Monday, April 28, 2014

History Lesson

The newspapers shout a new style is growing,
but it don't know if it's coming or going,
there is fashion, there is fad
some is good, some is bad
and the joke is rather sad,
that it's all just a little bit of history repeating

-- the Propellerheads "History Repeating"

This week's featured articles are "More Than Just Affirmative Action" and "Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex". Both topics sent me back to study the 19th century.

This week everybody was talking about affirmative action

The Court upheld an amendment to the Michigan Constitution that banned all forms of affirmative action. What I find more disturbing than the outcome is the basis on which it was decided: The Court has made the Political Process doctrine virtually unusable, which consigns the rights of minorities to the tender mercies of the majority.

and a 700-page economics book

Who knew that a tome like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century could become such a popular phenomenon. (Amazon is said to have temporarily run out of copies.) That doesn't necessarily translate into people reading it -- I haven't finished my copy yet -- but it does point to a popular hunger for a liberal economics that can make sense out of the growing inequality we're seeing.

Conservatives are freaking and saying the words "Marxist" and "Soviet" a lot. But you have to wonder whether Red Scare techniques are still effective at a time when 20-somethings have no memories of the Soviet Union and China is more worrisome as a capitalist competitor than it was during the Cultural Revolution.

Paul Krugman sees "The Piketty Panic" as evidence that the Right is out of ideas. They could try to point out what Piketty has gotten wrong about the increasing significance of inherited capital, but "so far, I’ve seen no sign of that happening. Instead, as I said, it has been all about name-calling."

and net neutrality

The FCC seems to be ready to surrender the net neutrality principle to Comcast, Verizon, and the other big internet providers. The ISPs will be able to leverage more revenue out of their networks by charging some content providers more to get their content delivered faster and more reliably. Reportedly, the new rules won't allow an ISP to block a site completely or use its new power in an "anti-competitive" way (say, by giving Comcast's own movie-download service preferred access). But even if the most obvious forms of hostage-taking aren't allowed, the internet-as-we-know-it will be drastically changed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation commented:
This kind of “pay to play” model would be profoundly dangerous for competition. New innovators often cannot afford to pay to reach consumers at the same speeds as well-established web companies. That means ISPs could effectively become gatekeepers to their subscribers.

Again, the new rules reportedly won't allow an ISP to slow down the internet for a company that it doesn't like. But in a technological environment where constant improvement is the norm, they don't have to. They can put a content company at a relative disadvantage just by offering improved service to its competitors. In a competitive technological environment, constant improvement is just part of the competition. But the ISPs seek an environment in which someone will have to pay for every advance.

The overall problem here is the one I talked about in my review of Barry Lynn's "Cornered".
The purest form of market is what you can see at any big farmer’s market: Lots of consumers dealing directly with lots of producers. ... But markets can also be structured to give middlemen as much freedom as possible. The most profitable way to use that freedom is to create choke-points where a toll can be extracted or one producer can be played off against another. In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain. (I don’t have space to go into it here, but keeping the internet transparent is what net neutrality is about, and why Comcast doesn’t like it.)

Comcast (even more so if its merger with Time Warner Cable goes through) has been creating an artificial choke point between consumers and content creators. Getting rid of net neutrality lets it set up a toll booth there. The plan is for the toll to be paid by producers rather than consumers, but in the bigger picture that doesn't matter. Nothing is being produced at that toll booth; it's just a parasite sucking blood out of the economy.

and old white guys behaving badly

So Cliven Bundy turns out to be a racist. I discuss why this should have surprised no one in "Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex".

Matt Yglesias made a point about Bundy that extends what I said last week:
From day one, I've tried to imagine the reaction if a young black man living in my gentrifying neighborhood reacted to some adverse change in government policy — perhaps funding cuts led a bus line in the neighborhood to get shut down — by stealing a bus. Then when the cops come to take the bus back, he brings out fifty friends, some of them armed, and starts talking about putting the women out front so they'll be shot first. My overwhelming presupposition is that he'd end up shot dead, along with his armed buddies, and that would about be the end of it. There would be no partisan political controversy about whether or not it is appropriate to react to changes in WMATA's route planning with violence.

You may want the government to provide excellent bus service to where you live, but in life you can't always get what you want.

Bundy's supporters have tried to make the Bureau of Land Management the issue: They're out of control, unresponsive; the political process has failed, etc. But as far as I can see, Bundy's problem isn't that the political process failed, it's just that he lost (until his buddies with guns showed up).

One of the background assumptions of the militia movement that has come to Bundy's aid is that there are "real Americans", i.e. white Christian conservatives, who deserve to win the political process. When they lose, the process has failed and they are justified in resorting to violence.

Jonathan Korman explains that such a process has a name:
There is a name for a “populist” movement by an armed minority which attacks the legitimacy of liberal democratic institutions in the name of the nation's “true spirit” which must be rescued from the corrupting influence of lesser races through acts of redemptive violence. It is not “civil disobedience”. It is something else.

Conservatives have tried to abuse the word fascism to the point that it stops meaning anything. But this is a meaning that Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and their followers would all recognize.

In other white-guys-behaving-badly news, an argument L. A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling had with his mixed-race girl friend (he's separated from his wife) was caught on tape and published by TMZ. He tells her not to bring Magic Johnson -- or any other black people -- to Clippers games or post pictures of them on Istagram.

This is a huge problem for Sterling and the NBA, where black players are the majority. It also raises the issues I covered a few weeks ago in "Who Should Be Beyond the Pale?" My rules of thumb are split. On the one hand, Sterling was ferreted out as a racist rather than promoting his views to the public. On the other, it's hard to imagine a good person saying what he said.

It looks to me like he's going to have to sell the team. I can't imagine a black free agent choosing to come to the Clippers while he's the owner, so he's putting the team at a competitive disadvantage.

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If you've ever used Verizon Wireless' "My Verizon" web site, you should read this. They're tracking not just what you do on their network, but everything you do on every computer or device that has visited "My Verizon".

Remember how (when it was trying to restore its public image) BP was going to compensate the people hurt by the Deep Horizon oil spill and help restore the Gulf Coast to its former condition? Well, that was then.

I try not to give Sarah Palin the attention she begs for so desperately, but sometimes I just can't help myself. Saturday at an NRA rally, Palin said "If I were in charge, [America's enemies] would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists." Imagine how she'd react if a liberal blasphemed against a sacred Christian ritual like that.

and let's end with something amazing

A Calgary guy lies on top of a beaver lodge and films the beavers repairing the lodge. The adults ignore him, but the baby gets scared.

Monday, April 21, 2014

No Influence

Clearly, when one holds constant net interest group alignments and the preferences of affluent Americans, it makes very little difference what the general public thinks. ... [A]dvocates of populistic democracy may not be enthusiastic about democracy by coincidence, in which ordinary citizens get what they want from government only when they happen to agree with elites or interest groups that are really calling the shots.

-- Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page
"Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens" (2014)

This week's featured articles are "Democracy By Coincidence" and "Rights Are For People Like Us".

This week everybody was talking about the anniversaries

It's Marathon Day in Boston, which brings back memories of last year's marathon. I want to make a claim for having been right in my article "Maybe 9-11 Can Be Over Now". Then I imagined that the Boston Marathon Bombing could be an anti-9/11, one where heroes saved people rather than dying in the attempt, one that we faced and dealt with as it happened, rather than having unresolved issues we had to take to Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think that happened. Something has gone out of the 9-11 mythology in the last year. It's just not fresh any more. I think we exorcized those demons.

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. There, I wish I had such an upbeat story to tell. As Mother Jones put it:
Nothing changed after 13 people were killed at Columbine, or 33 at Virginia Tech, or 26 at Sandy Hook. Each of those tragedies came with the same breaking-news urgency as Columbine, but none generated the same sense of expected action because fewer and fewer people actually believed things could change.

and Ukraine

The Geneva agreement to corral the unrest in eastern Ukraine is faltering. The pro-Russian militants who have occupied several public buildings in various cities have ignored it, and yesterday a shoot-out near Slaviansk killed three people.

Somebody in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk distributed leaflets saying that Jews had to register with the city's self-appointed pro-Russian separatist government. No one is claiming responsibility for the leaflets or actually registering Jews. It may be a joke, a provocation, a trial balloon ... who knows? I mention it just because you may have heard about it.

and right-wing extremists like Cliven Bundy and Frazier Glenn Miller

I discuss Cliven Bundy in "Rights Are For People Like Us". Frazier Glenn Miller is the 73-year-old KKK grand dragon who shot at three Jewish centers in Kansas City, killing three people, none of whom were Jewish.

Miller's case prompted a meta-discussion on the left. Rachel Maddow wondered why the media treats each act of right-wing terrorism as a unique event, rather than yet another instance of right-wing terrorism. CNN's Peter Bergen wrote:
Now let's do the thought experiment in which instead of shouting "Heil Hitler" after he was arrested, the suspect had shouted "Allahu Akbar." Only two days before the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, this simple switch of words would surely have greatly increased the extent and type of coverage the incident received.

Bergen claims right-wing terrorists have killed 34 people in the United States since 9-11, compared to 21 by jihadists. Remember that report that Homeland Security had to withdraw in 2009 because conservatives found it upsetting?

and Easter

Not many people celebrate a really old-fashioned Easter any more.

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Once again: What's the matter with Kansas? You might think getting the First Lady to speak at your high school graduation would be cool, particularly since her husband can't run again, so there's no way this is a campaign speech. (I can't remember who spoke at my high school graduation, which says it all. Four years later, some congressman talked about farm policy at my Michigan State graduation. I was jealous of the Harvard grads, who got Solzhenitsyn that year.) But no. In Kansas, parents think having Mrs. Obama speak will take "the glory and shine from the children."

Meanwhile, Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp makes this amazing claim:
But the numbers we see today is that -- as I understand them -- we believe there are more people uninsured today in Kansas than there were before the president's health care plan went into effect.

No idea where he got those numbers; his office won't say. Gallup has Kansas' uninsured rate dropping from 16.2% in 2010 to 12.9% this January. In general, the uninsured rate has dropped faster in states that have embraced ObamaCare by extending Medicare and setting up a state insurance exchange; Kansas has done neither.

If you've ever downloaded a Cheerios coupon or liked General Mills on Facebook, I'll bet you didn't know that General Mills thinks you've given up the right to sue the company. I'm considering posting a small-type notice outside my door notifying visitors that by entering my apartment they've given me the right to sell their first-born children into slavery. Not that I'd actually do it; I'm such a nice guy, after all. But it might a useful power to have, just in case.

Game of Thrones humor: An honest trailer (with spoilers). Tail wags dog: George R. R. Martin is "a rogue enthusiast ... who has written five whole volumes consisting solely of spoilers for the popular television show." A social-media-company version of the title sequence.

See if your city has a judgmental map.

Elizabeth Hand says she was "saved by ObamaCare". When are stories like that going to get the kind of media traction that the debunked horror stories did?

Jonathan Chait says that the belief that objective data can lead to nonpartisan or bipartisan solutions is itself a liberal notion.
Evaluating health care, or other government programs, by objective criteria sounds perfectly neutral. But to do so is to disregard the deep moral belief held by most conservatives that big government is inherently wrong. The empirical evenhandedness of the new data journalists is a wonderful contribution to American public life. It is, however, anything but politically neutral.

The Daily Beast pulls together several recent sex scandals in the Christian patriarchy movement to make this point:
The “pitch” of Biblical patriarchy ... is that women will be coddled and worshipped in exchange for giving up their ambitions and the autonomy to practice an extreme form of female submission. The unpleasant truth is that a culture that teaches that women are put on Earth for no other purpose but to serve men is not going to breed respect for women. Instead, these incidents show a world where men believe they can do whatever they want to women without repercussions. Is it any surprise that a subculture that promises absolute control over women will attract men who want to dominate and hurt women?

and let's end with something cool

like maybe a solar-powered electric tricycle with a trunk big enough for groceries.

Or, if you only want 84 mpg.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Roberts at the Bat

I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

-- John Roberts (2005)

This week's featured articles are "This is What Judicial Activism Looks Like" and "Who Should Be Beyond the Pale?"

These last two weeks everybody has been talking about the Supreme Court

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the Court's McCutcheon decision, which I discuss in "This is What Judicial Activism Looks Like".

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the plurality's opinion; his reasoning revolves around protecting the right of citizens to give the maximum $5200 per election cycle to as many candidates as they choose. But of course, the only citizens whose rights are actually affected are those who would like to give more than $123,200 to candidates, parties, and PACs during the 2013-2014 election cycle. According to the Federal Election Commission, only 646 people reached the limit during the 2011-2012 cycle. It goes without saying that these are 646 very wealthy people. So if you read Roberts' opinion, I recommend doing a global-search-and-replace on the text to replace "citizens" with "very wealthy citizens". For example:
The Government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combatting corruption and its appearance. We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the Government’s efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of very wealthy citizens to choose who shall govern them.

I think that makes the meaning much clearer.

and ObamaCare passed its sign-up goal

Yes, after all that angst about the web site, after the Koch brothers and their allies spent massive amounts of money on an unprecedented disinformation campaign, after the media fell for countless false ObamaCare horror stories, the number of sign-ups hit 7.5 million, somewhat more than the CBO's original projection of 7 million. The reason is pretty simple: A lot of Americans need affordable health care, and the Affordable Care Act provides it.

That success allowed Kathleen Sebelius to resign with a rosy glow rather than slinking out of town defeated. Her replacement has already been named, but you can expect the confirmation hearings to be a circus, as Ted Cruz is looking on this as yet another chance to repeal ObamaCare. I think Democrats should sell popcorn for this circus, because it's going to be a public orgy of mean-spiritedness that will not do the Republican Party any good. One of the reasons I haven't been panicking about the projections for the fall elections is that the whole Republican strategy revolves around exploiting the failure of ObamaCare. What if we get to November it's obviously not failing?

In fact, what if Democrats hit back hard? I suggest something like: "According to independent research, Republicans' refusal to expand Medicaid has killed X Floridians this year." They'll squeal like stuck pigs, but I like the conversation where they're saying "No, we're not killing people." (Yes, they are killing people.)

It's not like Republicans are running away from this fight: Those in the Virginia legislature are threatening to shut down the state government rather than start saving the lives of the working poor.

Republicans are of course hanging on to the trainwreck narrative. But it's worth pointing out that the point where the whole program explodes keeps receding into the future. Every prediction they've made that is checkable hasn't panned out.

and equal pay

Last Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, the theoretical point where working women have finally made as much money as men did in 2013, given an average wage 77% of a man's wage.

There's been a lot of discussion of that number these last two weeks, with conservatives arguing that it's meaningless, because women do different jobs, have different qualifications, choose a different career path, and so on.

I tried to understand the statistics myself a couple years ago, and my overall conclusion was that you can shrink the gap by normalizing for various factors, but you can't make it go away. Discrimination continues to be a real, measurable thing. That's more-or-less the conclusion ThinkProgress comes to also. It's also not clear that you should normalize for everything you can possible normalize. Yes, women congregate in poorer-paying professions and interrupt their career paths to have children. But some of that is just discrimination of a different sort: "Women's work" pays less (at least in part) because it has traditionally been women's work, not because it's inherently less valuable. And we could set up the economy in such a way that interrupted career paths wouldn't be punished as much as they are, but we don't.

The Republican position on this is that of course they are for equal pay for women, they're just against any effort to help bring that about. Bill O'Reilly laid out the overall strategy
I strong believe in fighting for equality and I also believe that institutional bias should be against the law. What I oppose is government trying to impose equality.

To which Stephen Colbert responded:
I agree with every single word you're saying, even if those words don't agree with each other. You see, I also believe that institutional bias should be against the law. And, at the same time, that government shouldn't do anything about it.

and taxes are due tomorrow

Ezra Klein explains how the IRS could just send you a bill (which you could ignore and send them a 1040 instead if you wanted). For most people, it would be easier and cheaper than keeping records and sending the IRS a bunch of information it already has. But tax-preparation companies would lose out, and they have lobbyists. So it's not going to happen.

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How I spent my week off: I talked about "Acceptance and Action" at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.

The Heartbleed bug really does seem to be worth paying attention to. Change your online passwords; it doesn't hurt anything.

Here's my best advice for picking easy-to-remember hard-to-guess passwords: Think of some line or quote or song lyric that you'll never forget, and turn it into an acronym. Example: "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth" produces the password ItbGctH&tE. In your own mind, call it "the Genesis password" and if you put it on a list somewhere, just write down "Gen". (Needless to say, I'm never using that one.)

If you don't follow the conservative media, you miss all the exciting inside-the-bubble stories that the regular media doesn't cover ... because they're not true. Example: Attorney General Eric Holder isn't pushing for gun owners to wear tracking bracelets. Imagine that you hear four or five similarly outrageous stories each week, and that the oh-never-mind retractions don't always reach you. Think what that would do to your worldview.

One of the reasons I'm not willing to give conservatives credit for being principled is that their principles have an odd way of evaporating whenever other conservative priorities are in the picture. Digby points out how conservative defenses of states rights somehow exclude a state's right to legalize marijuana.

and let's close with a visual pun