Thursday, June 30, 2011

Is gay marriage the end of religious freedom?

Ben and I talk about the post-New York future of gay marriage in our Scripps Howard column this week. This is normally where I print my half of the column and send you to the link to read Ben's half. This week, though, I'll claim the privilege of printing Ben's half—then responding:

Ben responds to the question: Is legalized gay marriage inevitable?
New York's legislature took a vote, but the question of gay marriage is far from settled. Unfortunately, reasonable debate on the subject now appears to be impossible.

Millions of Americans believe gays and lesbians should be free to live as they please -- a huge generational shift -- but that marriage should remain a union between a man and a woman. Marriage serves a vital social purpose of creating stable families. Raising children is perhaps the most important function of marriage (but not the only one). Not just any two parents will do.

A state law -- or a court decision -- won't change those people's minds. But to supporters of this radical concept of "marriage," none of that matters and no good faith disagreement is possible. It's just bigotry.

Fact is, marriage is already in deep trouble in this country. High rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births have ruined countless lives and torn apart entire communities. Redefining marriage doesn't strengthen the traditional institution so much as signal its irrelevance.

Don't believe for a moment this is simply a matter of "equality." As same-sex marriage becomes routine, it won't be long before other groups demand legal recognition of their own peculiar relationships.

The argument is already well underway. A website called -- established in 2006 by "a diverse group of nearly 20 LGBT and queer activists" -- asserts: "Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others."

And get ready for an onslaught of indoctrination and litigation. New York's feckless Republicans say their law is more enlightened than most because churches will not be compelled to perform weddings that offend their doctrines. But the weight of our anti-discrimination laws leans strongly the other way.

In the absence of persuasion, what's left is coercion. The New York law's flimsy religious exemptions will fall within the decade. And marriage as a bedrock institution will be even weaker than it is today. Count on it.
Though we disagree often on matters of public policy, Ben is my friend. Our partnership has endured because I believe him to argue honestly and thoughtfully in our public debates, and because of his generosity and warmth behind the scenes. But, particularly in those last two paragraphs, I believe he is guilty of hysteria.

Ben's suggestion here is that, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that Catholic churches—and other religious denominations—be required to perform gay weddings.

That will never, ever happen. Ever.

I'm not saying that some litigious couple with a daring lawyer won't try to make the case. But I am 100 percent certain that any judge possessing a passing acquaintance with the First Amendment would reject it on its face. And I am even more certain, if that's possible, that such a case would be eviscerated at the Supreme Court—where, after all, six of the nine justices are Catholic. And those justices, it's fair to say, have repeatedly handed down rulings indicating an expansive view of the First Amendment. I doubt they'll let corporations spend unlimited cash on elections but abandon religious freedom. Truth is: religious protections didn't need to be written into the New York law because the First Amendment already does the trick.

Not. Gonna. Happen.

Ben's argument is similar to those made among religious conservatives of late. Lacking persuasive arguments, they've come to persuade themselves that states that allow gay marriages are ... victimizing and oppressing anti-gay-marriage conservatives. They've likened the New York law to North Korean tyranny. They've decried "coercive state power" that wields a Bull Connor-like abusive authority in the service of the gay agenda.

This manages to pull of the neat trick of being both Orwellian and deeply narcissistic. Orwellian, because nobody is being coerced to do anything. As the saying goes: "If you don't like gay marriage, don't get one." No one is being forced to gay marry, or to abandon deeply held beliefs—and there are no dogs, fire hoses, guns, or forced-labor camps being deployed against heterosexuals. For most people, life won't change one iota. For the rest of us, it's changed to the extent that we've been liberated to live our lives with the same level of government recognition and respect as everybody else. The only thing that's being lost, for some folks, is the privilege of having government enforce your beliefs on other people in this particular regard.

And it's narcissistic because gay marriage isn't actually about the people who oppose gay marriage—at all. It's about people who love each other, and choose to share life's tasks with each other. That's it.

There are other parts of Ben's column I'd quibble with. He argues, again, that "not any two parents will do." Even conceding that for the sake of argument, I note that gay couples are among the most prolific and fervent adopters of kids who don't have parents, who have often been bounced around in foster care, who are often old enough or troubled enough or disabled enough that adoption agencies have an impossible time matching them to adoptive parents otherwise. Ask any social worker you know. Ben's vision, I think, condemns many of those children to eternal orphanhood. If it's the case that "not any two parents will do," I still strongly suspect that in most cases any two parents will do better than none at all. Ben lets perfect be the enemy of the good in this case, and thus seems to advocate the kind of social engineering he would otherwise disdain.

But I don't need to rehash all the arguments for and against gay marriage. That's pointless. But I do have to push back against Ben's extreme vision of Catholic priests performing gay marriages under the bootheel of homosexual tyranny. It is ... laughable.

I've told Ben this: I don't expect to persuade him of very much in this life. He'll be conservative, I'll be liberal, and somehow we'll make it work. On this one issue, though, I hope he someday changes his mind, just a little bit. The existence of gay marriage brings a little more freedom into the world. That's normally the kind of thing he'd celebrate. That's one reason why—despite our disagreements—he remains my friend.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Arlene Ackerman's paranoid delusions

When rumors surfaced Monday that Philly schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman might be leaving town, I was hopeful. Not just because her administration continues to block me from following its Twitter feed—but for less selfish, substantive reasons. Like her questionable budgeting acumen. Her slowness in responding to violence at South Philadelphia High School. Her decision to be defensive instead of proactive when it comes to the broader problem of school violence. The list could go on. I wasn't hopeful that she was leaving because she's awesome.

Ackerman's staying, though. What's interesting is how she's responding to those rumors of her departure:
Schools chief Arlene C. Ackerman on Monday shot down rumors she is in talks to leave the Philadelphia School District, and suggested that those who want her gone are uncomfortable with the thought of all public-school children succeeding.

Many initiatives in Ackerman's three-year superintendency have been focused on funneling resources to struggling schools, and, she said, "that is maybe threatening to some people, but I came here to do a job, and I'm going to do that job. All the rest of this is just noise."
Oh, sure, Dr. Ackerman. You're under fire because your critics hate kids. That's it.

We're faced here with a couple of options. Either Ackerman believes what she's saying, in which case her head is filled with paranoid delusions. Or she's intentionally trying to delegitimize her critics by ascribing evil motives to them. Which might be a savvy survival technique, but sucks in terms of serving the students in her district.

From where I sit, it appears that Ackerman is the figure who is motivated by politics and turf defense. Her critics probably have some of that going on, too, but they can also make a substantive case that Ackerman's leadership is bad for the district—and thus for the kids. It would be nice to see Ackerman focused on leading the district instead of tearing down her opponents.

Back in his natural habitat.

Taken at Cafe Lutecia

Monday, June 27, 2011

Why we can't afford the death penalty in Pennsylvania, ctd

A lawyer weighs in on that flat $2,000 preparation fee the state pays defense lawyers in capital murder cases:
Think of it this way. As a lawyer I charge a little under $200 for the paper-pushing work I tend to do: contract negotiating, real estate transactions, and so on. Two grand is ten hours of my work, which doesn't involve attempting to preserve someone's basic liberties -- mostly it involves bringing a deal to a close, or winning someone's money back, or securing some intellectual property rights.

Criminal defense involves securing someone's fundamental liberty not to be kept in a prison by the government. A capital case involves securing someone's fundamental liberty not to be killed by the government. Even if I were to do that work for you for $200 per hour, wouldn't you hope I work more than 10 hours on your case?
A cynic might suggest that Pennsylvania politicians are happy to see capital murder defendants walk into court with one hand tied behind their back. But even if we refuse to speculate about motives, how can anybody deny that poor murder defendants are hugely disadvantaged on what is supposed to be a level playing field?

The conclusion remains the same: Death penalty jurisprudence in Pennsylvania is unbalanced, unfair, and ultimately ineffective. Why are we holding onto this system?

Conservative intelligentsia largely silent on gay marriage

We've had an entire weekend to react to news of New York's gay marriage law, and the silence of so much of the right on the topic is pretty notable. I've periodically checked in at a number of leading conservative blogs over the last 48 hours—Hot Air, Power Line, Red State, No Left Turns, Commentary, Weekly Standard—and the reaction has been almost total silence. There has been more hubub in the Catholic precincts of National Review, but it's not one-sided: there's genuine debate going on there.

Obviously there are plenty of self-described conservatives out there—particularly religious conservatives—who are incensed. And they always will be. But a good chunk of the conservative intelligentsia just can't rouse itself to battle on the topic—probably, I'm guessing, because so many folks in that group have gay friends. It takes two sides to have a culture war; on this issue, at least, one side appears to be leaving the battlefield.

The Weekly Standard thinks the generals command the president

Interesting wording from Daniel Halper:
The Los Angeles Times reports that President Obama defied his generals' advice on Afghanistan.
At the risk of being pedantic, here's the first dictionary definition of "defy": "to challenge the power of; resist boldly or openly: to defy parental authority." Halper's phrasing certainly suggests that the generals are supposed to command the president, instead of the other way around. A minor detail, perhaps, but telling nonetheless.

Stu Bykofsky wishes for the devastation of Philadelphia

Weird little column from Stu Bykofsky this morning, wishing that Philadelphia would be a little more like...Detroit:
Unlike Philadelphia, Detroit's business community is as galvanized and aggressively optimistic as a Disney theme park.

Over the weekend, members of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists were bombarded by some biggies from the past, the Big Three automakers, and the future, Quicken Loans, which just brought 1,600 high-tech jobs to downtown - and will add an equal number in the months ahead, jobs dragged from the suburbs because its young staff wanted to be where the action is.

The action is still modest, but the downtown bowl has new buildings, refurbished hotels, casinos and a Hard Rock Cafe. But drive just one mile east and there are block-long gaps where buildings once stood, where neighborhoods died. The city is toying with the idea of growing farms within the city limits.

Ideas like that are far more revolutionary, made necessary by necessity, than Philadelphia's bike lanes. Ideas like that are born of a desperation that has not yet gripped Philadelphia. Maybe it should.
Yes: Byko is saying that Philadelphia would benefit from almost complete and utter economic devastation—something that (like Detroit) would cause us to lose two-thirds of our population and leave the rest desperate and scraping along for survival. Maybe then we could attract more artist/hipster types to the city core? That sounds like what he's saying.

Hey Stu: We already have a Hard Rock Cafe.

I've heard local folks make the Philadelphia-Detroit comparison before—though not quite with Byko's apparent enthusiasm—and I think it's wrong. Philadelphia, these days, isn't quite so dependent on any single industry the way Detroit was for a long time: We've already largely experienced our industrial collapse, but in stages—it was unpleasant, but it didn't bring down the city with it. What's more, we have geography on our side—we're part of an urban ecosystem: New York-Philly-Baltimore-D.C. are all in relative proximity to each other; some folks here commute to NYC every day. Detroit is more physically isolated.

In any case, I don't think Stu really wants Philadelphia to have a near-death experience. If he does, he's an insane, evil madman who doesn't deserve a column. Mostly, I think he went to a convention in Detroit and had to come up with a column for Monday's newspaper somehow. This is what we got.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Top 10 most influential movies

I'm not saying these are the 10 most influential movies, or the most important or even best movies ever made. I'm saying that these 10 movies, in particular, had a strong hand in shaping how, why, and what movies I watch. In no particular order...

• Star Wars:

Why? Because I was 4, 7, and 10 when these movies came out. They dominated my childhood, and the childhood of every young boy—and many young girls—around me. Just about everybody had action figures, so everybody could play. But only a few kids were rich enough to own a Millennium Falcon. This was one of my first lessons in class distinctions. As entertainment, though, the series primed my generation to seek out sci fi/fantasy tales well into adulthood—what were previously “kids” films now belonged to all of us. That’s part of why the failure of the prequels was so badly received: George Lucas didn’t just make bad movies; he retroactively altered our collective sense of childhood.

Movies I watched because of Star Wars: The Hidden Fortress, The Last Starfighter, Alien, Tron, Planet of the Apes

• The Godfather:

Why? I avoided this movie for a long time, actually, because it was so praised as a classic movie that it took on the aura of doing cultural homework. Then, one weekend, I stayed home sick—and the movie showed on Cinemax. I was entranced. Went to the video store the next day and rented both sequels. One of them was good, the other … less so. Over the next few years, I read everything about The Godfather that I could get my hands on: the novel (which is really trashy) as well as behind-the-scenes making-of coffee table books. I didn’t bother buying a DVD player until the movies came out on disc: when they did, I burned through all the special features, repeatedly, in a day. The story behind the movies is about as interesting as the movies themselves.

Movies I watched because of The Godfather: The Conversation, Hearts of Darkness, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, Heat

• Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Why? When this movie came out, I probably hadn’t seen a kung fu movie in 15 years or so—the badly dubbed chopsocky stuff they used to play on Saturday afternoons back when local television stations did that sort of thing. The first wire-enabled chase across the housetops riveted me: it was the first time I saw beauty in an action movie. And I developed a huge crush on Zhang Ziyi.

Movies I watched because of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Hero (Jet Li, not Dustin Hoffman), Once Upon A Time in China, House of Flying Daggers, Red Cliff, In The Mood For Love

• Infernal Affairs

Why? This is a movie best known in the states, if at all, for inspiring The Departed. Infernal Affairs—despite the laughably punny title—is a better, leaner, less tidy movie. After watching this Hong Kong flick, I realized the last great gangster movie made in the United States was probably Goodfellas...all the way back in 1990. Even if the Hong Kong scene isn’t quite as vibrant as it was in the John Woo/Chow-Yun Fat days of the 1990s, it’s still pretty awesome. I’ll watch any movie with Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Anthony Wong.

Movies I watched because of Infernal Affairs: The Departed, Election (Simon Yam, not Reese Witherspoon), Triad Election, A World Without Thieves, The Warlords

• Three Extremes

Why? Because the first of the three short films in this anthology—”Dumplings,” directed by Fruit Chan—is probably the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. So much so that I can’t actually recommend it to anybody. It’s the film I remember the most, but it’s the other two directors, Takashi Miike and Chan-Wook Park, whose movies I’ve followed since then. Frequently taboo-busting, always stylish, and sometimes—but not always—humane in the midst of the horror they depict: Miike and Park are too interesting to ignore.

Movies I watched because of Three Extremes: 13 Assassins, Ichi the Killer, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

• Full Metal Jacket

Why? Before Three Extremes, this was probably the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen. The ruthlessness of the drill sergeant, the look in Pyle’s eyes before he killed himself, the terrible decision Joker makes at the end of the film. When it came out, the Vietnam depicted in this movie looked a lot less than the actual Vietnam than the one in Platoon, which came out at the same and to much greater acclaim. But Platoon hasn’t aged well—it features Charlie Sheen, after all, and Oliver Stone at (almost) his most pedantic. Full Metal Jacket is merely relentless.

Movies I watched because of Full Metal Jacket: Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, Restrepo, Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining

• Spellbound

Why? Before this movie, I thought documentaries were boring eat-your-veggies viewing. Then I saw this flick, following competitors as they prepare for the National Spelling Bee, and was tremendously entertained. I still learn stuff from documentaries, but it’s OK to enjoy them as well.

Movies I watched because of Spellbound: Gunner Palace, The Fog of War, Winged Migration (I wasn’t even high!) Mad Hot Ballroom, A Perfect Candidate

• Pulp Fiction

Why? Nirvana’s Nevermind came out my freshman year of college, blasting the hair metal of my high school years into oblivion. When Pulp Fiction came out my senior year of college, it felt like the same thing was happening in movies—that crap like “The Bodyguard” was being stepped over for something both smarter and more visceral. The 1990s were going to be amazing! Only problem is, lots of filmmakers tried to do what Tarantino had done...and almost all of them failed. The second half of that decade was littered with really bad pulp noir movie attempts financed by credit cards, often starring Eric Stoltz. The only Tarantino-esque director who ever really succeeded was Robert Rodriguez—and that’s because he had his own, similar-but-not-same vision. He wasn’t an imitator. Tarantino, it seems, is almost impossible to duplicate.

Movies I watched because of Pulp Fiction: 2 Days in the Valley, El Mariachi, Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill I & II, Sin City

• Raising Arizona

Why? I saw this early in high school; my senses told me that it was funny, yes, but that it was also coming at the funny from about five-to-10-degrees off the angle that most movies did the funny. That intrigued me. And like every other pretentious movie lover of my generation, I started paying close attention to the Coen Brothers.

Movies I watched because of Raising Arizona: Every other Coen Brothers movie.

• The Fifth Element

Why? And so we come full circle: I could say I watched this movie because of Star Wars, and it would be true. But it came along when I was taking my movie watching a bit too seriously; I went along with some friends, expecting to find it puerile crap. And I kind of did. But I was tremendously entertained. If Tarantino makes art out of trash, director Luc Besson just makes trash. Splendid, entertaining trash. The Fifth Element helped me see that I didn’t need to be a pseudointellectual arthouse snob; that genre filmmaking could be a wonderful thing in its own right without necessarily having higher aspirations. (I’m unfortunately enough of a snob that sometimes genre tropes are easier for me to enjoy if they’re presented in another language.) It was, is, just plain fun. Michael Bay still sucks, however.

Movies I watched because of The Fifth Element: District 13, The Professional, Crank, The Transporter, La Femme Nikita.

• Honorable Mention: Liberty Hall

As easy as it is to get online and download a movie these days, it’s easy to forget there was a time not-so-far past when a rural Kansas boy like myself didn’t really have access to movies that were even slightly outside the mainstream. Liberty Hall, a theater and video store in Lawrence, Kan., really opened up my movie education—I either rented or viewed five of the 10 movies above from this list at Liberty Hall. My movie-viewing life has been immeasurably enriched by that association.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Netflix Queue: "A World Without Thieves"

Truth is, I'll watch anything with Andy Lau in it—the stuff that makes it to America (like, most notably, "Infernal Affairs") is generally entertaining—and so is this. Here, Lau plays one half of a grifting couple that decides to protect an innocent young man traveling on a train with his life savings. The moments where Lau tangles with another gang of grifters are quietly thrilling; the movie takes me back 30 years, when big movie studios made quiet, entertaining dramas instead of farming them out to the indies and boutique divisions for Oscar bait. A pleasant Saturday night diversion.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The sheer tediousness of Ben Shapiro's anti-Hollywood crusade

Ben Shapiro
Over at National Review, professional grievance-monger Ben Shapiro documents Hollywood's relentless anti-father agenda by highlighting 10 sitcom dads over the decades. It's a list full of proclamations like this:
Ross Gellar (Friends, 1994-2004) What is Ross doing on this list? He’s here because he represents the left’s next step: the absentee father who simply doesn’t matter to his son’s life. Ross impregnates his lesbian wife, has a kid, and then takes care of the kid once every blue moon between his affairs and antics. His son, Ben, never feels any ill effects. Welcome to the liberal paradise, where dads are completely superfluous.
This is just ... so ... tedious. And it also reflects why Shapiro and his ilk don't do very well in advancing a conservative agenda through popular entertainment: He's concerned exclusively about the agenda, and almost not at all about the entertainment.

The Friends example is probably the most revealing of this mindset. Was Friends a show about family or parenthood? Nope. It was about a group of ... Friends. Young, attractive people who had the freedom to do wacky things and live in New York apartments far beyond their likely incomes. Was Ross a father in the show? Sure. But the reason we didn't see Ross parenting much is because the show wasn't about that. The relationship with his son served as fodder for an episode or two, and that's all it was designed to do: be an excuse for an occasional story. In Shaprio's hands, Friends would've either become a family sitcom like Leave It To Beaver—and not been the show it was, but some other show entirely—or else Ross's son Ben would've descended into a life of drugs, crime, and despair. That would've been a great sitcom!

If you look at Shapiro's list of dads, only three—Archie Bunker, Cliff Huxtable, and Cameron/Mitchell from Modern Family—can plausibly be claimed to be serving somebody's political agenda. But Shapiro sees all of them, in every show, through the lens of ideology, can only conceive of entertainment as agitprop, and does not conceive of a world where the main agenda is getting a good laugh or telling a rollicking yarn.

And it's really, really, excruciatingly tedious.

If you want a contrast, check out Alyssa Rosenberg's culture blog at Think Progress. Rosenberg frequently views popular culture through liberal, feminist lenses. But sometimes she just enjoys a good book, or a good movie, or a good show, all without getting hung up on whether it's liberal enough. It makes one wish that Shapiro could stock up on junk food, head to the basement, and spend a weekend in his underwear watching so-bad-they're-good movies from the 1980s.

Do liberals run Hollyood? Maybe. But on the evidence of Shapiro's perpetual whining, that's the way I prefer it. Ideology or no, liberals—in the storytelling realm, at least—are way, way more fun.

Ed Rendell and why we can't afford the death penalty in Pennsylvania

I'm pretty stoutly against the death penalty, but I'm often unsure that I should write about it—because, as a practical matter, Pennsylvania doesn't ever really put anybody to death. Still, the legal and theoretical existence of the death penalty skews the justice system here in undesirable ways—and Ed Rendell, to his credit, is trying to do something about it:
Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor and the city's district attorney from 1978 to 1986, has written to Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe urging her to administratively increase the flat-fee system now being challenged before the state Supreme Court.

The petition on behalf of three Philadelphians facing death if convicted of murder contends that the $2,000 flat rate paid court-appointed capital lawyers is so low that it violates the clients' constitutional right to "effectiveness of counsel."
Emphasis added. Now, that $2,000 just covers "trial preparation" time—defense lawyers get paid $200-$400 a day during the actual trial.

Now, I'm not in a position to turn down a $2,000 paycheck. But when you think about the time it must take to prepare a proper defense in capital murder trial, that preparation fee is incredibly low. Google doesn't offer me a ready-made estimate of defense billable hours in death penalty cases around the nation, but it's not uncommon to see figures like 463 hours—or many, many more—thrown around.

One wonders if a capital defense lawyer in Pennsylvania ends up making even minimum wage on a case. But this is troubling—and unjust—because prosecutors surely aren't limited to $2,000 of pay in preparing for a capital case. While government prosecutors don't have an unlimited budget, their resources simply overwhelm those of an indigent murder defendant. When the trial starts, the playing field is already weighted heavily toward the prosecution.

It's not supposed to work that way.

Rendell is trying to do something about it by getting a raise for defense attorneys because of that imbalance. "It results in a tremendous waste of money, but, far more importantly, it increases the very real possibility that someone who is not guilty or not deserving of the death penalty could be convicted and sentenced to death." He's right. But he's wrong about the solution.

Pennsylvania's budget--like government budgets everywhere--is coming down. There is no more money for defense attorneys, and it's never politically popular to increase spending on defendants anyway. The best way to ensure that capital murder defendants have something approaching a fair chance in Pennsylvania courts is to end the death penalty, once and for all.

This isn't about whether guilty defendants deserve to die. It's about whether the state can fairly administer justice, whether it can ensure that a condemned man legitimately deserves that condemnation. Right now, that doesn't appear to be the case. And since death row appears to mostly be a life sentence, anyway, the added costs of a capital murder trial seem wasted—if the intended result is an execution.

Death penalty jurisprudence in Pennsylvania is unbalanced, unfair, and ultimately ineffective. Why are we holding onto this system?

Mandatory sick leave: It's not just Philadelphia

City Council approved a mandatory sick leave bill yesterday—Mayor Nutter has promised a veto. But Philadelphia isn't the only place this debate is playing out: Connecticut just passed a law, and several other states and cities are considering it. That's why Ben and I tackle the issue in our Scripps Howard column this week. My take:
Here is what opponents of paid sick leave apparently desire: that you enter a local restaurant for a delicious meal prepared by a flu-ridden cook who can't afford to take the day off -- or else her own kids might have to do without a meal of their own. Enjoy your Virus Burger, folks!

Hyperbolic? A little. But the reason the sick-leave moment exists is that many low-paid workers often have to choose between working sick -- or leaving sick children at home -- or losing desperately needed income.

Business owners are understandably concerned that such a requirement would cut into their revenues, and possibly make it impossible to do business. Their concerns are fueled by studies that exaggerate the potential costs by assuming -- implausibly -- that workers would take every possible day of sick leave. An additional underlying belief is that businesses see little or no benefit from offering such benefits to their employees.

Neither belief is warranted. In Connecticut, for example, the Economic Policy Institute discovered that employees who already had access to five paid sick days took off just 2.41 of those days.

And while advocates for paid sick leave say that a national law would cost businesses $20.2 billion, those same businesses would reap $28.4 billion by reducing job turnover and lost productivity from workers who show up ill and can't properly perform their duties.

In these dark economic times, policymakers understandably hesitate to add to the burdens of small businesses. It would be nice if government could provide incentives to business to provide sick leave, instead of merely piling on new regulations.

The underlying principle of such proposals is sound, however: Jobs should offer more than a labor opportunity-- they should offer a living.

If that means you eat a hamburger with fewer germs, so much the better.
Ben: "Don't be surprised if unemployment remains high if these bills pass."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A theory about Anthony Weiner, Democrats and strong women

I expect this is the last time I write about Anthony Weiner, but I do wonder if his resignation today doesn't have something to do with the fact that there are actual women in the Democratic leadership, both in the House and in the broader party.

Remember, it was after Weiner confessed to his lewd online communications and vowed not to resign that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said he should resign: He'd lied to her, after all, claiming he wasn't responsible for the first incriminating photo. Pelosi was followed by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And there were lots of behind-the-scenes reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the friend and boss of Weiner's wife—was exceedingly furious with him. When Pelosi started the effort to take a powerful committee assignment from Weiner, the game was up: He quit. But the pattern is clear—the post-confession drive to get Weiner from office didn't seem to come from his constituents or even from Republicans, who seemed happy to let him twist in the wind. It came from powerful Democratic women.

Contrast this with some of the higher-profile Republican scandals of recent vintage. Sure, Christopher Lee resigned, but David Vitter went to see a hooker—and got re-elected! John Ensign's Christian roommates knew about his affair and confronted him, but they didn't try to push him out of office—Ensign hung on for a long time until it appeared that he might face ethics charges over his efforts to cover up the mess. What don't those men have that Weiner did? Women in leadership positions in their party who had the power to damage their careers—and the desire to use it.

None of them lied to Nancy Pelosi.

I'm certain that my conservative friends will remind me of Nina Burleigh. (Read the second paragraph at this link.) But that was 13 years ago. And in 1998, there wasn't a woman in the land who could or did exercise political power over Bill Clinton. He did keep his office, you'll recall.

Why this is notable is that the Democratic Party makes real efforts to include women and minorities in power. Republicans snort at this, believing they believe in a more pure meritocracy that just happens to be weighted more toward white dudes. But that Democratic effort seems to have played a real role in how the Weiner scandal played out. That's neither good nor bad, but it's certainly different.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Libya, Obama, and the War Powers Act

Remember during the Monica Lewinsky scandal when then-President Clinton responded to a question by quibbling with terms? "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he told his interlocutors, and the moment became emblematic of Clinton's lawyerly slipperiness--not a great moment, even if you thought he was wrongly pursued.

Well, war is a lot more serious than a consensual affair in the life of a nation, but it appears that President Obama is determined to create a similar moment for himself:
In a broader package of materials the Obama administration is sending to Congress on Wednesday defending its Libya policy, the White House, for the first time, offers lawmakers and the public an argument for why Mr. Obama has not been violating the War Powers Resolution since May 20.

On that day, the Vietnam-era law’s 60-day deadline for terminating unauthorized hostilities appeared to pass. But the White House argued that the activities of United States military forces in Libya do not amount to full-blown “hostilities” at the level necessary to involve the section of the War Powers Resolution that imposes the deadline.

The two senior administration lawyers contended that American forces have not been in “hostilities” at least since April 7, when NATO took over leadership in maintaining a no-flight zone in Libya, and the United States took up what is mainly a supporting role — providing surveillance and refueling for allied warplanes — although unmanned drones operated by the United States periodically fire missiles as well.

They argued that United States forces are at little risk in the operation because there are no American troops on the ground and Libyan forces are unable to exchange meaningful fire with American forces. They said that there was little risk of the military mission escalating, because it is constrained by the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized use of air power to defend civilians.
We're only a little bit at war, you see. Not even enough to count!


The War Powers Resolution is actually fairly clear on this, from my reading: Just because the United States is in a support role doesn't mean that President Obama can ignore the resolution. The act specifically states the president must report to Congress when U.S. forces "command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged, or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged, in hostilities." It's not just when American trigger-pullers are pulling triggers, in other words, but when our forces are actively supporting other forces engaged in combat.

Under the most Obama-friendly reading of the circumstances—that we're only supporting the fighting countries, not fighting ourselves—he is still required to be accountable to Congress. Instead, his legal team has ignored the definition in the law and created its own.

I supported Obama in 2008 because he said things like this: "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

He lied. And he's trying to elide that fact with an unseemly parsing of words. How embarrassing. How wrong.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Federalist 45: James Madison was wrong about (almost) everything

Returning to Federalist blogging after a too-long hiatus....

By now, I've made the point a few times that today's Tea Partiers have more in common with the original Antifederalists than with the actual framers of the Constitution. The Antifederalists wanted governance to remain primarily with the states, and while the Federalists certainly wanted more centralized federal governance than the Antifederalists, they still paid strong lip service to the idea that states would retain substantial power. The problem, some two centuries later, is that they were pretty much wrong about how that would play out—and nowhere is this more clear than in James Madison's Federalist 45.

Let's set the stage, though, by glancing at Antifederalist 45, written by "Sydney." He writes:
It appears that the general government, when completely organized, will absorb all those powers of the state which the framers of its constitution had declared should be only exercised by the representatives of the people of the state; that the burdens and expense of supporting a state establishment will be perpetuated; but its operations to ensure or contribute to any essential measures promotive of the happiness of the people may be totally prostrated, the general government arrogating to itself the right of interfering in the most minute objects of internal police, and the most trifling domestic concerns of every state, by possessing a power of passing laws "to provide for the general welfare of the United States," which may affect life, liberty and property in every modification they may think expedient, unchecked by cautionary reservations, and unrestrained by a declaration of any of those rights which the wisdom and prudence of America in the year 1776 held ought to be at all events protected from violation.
Viewed from a 2011 vantage point, this seems rather hyperbolic—Sydney asserts that the diminuition of state power will "destroy the rights and liberties of the people" and that seems incorrect. But it's surely the case that as the federal government has grown larger and more centralized that state governments have nonetheless also grown bigger and more expensive—and, in a lot of cases, funded by the federal taxpayer instead of just local folks.

Federalist 45 is part of Madison's attempt to defend against this charge, and there are two things to note here. A) He resorts to shameless demagoguery. And B) in making the arguments about why states would retain substantial power, he was wrong about just about everything.

The evidence for A) comes when Madison offers his first argument. So you say the states are going to lose their power, huh? Why do you hate the troops?

If that sounds like exaggeration on my part, here's what Madison actually wrote:
Was, then, the American Revolution effected, was the American Confederacy formed, was the precious blood of thousands spilt, and the hard-earned substance of millions lavished, not that the people of America should enjoy peace, liberty, and safety, but that the government of the individual States, that particular municipal establishments, might enjoy a certain extent of power, and be arrayed with certain dignities and attributes of sovereignty?
If Sean Hannity claims the mantle of the Founders today, this is why it can sound plausible: Madison certainly sounds like a blowhard here. He opens not with a defense of the Constitution, but an attack on the motives of the Antifederalists—some of whom surely must've had some vested interests in the primacy of state governments, but some of whom opposed the Constitution based on their love of "peace, liberty, and safety."

But ugly political attacks always have been and always will be with us. For our purposes, it's more notable that Madison was really, really wrong in his central defense against the Antifederalists. Sure, he said, the Constitution empowers the federal government more than the Articles of Confederation—that's why we made it! But even under the Constitution, he says, "the State government will have the advantage of the Federal government."

It's easy to look at the landscape today and conclude Madison was wrong. That's the simple part. More complex is why Madison ended up being wrong.

At National Review, the facts don't matter as long as you connect a sex scandal to feminism

It was only a matter of time before somebody on the right tried to blame the Anthony Weiner scandal to ... feminism. What's remarkable about Sabrina L. Schaeffer's piece at National Review today is that it doesn't even bother to connect the facts of the Weiner scandal to feminism—in fact, the facts actually contradict the thesis.
For decades, modern feminists have undermined the idea of marriage, discouraged romance and courtship, encouraged a laissez-faire sexual culture, and done everything in their power to eliminate gender roles. Add to this the academic and professional opportunities available to women today, and the access to affordable birth control, and it’s clear that it’s much easier for women to participate in our “no strings attached” sexual culture than ever before. But this freedom, which has benefitted women so much, doesn’t come without consequences — namely, that it has allowed so many women to think it’s permissible to have an affair with a married man.
Two problems here:

• It's true: Before Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique," it's true that married men never behaved badly, never tried to have affairs with women who weren't their wives. Feminism! (Shakes fist ruefully and angrily.)

• The evidence I've seen mostly reveals Anthony Weiner's behavior to be kind of predatory. The woman who was the recipient of the first underpants picture didn't appear to solicit it. Neither, apparently, did Meagan Broussard—the woman whose pictures forced Weiner to admit publicly his activities. Here's how she described their online relationship:
He was trying to get me to talk about myself sexually, and I said, straight up, I’m not an open book. I was real blunt. He would ask me weird things, like “Did you miss me?” I didn’t understand that–how could I miss someone I hadn’t met and didn’t know? What is there to miss about me if you don’t even know me?

He said that he was an open book, maybe way too open. And after that he said to me that I was “too fucking real,” not like other people who were all over him. He realized that I wasn’t taking the bait, and I think that intrigued him enough to send messages to me and open up to me and try to be real, too.
I gather Weiner and a porn star exchanged messages, but by and large it seems like the man was inflicting photographs of his torso on women he was talking to, hadn't established a romantic relationship with, and who didn't necessarily expect-welcome that kind of attention from him.

Nevermind that feminism—as I've understood it—tends to discourage such presumptuous behavior on the part of men. Clearly, by virtue of living in a feminist age, these women were asking for it.

I'd argue the idea that "modern feminists have discouraged romance and courtship"—I've got a pretty fine marriage with a feminist woman. But it's hardly worth the effort. Sabrina Schaeffer's mindset is this: Sex scandals are bad. Feminism is bad. Thus, when a sex scandal happens, feminism must bear the blame. It's such a simple framework that she drags it out even when the facts in question don't support the theory at all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bill Dunkelberg bait-and-switches Inquirer readers about the sick-leave bill

I'm not really decided about the merits of Philadelphia's proposed law to require employers to provide sick leave. I'm instinctively for it, and there's reason to believe it wouldn't have the deleterious effects its opponents suggest. Still, there's a lot of reason to believe it's not easy to do business in Philadelphia, and a lot of that has to do with local government regulation.

But sometimes opponents make such misleading arguments that it gets easier to choose sides. That's the case with today's Inquirer column from Bill Dunkelberg, a professor of economics at Temple University.

Here's how he starts:
Philadelphia universities clearly produce more graduates than we can use, so we "export" them. The Philadelphia region specializes in the production of drugs and graduates (among other things). It is silly to think we could keep most of them.

Graduates will stay only if there are jobs to be had. Yet Philadelphia is hostile to new business creation. The wage tax, the gross-receipts tax, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and poor city services are just a few of the things that discourage job creation.

Now, City Council wants to put another nail in the job-creation coffin - a requirement that firms provide each employee a "paid sick days" benefit.
There's an implication here that the sick days benefit will chase away Philadelphia's best and brightest—that it will so thoroughly kill the creation of new jobs that folks from Penn, Drexel, Temple, Villanova and all the other universities will have to leave town in greater numbers than they already do.

But does that make sense? If you go by Dunkelberg's examples, I'd say no:
For a small restaurant with 10 employees, paying $10 an hour on average, this could add up to serious dollars. Let's say it creates $7,000 in additional annual expense. To make this up, firms with, for example, a 10 percent profit margin, would need to generate $70,000 in new business to cover the increase in costs.

For the small competitive firms that provide most of our jobs, this is not chump change.
Certainly not, but ask yourself a question: If you're a grad of Penn, Drexel, Temple, or Villanova, is a $10-an-hour restaurant job going to keep you in Philadelphia? In most cases, the answer is no.

In fact, if you think about the types of jobs the majority of those grads will be looking for, one thing is probably self-evident: those jobs probably come with sick leave benefits. Does Comcast make its employees come in with the flu or stay at home without pay? The pharmaceutical companies? The hospitals? That's where a lot of Philadelphia's brightest young workers are going.

In fact, I'd suggest that Dunkelberg uses the $10-an-hour example precisely because those kinds of jobs—physically laborious, low-paying—are actually the kinds of jobs that are targeted by the bill, where sick leave isn't generally offered, and where employees could really use it. These aren't university-grad jobs; in lots of cases they're not even high-school grad jobs.

Dunkelberg is on safer ground when he argues the other possible economic consequences of the bill. (Although his suggestion that Philadelphia workers are itching for an opportunity to rip off their employers is contemptible, as it is when every other opponent makes it.) But Dunkelberg clearly wants you to think that the bill will chase high-education high-wage jobs away from Philadelphia. Since those jobs generally already provide such benefits, that result is unlikely. And Dunkelberg surely knows that.

Facebook, Twitter, depression, my surgery, and 'quiet dignity'

My blog post about using social media in the hospital was adapted for an article at Macworld. There were lots of nice comments and Tweets from around the world—which was gratifying—but I'm afraid the one that stood out was the commenter LJMAC's observation that more or less criticized me.
I dunno. I don't want to speak for anyone else, but for me this kind of thing is just too private to tweet about - I feel it's something that should be endured with "quite (sic) dignity", as people always did for decades before the advent of social networking. I think times like this are good for quiet reflection and contemplation - something I feel people do too little of these days, in our constantly connected world.
There's something appealing to this vision. I'm not above seeking a little solitude to contemplate and reflect. But even if I were capable of "quiet dignity"—and honestly, I'm probably not—I think LJMAC would be dead wrong.

For me, at least, "quiet dignity" would've meant "quiet suffering." And there's nothing inherently ennobling about suffering, I think, when it's done in a vacuum. Pain, depression, loneliness, the drug-induced sense of not quite existing in the real world—none of these things made me a better man. None of them were likely to. And anybody who implies I—or you—should be quiet and endure probably has a romantic view of life that renders them callous to actual human pain.

In fact, it was the support of my friends and family through Facebook and Twitter that actually provided the benefits that LJMAC thinks comes from "quiet dignity." A few weeks ago, I posted this message to my private Facebook account:
In recent weeks, I have been the recipient of prayers and hopeful thoughts from an unexpectedly wide range of people: Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics and atheists. Democrats, Republicans, and socialists. Journalists and non-journalists. Folks in Europe, Asia, and more than a few of the 50 states. People I've argued with heatedly, and people who probably have every right to hate me or hold me in contempt. I've been offered grace from people I never expected to give it, from folks I didn't think were capable of it.

I've learned humility on my own because, well, poop has been an integral element of every bad thing that's happened to me in the last month. But I've also learned humility because I've seen kindness from so many unexpected sources in the last month that I find it a bit more difficult to easily assign folks to binary groups of black hats and white hats.

I am not who I was five years ago, or 10 or 15 or 20. But ... neither are many of you. I've been guilty of not recognizing the growth that other people experience. I've been guilty of not always recognizing their humanity.

There are a lot of changes I expect to make as a result of this spring and summer of discontent. Mostly, though, I hope to be more patient and generous in spirit. I have been the recipient of that in the last month. I am grateful for it. And I thank you all.
Solitude has its uses. So does community. There will be times when I need the former; the latter has been crucial to my recent survival ... and growth.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ronald Reagan, missile defense, and the end of nuclear weapons

My friend and occasional nemesis Julie Ponzi on Thursday posted an argument against the Obama Administration sharing missile defense technology with the Russians, suggesting that technology would end up in the wrong hands: "Whatever may be said about the "resetting" of relations with Russia, it remain cozy with nations--like Iran--that pose an unquestionable threat to U.S. security."

Me being snarky, I offered this rebuttal: "I remember when Ronald Reagan wanted to share "Star Wars" technology with the Soviets."

Julie didn't get mad. Instead, she sicced Reagan biographer Steven Hayward upon me. Steve concludes: "The circumstances today are vastly different that under the bipolar world of the US--USSR. I suspect Reagan today would share technology with allies against the rogues and not with Russia; he'd want partnerships with nations more reliable than Russia, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, who are keen to deploy our missile defenses."

You know what? I'll concede the point: Reagan was willing to make concessions on occasion, but it was in the service of increasing our security. In a multipolar world, the calculations are different, and Steve—well, Steve's a Reagan scholar. I'm not. I'll defer to his insights.

Instead, I'll change the subject.

I do think it's worth asking my conservative friends if there are any tradeoffs, any concessions they're willing to make that might look like a lowering of the guard but might actually increase overall American security. Part of President Obama's mission—it seems to me—is to reduce the overall number of warheads in the world. Not out of some Pollyanna belief in peace, and certainly not to leave the United States without security, but mostly out of a simple ability to do math: the more nukes there are in the world, the more likely it is that one of them falls into the wrong hand and is used in anger. That, in turn, creates a greater likelihood that a lot more of those warheads will be used. It's difficult for me to see how worldwide armaggedon would serve the security interests of the United States.

Yes, President Obama proposes to—eventually—eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. Ronald Reagan (just to keep this near the original topic) shared that dream—and though today's world is a less-predictable and thus in certain respects more dangerous, I will hazard a guess and suggest his horror of a nuclear holocaust would still be a motivating factor for him.

Right now, if I'm looking at the right reports, the United States has more than 5,000 nuclear warheads. Russia has 3,000. (These are very provisional numbers; estimates range widely.) It seems to me that we could reduce these numbers greatly, to just a few hundred on each side, and still retain both a meaningful deterrent and the ability to destroy all life on earth.

But we'd reduce the chances that a warhead would end up in those aforementioned wrong hands. We'd greatly reduce the costs of maintaining, modernizing, and protecting our arsenal. We would, it seems to me, be more secure.

Republican objections to the START Treaty have been couched in issues like missile defense, but my overall impression is that they don't buy into the logic I just laid out, believing instead that more! more! more! is the route to defensive superiority and security—or that President Obama (implausibly) is ready to give away the whole kit-and-kaboodle and leave us defenseless. But sometimes less is more.

Joe McGinniss sexually demeans Sarah Palin

Here's how Joe McGinniss describes Sarah Palin in his forthcoming book:
Sarah Palin practices politics as lap dance, and we’re the suckers who pay the price. Members of our jaded national press corps eagerly stuff hundred dollar bills into her g-string, even as they wink at one another to show that they don’t take her seriously.
I'm no Sarah Palin fan, but McGinnis' use of sexual imagery to demean Palin is frankly disgusting. Is Sarah Palin a feminist? Not by my definition. But my definition of feminism precludes sexually demeaning a woman in any circumstance—not because she thinks the right things or even because she's embraces feminism, but because, you know, she's human. But you see this kind of sexism directed at Palin far too often from folks who are ostensibly allies of the feminist left.

Here's the truth: We have far more examples—some of them fairly recent!—of male politicians waving their genitalia at strangers. Yet for some reason, Male Politician Wang Showing doesn't tend to become the same kind of metaphor that stripping and prostitution—activities performed by females—is for female politicians. McGinniss sweatily envisions Palin in a g-string and it's not a surprise; but would anybody in the mainstream talk in terms of (say) Chuck Shumer baring his ass invitingly for Wall Street donors? Maybe Matt Taibbi, and he only barely counts. Sarah Palin isn't bad for America because she's a woman or because she's an attractive woman; demeaning her on those counts isn't just sexist and mean-spirited, it also misses the point.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Should Weiner resign?

That's the question of this week's column for Scripps. I say no:
If Washington were emptied of every politician who violated a marriage oath, paid for sex or otherwise engaged in unseemly conduct -- well, our nation's capital would probably be a ghost town.

Rich, powerful men tend to seek out the company and favors of young, attractive people. That's often part of why they become rich, powerful men in the first place.

So sex isn't really the problem: After all, there's plenty of it going on, and yet our government still manages to function, more or less. The real problem is when a politician gets caught.

A worse problem is when a politician lies about it. But the only real reason a politician should resign over such behavior is if he broke the law or abused his office in committing or concealing hanky-panky. Otherwise, he should stay in office.

After all, would you quit your job if you were caught having an affair? Probably not. Your sexual choices probably don't have much bearing on how well you can perform your job as a paper salesman or accountant. Why should it be any different for elected officials? They were elected to pass laws and govern, not serve as priests.

Again, there are exceptions. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., recently relinquished his office when evidence emerged that he abused his office in order to keep an affair under wraps. He should have lost his job.

For remaining politicians, they still have voters to keep them accountable. And voters can be very forgiving. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., might be very embarrassed right now, but don't be surprised if he still achieves his dream of becoming New York mayor.
Ben, meanwhile, has a few things to say about Weiner's "enormous self-regard." (See what he did there?)

Mr. Mom Chronicles: On not getting to parent anymore

My son, Tobias, has been in Arkansas for the last week, staying with his grandparents. It's not a vacation--or, at least, not merely a vacation. Since the surgery, I've not been strong enough to wrangle him on my own. My wife still has to go to work every day. So he's with people who possess the physical wherewithal to handle a nearly 3-year-old boy.

Truth is, I haven't actively parented Tobias since the surgery. That's five weeks now. And I've discovered something that I'm not quite sure how to understand.

Which is this: Parenthood has apparently changed me. I like having time to read the paper, to sit with coffee, to be alone in my head. These are things I loved before Tobias came along, and missed once he did. But ... I'm no longer really complete with those things.

It's not just the relationship I miss. I miss parenting him. It's hard. It's energy-sapping. It's rage-inducing on occasion. But it's part of my purpose now. He is part of my purpose now.

By the time I get back to full strength, it will be something like three months or more since I've had that active role in his life. That bothers me. There's nothing that can be done about it. I miss my boy. And I miss parenting him. I can hardly believe that.

I was (possibly) wrong about Ta-Nehisi Coates in the New York Times

Remember when I said Ta-Nehisi Coates writing a column for the New York Times would be a really bad idea? "If the pressures of the format and platform didn't push him into becoming stridently ideological, the danger is that he might end up like David Brooks--following his muse into places better addressed somewhere other than the New York Times op-ed pages."

Well, one column does not a body of work make. But Coates is doing a guest-stint columnizing for the Times, starting today, and his first piece is typical of him: Thought-provoking and humane. The last few paragraphs nearly made me weep this morning.
My son is 10 and a romantic, as all 10-year-olds surely have the right to be. How then do I speak to him of this world’s masterminds who render you a supporting actor in your own story? How do I speak of the Sentinels whose eyes melt history, until the world forgets that in 1962, the quintessential mutants of America were black?

Who do you think has the coolest power, Daddy?

His great caramel eyes were an amusement park.

You do, son.
Beautiful. So I sincerely hope that the confines and deadline pressures of the column don't push Ta-Nehisi Coates into not being Ta-Nehisi Coates. I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Philly, sunset.

Taken at Grace Tavern

How low should taxes go? So low that taxpayers fund corporate profits.

Katrina Trinko reports on Tim Pawlenty's tax proposal:
Among the proposals Pawlenty will push for are cutting the business tax rate to 15 percent from 35 percent and eliminating “special interest handouts, carve-outs, subsidies, and loopholes” in the tax code.
This is standard stuff: Republicans call for lowering the tax rate, but for getting rid of exemptions so that the new tax rate still brings in enough money to ensure proper funding of government operations. Only problem is this: the history of tax reform shows us that the exemptions always, always, always come back into play. Kevin Drum noted this yesterday:
It's always satisfying to take a hard line and demand that the tax code be pure, but human nature just doesn't seem to work that way. Everyone has behavior they believe should be encouraged or discouraged, and sometimes the tax code is the most efficient way of doing it. I'm happy with efforts to scrape barnacles away periodically, but there's no point in pretending that the hull is going to stay clean forever.
Perhaps the certainty of those reappearing exemptions in why business execs are so hot for Pawlenty-style tax-cut-and-reform. The LA Times:
Corporate tax breaks, such as credits for manufacturing in the U.S. and write-offs for equipment purchases, will total about $124 billion this year, according to the Senate Budget Committee.

By taking advantage of those breaks, Boeing, General Electric Co. and 10 other large U.S. corporations were able to avoid paying any taxes on a combined $171 billion in pre-tax U.S. profits from 2008 to 2010, Citizens for Tax Justice said in a report this week.

The companies received a total of $2.5 billion in tax refunds, for a combined effective tax rate of negative 1.5%, the report said.
Taxpayers are paying these companies to do business, in other words. And that's under the current tax structure. I wonder how much more we'd be paying them if the tax rate were cut to 15 percent—and then the exemptions were added back in over a series of years?

That this is happening shows the current tax structure isn't really working all that well, of course. Companies will always seek to minimize their taxes and maximize their profits: of course! But Pawlenty's proposal almost assuredly leads America down the path of funding big-corporation profits at taxpayer expense. If a Democrat did that—say by bailing out car companies—that would be called socialism. When Republicans do it, we call it capitalism.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand, and Jesus

Man, oh man, I hate this ad:

From a pure politics perspective, fair play is fair play: Republicans have spent a couple of generations using religion as a cudgel to portray Democrats and liberals as un-Christian and un-American, and it's a strategy they continue to pursue. Goose, gander, etc.

But liberals have mostly resented this line of attack, believing—rightly, I think—that it veers pretty closely to violating the spirit of the Constitution's "no religious test" for candidates for public office. Creating and running this ad means we've decided the principle isn't so important after all—if we can find a way to use religion as a cudgel from a position of strength, we'll do it!

And I can't help but think that weakens the foundation of our ability to defend the rights of religious minorities—Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and so forth. Maybe it's fair play; I'm not at all sure it's wise.

UPDATE: And politically, it's not that smart either. If Democrats get into a pissing match with Republicans about who is most Christian, Democrats are mostly going to lose.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How low should taxes go? A reply to Bill Voegeli

Last week I posed a question: What level of taxation do conservatives consider appropriate? I'm not sure that I expected much of an answer, but I got one from William Voegeli, whose book "Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State" I referenced in posing the question. It was a thoughtful and civil reply, and though Dr. Voegeli and I have philosphical/instinctive differences, I'm grateful he took the time to craft such a response.

In composing my own reply, I wrestle with a few issues. A) Much of Voegeli's reply occupies itself not so much with the question I posed, but with restating the argument from his book--that overreaching advocates of the welfare state in the United States have created and continually seek to create institutions that have grown unsustainably large. I'm not going to spend much time defending liberals in this post (there are several portions of Voegeli's post that seem to deserve their own replies) because I'm still principally concerned with the question of how much conservatives are willing to pay to sustain the government they do envision. B) When he does settle on an answer, it is so broadly reasonable that I (and, I think, most liberals) couldn't quarrel with it. But C) the daylight between Voegeli's conservative response and the actions of America's conservative party is broad enough that a response purely on Voegeli's points seems to omit a lot of real-world ramifications. We're going to have to talk about Paul Ryan here.

Enough throat-clearing. Let's take a look at a couple of key points in Voegeli's response.
My answer is that one way to describe the difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals want government spending to be the independent variable that determines tax levels, and conservatives want government spending to be the dependent variable determined by taxes.
I think this is an oversimplication. A slightly different way of putting it, I think, would be this: Liberals want taxes to be determined by what they want government to do. Conservatives want taxes to be determined both by what they want government to do and what they want it not to do. (There is, after all, a whole discussion to be had about what the tax level would look like if we had a much, much smaller defense establishment.) That's still an oversimplication--and one that's very charitable to conservatives, as we shall see.

I'm not entirely comfortable with his "liberals want/conservatives want" framework, though, because it is so oversimplified. Put another way: Voegeli's half-right. He and his fellow conservatives want to determine the size of the government and the welfare state, lock it in, and throw away the key. But I don't think it's the case that liberals want to build their utopia now and then figure out how to pay for it. To me, there's plenty of evidence that liberals try to balance goals and resources; the welfare state we expect and hope to build in the United States is not the welfare state we would expect and hope to build in, say, The Solomon Islands. That's a bug to conservatives, I suppose—Voegeli: "One of the reasons to like a growing economy should be that it makes a smaller welfare state possible, rather than because it makes a bigger one possible."—but not to me. A richer society is more capable of providing a safety net; I'm OK with the idea that that increased capability creates something of an increased--though not unlimited--obligation to do so.

But hey: Suppose we were all in agreement about the size of government and the welfare state? That still requires an answer to my question: What level of taxation do conservatives think is the right level of taxation? The conservative answer in our politics always seems to be "a little bit less." Voegeli, bless him, sounds slightly more reasonable.
So, Mathis asks, how high should do (sic) conservatives want our taxes to be? High enough to pay for the things the government needs to do. Which are those? In a democracy, all the things the people feel the government really ought to do. I'm happy to abide by the outcome of the democratic debate over that question, but I think it should be conducted honestly. Honesty requires stipulating that the amount of government we get is no larger than the amount we're willing to pay for, as opposed to the dream-world welfare state we would build if wealth were limitless.
See? I don't think I can argue with a single point in that paragraph. I really can't. We should only build what we can sustain. Let's shut 'er down and go home--after all, not even Paul Krugman thinks we should consign ourselves to a future of ever-larger debts!

So maybe my argument here isn't with Voegeli. Maybe it's with the Republican Party instead. Because it seems to me that over the last generation, welfare-state-loving Democrats have always tried to find the resources to finance their additions to the welfare state--that is, to pay for the things they believed government should do. And Republicans haven't.

Just to cite the two most-obvious examples: Much of the effort in building and passing the Affordable Care Act--known, sneeringly, in some quarters as "ObamaCare"--went into making sure that the act is deficit-neutral during the first 10 years of its life. You can argue that there was some trickiness involved, or that the 10-year-shelf-life of the deficit neutrality is too short a window. Fine. But Democrats actually tried to expand the welfare state without reaching for the national credit card first.

Republicans? Well, back in 2003, A Republican Congress passed the Medicare drug benefit. The law was signed by a Republican president. It reportedly added up to $1.2 trillion to the deficit over a decade. And Republicans couldn't come up with one dime to cover the costs. If there's been a disparity between the willingness to grow the welfare state and the willingness to pay for it, I'd argue that disparity can be found primarily in the actions of America's conservative party.

And we're not even mentioning the unfunded wars of the last decade.

I hear the objections: George W. Bush wasn't a "real" conservative. The Republican Party has learned its lesson. The Tea Party will hold this generation of Republicans accountable.

Enter Paul Ryan. The Republican congressman has introduced one of the more radical budget proposals ever seen. It commands near-unanimous support from the Republican Party in Congress, and to criticize it on the right is conservative apostasy. It is the "rightward pole" in the budget debate.

So what does it actually do? Well it reins in domestic and entitlement spending, reducing the anticipated costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and discretionary spending by more than $2 trillion over the next decade. Presumably, this is what America's conservative party sees as a "right-sized" federal budget—or, at least the closest thing to right-sized that Republicans think entitlement-loving voters will accept.

So. What level of taxation is appropriate to sustain Ryan's budget vision? Well, uh...a little bit less.

It cuts the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. It lowers the marginal tax rate for top incomes from 35 percent to 25 percent. (This at a time when both the rates and the actual taxes collected are really, really low.) And so on. The result? Washington Post columnist Matt Miller gives us the overview:
“The spending spree is over,” Ryan said the other day, after the House passed his blueprint. “We cannot keep spending money we don’t have.” Except that by his own reckoning Ryan is planning to spend $6 trillion we don’t have in the next decade alone.

“We have too many people worried about the next election and not worried about the next generation,” Ryan added. So Ryan is expressing his concern by adding at least $14 trillion to the debt between now and when his plan finally balances the budget sometime in the 2030s (and only then if a number of the plan’s dubious assumptions come to pass).
In other words, America's conservative party has set out its plan for balancing government goals and resources, and it still can't bring itself to pay the bill.* But it can cut taxes. It can always cut taxes.

*President Obama's budget proposal doesn't do any better over the long term, admittedly. Tee up on that if you like. But my purpose here is to determine how conservatives are willing to act.

Now, this isn't William Voegeli's fault. I don't know if he supports Paul Ryan's plan or not, and I'm not inclined to hold him rhetorically responsible. (No more than I'm willing to defend LBJ's 40-year-old comments about "reducing boredom" that Voegeli cites in his reply.) But the "conservative" plan supported by the conservative establishment seems to me a betrayal of the core principle that Voegeli espouses, which is that our leaders should honestly stipulate "that the amount of government we get is no larger than the amount we're willing to pay."

Do Democrats want to strengthen the safety net? Sure. But their efforts in the last generation, while imperfect, have sought to balance goals and resources. Republicans haven't even offered that much. Voegeli, in his book, suggests that Democrats and Republicans can come to a grand bargain on financing the welfare state if Democrats agree to limits on the size of that state. It seems to me, though, that if Republicans take his advice they must also agree to some level of financial support for that state—and right now, that goal appears impossible. What's the right level of taxation for Republicans? A little less, always and forever.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On 'Mediscare'

After a surgery-induced vacation, Ben and I return with the Scripps column to debate the "Medicscare" controversy:
Here, in Paul Ryan's own words, is how he plans to reform Medicare: "Give seniors a voucher for private health insurance that grows at a much smaller rate than actual healthcare costs."

What that means is that as health costs grow ever larger over time, elderly Americans will be forced to bear more and more of the price burden. And if they can't afford to do so? They're on their own.

Conservatives love Ryan's proposal, not because it saves Medicare -- it doesn't -- but because it gradually gets the government out of one part of the safety net business. They don't like the safety net! The problem is that most Americans do like having that safety net: A new CNN poll shows 58 percent of the public dislikes Ryan's proposal.

Republicans argue that poll numbers matter less than dollar numbers: Medicare will run out of money over the next decade if reform isn't made. But it's interesting that Ryan's budget proposal also calls for cutting taxes for the wealthy--when effective tax rates for the rich are already at their lowest point in decades.

The GOP had to decide between preserving the safety net or making the rich richer. Is anybody surprised the rich won? Democrats aren't "Mediscaring" voters on the issue -- they're describing Ryan's plans accurately. But they're not covering themselves in glory, either: They haven't offered a plan to shore up Medicare's finances.

Instead, they're counting on the issue to carry the day in 2012.

Republicans want to shrink, even end, the safety net. Democrats want to save it. By opposing Paul Ryan's proposal, Dems are doing necessary work. Unfortunately, it's only half the job that needs to be done.

Liberals must offer their own proposal for Medicare's future.
Ben argues that the "ObamaCare" bill is the Dem vision for saving Medicare, and he's almost right—but the wonkiest liberals believe there's still work to be done.