Monday, September 24, 2012


If you take an analytical drill and you start drilling into this Republican campaign and you drill down through this [47%] quote and you drill down through voter ID, where you hit bedrock is, I think, an age-old conservative skepticism of democracy. 

-- Chris Hayes

Welcome, new Sifters

With more than 96,000 views so far, The Distress of the Privileged has brought a lot of new people to this blog. I hope some of you bookmarked it and have come back to see what a typical week is like. Here are some of the posts from recent weeks that you might find interesting: My Paul Ryan triology (1, 2, 3), Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide, How Lies Work, and The Economics of Leviticus. Now on with the usual Sift.

This week everybody was talking about Romney's 47%

I'm sure you already heard about it. A video-tape surfaced from a $50K-a-ticket fund-raiser in May, in which Romney rambled through an unscripted answer about "the 47%" who he identified at various times as (i) the die-hard Obama supporters, (ii) those who pay no federal income tax, and (iii) people "dependent upon government" who won't "take personal responsibility and care for their lives". He then commented: "And so my job is not to worry about those people." To which SNL's Seth Meyers replied: "I wouldn't worry, buddy, it's looking less and less like it will be your job."

If you want to interpret Romney as generously as possible, you take (i) as the definition of the 47%, and expand "my job" to "my job as a candidate" rather than "my job as president". Then he's just saying, more or less, "My campaign isn't going to waste its effort trying to convince people who are never going to vote for us anyway." I'll bet he wishes he'd really said that and then stopped. What's disturbing in the quote, though, is that (i), (ii), and (iii) can swap in and out interchangeably in one paragraph. This is the Makers vs. Takers line that Paul Ryan has pushed in the past: The country is more-or-less evenly divided between the productive (who work hard and vote Republican) and the lazy (who expect the government to take care of them and vote Democrat). You will run into this view often if you cruise through conservative blogs like RedState or read the comments on Washington Times or Fox News articles. Romney's mistake was that he got caught on tape repeating common conservative locker-room talk. Lots of people have already pointed out how divorced from reality Makers vs. Takers is. I'll let conservative columnist Michael Gerson carry the ball:
A Republican ideology pitting the “makers” against the “takers” offers nothing. No sympathy for our fellow citizens. No insight into our social challenge. No hope of change. ... Politics is reduced to class warfare on behalf of the upper class.
And then lateral to Agramante on Daily Kos:
Paul Ryan has it perfectly backwards when he talks about makers and takers. This nation's makers are the workers.  The makers are the people who work for a living, with their hands, in the field, teaching, building, repairing, healing, growing (to name a few) and, yes, drilling and mining, even typing and filing.  ... The takers are the financiers, who no longer serve primarily to help develop industries and communities here in this country. The takers are the bankers like Mitt Romney who shuffle investments, frequently in fraudulent fashion, around the world and build only their own fortunes while otherwise playing at best a zero-sum game of job-shifting from one country to another.

... and his taxes

Just as it seemed like the 47% din might die down, the trustee of Mitt's blind trust released his 2011 tax return. (No wonder former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan called the Romney campaign a "rolling calamity".)

The highlight is that Romney paid 14.1% of his income in taxes, but only because his accountants engineered his return to uphold his statement that he never paid less than 13%. They didn't claim all of the charitable-giving deduction he was entitled to. But if he decides to file an amended return after the election (who'll know?) he can get his rate down to 12.2%. Is even 14.1% a lower rate than most Americans pay? Depends on how you figure. If you just count income tax, no. But if you also count payroll taxes -- which Romney doesn't pay because he doesn't earn wages -- then reports that the median 20% of  taxpayers pay a 15.5% tax rate. Romney's accountants claim he has paid at least 13% in each of the last 20 years. But since the pre-2010 returns are still secret, they can claim anything they want. The end result satisfies no one. He's claiming that 14.1% isn't shameful, but acting as if 12.2% would be. It's hard to find a coherent position in that.

... and nobody was talking about Obama (except me)

For the most part, President Obama has been happy to leave Romney twisting in the spotlight. But I've been predicting for a while that Obama will end his campaign by making a positive case for his own re-election, while Romney will stay negative to the end. Here's my version of Obama's Positive Case.

I also wrote about education reform

The Chicago teacher's strike gave me an excuse to watch Waiting for Superman and read Steven Brill's pro-reform book Class Warfare. I wanted to be convinced, but I wasn't. Education Reform: I'm Still Not Convinced

... and you also might find this interesting

Maybe sending Paul Ryan to talk to the AARP wasn't such a great idea.
On 60 Minutes last night, Mitt Romney repeated one of the Five Pretty Lies I identified a few weeks ago: The uninsured can get the health care they need in the emergency room.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="537"] An excellent question.[/caption]
A phrase that needs to catch on: Plutocratic Insurgency.
You know who hates the new way scientist picture dinosaurs? Creationists.

Monday, September 17, 2012

No Sift This Week

As much as I would love to capitalize on all the new readers who found the blog last week*, it’s not going to happen.

I’ve spent most of this week hovering over the hospital bed of my 90-year-old father, trying to figure out whether or not this is his final health crisis.

The whole point of the Sift is that I scour the internet looking for the stories you ought to be reading, I check the facts and the framing of the stories the mainstream media is covering, and  I try to provide the kind of perspective and background that intelligent readers are looking for.

There’s no way any of that was going to happen this week. I could probably go through my files of half-written articles and throw some stuff together, but that would be no service to my regular readers and give new readers a poor introduction to what I’m trying to do here.

Maybe next week.

* Last week was the second-most-popular week in history, with 38,000 views. Most of them were for The Distress of the Privileged.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Probably Obama

I've seen Romney, I've seen Bain.
I've seen Clinton speeches I thought would never end.
I've seen crazy guys talking to invisible men.
So I'll prob'ly vote Obama, again.

-- Jimmy  Fallon channeling James Taylor

This week everybody was talking about the Democratic Convention

The best speech was definitely Bill Clinton's, but Obama and Biden also did well. Among the punditry, Obama suffered from unreasonable standards. A typical comment sounded a little like: He used to leap taller buildings at a single bound.

After the Paul Ryan lie-fest, whined a little about Bill Clinton's speech: He gave them a lot of facts to check, but nothing much to write about.

The best single line of the convention was probably John Kerry's: "Ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off than he was four years ago."

But let's not forget the week's really important moments, like Julian Castro's 3-year-old daughter spotting herself on the jumbotron TV.

Or Jimmy Fallon doing his James Taylor impersonation. (Taylor really did perform at the convention, but this video comes from Fallon's show Late Night.)

... and where the race stands now

In short: Obama got a bounce from his convention, but Romney didn't. Statistically, the race is still close enough that Romney could come back. But doing so would require him to uncork some inner awesomeness that so far I see no sign of.

The longer version of that analysis is: Where the Presidential Race Stands.

... but I also wrote about something else

The Distress of the Privileged takes a sympathetic look at the experiences that lead to Tea-Party-style anger. When your privileges shrink, it can feel like persecution. I rely on a series of wonderful articles in the Owldolatrous blog, and tie them to a Pleasantville theme.

... and you might also be interested in this

You may have heard that your religious liberty is in danger. A minister provides a quick quiz to help you determine if it is. Typical question:
4. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to pray privately.
B) I am not allowed to force others to pray the prayers of my faith publicly.

Note to local TV reporters: Don't try to question Ann Romney about the issues that might interest your viewers. Lady Ann will tell you what the issues are and what you should be asking about them.

Jon Stewart did a wonderful job of contrasting Fox News' coverage of the two conventions.

Something I almost pulled into the "The Distress of the Privileged": the contrast with the kind of anger you see in Melissa Harris-Perry's rant on risk. She got tired of hearing about how the entrepreneur's deserve to be rich because of all the risks they take. "What is riskier than living poor in America?" she demanded.

When the privileged get angry, you get the kind of coverage the Tea Party got: reflections on what Obama must have done to rile these people up. But black female anger comes pre-discounted. "What got into her?"

Something to remember when Republicans complain about Obama's record on jobs:

Monday, September 3, 2012

Check, Please!

We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.

-- Neil Newhouse, pollster for the Romney campaign

This week everybody was talking about Clint Eastwood

Clint was at some big political rally in Florida (I didn’t catch the name of it) when he launched into a bizarre improv discussion with an invisible Barack Obama, represented by an empty chair.

To Jon Stewart, this scene explained everything:
I could never wrap my head around why the world and the president that Republicans describe bears so little resemblance to the world and the president that I experience. And now I know why: There is a President Obama that only Republicans can see.
Michael Moore elaborated:
Clint Eastwood was able to drive home to tens of millions of viewers the central message of this year’s Republican National Convention: We Are Delusional and Detached from Reality. Vote for Us!

As big stars sometimes do, Eastwood inadvertently created an internet phenomenon to rival Pepper Spraying Cop: Eastwooding

Inevitably, it led to this response from an earlier meme:

I intend to use it as a quick slang for telling Republicans to get real: “I think you’re talking to the chair again.”

… and the rest of the Republican National Convention

Back in the day, political conventions made news. Outcomes were uncertain and speeches captured a party’s internal policy differences. (To get a taste, rent the 1964 film The Best Man.)

These days, of course, conventions are infomercials that can’t be taken at face value. The only honest information is in the subtext, and illuminates questions that mainly interest political junkies: What image does the party want to project? Who is their target audience? What do they think their best/worst issues are?

Bill Maher pointed out one major subtext:

Republicans don’t have to accept evolution, economics, climatology, or human sexuality, but I just watched a week of their national convention, and I need them to admit the historical existence of George W. Bush.


References to Reagan popped up every now and then, but Bush has become an un-person. Bill Clinton is the headliner in Charlotte Wednesday night, but W and Dick Cheney weren’t even in Tampa. The convention needed Condi Rice for diversity, but not even that could get Alberto Gonzalez to the podium.

Don Rumsfeld? John Ashcroft? Never saw them. Karl Rove has moved on to be a major SuperPAC player, but they kept him off-stage.

Eight years down the memory hole. But don’t worry, George, you’ll be remembered this week in Charlotte.

Nate Silver thinks it’s still too soon to measure the size of Romney’s convention bounce, “but the information we have so far points toward its being a little underwhelming.” His model still gives Obama a 74.5% chance of re-election.

Similarly, Gallup pegs Romney’s convention speech as the least effective since Bob Dole.

My favorite convention wrap-up was on Saturday morning’s “Up With Chris Hayes”. “Up” is consistently the best political discussion on TV. It’s like you’re on a weekend retreat with the sharpest political observers around, and you all get up and chat while the coffee is brewing. Hayes himself is the smart-but-congenial host we all want to be.

… and how to cover lies

A second major piece of convention subtext concerned the press. A controversy has been brewing for a while about Mitt Romney’s relationship with the truth, which Grist’s David Roberts describes like this:
Political campaigns have always lied and stretched the truth, but when caught in a lie, would typically defend themselves (claim it was actually true), retract, or at the very least stop repeating the lie. Either way, the presumption was that truth-telling had some moral force; one ought to tell the truth, even if that commandment was often honored in the breach.

What’s creepy about the Romney crew is that they don’t do any of those things. They don’t deny, they don’t stop, they just don’t care at all.

For weeks now, journalist blogs have been buzzing about how to respond. Sure, you fact-check, but the Boston Phoenix’s David Bernstein tweeted this follow-up question:
Dear media critics: OK, entire news media called Romney’s welfare attack a lie. Campaign still pushing it. Now what?

Journalists either had to find a way to increase the pressure, or just admit that their whole profession doesn’t matter any more – we’re in a post-truth era, where the powerful can make up their own facts.

During the RNC, they increased the pressure like this: The consensus of fact-checkers has itself become a fact that an objective reporter can report in a news article, not on the opinion page. So the NYT headlined a news article “Facts take a beating in acceptance speeches”. And an L.A. Times news headline read: “Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama”.

We’ll see if this makes any difference, or if Romney is right in his assessment that the press’ disapproval is a wristslap compared to the benefits of lying.

I hope the Obama campaign is paying attention. The press would love to “balance” their coverage of the RNC by finding inaccuracies at the DNC. Even trivial fact-fudging is going to come at a high price.

Minor victory: Paul Ryan had to back off the claim that he ran a sub-three-hour marathon. I wonder if he ever played golf with Kim Jong Il.

… but I wrote about Paul Ryan’s character in general

A lot of people have written about the influence of Ayn Rand on Paul Ryan. But I haven’t seen many confess their own teen-age Rand obsession and give an insider’s view. Since I already admitted most of it last year in Why I’m Not a Libertarian, I might as well explore the psychology of teen Randism in Ayn, Paul, and Me.

The interesting question is: Why didn’t Ryan grow out of it, as most of us do?

… and you might also find this stuff interesting

Ron Fournier almost took a job with John McCain four years ago, but he’s also not going easy on Romney: Why (and How) Romney is Playing the Race Card.

Mike Lofgren was a Republican congressional staffer for 16 years, but even he (writing in The American Conservative, of all places) has noticed that the rich aren’t really Americans any more:

Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it.

Dan Froomkin writes a depressingly realistic article about the jobs of the future:

As the super-rich get even richer … they will need maids, cooks, and gardeners.

So is that an issue in this election?
The fact is that there is no Democratic jobs plan, if Republicans are able to keep either their control of the House or their ability to paralyze the Senate, or both. And there is no Republican jobs plan at all.

Who is this rude giant?

This week’s most fun image: