Monday, December 31, 2012

The Yearly Sift of 2012

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.

-- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

review all the Sift quotes of 2012

This week everybody was talking about ...

The last two weeks will get a very abbreviated treatment so that I can use the space to review the year. I'm sure the gun debate will still be going on next Monday -- probably the stand-offs on the fiscal cliff and the debt limit too -- so I'll catch up then. But I wanted to share this Clay Bennett cartoon.

There were also countless end-of-the-year top ten lists. The most ambitious is Time's Top Ten Everything of 2012. Time's #8 Viral Video of the Year was the best marriage proposal ever.

But let's get on with reviewing the year.

This year, everybody was talking about the election

Like my imaginary typical reader, I struggled not to obsess and not to let my fears get ahead of the facts. But just about every week, something election-related was a major focus.

Looking back, I feel like the Sift mostly got the election right. True, the weakness of the Republican field surprised me. (So much for my April, 2011 prediction that Romney wouldn't be nominated.) And I also failed to predict Obama's sleep-walk through the first debate, which let Romney get back into the race. But I decided early to trust Nate Silver's poll-consolidation model, which turned out to be right. All in all, I think a regular Sift reader went through the campaign focused on the right things: the right issues, the right narratives, the right swing states.

The election also turned out more-or-less the way I wanted, which has left me feeling more relieved than triumphant. Watching congressional Republicans run scared from the most extreme part of their base, I can only imagine what we'd be looking at if President Romney and a Republican Senate were about to take office. So I'm not seeing the dawn of a new era, but we did dodge a bullet.

A more detailed look at the Sift's election coverage is in Looking Back at the 2012 Election: Relief, not Triumph.

... and I kept writing about privilege

The Theme of the Year always sneaks up on me; I never start out with one in mind. But all year, the news kept pushing me to write about various sorts of discrimination and/or prejudice: against blacks, Hispanics, women, Muslims, gays, students, retireesthe working class ... almost everybody, when you total it up.

In each of those apparently separate stories, I kept finding the same thing: a privileged group so oblivious to its privileges and so clueless about what life is like for everyone else that it imagines itself as the true victim. So the rich feel "punished" by the prospect of paying Clinton-era tax rates or admitting that their businesses are built on the foundation of a healthy public sector. Christians feel "persecuted" when they aren't allowed to control the public square or dictate how their employees use health insurance. The Trayvon Martin case caused whites to obsess about violence by blacks. And countless Americans believe that we are the great unappreciated benefactors of the countries we invade or bomb or exploit for cheap labor. (Why aren't the Iraqis grateful for all we've done?)

Like most liberals, my first impulse was to write this off as posturing -- meaningless noise meant to drown out any discussion of genuine unfairness. But the deeper I looked, the more sincere these voices sounded. And if you listen to them, you'll hear reasons: examples where change has robbed them of privileges they had come to expect, or inflicted inconveniences on them that (in their minds) loom as large as Jim Crow or the Trail of Tears.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that you can't just ignore their distress, because it feels so real to them. If you do, they conclude that "empathy" is some kind of pan-handler's con -- because here they are, suffering, and you don't care. So my new strategy is to acknowledge their distress, and then put it in context. As in: "I'll bet that sunburn really hurts. Hey, look -- that guy over there is bleeding out. You think maybe the doctor should see him first?"

In September all that came together for me in a post that has become the most popular Weekly Sift article of all time: The Distress of the Privileged. (172,000 page views and still going.)

... and some other stuff

The Sift reviewed, recommended, or based an article on 21 different books this year. I've collected the links. (In general, if you're ever looking for a Sift book review and can't remember where it is, check the Yearly Sifts at the end of each December.)

Religion is one of the lesser themes just about every year. I've always paid attention to the bad public policy pushed by the Religious Right, but this year I started taking the battle to them rather than just responding to their latest outrage: The Religious Right isn't just bad policy, it's bad religion. They do a bad job following their own holy book.

So, for example, if they're going to take Leviticus seriously on social issues, why don't they also promote The Economics of Leviticus, which is decided liberal? How about a Jubilee Year, where we cancel all the debts?

In a related post, I pointed out how incompatible certain conservative philosophies are with the message of Jesus in Jesus Shrugged: Why Christianity and Ayn Rand Don't Mix.

I addressed abortion from a personal point of view in What Abortion Means to Me, and I honored Natural Family Planning Awareness Week by reading the papal encyclical at the root of Catholic condemnation of contraception, Humanae Vitae. I concluded:
So yes, Catholics, use this week to educate yourself about the Church’s teaching on contraception. You will find it based on shoddy thinking. To attribute these ideas to God is blasphemous.

And I responded to Senate-candidate Richard Mourdock's opinions about rape and God's will by explaining the vision of the Founders in Government Theology is Un-American.
If Congressman Mourdock wants to interpret the will of God to the People, he should move to a country where government officials do that, and leave my country alone.

Both that post and Five Takeaways from the Komen Fiasco wound up talking about ensoulment, noting that ensoulment-at-conception is not at all Biblical. Sometime in 2013 I plan to focus an article on this point rather than have it in footnotes of other posts: Ensoulment-at-conception has zero Biblical support; it's a theological interpretation invented purely for political reasons.

Economics is another perennial theme. This year I made the personal political in What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism, corrected previous mistakes in Peak Oil? Maybe not, made a liberal case for capitalism in Take a Left at the Market, and filled in a piece of the puzzle I had previously been missing in Monopoly's Role in Inequality.

A new issue I started covering this year is food policy: See Food-eaters are not a special interest group, When the food industry inspects itself, and my review of Bet the Farm.

A few articles didn't fit into any larger theme, but I want to call them to your attention anyway:

I went out on a limb with a long-range prediction: Everybody Will Support Same-sex Marriage by 2030.

If you came out of Lincoln wondering why the Republicans were the Northern progressive party then, but the Southern conservative party now, it's all laid in A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System.

And finally, the best post nobody read was The Republic of Babel.

And what do the numbers look like?

Not much different from last year, but the blog weathered a storm to get there. The lack of viral posts (explained below) made for dismal numbers in the spring.

Last year, the Sift received 137K page views in the 6 months after I moved it to This year it got 240K in a complete year. Once again, it was a story of viral posts. Last year, five posts got over 2,500 views each, totaling 107K -- everything else split the remaining 30K page views. This year, only one post (The Distress of the Privileged) went over 2,500, but it's gotten 172K views and counting, with everything else splitting 72K views.

On the other hand, this year 8 posts got 1000-2000 views, compared to none last year. The difference seems to have more to do with changes at Facebook (which I don't completely understand) than anything I'm doing differently. This year, not everything you "like" is seen by all your friends; last year it was. So it's now much harder for a post to go viral. Last year, 800 views was a launching point; if a post got there, it stood a good chance of running to 5K or 10K. Not so this year.

Other numbers: The Sift's Facebook page has 183 Likes and its Twitter feed has 123 followers. The blog has 504 followers via WordPress, and 280 subscribers via Google Reader. I wish I had recorded those numbers last year so I could give some context, but I believe they are all significantly up.

Monday, December 24, 2012

No Sift on Christmas Eve

Celebrate whatever holiday makes you happy, then come back next Monday for the annual Yearly Sift, in which I almost always discover (retrospectively) that what I’ve been writing during the year has a theme.

Monday, December 17, 2012


As a country we have been through this too many times. 

-- President Barack Obama responding to the Newtown school shooting

This week everybody was talking gun violence

We had two mass shootings: the Clackamas Town Center Mall shooting just outside of Portland, Oregon on Tuesday, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday.

I'm not going to compile my own account of either event; that's something the mainstream media has done at great length. I do want to make a few one-step-back comments.

1. Don't put too much stock in early accounts and explanations. A review of Dave Cullen's book Columbine. observes:
Cullen goes into extensive detail about just how wrong the news reports were, not only in the immediate aftermath but for months and years afterward. ... [M]ost of the inaccuracies sprung from the nature of on-the-spot, live, eyewitness reporting. The massacre itself lasted barely an hour, but news helicopters circled overhead with no information all day. That’s a lot of time to fill.

Already by Thursday, Slate's William Saletan was debunking early Clackamas reports:
Thanks to mobile phones, Twitter, and instant publishing, you can read all about the latest mass shooting within minutes. But much of what you’re reading, even days afterward, is false.

There's no shame in carrying a bunch of false information in your head. Everybody does. But before you use events like this to support your Big Theory of Everything, double-check that the details you're relying on are real.

2. This is becoming normal.

The Nation lists 16 mass shootings in 2012, about one every three weeks. That list includes the Dark Knight massacre in Aurora, Colorado and the Sikh Temple massacre outside of Milwaukee. Mother Jones provides a map, the graph above, and a list going back 30 years.

3. "Let's not politicize this tragedy" is itself partisan rhetoric.

This point became a separate post. (And Ezra Klein made the same point: "Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not.") Let me also combine it with the previous point: If we can't discuss gun control in the wake of a shooting, and if shootings happen every three weeks, then we can never discuss it.

4. Gun violence isn't just a legal problem, it's a cultural problem.

Think about cigarettes. When I was a kid (in the Mad Men era), smoking had a glamorous, sophisticated image. Cigarettes never became illegal, but a considerable amount of effort went into making them unfashionable. It worked, and I think that has had a lot to do with smoking's overall decline.

Now envision a future America where owning a military-grade arsenal isn't considered manly. Even with the same laws, I'll bet it would have a lot fewer guns and a lot less gun violence.

5. Gun violence is also a mental health issue.

Dave Cullen believes that about half of mass shooters have depression problems. (Literally true at Columbine: One shooter was a sociopath and the other depressed.) Screening high school students for depression and getting treatment for the ones who need it could prevent a lot of future violence.

Unfortunately, the cut-government-spending drumbeat pushes in exactly the opposite direction. Detecting and treating teen depression is easily branded a "nanny state" policy.

... and this is also is worth your attention

Jonathan Chait explains Why Republicans Can't Propose Spending Cuts.
When the only cuts on the table would inflict real harm on people with modest incomes and save small amounts of money, that is a sign that there’s just not much money to save. It’s not just that Republicans disagree with this; they don’t seem to understand it. The absence of a Republican spending proposal is not just a negotiating tactic but a howling void where a specific grasp of the role of government ought to be. And negotiating around that void is extremely hard to do. The spending cuts aren’t there because they can’t be found.

They need Obama to propose the cuts, so they can accuse him of protecting all the real waste, which their propaganda says has to exist.

How can a humor magazine cover tragedy? By telling the unvarnished truth that the rest of the media varnishes, as the Onion did after the recent mall shooting: "Fuck Everything, Nation Reports: Just Fuck It All To Hell". How many people do you think had that thought this week? And did anyone else report it?

A humanist cadet resigned to protest the unconstitutional Christian evangelism that West Point condones.

Dan Froomkin: The media missed "the biggest story of the 2012 campaign":
the [Republican] party's most central campaign principles -- that federal spending doesn't create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit -- willfully disregarded the truth.

A Unitarian Universalist minister responds to Lindsey Graham's insistence that same-sex marriage should require a constitutional amendment:
The Constitution does not state that anyone has a right to marry. ... Men and women have been marrying each other in this country for over 200 years without the Constitution saying a word about their right to do so.

... and finally

If you have a tradition of giving money away during the holidays, think about adding journalism to your list of good causes. I'm planning to send a donation to the Wikimedia Foundation, whose Wikipedia I use many times every day. Also Grist, where most of the Sift's environmental coverage comes from.

Journalism's broken business model means that a lot of advertising-accepting publications are essentially charities now, even if they look like businesses. The Nation is a consistent money-loser that couldn't survive without Nation Builders, a voluntary association of its readers. Mother Jones is published by the Foundation for National Progress and accepts donations.

DailyKos, the largest liberal online community, is free to use and accepts advertising, but would also like to get voluntary subscriptions or donations.

If you want to promote a possible future for journalism, take a look at the Banyan Project, which was started by my friend (and former editor) Tom Stites.

The Weekly Sift itself falls on the hobby side of the job/hobby line I defined last spring, so I'm not looking for donations. It just costs me time, and I enjoy doing it.

Monday, December 10, 2012


People say that reducing inequality is radical. I think that tolerating the level of inequality the United States tolerates is radical.

-- Thomas Piketty

This week everybody was still talking about the fiscal cliff

Personally, I’m bored with the conversation. I know the outcome is important, but the process is happening behind closed doors, so we don’t really know anything about it. Unfortunately, you can’t fill a news cycle with: “It’s important, but we don’t know anything”, even if that’s the Truth. So instead we’re treated to endless speculation and tea-leaf reading.

Ezra Klein thinks he can project the outlines of a deal. Paul Krugman hopes he’s wrong, because Obama ought to be able to do better than that. They’re both smart guys that I respect a lot, but neither of them actually knows anything about the negotiations.

I’m much more fascinated by something that’s not being talked about. If you watched Chris Hayes’ discussion of energy policy Saturday morning on Up – which was a whole lot more interesting and informative than a TV-talk-show discussion of energy policy has any right to be – you heard energy experts say this: Everybody in the industry takes for granted that eventually the government will put a price on carbon, either through a carbon tax or some kind of cap-and-trade system. (It makes sense: Climate change has very real costs – like storm damage – that you aren’t paying for when you buy gas or get electricity from a coal-fired plant. If you had to pay the real costs of fossil fuels rather than just the costs of mining, refining, and shipping, you’d see that renewable energy is actually cheaper.)

So: The government needs more long-term revenue. And a major market is working inefficiently because some of its products are unrealistically inexpensive. This is the perfect time to start phasing in a carbon tax.

But that’s not on either party’s wish list.

… and the debt ceiling

which isn’t technically part of the fiscal cliff, but winds up in the same conversation because it’s another part of the overall fiscal struggle between President Obama and the House Republican majority. The fiscal cliff was created by the agreement that resolved the debt ceiling stand-off in 2011.

The current debt ceiling will probably be sufficient until March or so, at which point House Republicans can hold the world economy hostage again.

I don’t think they’ve thought this out very well. The 2011 crisis wounded everybody involved. Obama, Congress – everybody’s poll numbers went down. Undoubtedly the public’s reaction will be even worse if it happens a second time. But here’s the difference: Obama never has to face the voters again.  He’s worrying about the judgment of history at this point, not the polls. Republicans who want to be re-elected in 2016 will blink first.

The most fun part of the debt ceiling speculation involves all the ways that Obama could try to defy the debt limit, including the trillion-dollar-coin gambit. Chris Hayes explains.

… and the Robot Menace

A series of posts about technological unemployment erupted on the liberal blogosphere, for not much apparent reason. I mean, it’s an important topic, but it’s not really … topical. Anyway, I summarize and add my two cents in Two Observations on the Robot Menace.

… and Republican reform

which really isn’t happening, no matter how many pundits wish it would. The example that sums it all up is the Senate’s rejection of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Crazy grass-roots groups fabricated death-panel-like theories to stampede their members to pressure their senators. 38 Republican senators gave in to the pressure, so the treaty didn’t get the 2/3 majority it needed for ratification. See: Repainting the Bubble.

… and Jim DeMint

DeMint resigned from the Senate, even though he has four more years on his term and is popular in his home state. He isn’t facing a scandal or a health problem. He isn’t even claiming that he needs to spend more time with his family. He just got a better offer: President of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem to make any sense. It’s like resigning from the School Board to become president of the local PTA. You had a position of power, and you give it up for an outside position where you either support or nag people with power.

But it does make sense, and the sense it makes points out how big money has changed our political system: Elected office has become only part of a politician’s career path, the way the glass of orange juice is only part of the complete breakfast in the Cocoa Puffs commercials. Consequently, the voters are only one of the special interests a politician needs to please.

If you ever wonder why it’s so hard to pass laws that polls say are popular (like, say, taxing the rich), that’s the reason. If a congressman votes against what his constituents want, possibly money from rich special interests will get him re-elected anyway. And even if it doesn’t, he’ll just move on to the next (and more lucrative) phase of his career.

But if he votes against the big-money interests, he’ll face a well-financed primary opponent in the next election cycle. And after losing, his career won’t have a next phase. The million-dollar jobs in think tanks and lobbying firms won’t be available any more.

This has been true for a while, but DeMint’s move shows that the game reached a new level: Even senators are just pawns now. Steve Kornacki lays it out:

What DeMint has apparently figured out is that in today’s Republican universe there’s less of a relationship than ever between holding office and holding power. This is what the rise of insular conservative media has done. News is interpreted, talking points are developed and agendas are set on Fox News, talk radio and in the right-wing blogosphere. Republican members of Congress, by and large, take their cues from conservative media, rather than shaping it.

If they all met in the same room, which conservatives do you think would be calling the shots: officeholders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner? or people who never face the voters, like Rupert Murdoch, David Koch, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Rush Limbaugh?

DeMint is trying to move up in the real power structure, the one with no visible org chart. And that means leaving the Senate behind.

… and you might find this interesting

Beyond parody: Mitch McConnell just filibustered himself.

The same nonsense I talked about in Repainting the Bubble inspired AlterNet to compile The 5 Dumbest UN “Conspiracies”.

An open video-letter to President Obama about the high school physics curriculum.

Great moments in propaganda: The 2001 Heritage Foundation study predicting that if the Bush tax cuts were passed “the national debt would effectively be paid off by FY 2010.”

Thailand has the best anti-smoking ad ever.

Tis the season to celebrate the re-birth of Crist.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Where the Votes Are

The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.

-- Kevin Phillips, Republican strategist (1970)

This week everybody was still talking about the fiscal cliff

President Obama apparently shocked Republicans: His opening proposal in the fiscal-cliff negoations is more-or-less the plan he ran on, which the voters endorsed by re-electing him last month.

I'm beginning to see what the lines-in-the-sand are: Democrats don't want to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits (though they are willing to consider other spending cuts, including Medicare cost reductions that don't affect benefits). Republicans don't want to raise tax rates on the rich (though they are willing to consider other unspecified revenue increases).

Here's the difference: The Democrats' line is popular and the Republicans' isn't. Democrats will happily go to the mat defending Medicare. But if Republicans have to go to the mat defending low taxes for millionaires, they're in trouble. That's why Obama can make a proposal and Boehner can't. No way Boehner can look into a TV camera and say, "These are the Medicare cuts I want."

Still, Boehner won't move forward without a majority of his caucus, even if there is a plan that a bipartisan majority could support. A majority of the Republican House caucus lives inside the Fox News bubble, so we're probably going over the cliff, at least for a little while.

... and filibuster reform

OK, I'm lying. Geeky poly-sci types were talking about filibuster reform while everybody else either ignored us or rolled their eyes. But it's an important topic. Fortunately, just about everything I want to say about it came up on Saturday's Up with Chris Hayes.

Main points:
  • The filibuster isn't in the Constitution, which just says: "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings."
  • Traditionally, though, the Senate has been a clubby place that gave its members a lot of rope, but kept them in line with social norms rather than rules. (That was easier back when there were just 26 senators.)
  • Filibusters were rare until recent decades. (In the Hayes clip, they discuss how President Johnson's people didn't even consider the possibility that Medicare would be filibustered.)
  • The rule changes on the agenda for new Senate in January are pretty tame: You'd have one point in the process where you could filibuster a bill rather than several, and you'd actually have to stand up in public and talk, rather than put an anonymous hold on a bill as can happen now.
  • But the parliamentarians on Up are still worried about the precedent: If 51 votes are enough to change the filibuster rules, then the way is paved for a later 51-vote majority to regiment the Senate in a way similar to the House.

... but I wrote about the history of racial politics in America

When the first two people I talked to about the Lincoln movie both commented on how jarring it was to see the Republicans as the party of racial justice, I knew I had a research project to do. The result is "A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System". Even shorter version: After Reconstruction, only whites could vote in the South, and they were Democrats. The national Democratic Party started moving away from the Southern Democrats in 1948, and broke with them decisively in 1964-65. Republicans had a decade-long debate about whether to soft-pedal civil rights to appeal to Southern whites, which by 1980 they had decided to do.

... and you might find this interesting

For a view of life inside the conservative bubble, you can't beat the election night liveblog that Kevin DuJan did on Hillbuzz. He's watching the election on MSNBC because he can't wait to see the liberal meltdown when Obama loses. All evening, he's finding signs of panic in the demeanor of the liberal hosts and the Democrats they interview. He's explaining away anything that smacks of reality, even if it comes from the Right -- Drudge's leak of the pro-Obama exit polls is "fear porn" meant to drive up his site traffic. Fox News is only saying Virginia and Ohio are close because they're trying to increase the drama.

It isn't until the networks call Wisconsin for Obama at 8:30 CST that the illusion starts to crack. Over the next two hours DuJan and his commenters struggle to keep their fantasy world together, until at 10:14 CST DuJan folds:
Barack Obama has won Ohio, and with it reelection.

This is stunning.  Absolutely stunning.

Yes, delusional people are often stunned when everything goes the way rational people said it would.

DuJan's liveblog ends there, but his devoted commenters continue far into the night and the next morning, hanging on to the hope that the Ohio call is wrong, that Obama can be impeached over Benghazi, that Democratic vote fraud will be exposed ("Is it possible that Obama’s team is cheating again at this magnitude??"), or that finally Congress will look into Obama's birth certificate and declare him ineligible to be president.

Then comes an eruption of anger at the country and the voters: "America is over as we know it." "My country is finished." "65% of this country feeds off the remaining 35% ... it's us against them" "There’s nothing worth saving. Nothing. I’m going to join the lefties and take as much as I can while it’s still there for the taking." "Look, the bottom line is that this country is a piece of shit. I’ve spent 24 months in Iraq defending what I thought was the country of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But that country is gone. We gave it away because of white guilt." And much more like it.

One of the week's more remarkable pieces was the WaPo op-ed by Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, who demonstrated the kind of thinking that gets you beat by 4 1/2 million votes:
Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters. While John McCain lost white voters younger than 30 by 10 points, Romney won those voters by seven points, a 17-point shift. ... Yes, the Republican Party has problems, but as we go forward, let’s remember that any party that captures the majority of the middle class must be doing something right.

In other words: Everybody voted for us except the people who didn't -- mostly young non-whites and people who can't even make $50K a year. And who cares about them? Why should their votes even count?

Good luck with that strategy. Don't change a thing.

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg compares how the Wall Street Journal's editorial page characterized President Obama's re-election (65 million votes at last count, 51.8%, 4 1/2 million vote margin, 332 electoral votes) to President Bush's re-election in 2004 (62 million votes, 50.7%, 3 million vote margin, 286 electoral votes).
In 2004, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, conservatism’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, congratulated President Bush for “what by any measure is a decisive mandate for a second term” and exulted, “Mr. Bush has been given the kind of mandate that few politicians are ever fortunate enough to receive.” This year, examining similar numbers with different labels, the Journal came up with a sterner interpretation. “President Obama won one of the narrower re-elections in modern times,” its editorial announced.

The world needs a cardboard bicycle.

It's time for your annual ego deflation: The NYT's 100 Notable Books of 2012 is out. I thought this year might be different when the first book on the list (Alif the Unseen) was one I had actually read and enjoyed. But no. You are illiterate. We are all illiterate.

Rugged individualism: