Monday, October 26, 2015

The Right Men for the Job

Leo, we need to be investigated by someone who wants to kill us just to watch us die. We need someone perceived by the American people to be irresponsible, untrustworthy, partisan, ambitious, and thirsty for the limelight. Am I crazy, or is this not a job for the U. S. House of Representatives?

-- C. J. Cregg, The West Wing (2001)

This week's featured post is "Notes From Hillary's Benghazi Showdown".

This week everybody was talking about Hillary and the Benghazi Committee

By the time the hearings started Thursday morning, everybody not inside the conservative news bubble was expecting a complete disaster for the House Republicans. But they just couldn't stop themselves from charging in like the Light Brigade. Full coverage of the fallout is in this week's featured post.

and Joe Biden

I was glad to see Vice President Biden decide not to run. Like Greg Sargent, I just don't see what Biden would add to the race. If you believe Hillary's about to crash and burn, then the Democratic establishment needs a back-up candidate. But if not, then what's the point?

Somebody should total up the amount of air time that pundits who had no real information to share wasted speculating about Biden's candidacy. None of their viewers or listeners or readers are ever going to get that time back. Nate Silver distills the moral of the story:

As is often the case, sketchily sourced “inside information” proved no more reliable than other types of gossip.

and Canada

After ten years of the conservative government of Stephen Harper, Canadian voters gave the Liberal Party 55% of the seats in Parliament. Another 13% went to the New Democrats, who are to the Liberal Party's left. Between them, the two left-of-center parties got 60% of the vote.

Harper's government was strongly anti-Muslim. Trudeau campaigned on raising the budget deficit to stimulate the economy.

and Congress

It looks like Paul Ryan will be speaker, though the Freedom Caucus didn't formally endorse him or support the rule changes he wants. I still believe that Tea Partiers wants a confrontation with Obama over the debt ceiling in early November and/or a government shutdown in December, and I don't think Ryan will give it to them. We'll see what happens then.

Reihan Salam thinks Ryan's rep as a true conservative will placate the Far Right.

Members of the Freedom Caucus might believe that they’re doing the White House a favor by agreeing to increase the debt limit, but almost no one else in the country sees it that way. Another drawn-out debt limit fight can only end in tears for the GOP.

Why does Ryan have a better shot at selling Republicans on pragmatism than Boehner or Kevin McCarthy? It’s simple. While it’s never been clear exactly what Boehner or McCarthy stand for, most conservatives, including diehard Freedom Caucus Republicans, recognize that Ryan is a conservative true believer and that every pragmatic accommodation he makes is with an eye toward moving government in a more conservative direction. Ryan’s critics might not agree with him on every tactical decision, but they recognize his sincerity and his commitment.

I don't think the Freedom Caucus -- or the Republican base voters they represent -- care a fig about "sincerity and commitment". I think they want to stand over a beaten-down Obama and watch him beg for mercy. The base voters believe -- because Tea Party politicians have been telling them -- that Boehner has been losing to Obama because he hasn't had the will to push the confrontation all the way. They're not going to accept compromise from Ryan either.

The Weekly Sift has covered Paul Ryan in some detail over the years. My 2012 Ryan-as-VP-candidate triology is: "I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don't Have To", "Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women", and "Ayn, Paul, and Me". More recently, I discussed his attempt to redesign the War on Poverty in "Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?" and "Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?".

Probably the best of that group is "Ayn, Paul, and Me".

and Obama's veto

The first shot of the next round of budget wars was fired when President Obama vetoed the $612-billion National Defense Authorization Bill.

Here's what that's about: The 2011 debt-ceiling crisis resulted in the Budget Control Act. The BCA set up something that was never supposed to happen: automatic budget cuts known as "the sequester". The idea was that the sequester was such a ridiculous way to cut spending that of course Congress would work out something else before it went into effect.

I know, that sounds so naive today. The sequester actually did take effect. In order to make it sting on both sides, the agreement stipulated that defense and non-defense spending would both face limitations.

Well, Republicans want to undo the defense-spending limits, but leave the domestic-spending limits in place. So they put $38 billion of ordinary defense spending into a war-fighting account that's exempt from the sequester. Obama thinks this is an accounting gimmick, and he's right. If the sequester was a bad idea -- and it was -- Congress should undo it, not finesse around it.

and Jerusalem

A longer article about the current wave of Israel/Palestine violence is sitting in my perfectionist Limbo, while I decide how to summarize the recent book The Two-State Delusion by Padraig O'Malley.

In the meantime, you should definitely read Vox's account of a recent speech by Danny Seidemann, executive director of the Israeli organization Terrestrial Jerusalem.

while Republican candidates advocated violating the Constitution

A Fox Business interviewer asked Donald Trump about a British anti-terrorism proposal to "close some mosques". Trump replied "I would do that. Absolutely. I think it's great."

Ben Carson's soft-spokenness doesn't make him any less scary. Listen to this rapid-fire yes-or-no Q&A with Glenn Beck. This sequence is near the end of that clip.

BECK: Shut down the Department of Education?

CARSON: I actually have something I would use the Department of Education to do.

BECK: Would it be ... pack boxes for the State Department? [LAUGHTER] IRS?

CARSON: No, it would be to monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.

In other words, colleges should have political commissars to tell them when they're getting too liberal for the Carson administration's taste.

Carson followed up on this idea in an interview with conservative talk-radio host Dana Loesch, justifying the need for his commissars by telling about a student whose professor instructed him to write "Jesus" on a piece and then stomp on it as part of a classroom exercise. (The source of this story is Fox Radio's Todd Starnes, a frequent fabricator of Christian "persecution" stories. The author of the exercise describes it very differently.)

Loesch then asked the question any sensible conservative would ask: Couldn't the next liberal administration use this machinery against conservatives? Of course not, Carson assures her, because only liberal professors demonstrate "extreme" political bias.

I think we would have to put in very strict guidelines for the way that that was done. And that’s why I used the word "extreme". I didn’t just say "political bias", I said "extreme political biases". For instance, the example that I gave.

In reality, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a college as bent on liberal "indoctrination" (which is what Carson says he's trying to prevent) as, say, Liberty University is on conservative Christian indoctrination. (Liberty's motto is "Training Champions for Christ".) And that should make obvious the biggest problem with Carson's plan: It's an attack on student freedom. Students go to Liberty because they want to be indoctrinated in an extreme conservative Christian worldview. And that should be their choice, not the government's. Ditto for students who seek an education rooted in progressive values.

So this is what we can expect from Carson: On the basis of horror stories invented by the right-wing media, he will implement policies that restrict the freedom of people who disagree with him.

BTW: According to one poll, Carson has moved into the lead in Iowa. His 28%-20% margin over Trump comes from Tea Partiers (32%-20%), born-again Christians (36%-17%), women (33%-13%), and the 50-64 age bracket (34%-17%).

Here's what bothers me most about those Trump and Carson interviews: It's not that some candidates are willing to violate the Constitution or borrow tactics from totalitarian states -- when you have political amateurs in the race, sometimes they're going to say outrageous things. It's that none of the other candidates jump up and protest. Where are the supposed "mainstream" candidates like Bush, Rubio, and Kasich?

Why aren't any of them making the point that even Dana Loesch can see: A government with the power to close mosques has the power to close Christian churches too. If it can target liberal colleges, it can target conservative colleges.

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This week's guns-make-us-safer story comes from an outpatient clinic in Beaumont, Texas on Monday.

A witness told KCEN's sister station 12News that a woman was in the waiting room of a medical office. When she reached into her purse to pull out some paperwork, a gun fell out of her purse causing it to discharge. The round went through a wall and hit another patient in the hip.

I guess if you have to be shot, it's good to already be in a doctor's office.

The pendulum may finally be turning on high-stakes standardized tests.

Politics That Work is a data-driven web site. Here, they take apart Mitt Romney's famous "47%". It's worth noting that even that orange sliver of able-bodied working-age people not working and not looking for work isn't all lazy moochers: Some of them intentionally saved money while they were working so that they can do whatever they're doing now: traveling the world, writing a novel, working on an idea for a new business, or producing a weekly news-and-politics blog.

The IRS pseudo-scandal ends with a whimper, not a bang.

"We found no evidence that any IRS official acted based on political, discriminatory, corrupt, or other inappropriate motives that would support a criminal prosecution,” Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik said in a letter to Congress on Friday.

“Based on the evidence developed in this investigation and the recommendation of experienced career prosecutors and supervising attorneys at the Department, we are closing our investigation and will not seek any criminal charges,” he continued.

Kadzik said the investigation found “substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment, and institutional inertia, leading to the belief by many tax-exempt applicants that the IRS targeted them based on their political viewpoints” but concluded that “poor management is not a crime.”

Matt Yglesias points out the resemblance between the Ben Carson campaign, a Ponzi scheme, and a multi-level marketing scam.

Carson is currently in second place in national polls and leading in Iowa. His campaign is raising tons of money from small donors and is spending most of that money on fundraising. People are giving Carson money so that he'll have the money to ask more people for money. It's a form of pyramid scheme. There's no real field operation, policy staff, or any other manifestation of the kind of campaign apparatus that could plausibly result in victory.

It's an example of the larger phenomenon Rick Perlstein laid out three years ago in "The Long Con" and I covered in "Keeping the Con in Conservatism". Chris Hayes summed it up in a tweet:

much of movement conservatism is a con and the base are the marks.

Conservatives are annoyed by the new Captain America comics, because Cap is a liberal now. But as Amanda Marcotte points out, anybody who has kept track of the character through the years knows that Captain America has been a liberal since his Depression-era childhood in New York City.

Some people are anti-abortion, while others are more generally anti-sex. Here, an angry mob invades a discussion of Omaha's sex-education program.

MTV's Decoded educates us on the racist origins of six common words and phrases: the peanut gallery, no can do, long time no see, sold down the river, and gypped. That's only five, you say. I left out hip-hip horray, where MTV's story didn't convince me.

Tell me you're not really going to wear that Indian costume for Halloween. Here's how actual Native Americans view them.

and let's close with something amusing


Monday, October 19, 2015

No Responsibility

If your brother and his administration bear no responsibility at all [for 9/11], how do you then make the jump that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are responsible for what happened at Benghazi?”

-- CNN reporter Jake Tapper,
interviewing Jeb Bush on Sunday's State of the Union

This week's featured post is a book review: "How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley".

BTW, I noticed this cartoon just a little too late include it in the propaganda article:

This week everybody was talking about the Democratic debate

I agree with the media consensus on Tuesday night's debate (transcript, video -- you can skip the first 5 minutes): Sanders and Clinton both did well, while the other three candidates' performances didn't launch them into contention. (O'Malley looked wooden and at times seemed to be struggling to recall a memorized line. Webb has too many positions that are out of the Democratic mainstream. Chafee didn't seem ready for prime time.)

In general, focus groups and online polls said Sanders won while pundits thought Hillary did. I think it comes down to the different goals of a front-runner and a challenger: Sanders produced the most memorable moments and put forward Democratic ideals with the most passion. But strategically, Clinton did what she needed to do. (Similarly in the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney's debates never wowwed anybody, but he consistently stayed on track to win the nomination.) However they reacted to Sanders, I think most Democratic viewers came out of the debate with fewer doubts about Clinton as a candidate.

(Better designed polls have just started coming out. In CNN's, most people say Hillary won, and her support remains stable at 45%.)

I also agree with the upbeat response liberal pundits had to the debate as a whole: It contrasted well with the two Republican clown shows. The candidates were thoughtful and made substantive responses; they talked about issues -- affordable college, an increased minimum wage, family leave, rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, shifting the country away from fossil fuels -- that mean something in voters' lives, rather than manufactured issues like Planned Parenthood; nobody had to pretend to take seriously ridiculous proposals like Trump's Great Wall of Mexico or the long-debunked theory that vaccines cause autism; Democrats treated each other with respect, while Republicans insulted each other and then argued about whose insults went over the line.

The highlight, which you've probably seen by now, was Bernie Sanders' backhanding of Anderson Cooper's question on the Clinton emails. The question was directed to Clinton, and after her answer the discussion went like this:

SANDERS: Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the Secretary is right. And that is, that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.

CLINTON: Thank you. Me too. Me too.

SANDERS: The middle class -- Anderson, and let me say something about the media as well. I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people -- the middle class of this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we're going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United. Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America.

CLINTON (offering a handshake which Sanders accepts): Thank you, Bernie. Thank you.

I think that exchange helped them both, and helped the Party. Sanders established that he cares more about his message than just gaining advantage wherever he can find it. Clinton accepted his support graciously and didn't look for a sinister underside. And Sanders' list of "the real issues facing America" was a good summary of what Democrats around the country hope to run on.

Saturday afternoon, Martin O'Malley was speaking at an Irish bar a few blocks from my apartment. He's much better in front of small groups. In the Q&A he displayed a kind of joyful wonkiness that is hard to imagine in a Republican candidate. The more technical the questions got -- FISA courts, sustainable building design, the nitty-gritty of gun control proposals -- the happier he seemed. In response to a question on software patents, he said: "You have played 'Stump the Presidential Candidate', and you have won." (O'Malley won all the other rounds.)

I think if you put him alone in a room with Hillary Clinton, they would have the most fascinating conversation and come away totally charmed with each other.

Speaking of "the real issues facing America", the NYT's Patrick Healy made a great point: The two parties aren't proposing different solutions to our country's problems, they disagree about what the problems are.

Climate change, racism, gun violence, student debt, the concentration of wealth, and the domination of our political process by super-rich donors -- Republicans just don't consider those to be problems, and instead worry that we're being invaded by Mexicans, Planned Parenthood is selling baby organs, the government is on the verge of bankruptcy, rich job-creators are hogtied by taxes and regulations, and welfare is sapping the will of poor people to make it on their own.

The only problem both recognize is the instability in the Middle East. But even there, Republicans are afraid ISIS will take over the world, while Democrats dread being sucked into another military quagmire.

I find Healy's observation discouraging. People who care about the same problem can usually find a little common ground and build a compromise around it. But it's hard to work out anything with people who don't recognize the problem you want to solve.

One consistent Republican criticism of the debate has been that the Democratic candidates object to the status quo (inequality, etc.) as if their party hadn't been in power these last seven years. Two answers:

  • To a large extent, Republicans own the status quo. Other than ObamaCare, President Obama hasn't been able to get his programs through Congress. Most of the big battles have been about Republican attempts to roll back New Deal and Great Society programs like Social Security and Food Stamps.
  • Democratic complaints about income inequality and the destruction of the middle class aren't protests against Obama's policies, they're protests against the wealth-favoring consensus that has dominated American politics since Reagan. That's when the middle class began shrinking.

Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump proposed their own theory about why the Democrats had a civil debate: It was a conspiracy orchestrated by CNN and the Democratic National Committee. "CNN did not hit them like they hit us," Trump complained. "They didn't make them fight."

I'm bemused by the idea that somebody "makes" Trump fight. People with self-control issues often put forward such now-look-what-you-made-me-do excuses. Personal responsibility comes up a lot in conservative rhetoric. But actually taking responsibility for your actions ... that's even tougher than running for president.

It's crazy that Chafee and Webb were in the debate and Lawrence Lessig wasn't. One reason Lessig didn't get over the poll threshold is that many polls didn't list him as an option. Lessig is the leading voice addressing a serious issue -- campaign finance -- and he should be on the stage next time.

I had the same thought as the 538 round table: Hillary's debate performance lowers the likelihood that Biden gets into the race. As Farai Chideya put it:

It’s awfully hard to ride in to save the day when the day doesn’t seem to need saving.

And Nate Silver added this thought:

the debate did real damage to another bullshit meme, which is linking the Democratic and Republican races together under the same narrative umbrella. The Democrats are quite … arrayed right now. The Republicans aren’t.

and new attacks on Bernie Sanders

You'll know that Bernie has a real chance to win when Fox News gives him his own Benghazi. I don't watch a lot of Fox, but I do channel-scan through it regularly. It has looked to me like Fox has been rooting for Sanders because his success undermines Clinton, who they expect to be the nominee. Tearing down Clinton has been Priority #1 on Fox, and still is.

But Republicans might be starting to hedge their bets. Until recently, in my limited sampling, Fox has been giving Sanders credit for being authentic and honest, and hasn't been ridiculing him the way they would if they took him seriously. But Wednesday night I saw Bill O'Reilly talking to frequent Fox contributor Bernie Goldberg about Sanders' socialism. O'Reilly offered that if Sanders thinks socialism is so great, he should take a look at Venezuela. (In the debate, Sanders offered Denmark as an example the U.S. could learn from. The difference between Denmark and Venezuela seems lost on O'Reilly.) Goldberg wondered "if his middle name is Che".

In a radio interview, Rand Paul couldn't tell the difference between Denmark and the Soviet Union. "Most of the times when socialism has been tried that, uh, attendant with that has been mass genocide of people or any of those who object to it. Stalin killed tens of millions of people. Mao killed tens of millions of people. Pol Pot killed tens of millions of people."

AFAIK, neither Bernie nor the Danes have killed anybody for their policy objections ... yet. But the thought of Danish gulags reminds me of Eddie Izzard's cake-or-death routine about militant Anglicans.

In the middle of his how-can-you-be-elected question to Sanders, Anderson Cooper said: "You honeymooned in the Soviet Union." (At home, I said "Whaaaa?") Turns out, it's not like it sounds.

In 1956, that noted Communist sympathizer Dwight Eisenhower tried to cool down the Cold War by negotiating an American/Soviet sister-cities program. In 1988, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, a 12-person trip to its sister (Yaroslavl) was scheduled right after Sanders' wedding.

So the real story is that Sanders took his wife along on a mayoral business trip in lieu of an actual honeymoon. Not very romantic, maybe, but not scandalous either.

I love Bill Maher's bit on what Republicans hear when Bernie says something.

This kind of nonsense begins to test what worries me most about Sanders: his prickly temperament. I'm not sure how he will react if/when he faces relentless unfair criticism like the pseudo-scandals Hillary has been dealing with since 1992. Just because Sanders doesn't have a Benghazi yet doesn't mean Fox can't manufacture one any time it wants. (When Lincoln Chafee bragged that he has never had a scandal in his long political career, I thought: "The Far Right must never have felt threatened by you.") How he responds will tell us if he has what it takes to win a general election.

and Benghazi

While we're talking about Hillary's emails, the House Benghazi Committee continues to lose whatever credibility it may once have had. What House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had previously implied, New York Republican Congressman Richard Hanna admitted directly:

I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.

And a former committee staff member has blown the whistle:

Maj. Bradley Podliska, an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve who describes himself as a conservative Republican, told CNN that the committee trained its sights almost exclusively on Clinton after the revelation last March that she used a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. ... Podliska, who as fired after nearly ten months as an investigator for the Republican majority, is now preparing to file a lawsuit against the select committee next month, alleging that he lost his job in part because he resisted pressure to focus his investigative efforts solely on the State Department and Clinton's role surrounding the Benghazi attack.

In all the attempted defenses of the committee, I have yet to hear a clear statement of what the previous seven Benghazi investigations failed to cover, and what this investigation is doing differently to get to the bottom of whatever-it-is.

Hillary testifies before the Benghazi committee Thursday. I suspect the event will resemble the recent testimony of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards to a different committee: Republicans will browbeat her in order to look tough for their base, but Clinton will maintain her composure and look like the winner to most of the country.

and Russian intervention in Syria

An article in Thursday's NYT portrays Russia's air base in Latakia and its cruise-missile strikes from the Caspian Sea as testing and showcasing Russia's recently upgraded military hardware. In other words, it makes Putin in Syria sound like Hitler in Spain.

and Congress

Still no apparent progress towards choosing a speaker. The idea that Paul Ryan would satisfy the right-wingers is falling apart. I'm standing by my analysis from last week.

Mopshell on Daily Kos provides a complete census of the various overlapping far-right groups in the House.

Rumor has it that John Boehner will get the debt ceiling raised before he rides into the sunset. But now CNN says Mitch McConnell is making ransom demands:

McConnell is seeking a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security recipients and new restrictions on Medicare, including limiting benefits to the rich and raising the eligibility age, several sources said. In addition, the Kentucky Republican is eager to see new policy riders enacted, including reining in the Environmental Protection Agency's clean water regulations.

This has to be a bluff. I mean, seriously: Crashing into the debt ceiling is unpopular. Cutting Social Security and Medicare is unpopular. Water pollution is unpopular. Pulling them all together isn't a political proposal, it's a Bond supervillain plot.

And the justification is that the deficit is out of control? Keep reading.

but nobody was talking about the incredible shrinking federal deficit

Fiscal Year 2015 ended on September 30, so we can total up. The annual deficit is back where it was before the financial collapse that began at the very end of FY 2008 when Lehman Brothers went broke.

Steve Benen comments:

I don’t necessarily consider this sharp reduction in the deficit to be good news. If it were up to me, federal officials would be borrowing more, not less, taking advantage of low interest rates, investing heavily in infrastructure and economic development, creating millions of jobs, and leaving deficit reduction for another day.

That said, if we’re going to have a fiscal debate, it should at least be rooted in reality, not silly misconceptions. And the reality is, we’re witnessing deficit reduction at a truly remarkable clip. Every conservative complaint about fiscal recklessness and irresponsibility in the Obama era is quantifiably ridiculous.

BTW: Republicans who want to enlarge Obama's deficit total usually charge him with the record FY 2009 deficit, which rightfully belongs more to President Bush. (That's why it's in red in the graph.) Bush wrote the original FY 2009 budget; his early projections were of a $400 billion deficit, but due to the financial collapse, CBO estimates had risen to $1.2 trillion by the time Obama was inaugurated in January, 2009, eventually finishing over $1.4 trillion. So at worst you can blame Obama for that last $200 billion.

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Yet another good-guy-with-a-gun opened fire on escaping shoplifters in a store parking lot. This time in Indiana. (Last week's parking-lot shooting was in Michigan.) One more example of guns making us all safer.

One thing Trump brings to the Republican race is an occasional voice from outside the bubble. For example, his common-sense observation that Jeb Bush's claim that his brother "kept us safe" is ridiculous.

When you talk about George Bush, I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time. He was president, O.K.?

Not OK, if you're inside the Republican bubble. Jeb tweeted his response:

How pathetic for to criticize the president for 9/11. We were attacked & my brother kept us safe.

Which is what you do inside the bubble: If challenged, you just repeat the challenged claim and insult the challenger.

ThinkProgress then posted a wonderful satire "Was George W. Bush President On 9/11? An Investigation Into The Controversy Tearing The GOP Apart". They review and refute the evidence against: Yes, Bush did get fewer votes in 2000 than Al Gore, but we have pictures of him taking the oath of office on January 20, 2001. A calendar proves that January 20 is before September 11. And even though Bush spent the entire month of August on vacation, memoranda -- like the "Bin Laden determined to strike in US" presidential brief presented to him -- indicate he did continue to be president.

Weighing it all together, TP concludes:

It seems more likely than not that George W. Bush was president on September 11, 2001.

When Trump started running for president in July, claiming he would finance everything out of his own pocket, I was unconvinced about his willingness to spend money on the scale that a competitive campaign requires:

The kind of money Trump has spent so far — and foregone as business partners run away from him — is a recoverable investment. He’s building the Trump brand, which will net him future earnings in book sales and TV ratings. The campaign — at least the way he’s run it so far — will keep his act fresh for years to come.

By November, though, a serious candidate will have to start putting serious money into Iowa and New Hampshire. Not thousands, millions. TV time on the Boston stations that cover southern New Hampshire is not cheap. The idiosyncratic process of the Iowa caucuses requires a ground game. And if you survive the Iowa/NH/South Carolina winnowing in January and February, you just need more money to compete nationwide in March.

As November approaches, I'm still unconvinced. Politico reports that in the July-September quarter, the Trump campaign had spent just $4 million nationwide, most of it not self-financed by Trump, and much of it spent within the Trump empire.

By contrast Jeb Bush has made a $4.8 ad buy in New Hampshire. (Believe me, if you watch TV here, you can't escape him.) It's not gaining him any ground in the polls, but his outlay marks the start of the big-spending period of the campaign. We'll soon know whether Trump is serious or just running as a publicity stunt.

When conservatives make up a charge that liberals are doing something sinister, probably the claim will eventually justify conservatives doing that very thing. Here's an example from Ben Carson: Based on the bogus charge that under Obama "the IRS has systematically targeted conservative nonprofit groups for politically motivated audits and harassment," Carson calls for revoking the tax exemption of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has criticized his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

My friend Abby Hafer did a wonderful half-hour explanation of why intelligent design doesn't explain the human body, but evolution does. (Quick summary: The body is kludgy the way evolved things are, not optimized like designed things.) She has a book on the same subject coming out soon, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer.

All the people worrying about Sharia in America might do better to worry about the Christians who want to impose Old Testament law. You've probably heard about the folks who want to stone gays to death. But did you know about the ones who want to bring back slavery? On a radio show in Iowa, the host proposed to Mike Huckabee the Old Testament solution for theft:

It says [in Exodus], if a person steals, they have to pay it back two-fold, four-fold. If they don’t have anything, we’re supposed to take them down and sell them. ... We indenture them and they have to spend their time not sitting on their stump in a jail cell, they’re supposed to be working off the debt. Wouldn’t that be a better choice?

To his credit, Huckabee's first reaction was to chuckle at that suggestion. But people on the Right never say "That's just effing crazy" to each other, so Huckabee answered: "Well, it really would be. ... Sometimes the best way to deal with a nonviolent criminal behavior is what you just suggested."

Offering non-violent offenders a chance to make restitution rather than be punished is actually a progressive idea, known as restorative justice. But forcing convicts to work in jobs mandated by the state has a long, sad history in the United States, as told by Douglas Blackmon in Slavery By Another Name.

and let's close with a comment on the season(s)

Maybe it's a little too soon to start seeing Christmas stuff in the stores.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Concessions to Reality

The GOP’s increasing preference for callow, reckless candidates represents a culmination of the anti-government, anti-politics, anti-intellectual direction of the conservative movement. Although it overlaps with the GOP’s rightward shift, it presents a unique threat to American democracy because it espouses not mere preference for smaller government, but a visceral hatred of functioning government and the practice of politics. This mindset abhors concessions to objective reality, expertise, or political adversaries domestic and foreign.

-- Ben Adler

Half the republicans in congress want to continue using their position to benefit the wealthy, while the other half of the republicans in congress just want to burn the country down out of spite. Together they have a majority in the House, so they get to pick the Speaker.

-- Bill Palmer

This week's featured post is "What the Speakership Battle is About".

This week everybody was talking about the chaos in the House Republican caucus

Most of what I think is covered in "What the Speakership Battle is About". But there is one more angle to consider: Who does this help in the Republican presidential race?

I think there's a clear answer: Ted Cruz. Ultimately what's going to come out of this is a Speaker who is still committed to keeping the government open and not breaching the debt ceiling. This result will aggravate the Republican base's sense of persecution and alienation from the party establishment, which is Ted Cruz' issue.

In general, I agree with Steve Benen at Maddowblog: Cruz is right where he wants to be.

and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

I've been avoiding making much comment on the TPP, because I'm neither for or against trade deals on principle. Some deals might be good, some might be bad. We need to see the details.

So far, we can't. For a long time the agreement hadn't been finalized and the text wasn't available, so everybody was just speculating based on leaks. Well, the agreement is set now, but it will still be 30 days or so before the text is public. So rather than give a definitive up-or-down opinion on it, I'll outline the different points of view from which the agreement should be judged.

The foreign-policy perspective. This comes through if you read Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices, which covers her Secretary of State years, when the TPP negotiations got going. From this perspective, the point is to keep China from controlling Pacific trade.

Other than the United States and maybe Japan, none of the other countries in the TPP is big enough to negotiate evenly with China. So China was trying to put in place one-on-one agreements with each country that more or less let it define the terms of trade. By pulling many Pacific countries (other than China) into a trade union with the U.S. and Japan, we create international standards -- for intellectual property, the rule of law, environmental and labor protection, as well as market openness -- that we can then ask China to live up to if it wants to join.

The labor perspective. Relaxing trade barriers has two contradictory effects: It opens our economy to more imports, which could cost jobs. But it also opens up markets for our exports, which could create jobs. In general, I believe past deals have worked against the American worker, but you have to wonder whether all the exportable jobs are gone already.

Another issue is labor standards. If the other countries in the TPP have to treat their workers better, that's both good in itself and removes an unfair advantage foreign manufacturers have over American manufacturers.

The environmental perspective. Again, it's potentially two-sided. The treaty will presumably include some environmental standards that, again, should be both good in themselves and will remove a source of unfair competition. But a country's environmental standards can also portrayed as unfairly favoring local industries over foreign ones, and the treaty will give foreign corporations standing to challenge them in court. I suspect the balance will turn out to be negative, but, again, we need to see details.

and still talking about guns

I'm coming to think that the value of continuing to talk about gun control is that it draws gun-rights cockroaches into the light, where the sheer ugliness of their worldview can repel the general public. Like Erick Erickson: denouncing "beta male gun control policies":

Instead of mimicking Australia and Great Britain with their gun confiscation programs, our leaders should think differently. The best gun control in this country is an armed, honest citizenry who can shoot straight. Instead of gun free zones, we should allow law abiding, concealed carry permit holders to go where they wish with their guns.

Like, say, the law-abiding permit-holding woman who started shooting in a Home Depot parking lot Tuesday because a shoplifter was getting away. I feel safer already, just knowing that people like her are out there defending law and order. But I think I won't dawdle in Home Depot parking lots.

Here's what Ted Nugent says to the "losers" who "get cut down by murderous maniacs like blind sheep to slaughter":

Here’s the answer. Quit acting like helpless sheep afraid of a simple tool. Get a damn handgun. Practice with it. Train with it. Learn to carry it hidden and discreetly. And when attacked by a bear or cougar, don’t “try to look big” – just shoot the damn thing.

If someone is approaching you with the intent to do grave bodily harm, and you will know it when it happens, try to escape to the best of your ability, but if there is no escape, pull out your weapon and aim for center mass and start shooting. Keep on shooting until you believe the threat to be over.

That "you will know it" idea is central to a lot of right-wing fantasies -- like Ben Carson's rush-the-shooter fantasy -- where the complexity of real life vanishes. In fact, shooting situations are chaotic, and if you find yourself in one, you'll probably have no idea what's going to happen next. In this respect, it's similar to the ticking-bomb torture fantasy, where you know there's a bomb, you know this guy knows where it is, and you know he'll tell you if you torture him. In real life, you never have that kind of certainty.

And if Carson hadn't made the common NRA talking point (about disarming the public being the first step towards Nazi tyranny), we wouldn't have the opportunity to point out that it's completely false. Hitler actually relaxed Germany's gun laws.

And while Carson was only implying that Germany's Jews were responsible for their own deaths, Fox News' Keith Ablow went all the way there:

If Jews in Germany had more actively resisted the Nazi party or the Nazi regime and had diagnosed it as a malignant and deadly cancer from the start, there would, indeed, have been a chance for the people of that country and the world to be moved to action by their bold refusal to be enslaved.

In other words: We didn't fail Europe's Jews in the Holocaust, the Jews failed us. Good to know.

So keep talking, gun defenders. You're impressing the public, but probably not in the way you think.

and you also might be interested in ...

Televangelist Jim Bakker -- who has managed to stay out of jail these last 20 years -- still has a TV show. On this episode, he promoted the idea that Satanic baby-sacrifice rituals are taking place in Planned Parenthood clinics.

Trevor Noah fantasized about pro-life politicians bringing the same level of passion to preventing deaths by gun violence, and then made this amazing comparison: Pro-lifers are "like comic book collectors. Human life only matters until you take it out of the package."

Kevin McCarthy's Benghazi gaffe has given Hillary Clinton an opportunity to mount a counter-attack against the efforts to tar her with scandal. You know the jig is up when even Bill O'Reilly won't play any more. Appearing on Fox News' afternoon show The Five, O'Reilly laughed at the Benghazi Committee's claims to be non-partisan:

If you think those guys, those Republicans on that panel, don’t want to bring down Hillary Clinton, you’re six years old. Of course, they do.

Some of the best defenses of Clinton are written by Peter Daou and Tom Watson on the blog Hillary Men. They completely demolished that headline from August claiming that the word voters most often associate with Hillary is liar.

According to Quinnipiac, 178 respondents answered “liar” in a poll that – wait for it – had 666 registered Republicans taking part. Other popular negative answers included “bitch,” “Benghazi,” and “criminal.”

So what the poll showed is not that "voters" think Clinton is a liar, but that Republicans reliably repeat widely distributed Republican talking points.

In case you've lost track of what we know and don't know about Benghazi, Vox has it covered.

but I want to highlight a blast from the past

The Weekly Sift's readership has nearly quadrupled in the last two years, so I'm realizing that most of my readers have never seen some of the better posts from years past. If you want to understand how liberal reporters end up producing conservatively slanted coverage, take a look at 2011's "Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation".

and then close with something hilarious

The Danish travel firm Spies Rejser has a solution for Denmark's low birth rate, targeted at the Danish mothers who are waiting impatiently to be grandmothers: Send your son or daughter on a sunny, active vacation where they'll be likely to get it on. "Do it for Mom. Do it for Denmark."

Monday, October 5, 2015

Political Choices

Somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. ... This is a political choice that we make, to allow this to happen every few months in America.

-- President Obama, responding to the Umpqua Community College shooting

Maybe gun purchasers should have to undergo an invasive ultrasound & be informed by a doctor of the possible consequences of their actions.

-- Anna Marie Cox

This week's featured post is "Bernie's Epistle to the Falwellites". (It includes how I think the pro-choice position should be explained to conservative Christians. Probably I should break that out into a separate article sometime.) The talk I gave last week at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois -- addressing the question of how I follow the news so closely without getting depressed -- is here.

These last two weeks, everybody has been talking about John Boehner's resignation

He'll leave Congress at the end of October. In the short term, resigning made it easier to avoid a government shutdown: Boehner allowed a clean continuing resolution to reach the floor, where it passed even though most Republicans voted against it. The new deadline is December 11, on the new speaker's watch, and I expect a shutdown then.

The process for electing a new speaker begins Thursday. The Atlantic explains.

The race for speaker is a two-part process. On October 8, Republicans will gather behind closed doors to elect their leader by secret ballot. To win, McCarthy needs just a majority of the conference, or 124 votes. The formal election for speaker, however, occurs at the end of the month on the House floor, in public. McCarthy’s bigger problem would come if a faction of more than 29 Republicans refuses to vote for him on the floor, which would cause the House to be deadlocked. That’s how Boehner’s conservative opponents had tried to oust him in January, when 25 Republicans voted for someone else.

The leading candidate is Boehner's second-in-command, Kevin McCarthy of California.

and the Pope's visit

Pope Francis gave a speech to Congress. It would not have been appropriate for him to make a ringing call to political action, and he didn't. But the four Americans whose examples he praised -- Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton -- gave the speech a liberal tone. He called for abolition of the death penalty, and warned against "every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind". He connected Europe's Syrian refugee problem with our own Hispanic immigrant situation:

We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.

He quoted from his anti-global-warming encyclical Laudato Si, without saying the words global warming or climate change, but talking about "environmental deterioration caused by human activity". He also expressed worries about the institution of marriage, but without referring to same-sex unions:

Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

A sideshow of the Pope's visit was his meeting with Kim Davis, which her lawyers tried to spin into an expression of support. An official statement from the Vatican says otherwise:

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family. The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.

Esquire's Charles Pierce suspects the episode was engineered by conservative American clergy who resent Pope Francis' change in emphasis away from issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. (CBS Chicago agrees.) It's a conspiracy theory, but a plausible one.

and guns

The shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon left ten people dead, including the shooter.

In his remarks afterwards, President Obama seemed to lose patience with the political logjam that prevents even the slightest increase in gun regulation. Possibly as a result, there has been more media discussion of guns than any time since the Sandy Hook shooting.

A few articles worth your attention: Vox has an insightful collection of charts about gun violence. Jeffrey Toobin explains the history of the Second Amendment, and why the idea that it protects an individual right to own guns is a recent development. The Armed With Reason blog takes on the notion that we need guns to defend against central-government tyranny, which it describes as "a fundamental misreading of how authoritarian regimes actually come to power". (To which I'll add: The Dutch have only about 4 guns per hundred people, compared to our 89, but somehow Dutch democracy survives.)

and the Planned Parenthood witch hunt

As is so often the case, it takes a comedian to do justice to this story. Here's Seth Meyers.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards "testified" to a House committee Tuesday, though as Slate summarized:

Richards didn’t end up testifying so much as simply absorbing a barrage of questions that she would begin to answer only to be interrupted, criticized, and/or talked over by Republican congressmen

Slate compiled a video of all the times Richards got interrupted. In some sense the hearings worked for both sides: Republican congressmen got to show their base how tough they are, while the rest of the country saw them ask a well-composed woman difficult questions, then badger her rather than let her answer.

In what was supposed to be one of the gotcha moments of the hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) confronted Richards with this graph (minus the attribution to an anti-abortion group, which one of Richards' assistants was sharp enough to recognize and whisper in her ear in time for her to point it out).

If you look at the right-hand side for more than a second or two, you might wonder why 327,000 seems much larger than 935,573. Vox studied the source numbers a little longer, and came up with this more complete and accurate chart.

So, like most organizations, Planned Parenthood's mix of services changes over time. But the impression that abortions are soaring while non-abortion services are falling is not accurate.

There's a larger a framing problem in the way the defund-Planned-Parenthood campaign is discussed. Republicans talk about the $500 million of federal funds the organization receives as if there were a "Planned Parenthood" line in the federal budget, and they were just trying to cut that line or redistribute those funds to other women's-health organizations.

In fact, the government doesn't fund Planned Parenthood, it funds some of the non-abortion services Planned Parenthood provides. explains:

Planned Parenthood’s government funding comes from two sources: the Title X Family Planning Program and Medicaid. About $70 million is Title X funding, Planned Parenthood spokesman Tait Sye told us. The rest — about $293 million — is Medicaid funding, which includes both federal and state money.

So if you're a Medicaid patient and you think you might have an STD, you can get tested and treated at a Planned Parenthood clinic and PP will get reimbursed by Medicaid. In order to "defund" Planned Parenthood, the government would have to specify that it reimburses clinics for those services except for Planned Parenthood. Such a provision can be phrased in ways that circumvent the constitutional ban on bills of attainder -- ACORN ultimately lost its claim in a similar case -- but the spirit of Constitution is clearly being violated.

Missouri has completed its investigation of charges that Planned Parenthood is illegally trafficking in fetal body parts, and found no wrong-doing. This tracks with previous results in four other states.

Carly Fiorina continues to insist she wasn't lying about the grisly body-parts-harvesting video she claims she saw. She could instantly resolve this controversy in her favor just by posting a link to the video. From the fact that she hasn't, you have assume that she can't. Nobody else has been able to find it either, including the people who supposedly made it.

Interestingly, the witch hunt doesn't seem to be working with the American people. Polls consistently show a majority in favor of Planned Parenthood continuing to receive federal reimbursements for the work it does.

and greedy corporate behavior

Two examples got a lot of attention: Volkswagen's cheating on the emission tests on its diesels, and Turing Pharmaceuticals' price-gouging on drugs.

According to the EPA:

a sophisticated software algorithm on certain Volkswagen vehicles detects when the car is undergoing official emissions testing, and turns full emissions controls on only during the test. The effectiveness of these vehicles’ pollution emissions control devices is greatly reduced during all normal driving situations. This results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation, emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, at up to 40 times the standard.

So this isn't just fudging a number somewhere, it was a systematic attempt to fool the EPA. The result of the cheating is that VW was able to avoid the trade-off between fuel economy and smog, allowing VW's diesels to post MPG ratings far beyond other cars in their class. Apparently, VW was also cheating in Europe, and other car companies (like BMW) may be implicated in similar schemes.

The victim here was not some nebulous concept like "the environment". Chances are, some people died because of it, and health care costs increased.

The gouging on drug prices, by contrast, was perfectly legal, and pointed out flaws in the system rather than criminality. Turing acquired Daraprim, a drug used to fight parasitic infections that can be fatal to AIDS patients, and jacked up the price from $13.50 a tablet to $750.

Turing's founder Martin Shkreli instantly became what Mother Jones called "the poster child for evil scum".

That's because he was perfect for the role. He's a Wall Street hedge fund guy. He was fired by a firm he founded when the board accused him of using the company as a "personal piggy bank to pay back angry investors in his hedge fund." He looks like a callous young punk. And instead of hiding behind a PR flack, he happily gave interviews where he all but told the world to fuck off and pay his price if they wanted Daraprim.

MoJo's explanation of Shkreli's strategy -- they call it "regulatory arbitrage" -- is fascinating: The drug has been around forever and isn't protected by patent, so theoretically anybody could compete with Turing. In order to do so, though, you'd have to prove to the FDA that your manufacturing process produced a version that was safe and effective. That would require testing, which would take time and money. And when you finally got your approval, Turing could sandbag you by cutting its price again. So what sane company would bother?

This kind of thing is happening all over: There are lots of well-established needed-but-low-volume drugs that have only one approved manufacturer. For a big drug company like Merck or Johnson & Johnson, jacking up the price isn't worth the bad publicity. But a small company can buy the rights, charge more-or-less whatever it wants, and make a huge profit.

So, for example, you've probably taken the antibiotic doxycycline at some point in your life. (I know I have.) In the last 18 months, its price has gone from about 3 cents a pill to over $5 a pill. There has been no change in the drug's legal status or cost of production.

The attention these recent cases have drawn has renewed interest in letting Medicare and Medicaid bargain directly with drug manufacturers -- because it makes no sense to pay the market rate when that rate is being set by a monopoly. In a larger sense, it points out the fundamental absurdity of establishing a "market price" for saving someone's life.

Considering VW and Turing together just re-emphasizes a point I made several years ago: Corporations are sociopaths. When the system is set up to reward good behavior and catch and punish malefactors, they'll behave well. But if they could make more money by kidnapping toddlers and selling them into slavery, they would. According to the prevailing understanding of corporate ethics, CEOs would be remiss in their fiduciary duty to their stockholders if they ignored the growth opportunities in the toddler slave market.

and you also might be interested in ...

No matter what kinds of crowds he draws or how high his poll numbers go, Bernie Sanders can't get the mainstream media to acknowledge that lots of people like what he's saying. A recent poll showed that Clinton's lead over Sanders had shrunk from an astronomical 60 points in June to seven points. CNBC headlined this not as "Sanders surges" but as "Clinton loses ground".

When the story is "Clinton loses ground" you can segue into the bogus email scandal, whereas if the story were "Sanders surges", you might have to talk about something real, like single-payer healthcare, free college, and a job-creating push to rebuild America's infrastructure. Can't have that, can we?

Trevor Noah's first week as host of The Daily Show demonstrated that he has his own style, which will take some getting used to if you were expecting a Jon Stewart clone. But his take-down of Donald Trump was amazing.

Whenever you point out that voter-ID laws are really voter-suppression laws, somebody who already has a driver's license is bound to ask: "How hard is it to get an ID?"

Well, in Alabama it just got harder.

Due to budget cuts, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said that 31 satellite DMV offices would no longer have access to driver’s licenses examiners, meaning that residents will need to travel to other counties to apply for licenses.

Coincidentally, 8 of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of black voters will be affected, including every county where blacks make up at least 75% of the electorate. But going to another county to get a license isn't that high a hurdle ... if you can drive there.

Jeb Bush gave the usual excuse for why his tax plan favors the rich: Since they pay the most in taxes, any cut is going to benefit them disproportionately.

Tax cuts for everybody is going to generate a lot more for people who are paying more. I mean, that’s just the way it is.

Matt Yglesias points out why that isn't true, and gives an example where everyone gets a tax cut, but the very rich don't get a bigger cut than anybody with a taxable income of at least $9225.

In general, the reason Republican tax cuts favor the rich is that they always cut the rates. But if you leave the rates alone and stretch the brackets, that effectively caps the cut for any individual. Yglesias' example (which stretches the 0% bracket) is one of many such possibilities.

Donald Trump's tax plan also is a bonanza for the rich. Are you surprised?

You might think that an MD like Ben Carson would be less anti-science than the other Republican candidates. You'd be wrong. Recently an anti-evolution talk he gave to a Seventh Day Adventist group in 2012 began getting attention. It was full of amazing misrepresentations of the big bang and evolutionary theory.

There is, for example a well-worked out theory of the evolution of the eye, and has been for decades. But Carson sums it up like this: "according to the theory [of evolution] it [the eye] had to go pukh! and there was an eyeball, overnight, just like that, because it wouldn’t work in any other way."

It's one thing when somebody decides they don't believe current science. It's something else when they authoritatively misrepresent it to an audience.

WaPo's fact-checker goes after the frequently repeated idea that the Muslim doctrine of taqiyya allows Muslims to lie about their faith to gain political advantage. (They nail Ben Carson for this, but they could have picked any number of people.) The reality is much less sweeping:

the Koran suggests that a person who faces religious persecution can withhold the identity of their faith in order to avoid bodily harm or death.

Carson mentioned taqiyya as a reason not to support Muslim candidates, even if they appeared to reject imposing Sharia on Americans. WaPo awarded him four Pinocchios, its lowest rating for truthfulness.

and let's close with something fascinating

If you're old enough, you remember when crayon boxes had colors like Flesh, that tacitly assumed all children were white. And of course, the original color of band-aids was based on assumptions about the skin it was supposed to blend in with. But I had never understood the racial assumptions behind color photography until Vox explained it.

Early color film didn't have the dynamic range of today's film (or digital sensors), so not all parts of the spectrum got equal coverage. Kodak knew that people mostly wanted to photograph other people, so they tuned their system for "skin" tones -- white people's skin tones. Photography's implicit racial bias didn't start changing until the 1970s, and then not necessarily to accommodate darker-skinned people: The makers of chocolates and wood furniture complained that the differences between their dark-brown and light-brown products weren't showing up in pictures. Even today, your camera's facial-recognition software may work better for white faces.

To me, this is a great example of how racial privilege works, and why it doesn't require the kind of conscious hatred most whites imagine when they hear the word racism. In a situation where it is difficult to serve everybody, of course the privileged classes -- whites in this case, but men, straights, Christians, and so on in others -- will get served first. And they won't even have to notice: If you were a white family in the 1960s and didn't have any black friends you wanted to photograph, your "photographic privilege" was invisible to you. You just took pictures, and when they turned out well you assumed everybody else's did too.