did a Room For Debate forum -- two conservatives, two liberals -- on Texas' budget problems. It's worth pointing out some of the rhetorical sleight-of-hand the conservatives use.

Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute:

Total state spending jumped 69 percent from the 2000-01 budget to the 2008-09 budget. So while the budget is flat now, it’s after a large run-up.

Let's assume the 69% is true. But the 2000 census counted 20.85 million Texans while the 2008 estimate was 24.33 million, an increase of 17%. The consumer price index was at 168.8 in January 2000 and 211.08 in January 2008, an increase of 25%. (That's a low estimate, because state spending has a high component of medical costs, which have increased faster.) So to keep per capita state spending flat in inflation-adjusted terms from 2000 to 2008 would require a 46% increase in nominal spending. [1.17 x 1.25 = 1.46] If nominal spending actually increased 69%, that's a 16% increase in inflation-adjusted per capita spending. [1.69/1.46 = 1.16] Over eight years, that's an average increase of 1.8% per year. [1.018 to the eighth power is 1.16]

So in the "large run-up" between 2000 and 2008, the average Texan saw the real value of her portion of state spending "jump" 1.8% per year. It sounds a little less impressive when you put it that way, doesn't it?

What conservatives Heflin and Edwards ignore but liberals Mann and McCown point out is that the current "crisis" was a predictable and predicted consequence of an irresponsible tax cut in 2006. Accounting tricks and federal stimulus money kept the structural deficit hidden until now.

Nevada. Here's new Republican Governor Sandoval's plan to deal with Nevada's deficit:

cut spending by consolidating government programs, allowing the university system to raise its own tuition and fees, and shifting more responsibility for social services onto cities and counties.

But the cities and counties don't get any new revenue either, and the amount of money they can spend on social services is capped by law. So ...

thousands of residents on the brink of homelessness are vying for depleted aid that will diminish further when social services are cut. The programs offer rental assistance and other means for keeping the destitute off the streets and out of jails and emergency rooms, [Clark] county officials say.

But hey, more homeless people is better than rich people paying higher taxes. And since jails and emergency rooms are free (aren't they?) the savings must be enormous.

Arizona. Anderson Cooper interviews a man who can't get a heart transplant because of Arizona's budget cuts: "I'm a good citizen," says Doug Gravagna, "and I should get another chance at life. It shouldn't be taken away from me. She [Gov. Brewer] shouldn't be able to decide whether I live or die."

"For the last three months," says an Arizona Democratic legislator, "the governor has essentially been a one-person death panel."

While the transplant issue has gotten all the press, Arizona has also been cutting services for the mentally ill. The CEO of the Arizona Foundation for Behavioral Health sums up how pound-foolish this is:

The reality is cutting services does not cut demand. Individuals who can no longer get services through the state will wind up getting services through emergency departments . . . or they'll get those services through the Maricopa County jail.

More untreated mentally ill people in a state with lax gun laws. What could possibly go wrong?

Conservatives Start Eating Their Own

From a political operative's point of view, the great thing about crazy people is that they have lots of energy. They're dedicated. They don't give up. If you can get them focused on your opponent -- demanding to see his real birth certificate, say, or making him out to be part of a deep conspiracy that goes back to some James-Bond villain like Woodrow Wilson -- it's gold for your side.

But conservatives are discovering the problem that arises when you court the lunatic fringe: Once you give the crazies legitimacy, there's no telling what they'll do with it.

CPAC and Grover Norquist. Frank Gaffney is the type of loon who sees Muslim terrorists under the bed. Like Communist subversives in the 1950s, Muslim terrorists and Sharia law are everywhere, infiltrating everything. Gaffney has been very useful to conservatives in flogging the bogus "Ground Zero Mosque" issue and making President Obama appear to be supporting terrorism.

Well, now there's a problem. The American Conservative Union (which puts on the popular CPAC conference) has a Muslim board member, Suhail Khan, formerly of the Bush administration. So the conservative movement itself has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. As Gaffney-ally Paul Sperry says:

Suhail is the firstborn son of the late Mahboob Khan, a founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in America. Suhail has been a consultant to CAIR [The Council on American-Islamic Relations] and served on committees at ISNA [the Islamic Society of North America], both of which the government says are fronts for Hamas and its parent the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even Grover Norquist (the guy who wants to drown government in a bathtub) is implicated. "We are in a war," Gaffney told World Net Daily, "and he [Norquist] has been working with the enemy for over a decade."

Anderson Cooper summarizes the story, and then interviews Gaffney and Khan side-by-side. I'm not proud of my vindictiveness here, but I found it delicious to watch a conservative deal with the same kind of conspiracy-theory charges that are routinely unleashed on liberals.

Governor Christie. You know who's also conspiring with the terrorists? New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie, occasionally mentioned as a presidential dark horse.

Christie -- you'll never believe this -- appointed a Muslim judge!! The guy's name is Sohail Mohammed, and he committed the unforgivable sin of defending detained Muslims who were never charged with anything. And he's on the board of the American Muslim Union which "has interlocking leadership with a group that has allegedly raised funds for Hamas and hosted as a guest speaker last year an alleged Hamas member." So the judge knows a guy who knows a guy who might belong to Hamas. And Christie knows him.

I'm reminded of Lewis Black's summary: "It's six degrees of Kevin Bacon, except that there's just one degree, and Kevin Bacon is Hitler." Or, in this case, Bin Laden.

Short Notes

During the campaign, we kept hearing that the Tea Party was focused on economic issues rather than the culture wars. But now it looks like restricting abortion is a top priority after all.

The Jesus-Hates-Obama ad is too much even for Fox.

The first bill to create government-run health centers and mandate health insurance coverage wasn't Obama's. It was John Adams'.

Here's the point that needs to be made about calls for across-the-board budget cuts or return to 2008 or 2006 levels or other sound bytes: Republicans ran on the idea that government waste is everywhere, and yet, now that they have the power to pass a budget in the House, they can't identify that waste.

Eric Cantor isn't a birther himself, but he's not going to criticize people who are.

The Onion News Network is on TV now, and as good as ever: Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried as Black Adult.

Sarah Palin fans need to think about this: A PPP poll has her leading Obama by just one point in Texas. In other words, if Palin is the nomineeTexas is a battleground state.

I don't care what they all say, Keith Olbermann going off the air just before Comcast takes control of NBC is too much of a coincidence.

Is Obamacare a "job-killer"? No.

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, January 17, 2011


The money that we possess is the instrument of liberty, that which we lack and strive to obtain is the instrument of slavery.

-- J. J. Rousseau, Confessions (1770)

In this week's Sift:

  • Storming Sacramento, Austin, Albany ... The same anti-government spending rhetoric that sent Tea Partiers marching against Washington also has them revolting against the "wasteful" spending of their state governments. But will the public see through the rhetoric when schools and libraries close -- not just in blue California but in red Texas as well?
  • Sarah Palin's Persecution Fantasy. With references to "blood libel" and "pogroms", conservatives paint themselves as victims of persecution comparable to Jews under the Czar. Maybe they've pushed it too far this time. Meanwhile, potential victims of media-inspired violence have developed a term to describe the threat they face: stochastic terrorism.
  • Short Notes. Your church contributions may not make it to God. McCain states have more gun violence than Obama states. More on Second Amendment solutions. Sean Hannity claims Kuwait's oil. An El Paso "traditional family values" organization learns the importance of legal expertise. Illegal foreclosures. And the difficult conundrums of superhero law.

Storming Sacramento, Austin, Albany ...

Recessions hit the states with a double whammy: Just as the number of people in need of state services goes up, revenues go down. And unlike the federal government, most states have legal restrictions on deficit spending. Last year, one-time-only accounting tricks (Arizona did a $735 million sale-and-leaseback agreement with its real estate, including the state capitol) and the federal stimulus (which included $165 billion in aid to the states) masked the problem. Basically, the federal government ran the deficit the states weren't allowed to run.

Now, as the stimulus money runs out, the economy is showing a few signs of bouncing back, but mostly for the relatively well-to-do. Even as the stock market rises into territory it hasn't seen for years, the unemployment and poverty rates -- and the consequent need for state programs -- remain high.

So budget problems are hitting the states hard now. The easy cuts have already been made, but huge deficits remain. And (despite Republican rhetoric favoring the states over the federal government), the Republican victory in November means that new aid to the states isn't going to come from Washington.

Within the states, the Tea Party denunciations of Washington have been reworded to attack Sacramento, Albany, Austin, and all the other state capitals. In state after state, a game of chicken is going on: How many of the poor and helpless have to suffer and even die, how far are we willing to cut education, how close does the state have to come to declaring bankruptcy, before new taxes can be approved?

(This game may go further than I thought. Saturday, conservative pundits Dick Morris and Eileen McGann posted a column proposing a state bankruptcy process that would allow states to break their union contracts the way that bankrupt corporations do. It's interesting how the Right regards contracts as sacred -- unless the contracts protect workers.)

Texas. Everybody talks about the budget problems in liberal states like California and New York, but things are just as bad in conservative strongholds like Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Mississippi. Business Insider notes the Texas-sized hole in Texas' finances -- they're looking at a $25 billion deficit in a $95 billion two-year budget -- and then comments:

So why haven't we heard more about Texas, one of the most important economies in America? Well, it's because it doesn't fit the script. It's a pro-business, lean-spending, no-union state. You can't fit it into a nice storyline, so it's ignored.

Illinois. Friday Illinois managed to raise taxes in response to the current crisis. The income tax rate went up from 3% to 5%. Prior to the increase, Illinois was looking at a $15 billion deficit. Democratic state rep Michael Zalewski justified the tax increase like this:

Since I’ve been elected in 2008, I have voted for every cut, every reform bill and the fact is there is no more money left and we can’t pay the people we owe money to.

California. California is facing the biggest deficit, in the $20-25 billion range. New Governor Jerry Brown has put forward a budget in which

the state's welfare program is cut in half, $1 billion is trimmed from its universities, and tens of thousands of elderly and disabled residents lose access to care at home.

On the revenue side, he wants the voters to approve the extension of temporary taxes otherwise due to expire.

California's problems have been due as much to politics as economics. In previous years, the legislature had to pass its budget with a 2/3 supermajority, which gave the Republican minority the ability to block attempts to raise revenue, even when the Republican governor (Schwarzenegger) asked them to. Brown is aided by a newly-passed ballot initiative that lets a mere majority pass a budget.

Local governments. The clearest evidence of the depths of the education-funding problem comes from Detroit. Last Monday, the Detroit Public Schools filed a plan to close half of their schools in two years, and increase the average high school class size to 62 from 35 now. Middle school class size would increase from 35 to 47. Matt Yglesias comments:

obviously this is death spiral stuff—the more the city pares back, the more the people with means and opportunity will leave and the worse things will become.

In all these state and local governments, the debate resembles the national debate: Conservative rhetoric says that the budget is full of wasteful spending, but is careful not to identify anything specific. When cuts arrive, they are not "waste" by any means. Real services to real people are eliminated or cut back.

It will be interesting to see if people catch on when the cuts are closer to home. On the national level, keeping taxes low for the wealthy means we have the abstract problem of a budget deficit. But on the state and local level, low taxes may mean closing the local library, sending your child to an over-crowded and poorly maintained school, driving over potholes, or even watching people die for lack of medical care.

I think they will catch on. Like the children of misers, at some point Americans will start to resent living as if our country were poor, when in fact it is rich. Unlike Botswana or Bangladesh, America can afford to have smooth roads and good schools. We can afford to take care of our sick and give pensions to our elders. We can afford to have safe communities and clean, reliable transportation systems. And we can afford to pay a living wage to the public employees who provide these services. The only question is whether we can raise enough faith in ourselves and our democracy to do so.

Sarah Palin's Persecution Fantasy

Like most reasonable people, I was taken aback that Sarah Palin would use the term blood libel to describe the claim that heated political rhetoric from people like her makes political shootings more likely. How ridiculous, I thought, to compare criticism of Palin's rhetoric to the outlandish claims that led to pogroms against Jews in Europe. (The Washington Times, by contrast, felt that Palin was "well within her rights to feel persecuted" and called the incident "the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers." It is, I think, a very strange kind of persecution that gives you your own TV show, pays you millions of dollars, and requires only that you submit to some toothless criticism in the media. It's a far cry from the Jewish experience in 19th century Ukraine, or even Fiddler on the Roof.)

Having watched the video and read the text of Palin's statement, though, I found it more boring than incendiary, so I wound up concluding that she just didn't know what blood libel means. It's ignorance, not bomb-throwing. Probably she used the term because it had been ricocheting around in conservative circles for several days.

Another bizarre notion in Palin's statement (which also is widespread in conservative circles) is the idea that individual and social responsibility are mutually exclusive:

President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

It didn't make any sense when Reagan said it, and it still doesn't. If violent rhetoric or the prevalence of guns raises the likelihood of events like the Tucson shooting, how does that let Loughner off the hook? The Right understands this perfectly well in regard to terrorism: They can denounce the rhetoric of radical imams without letting suicide bombers off the hook. Individual and social responsibility are two different dimensions of an event, not an either-or choice.

And Palin herself says that the "blood libel" put forward by her critics "serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." So Palin understands how the words of her critics can cause violence, but not how hers can.

The technical term for this mindset -- that the world works differently for you than for everybody else -- is narcissism, but that's too academic for the average person. If only there were a non-sexist way to say "drama queen".

Slate's William Saletan spins the tea-party/Muslim analogy in a different direction:

That's what Palin believes. Each person is solely accountable for his actions. Acts of monstrous criminality "begin and end with the criminals who commit them." It's wrong to hold others of the same nationality, ethnicity, or religion "collectively" responsible for mass murders.

Unless, of course, you're talking about Muslims. In that case, Palin is fine with collective blame.

How else can we account for her opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque?

"Blood libel," as defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, is historically targeted not at a country but at a religion. Palin's campaign against any Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero, based on group blame for terrorism, fits that definition more closely than does any current accusation against the Tea Party.

There's now a term to describe those who use the media to stir up crazy people to do their dirty work for them: stochastic terrorism. Daily Kos' G2geek defines:

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.

Palin's crosshair graphic is not actually a good example of this (the Palin-Loughner connection is too tenuous), but Glenn Beck's crusade against the Tides Foundation is. Hardly anyone had heard of the Tides Foundation when Beck started slandering it in May 2009. Media Matters found 29 separate shows between then and July 14, 2010 where Beck attacked Tides, demonizing it as part of some imaginary George-Soros-funded effort to take over America.

On July 18, 2010 Byron Williams was pulled over by police and opened fire on them. He was heavily armed and said he wanted to "to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation." Only his inability to drive there without drawing police attention prevented him from having a body count like Jared Loughner's.

As a follow-up to last week's article on political correctness, let's consider the would-be defenders of the white race who want you to boycott Marvel's upcoming Thor movie because the Norse god Heimdall is being played by a black actor, the excellent Idris Elba (recently seen as the star of BBC's "Luther").

Where to start with these people? Did you thinkMarvel's Thor comics had given an accurate account of Norse mythology up to now? Does a pop-culture misrepresentation of a second-tier god like Heimdall cramp your style religiously? When was the last time you worshipped Heimdall, anyway?

Fundamentally, this is another attempt to equate slights against whites with superficially similar slights against other races, and so support the idea that whites suffer persecution too. But there is no comparison. No anti-white stereotype is being supported or reinforced. No whites will be discriminated against because of some unconscious social conviction that divinity must be black. The persecution occurs entirely in fantasy.

Short Notes

Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander ran the numbers on shooting deaths and found no positive correlation with the number of drug users, illegal immigrants, or a lot of other alleged explanations. But they did find this:

Taking the voting patterns from the 2008 presidential election, we found a striking pattern: Firearm-related deaths were positively associated with states that voted for McCain (.66) and negatively associated with states that voted for Obama (-.66). Though this association is likely to infuriate many people, the statistics are unmistakable. Partisan affiliations alone cannot explain them; most likely they stem from two broader, underlying factors - the economic and employment makeup of the states and their policies toward guns and gun ownership.

As I've explained many times in the Sift, correlation is not the same as cause-and-effect. So it would be irrational to jump to the conclusion that we could save lives by getting more states to vote Democratic in 2012. It seems worth a try, though.

The new head of the Republican National Committee is Reince Priebus. I just heard someone describe him as "a name straight out of Hogwarts". As Sharoney observed, the consonants in his name spell out RNC PR BS.

As she so often does, Digby avoids the distractions and gets to the important point:

The real problem, in my view, is that there is a subset of Americans who believe that government is illegitimate if their chosen leaders aren't elected. They simply don't believe in democracy.

That's what I see in all this talk about "Second Amendment solutions". Yes, at least some of the Founders did want the people to retain the means of revolution if democracy failed. But the failing they had in mind is what you see in faux-democratic countries like Egypt or Iran, where the government can close opposition newspapers, arrest opposition candidates, and stuff the ballot box when things get tense for them.

But Tea Party folks started talking about assassination and armed insurrection just because Republicans lost and Democrats started implementing the platform they ran on. The electoral system was working fine, it just got the "wrong" answer. Resorting to guns in that situation is the exact opposite of what the Founders had in mind.

Shepard Fairey's "Second Amendment Solutions" poster says: "It's not the bullet with my name on it that worries me. It's the one that says 'to whom it may concern'."

According to Sean Hannity, Kuwait and Iraq should be paying us for their liberation by providing cheap energy. And if they don't see it that way,

We have every right to go in there and, frankly, take all their oil.

Apparently we just loaned these countries their freedom, and if they miss a payment we can foreclose.

Once in a while, the Religious Right gets burned by its disdain for intelligence and expertise. Take El Paso, for example. An anti-gay group called El Paso for Traditional Family Values wanted to make sure that same-sex partners of city employees couldn't get benefits, so they got voters to pass a ballot initiative saying so -- or so they thought. Local station KVIA reports:

The ordinance drafted by EPFTFV asked voters to ‘endorse traditional family values’ by extending health insurance only to city employees, their spouses and dependent children. That left out a lot of people the city already covered, including elected officials, retirees, grandchildren, and affiliated contractors – those are agencies formed by City Council, like the Public Service Board and the Transportation Board. ...
The city maintains it must implement the ordinance using its plain language, which excludes hundreds of people. City Rep. Steve Ortega and Mayor John Cook have said they told EPFTFV leaders to hire an attorney to draft the ordinance. The organization did not do that.


A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction that keeps the law from taking effect until he can rule on a suit challenging its constitutionality.  Among other things, plaintiffs are charging that the law is too vague to be enforceable:

The Judge asked all three lawyers to provide a legal definition of ‘traditional family values’ that could be found in state or federal law, statute or jurisprudence. None of them could.

Damn those meddling federal judges and their definitions and constitutions and other legalistic claptrap. Can't they just let the Holy Spirit speak through them?

TPM recalls some of the more egregious recent political rhetoric suggesting violence or using violent metaphors.

Salon's Glenn LaFantasie points out that, although we always treat political shootings as one-of-a-kind exceptions to our democratic process, in fact they are part of a longstanding pattern in our politics.

American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots’ victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation. It is a troubling, but inescapable, bequest that stems from the fact that our nation was born in violence, and it derives from the reality that violence has ever since become not only the device of criminals, but also of government and those who disagree with the government.

The NYT reports:

in the grand Venn diagram of life, there appears to be substantial overlap between lawyers and the people Mr. Daily lovingly refers to as “comic book nerds.”

The result is a blog. Law and the Multiverse: Superheroes, supervillains, and the law.

I mean, there are important issues to work out: How much responsibility do you have for the damage done by your super-powered minor child?What kind of retirement plan does an immortal need? Is there any way Bruce Wayne could openly fund Batman without becoming legally responsible for the damage he does? Is mind control a valid criminal defense?

Don't wait until a radioactive spider bites you and it's too late. Learn your rights now.

Tea Partiers aren't racists, of course. But when they get into office in places like Raleigh, North Carolina their first acts include undoing the longstanding school-desegregation plan, and replacing it with ... well, nothing really. Maybe separate-but-equal will work this time around.

It should be no great surprise that the same bankers who loaned money to people who had no hope of paying it back also failed to handle the mortgage paperwork correctly. The result is that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court now holds that huge numbers of foreclosures were illegal.

The Boston Globe's Paul McMorrow reports on the implications:

I took a random sample of 30 foreclosure deeds from Chelsea (one of the cities hit hardest by foreclosures) since the beginning of 2006. Of those 30 foreclosure cases, 10 had paperwork on file with the Registry of Deeds that raised the sort of chain-of-custody concerns at the heart of the Ibanez decision. In one case, no mortgage was on file with the registry. Another showed no paperwork assigning the note to a mortgage servicer. In other cases, mortgage originators didn’t sign off on documents transferring the notes into mortgage pools, or transfer paperwork was filed after a foreclosure occurred. All of the properties have since been re-sold.

What could possibly go wrong?

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, January 10, 2011


If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, "My goodness what can we do to turn this country around?" I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out. -- Reid's Republican opponent Sharron Angle (January, 2010)

We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they've gotta realize there's consequences to that action. -- Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (March, 2010)

In this week's Sift:

  • The Rhetoric and Reality of Violence. The shooting of Rep. Giffords calls attention to the sanctioning of violent rhetoric by officials at all levels of the Republican Party.
  • Privilege, Political Correctness, and the New Huck Finn. A bowdlerized new version of the Mark Twain classic gives me a hook to fix conservative rhetoric about political correctness.
  • Scalia's Law. Nobody should be shocked when Justice Scalia denies that the Constitution protects women's rights. All originalists believe that. Their theory needs to be attacked head-on, not issue-by-issue.
  • Look for a double helping of Short Notes next week.

The Rhetoric and Reality of Violence

As of this morning, no one had pinpointed a clear motive for Jared Loughner to shoot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people, six of whom have died, including federal judge John Roll. No one has released a political manifesto, like the one Jim David Adkisson wrote before killing two people at a Knoxville church in 2008. (He claimed to be inspired by Bernard Goldberg's culture-war book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.) Or like Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion crusader who murdered George Tiller (also in church) in 2009. Or white supremacist James Von Brunn, who killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in 2009. Or anti-tax activist Joe Stack, who crashed an airplane into an IRS office building in Austin in 2010, killing Vernon Hunter.

Loughner appears to be insane to the point that his specific motives, if they ever come out, might be hard to understand. As the NYT editorialized:

It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge.

As they always do, right-wingers are claiming that both sides are equally responsible. And of course they can point to signs threatening President Bush and so forth.


What they can't produce, though, is any equivalent of the Sharron Angle quote at the top of the page. No Democratic candidate for a major office so directly called for the assassination of an opponent. And that was not a mis-step; Angle stuck by it:

What is a little bit disconcerting and concerning is the inability for sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock. That tells me the nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn't that they are so distrustful of their government? They're afraid they'll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways? That's why I look at this as almost an imperative. If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?

What indeed? In the Democratic Party, you stand down and start working to win the next election. But within the Republican Party, Angle suffered no consequences for suggesting violence instead. Her statements were not condemned by the leadership, she continued to get funding from national Republican organizations, and big-name Republicans continued to endorse her and campaign for her, causing Rachel Maddow to ask:

Is this considered a mainstream position now? Everybody down with this idea? RNSC, RNC, are you guys okay with this?

Apparently they were and are. At the highest levels of the Republican Party, calling for violence is considered acceptable political rhetoric. In the Democratic Party, it isn't.

There are and always will be nutcases on both ends of the political spectrum. And there will always be ordinary people of all stripes who blow off steam by making meaningless threats. But one party welcomes and stokes that rhetoric, while the other party doesn't.

That's the difference.

I've been on this story for a while: here and here, for example.

Check out this more complete list of recent incidents. Not all of them are conservative-on-liberal. But the vast majority are.

Privilege, Political Correctness, and the New Huck Finn

As soon as I finished How to Speak Conservative: Class warfare, I planned to follow up with a comparable explanation of political correctness. But PC is a little more complicated, so that article kept failing to come together and then getting crowded out by other topics.

This week I got my hook: There's a new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that changes the word nigger to slave. It's paired with a new edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that changes Injun Joe to Indian Joe.

I imagine that the editor of this travesty believes he's being a good liberal, but in fact he's being a conservative's parody of a liberal. The conservative assault has been so successful that few people even remember the real liberalism behind the parody and what it has been trying to accomplish.

Let's start with the parody, because it is so much more familiar. As conservatives tell the story, groups that (for only semi-comprehensible reasons) consider themselves to be oppressed -- blacks, women, gays, and some others -- are sensitive to words like nigger, bitch, and fag. The words -- not the people who use the words or the hostile intentions the words embody, but the words themselves -- offend sensitive feelings. Liberals care much more about feelings than about liberty, so they want to ban the words.

This creates absurd situations (similar to the stoning scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian or the porch monkey scene in Clerks 2), and allows conservatives like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter to look brave and edgy by using or hinting at the banned words. Rush and Ann become like the Kevin Bacon character in Footloose, breaking the stupid rules that keep people from having fun.

Start over. Now let's put the conservative parody out of our minds and start over from the absolute beginning. Why, exactly, shouldn't we say nigger?

The serious problem isn't that the word nigger hurts blacks' feelings. What conservatives implicitly deny by focusing on feelings is that blacks are harmed in a very real sticks-and-stones sense by white privilege. White privilege is justified by a negative stereotype of blacks. (We are deserving because they are undeserving.) And the word nigger can be used to invoke and solidify that stereotype.

Now let's go through that a little slower and include some other words.

It starts with privilege. When you boil privilege down to its essence, it amounts to this: If you're privileged, society grants you an exemption from the Golden Rule. You have the right to be outraged if you are not treated with a certain respect, but when others are denied the same respect, that's not your problem. You don't even have to think about it. It's just the way things are.

So, you can use a public bus, but a person in a wheelchair can't; you and your lover can get married, but a same-sex couple can't; a taxi will stop for you, but not for a person of color; public information is displayed in your language, but not somebody else's; police look at your skin and your clothes and decide to hassle somebody else, not you; public officials listen to your complaints, but not to other people's; all over the world, miners and factory workers risk their lives to produce things for you, but you don't have to risk your life for anybody; when someone who looks like you gets an undeserved promotion, everyone takes it in stride, but if someone who looks different from you does, it's an issue.

That's privilege. Don't think about it. You didn't do it; it's just the way things are. If you do think about it, that's so magnanimous of you, to consider granting other people the benefits you enjoy without controversy. Even if you ultimately shake your head and decide that it's too expensive or society isn't ready yet, you're such a great person even to consider it.

Some Golden-Rule exemptions are less passive. You can insult people who don't dare insult you back. You can expect to be waited on, and not wait on anyone else. You can spread malicious gossip about other people, knowing that your lies propagate easily and quickly, while their lies about you die out.

So the first reason to avoid calling someone a nigger or a fag is that there is nothing they can call you back. (Honky? Cracker? Don't be silly. They don't sting the same way. And I can't even think of derogatory term for heterosexuals.) You are doing unto others something that can't be done back to you.

It's the stereotypes, not the words. The reason words like nigger sting is that they refer to detailed stereotypes built up over centuries, stereotypes made up not just of words, but of entire stories and images. So nigger doesn't just mean black, it means lazy, shiftless, stupid, thieving, slutty, drunken, apelike, and more. (That's why there's no comparison between liberals who nicknamed President Bush "Chimpy" and conservatives who marketed the Obama Monkey. "Chimpy" insults Bush exactly to the extent that he personally resembles a chimp. There's no anti-white or anti-anything-Bushlike stereotype for "Chimpy" to evoke.)

A stereotype also contains judgments: A nigger doesn't really count as a person -- as Mark Twain made explicit in this exchange between Huck and Aunt Sally:

"It warn't the grounding -- that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head."
"Good gracious! anybody hurt?"
"No'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."

That's how stereotypes hold a system of privilege in place. A nigger, fag, or bitch is someone to whom the Golden Rule doesn't apply. You can't beat up a person who hasn't done anything to you, but you can beat up a fag -- they don't count. If you steal from one of those money-grubbing kikes, you're just taking back something they cheated from somebody else. If you slap a bitch around, she was asking for it -- you know how they are. You don't have to make a specific case against the individual; the case was already made long ago against fags, kikes, and bitches in general.

So the larger point of getting rid of words like nigger is to remove access to the stereotypes they evoke. When the privileged have to refer to other people respectfully (the way they naturally expect other people to refer to them), then the judgments that are implicit in the stereotypes have to be either dropped or explicitly defended. If you're hitting a person, and not a fag or a bitch, you'd better explain yourself. If a young black lawyer (not a buck or a nigger) has applied to your law firm, you need a reason to turn him down. It doesn't go without saying any more. It's not just how things are.

Whitewashing history. You have undoubtedly noticed that in this article I have used all sorts of "bad" words. That's because I wanted to evoke the stereotypes. I wanted to evoke them so that we could look at them.

If we banish the words entirely, we lose our handle on the stereotypes; we lose our ability to critique them or diagnose them properly. And if we banish them from our literature, it's as if the whole history of oppression never happened.

A few years ago on Daily Kos, I started a discussion about the whitewashing of recent history. Some younger Kossacks were shocked to discover that "Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Moe" used to say nigger rather than tiger. How would they have known? The older rhyme has just vanished, as if none of us ever said it.

Whites aren't doing this to diminish the anti-black stereotype. We're doing it to cover our tracks. The history of racial oppression embarrasses us, so we make it nicer.

Here's my conclusion: When you're wondering whether to use a racial slur or some bowdlerized version like the N-word, ask yourself: Am I using the power of the stereotype against the oppressed group, or am I calling out the stereotype to diminish it or to own up to my own role in maintaining it?

If it's the former, back off. If it's the later, go ahead and say the word. Otherwise, the only person you're protecting is yourself.

Huck. One of the many reasonsHuck Finn is a great book is that it accurately documents an era. The world of Huck Finn is not a nice place, just like the worlds of Night and Fog or The Sopranos are not nice places. We can't make them nice without destroying them. Students who aren't mature enough to go there shouldn't go there.

Scalia's Law

Justice Scalia raised a predictable furor with an interview he gave to California Lawyer magazine. But anyone who was shocked to hear a Supreme Court justice deny any constitutional basis for women's rights hasn't been paying attention. Scalia quotes like this are nothing new:

Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that.

Scalia says these things because he subscribes to the theory of law known as originalism, which he describes in the interview like this:

In its most important aspects, the Constitution tells the current society that it cannot do [whatever] it wants to do. It is a decision that the society has made that in order to take certain actions, you need the extraordinary effort that it takes to amend the Constitution.

To an originalist, the meaning of any phrase in the Constitution was frozen at the time it was written. If you want something else to be constitutional, you need to pass an amendment -- which will then mean for all time what you think it means today.

If you want to argue with someone like Scalia, you need to argue with originalism, not just with the idea that women shouldn't have constitutional rights. The point of the law is to be legal, not necessarily moral. ("This is a court of law, young man," legendary Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes is said to have scolded an idealistic young lawyer, "not a court of justice.") So you need more than moral outrage; you need an alternate interpretation.

I've highlighted non-originalist legal viewpoints twice in the previous year: in my review of David Strauss' book The Living Constitution and in excerpts from Justice Souter's commencement address at Harvard Law School.

Let's apply that thinking here. The relevant portion of 14th Amendment says:

No State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The conservative "judicial activism" trope claims that liberal judges just project their own feelings into the Constitution, but that's plainly not what's happening here with women's rights. If you read the text in the most obvious way, women are "persons" and any law that discriminates against them does not give them the "equal protection" promised by the amendment. It's a no-brainer.

"But wait," an originalist would say, "you're reading the text through 21st century eyes. The people who passed the 14th Amendment in 1868 discriminated against women all the time, and most of that discrimination wasn't even controversial. They clearly didn't believe they were establishing equal rights for women."

And that's absolutely true. If the people of 1868 had held our current interpretation of the 14th Amendment, the people of 1920 wouldn't have had to pass the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Surely any law that gives men (but not women) the right to vote is denying "the equal protection of the laws" to women. Right?

But here's the problem with originalism: What people think they're doing at any given point in time is usually not completely coherent. As Justice Souter said:

[The Constitution's] language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.

So the people of 1868 were simultaneously guaranteeing "equal protection of the laws" to all "persons" and denying women the right to vote. According to Jack Balkin, here's how that worked, at least for married women:

under [the common-law doctrine of coverture] women lost most of their common law rights upon marriage under the fiction that their legal identities were merged with their husbands.

Today, after countless laws have ignored coverture without repealing it, how are judges supposed to apply the "original intent" of the 14th amendment? It's not enough to say, "The people of 1868 would have made sense out of that somehow." We, today, need to have some coherent account of what "equal protection of the laws" means. And we need to be able to apply it in situations that the people of 1868 never envisioned. (Does a transgendered person have the rights of a man or a woman?)

And that brings us to Strauss' common-law theory of interpretation. Strauss takes for granted that as times change, we are increasingly confronted with the incoherence of the intentions of past lawmakers. They wanted "many good things" and didn't foresee all the ways that change would bring those good things into conflict. They espoused high principles without grasping all the ways that the practices of their era contradicted those principles.

They were, in short, human.

The job of the judge, then, is not just to apply lawmakers' intentions, but also to resolve inconsistencies in lawmakers' intentions, so that the law continues to be applicable. That's what is meant by a "living Constitution". It's an ongoing process, and occasionally so much change has happened or the original intentions were so contradictory that we wind up with interpretations that would have appalled the original lawmakers. (Same-sex marriage, for example.)

Judges have an obligation to use their interpretative power prudently, responding to real inconsistencies and resolving them with as little violence to the original intentions as possible. And overwhelmingly throughout our history they have, even in decisions that are sweeping reversals of past interpretations. (Strauss describes Brown v. Board of Education not as a sudden revolution, but as the culmination of a decades-long case-by-case process in which courts tried to make separate-but-equal work, until by 1954 it was obvious that it couldn't work. A similar story can be told about Roe v. Wade.)

Most work that gets characterized as "liberal judicial activism" is like that: the end of a long prudent process of resolving inconsistencies, not a sudden attack of some judge's personal idealism.

So when Scalia contends that the only alternative to originalism is anarchy:

Now if you give to those many provisions of the Constitution that are necessarily broad—such as due process of law, cruel and unusual punishments, equal protection of the laws—if you give them an evolving meaning so that they have whatever meaning the current society thinks they ought to have, they are no limitation on the current society at all.

he's sweeping the real problem under the rug. It isn't that we want these phrases to mean whatever we want; it's that we want them to mean something coherent. Interpreting equal protection to defend women's rights may not be original, but it is coherent. What alternative interpretation is?

Of course there's simpler objection to Scalia's position, which is that he doesn't apply originalism consistently. The 14th Amendment is also the basis of the Citizens United decision (which Scalia supported) and all decisions that uphold corporate personhood.

Corporate personhood is indefensible from an originalist point of view. No one can make the case that the people of 1868 believed that they were granting rights to corporations. The only explanation I can find for an originalist to support corporate personhood is partisanship: The Court's majority is conservative, and conservative bread is buttered by corporations.

Jack Balkin notes some additional inconsistencies in Scalia's originalism.

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