Friday, June 29, 2012

The ACLU: Not just a bunch of liberal hacks, continued

Laura W. Murphy: 'Fixing' Citizens United Will Break the Constitution: "In “Fixing Citizens United,” Professor Geoffrey Stone -- usually a friend to the First Amendment -- argues for a constitutional amendment to “fix” the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Professor Stone mentions the proposal rather offhandedly, but the idea is a nuclear option. A constitutional amendment -- specifically an amendment limiting the right to political speech -- would fundamentally “break” the Constitution and endanger civil rights and civil liberties for generations."

Murphy is the director of ACLU's Washington legislative office. They're obviously advancing a radical liberal agenda.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Conservatives vexed to discover Congress has power of taxation

Well, not all of them. But some of them. Take this tweet, for example:

Which, well, yes.

The second-most-trafficked blog post I've ever written here is one I wrote while reading The Federalist Papers.  It's where I dive deep to discover that the Founders intended that Congress have unlimited power of taxation.  Now they obviously didn't expect that it would be used in unlimited fashion, but they were very specific that the power had to be unbounded. Here's one Constitutional case where we don't have to speculate about their intent, because they told us.

Here is Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 31:
As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community. 
As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.
As theory and practice conspire to prove that the power of procuring revenue is unavailing when exercised over the States in their collective capacities, the federal government must of necessity be invested with an unqualified power of taxation in the ordinary modes.
The lack of limits, I think, suggests that the federal government indeed has the power to tax anything that moves. And anything that doesn't move.

I suppose you can argue that taxing people in order to encourage them to buy health insurance doesn't qualify as an "ordinary mode"--but as Chief Justice John Roberts noted in today's opinion upholding the Affordable Care Act, government uses tax policy to encourage and discourage all sorts of behaviors. That horse is out of the barn, and with the full-throated support of a good number of Republicans.

I can understand why conservatives might be disgruntled about today's ruling, though I don't think they have as much to be upset about as they think they do. But if you're going to be mad that the federal government has the power to tax you, don't get mad at John Roberts--he didn't invent the power. The Founders did.

Next up: Barack Obama to put a tax on singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

"“Today’s decision will go down in infamy. It marks the moment when we all lost our freedom because the Supreme Court drew a road map to guide those dedicated to imposing a totalitarian, statist government on the American people. 
“The majority opinion on the individual mandate, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, held that, so long as failure to comply with a government directive is penalized by something ‘reasonably’ called a tax, Congress can force Americans to buy anything. It can force Americans to do something, indeed anything, like eat broccoli. It can force Americans not to do something, like not be obese. Or even not sing the Star Spangled Banner. All of this would be lawful under this ruling today. 
“There is no limit on the evil coming, unless we amend our Constitution. A dark day for America, indeed.” 
Maureen Martin
Senior Fellow for Legal Affairs
The Heartland Institute "
Emphasis added. No other comment offered.

Hey liberals: Get ready for the next Supreme Court battle

Ben and I have a fresh-fresh-fresh Scripps Howard column this week, reflecting on what lessons can be learned from the Supreme Court's ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act. Taking the victory at face value—though maybe I shouldn't—here's my take:

Liberals, enjoy the victory -- because now everything gets harder. 
And I mean everything. The Supreme Court's ruling doesn't end the debate over the Affordable Care Act, it simply throws it back to Congress. Obamacare-hating Republicans already run the House of Representatives. Further Republican victories in November could lead to an outright repeal of the law. It may be years -- if ever -- before the act joins Medicare and Social Security in relative safety from GOP assaults. 
Beyond that, liberals should understand -- as conservatives almost certainly do -- that the fight over Supreme Court nominees will become even more intense going forward. Conservatives don't believe that their argument failed; they believe that Chief Justice John Roberts failed. And they'll act accordingly. 
Remember Harriet Miers? George W. Bush nominated her to the court in 2005 -- but withdrew the nomination in the face of opposition from angry conservatives who felt insufficiently assured she'd take their side on the big issues. Conservatives have demanded those assurances ever since David Souter joined the court's liberal bloc after being appointed by a Republican president. 
They will double down on those efforts. And given the trend of recent years, no one should be surprised if -- when -- Republicans then filibuster the next Supreme Court appointment made by a Democratic president. The customary deference given a president in such matters will evaporate. 
Democrats should be planning and preparing for those clashes now. 
They should also be prepared to modify and improve the law over time. 
The truth is that Obamacare's individual mandate is a blunt, inelegant instrument to expand health coverage in the United States -- flawed, but also what was politically possible at the time it passed. Over time, it will need amending and refinement. That will take a lot of work. 
The defense of Obamacare isn't over. Thanks to John Roberts, it has just begun.

Did John Roberts actually just kill the Affordable Care Act?

Although I have a Scripps Howard column coming out soon that suggests otherwise, I think it's possible that Chief Justice John Roberts decided to kill the Affordable Care Act today--not with the beheading that everybody was expecting, but with a slow-acting poison.

Consider this.

One of the big things the Affordable Care Act does is make it nearly impossible for insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. That removed a big obstacle for many people obtaining insurance, but it also created a problem--burdening those companies with huge medical costs that they were otherwise avoiding. The individual mandate was intended to solve that problem by sending lots of healthy people (and their cash) to the insurance companies, allowing the insurers to still make money.

By reframing the mandate as a tax, though, Roberts may have found the mechanism that blows the house of cards apart. Here he is, delivering the majority opinion:
Indeed, it is estimated that four million people each year will choose to pay the IRS rather than buy insurance. ... We would expect Congress to be troubled by that prospect if such conduct were unlawful. That Congress apparently regards such extensive failure to comply with the mandate as tolerable suggests that Congress did not think it was creating four million outlaws. It suggests instead that the shared responsibility payment merely imposes a tax citizens may lawfully choose to pay in lieu of buying health insurance.
First, for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance, and, by statute, it can never be more. It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance.
Now. I doubt Republicans would mount a campaign to get everybody to pay the tax and avoid health insurance in order to undermine the purposes of he Affordable Care Act. But if the mandate is now framed in the popular mind as a "cheap tax I can pay" instead of a "rule that I must follow," it's possible that many young, poorly paid people will opt to pay the tax--and that insurance companies will drown over time as a result.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein is thinking along similar lines.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

At Imprimis: Richard Vedder is wrong; education pays

At Imprimis—the "most influential conservative publication you've never heard of"—Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder argues that the federal government is creating more problems than benefits with its student loan programs, and along the way makes a weird observation:
What about higher education being a vehicle for equal economic opportunity or income equality? Over the last four decades, a period in which the proportion of adults with four-year college degrees tripled, income equality has declined. (As a side note, I do not know the socially optimal level of economic inequality, and the tacit assumption that more such equality is always desirable is suspect; my point here is simply that, in reality, higher education today does not promote income equality.)
Vedder kind of gives the game away with his postscript—he doesn't care about income inequality, he just thinks it a handy tool to use in the argument against education. And it's true in a very narrow sense that increased access to college hasn't reduced income inequality. In truth, it's probably contributed a bit. Check out this chart:

Would you rather have a four-year college degree—likely with above-average earnings and below-average unemployment—or do you want to just keep that high school diploma?

Or study the numbers here: Between 1990 and 2008, a man with a high school diploma saw his earnings grow just 61 percent—that lagged the 67 percent inflation rate during that same period. Men with bachelor's degrees saw a 209 percent increase in income; men with PhDs saw a 227 percent increase.

Getting a good education, it seems, has been really smart way to stay ahead of the inequality trend.

And that matters, because college education—while more pervasive than it ever has been—is still the exception than the rule: Adults with four or more years of college comprised less than 30 percent of the population in 2009. Combine the relative scarcity of diplomas with the income benefit those diplomas conferred, and you get part of the explanation for increased income inequality in the United States in recent decades.

There are other things that Vedder, to my mind, gets wrong, and clearly we need to talk about how we pay for education and get it delivered. But Vedder's case is premised on this wrongheaded—misleading—idea that college education hasn't been very helpful economically, so to hell with the federal government helping young people get a degree.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Citizens United, the FIrst Amendment, and the Daily News

I bow to no man in my love of the Philadelphia Daily News, but I'm occasionally driven to distraction by one odd habit of the newspaper: Printing letters to the editor that are simply wrong or misleading on the facts—without correction or any indication to readers that the information in the letter is incorrect.

Understand, I'm not talking about a difference of opinion here. I'm talking about easily quantifiable distortions, like Michael Kubacki's letter in today's paper:

In fact, prior to Citizens United, there were a number of corporations that enjoyed unlimited political-speech rights. Philadelphia Media Network Inc., which owns the Daily News, was one of them. In fact, every corporation that owned a newspaper or a radio or TV station was allowed to say whatever it wished, whenever it wished. Other corporations, however, could not. The major effect of the Citizens United case was simply to level that playing field. 
Let us cut through the usual dreary rhetoric about "billionaires" and the "super-rich" who "buy themselves a candidate," and ask some simpler questions. First, why should corporations like Philadelphia Media Network Inc., CBS and the New York Times be permitted to pummel us daily with their political views while Monsanto and Target and BP must be completely silent? And second, when did political speech in America, by anyone, become something that must be suppressed? What an strange attitude for a newspaper to adopt.
Here's the problem: Kubacki is muddling two different kinds of "speech."

In terms of shouting one's opinions to the world, Monsanto, Target, and BP don't have to be completely silent—they're as free as the Daily News or the New York Times to spread word of their views through print and broadcast, and often do. Who hasn't seen BP's "greenwashing" ads in print on TV, for example? 

By the same token, the Daily News—which I'm guessing has not made corporate contributions to campaigns, at least not recently—has never had any more freedom (or less) to make cash donations to political campaigns than BP, Monsanto, etc.

So Kubacki's thesis—that papers somehow have more speech rights, before Citizens United, than other businesses—is simply, demonstrably wrong. But the Daily News' readers won't know that. That's a disservice to those readers and to the Daily News. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

The American Enterprise Institute's really awful new study on income inequality

A new paper from AEI's Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur says what you've heard about exploding income inequality in the United States is wrong: It's not really happening, they say, because consumption trends have remained relatively stable—the rich are consuming more, yes, but so are the not as rich.  It's a variation of the old "even poor people have color TVs now!" argument.

This is completely misleading.

Here is how you know it's misleading. Nowhere in the paper do Hassett and Mathur use the word "debt." And nowhere in the paper do the duo use the word "credit."Nor "bankruptcy."

Instead, the two suggest that debt is something kids do and adults pay their way out of: "Individuals are generally assumed to be able to smooth consumption by borrowing in the low-income years and saving in the high-income years."

Only that's not really true, at least not anymore. 

Here's what personal household debt has done during the last 60 years:

Debt is the blue line. It's always been going up, but the pace accelerated after 1980, and then started going nearly straight up during the first decade of the 21st century. That led to....

A big rise in bankruptcies. That big drop in 2006? That wasn't an improvement in American's well-being: That was the result of a new law meant to make it tougher to file for bankruptcy—and make sure that credit card companies could keep collecting fees from tapped-out customers.

And just for kicks, here's what happened to the personal savings rates:

Americans stopped saving.

And incidentally, this wasn't a widespread phenomenon. By 2007--just before the crash--this is what debt and income levels looked like for the various quintiles of American society:

In both charts, you'll note that the debt exceeds income for every income group...except for the top quintile.

Now, you can argue that Americans shouldn't have dug themselves such a deep hole, and that's a great argument to have. What you can't do is argue that everything is fine and dandy because consumption trends were consistent among the various income groups. The devastation of savings and the rise of big borrowing masked the growing inequality and permitted the consumption to continue—and when it became unsustainable, the economy went boom.

It's such an obvious objection, you have to wonder if AEI's economists were even trying. The report shouldn't be taken seriously.

Obama and immigration: A reader responds

A reader of the Reading (Ca.) Record Searchlight does not like my take on the immigration debate. He writes:
You start by saying Obama did a "righteous thing." By whose definition? Is circumventing congress righteous in your opinion? Are constsnt rewards for illegal immigrants a good thing, knowing their presence puts millions of Americans out of work (including minorities, the poor, the young, and blue collar workers) and costing us well over $100 billion per years a righteous thing? I am assuming you are on the liberal side of things. Liberals seem to operate on emotion. I think that they believe that heart-felt emotion trumps reason, logic, and adhearance to the law. You admit that we, as a nation, have the right to defend its borders and enforce our laws, but you just don't want us to do that for "moral" reasons. Huh? is it moral that the people of our country constantly suffer at the hands of of millions of illegals and a federal government that has an agenda of its own that doesn't include keeping our country sovereign? 
Question-If we let the younger illegals stay, will that be enough for you, or do you want amnesty ("comprehensive immigration reform") for the other millions of illegals? I'd like a response to this one, please. Why does my country keep on backing down, backing up, and bending over on this issue? When to we get a president that actually puts Americans first and says, "Illegal immigration is wrong. It is bad for this country. It should never have been allowed to get to this point in the first place and is no longer acceptable. From now on, it will no longer be tolerated, so all those in the country illegally, regardless of race, ethnicity, nation of origin, or income/educational level, will have to leave by a set deadline. Failue to do so will incur severe penalties. The illegal immigration "party is over?" Why are we always pandering to people who have no right to be here? Why is that righteous and moral? ALL illegal immigrants should face the threat of deportation. 
Betraying this country in favor of millions of trespassers is in no way righteous.
My reader and I disagree on just how much America has "suffered" from illegal immigration; I think it's obvious there have also been benefits, to a great many people, or there wouldn't be such market for illegal immigrants to fill. It's also indisputably true that illegal immigrants often pay taxes—particularly Social Security taxes—that they'll never get to benefit from. And a lot of the pain and suffering created by illegal immigration is probably because it's illegal—like Prohibition, we're creating more problems than we solve by criminalizing behavior. So is it a net good or a net negative that there are so many illegal immigrants here? Since I'm a namby-pamby liberal, I suspect it's a net good; and if it is a net bad, it's probably not nearly as bad as what the most ardent opponents (like my reader) believe and would have you believe.

Now, the question: Amnesty?

I don't think that's necessary, but I probably have a narrower idea of what constitutes "amnesty." If it means that we shouldn't deport every last person here illegally...then maybe I believe in amnesty--mostly because I think we can't and won't. The resources simply don't exist. "ALL illegal immigrants should face the threat of deportation?" Good luck with that.

But. I think there's a middle ground between "deport them all" and a full-blown path to citizenship. I think most reasonable solutions to solving the immigration issue involve greatly expanding work permits that allow foreign workers to legally enter the country and work here. And by greatly, I mean numbering in the millions. Essentially, we'd tell people who are currently residing here illegally: "You came here the wrong way. That means you forfeited the possibility of becoming a citizen and gaining those benefits. But by registering legally, you'll have permission to work and to go home on occasion without have to make a risky re-entry into the United States."Only workers who'd originally entered the United States through approved means would ever be eligible for citizenship.

What does this accomplish? A few things:

• It relieves the federal government of the strain of trying to chase quite so many illegal immigrants if fewer of them are illegal. That's a money saver.

• It's been documented that many illegal immigrants aren't so much interested in citizenship as they are in work; if they could go home without risking their lives on re-entry, many of them would. Many such folks settle here for no better reason than it's hard to go back home. Giving folks legal status might change that dynamic.

• If immigrants had legal status, it might be more difficult for employers to exploit them, wage-wise, and indirectly suppress wages available for American citizens. 

There would be other benefits, I think, as well.

But yes, I stand by the "righteousness" of Obama's act: Yes, many young people are here illegally, but A) it's not their fault and B) they're not culturally "of" their home countries. Shipping them back to homes they never knew ends up destroying a lot of those lives--without, I think, creating a enough of a deterrent to future offenders to make those destroyed opportunities worth it. They lose more than we as a society lose by letting them stay. Better to use them as a resource for creating a better America. It's not a perfect solution, because it means we have to accept the fruits of illegal immigration. But we're going to do that anyway, so let's at least do it in a productive, positive fashion.

Final thought: I've been at anti-immigration rallies—and yes, they were often more "anti-immigration" than "anti-illegal immigration." It may well be that liberals emote on this issue, but I guarantee we don't have the market cornered.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Of *course* China's economy is slowing down

Chinese Data Said to Be Manipulated, Understating Slowdown -
"Record-setting mountains of excess coal have accumulated at the country’s biggest storage areas because power plants are burning less coal in the face of tumbling electricity demand. But local and provincial government officials have forced plant managers not to report to Beijing the full extent of the slowdown, power sector executives said. 
Electricity production and consumption have been considered a telltale sign of a wide variety of economic activity. "
One quick, obvious thought: Of course China's economy is slowing down. It's an export-based manufacturing economy--and consumers in the rest of the world are either A) holding onto their cash, B) don't have any cash, or C) are paying down old credit cards. We're not buying as much stuff as we used to. That means China can't sell as much as it used to. China may be stronger than a lot of Western nations, but n a globalized economy, nobody gets out alive.

Mitt Romney and the crisis of capitalism

The New York Times reports that even when Mitt Romney lost, he won: "The private equity firm, co-founded and run by Mitt Romney, held a majority stake in more than 40 United States-based companies from its inception in 1984 to early 1999, when Mr. Romney left Bain to lead the Salt Lake City Olympics. Of those companies, at least seven eventually filed for bankruptcy while Bain remained involved, or shortly afterward, according to a review by The New York Times. In some instances, hundreds of employees lost their jobs. In most of those cases, however, records and interviews suggest that Bain and its executives still found a way to make money."

The Times adds: "Bain structured deals so that it was difficult for the firm and its executives to ever really lose, even if practically everyone else involved with the company that Bain owned did, including its employees, creditors and even, at times, investors in Bain’s funds."

If there's a crisis of capitalism these days, it's because it's very much a rigged game: The people at the top can't lose, even when their investments go to hell. The people below them can't really win--again, witness the stagnating middle-class wages of the last 30 years--but they can lose. It's not the old days where the shuttering of a factory meant the devastation of the local family that had owned it for 50 years, and so everybody lost together. These days, the Mitt Romneys of the world dust themselves off, count their piles of cash, and move onto the next town. Of course that's going to breed resentment. And if Romney is saying his business acumen is the reason he should be president, then it's absolutely fair game for criticism. 

More to the point: The other day I mentioned Bill Voegeli and his idea that capitalism might be revived if more people--workers--had skin in the game, in terms of compensation tied to the success or failure of their companies. I like that idea, but workers clearly do have skin in the game: When jobs go away, so does their ability to earn a living. Capitalism might also be improved if private equity firms like Bain also had real skin in the game, if they suffered instead of making profits even as the businesses they buy go under in a sea of Bain-generated debt.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Obama and immigration

Ben and I debate the president's DREAM Act order in this week's column for Scripps. My take:
Obama did a righteous thing. 
Yes, America has a right to defend its borders. And yes, it has the right to deport people who came and lived in our country illegally. 
But it would be morally wrong to deport young people who came to the country as children -- and who, having lived here most of their lives, genuinely understand themselves to be Americans. The sins of the father, after all, should not be visited upon the son. 
In a sane political culture, Congress would have passed a law -- the DREAM Act -- codifying such principles. We do not live in a sane political culture: The last attempt to pass the act, in 2010, won a majority of votes in the Senate, but could not clear a filibuster. (The filibuster is evil, but that's a discussion for another time.) 
So it's disingenuous of people like Rubio to suggest that the president's act made it "harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term solution" about how to let such young people legally live and work here. There has been little indication the Senate was headed toward such a solution, which is one reason why Obama acted. 
Without Congress' stamp of approval, however, Obama's action is imperfect. The next president can reverse it. (Presumed GOP nominee Mitt Romney has not said if he would do so.) So it only amounts to a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation faced by young immigrants. And it does nothing to create a path to citizenship for them. At best, the Obama administration has only made limbo a bit more comfortable for such young folks. 
Congress can still act. It can still permanently resolve the status of young immigrants. Until that happens, the Obama administration's decision not to deport is the best of a bunch of bad options. Better than that: It's righteous.
Ben counters that Obama's act is an "usurpation of congressional authority. Congress makes the rules on immigration and naturalization. Not the president. On that point, the Constitution is clear." Ben is right, and I'm also not sure I care.

Congress also has the power to declare war and to make "make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;" but the last 12 years or so—under both Obama and his predecessor—have seen the executive branch essentially claim those powers as its own, ignoring many of the rules that Congress had already put in place. And Congress didn't really see fit to do anything about it.

So if that's the kind of government we've got—and I'm not really happy about that—then let's use that usurped power for good now and again, why don't we? What the president did was, to my mind, unambiguously good. I'd feel worse about the means of getting there if I thought that we'd get restraint in other important areas.

On being a stay-at-home dad

I wrote about it for The Philly Post. A taste:
"At times, I wonder if I’m ruining him. 
Why? Because writing takes sustained thought. And sustained thought is hard to come by when your kid needs clothes, needs to go outside, needs to go inside, needs something to eat, needs something to drink—”I’m so very hungry and firsty” are words he utters a dozen times a day—needs boo-boos kissed, needs a book read, needs a hug, needs to interrupt me when I’m on the phone, needs, needs, needs, needs everything but to take a goddamned nap once in awhile. 
Sometimes I give him my iPad and send him off to watch Thomas The Tank Engine for a couple of hours—just so I can get some work done. Great parenting, right?"

Dear Stu Bykofsky: Please never write about Asian women ever again

It's been less than a year after Stu Bykofsky creeped out Philadelphia with his wink-wink did-he-or-didn't-he? column about his trip to Thailand and the easy availability of sex with prostitutes there. Today, he's writing—again—about Asian women and sex. To be fair, the topic is at least newsworthy: Philadelphia Housing Authority director Michael Kelly resigned last week and admitted an affair with Audrey Lim, a Singapore native who also got the job of PHA's human resources director under Kelly. Bizarrely, though, Kelly—who comprised one-half of the affair and who was, after all, the person who apparently abused his authority in this case—gets only a passing mention in Byko's column. Instead, Stu weaves a tale in which Lim spins a web with her dragon lady wiles:
Her name is Audrey Lim and she is from Singapore. She did the right things to prepare herself for success. She earned a master's degree in occupational therapy, a master's in government administration and then a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology (whatever that means). Like you, she worked hard. Unlike you, perhaps, she met her future boss — PHA Executive Director Carl Greene — in a bar, according to PHA sources. Where better to discuss Community Development Block Grants? Before you could say, "Fill it again, Joe," she was hired as a "senior adviser" for $95,000. See that, kids? You don't need to pound on doors or fire off resumes on the Internet. If you are shapely and well-spoken, just sip a Singapore Sling in a bar and let the PHA job offers come to you. This isn't exclusive to the PHA. Younger and prettier and thinner Americans get paid more, it has been shown many times. Instead of a postgraduate degree, I'd suggest you grads invest in cosmetic surgery or a stomach bypass. This is not to denigrate Dr. Lim, who resigned last month, reportedly to return to Singapore to minister to a sick relative. Greene hired her — no information about how much senior advice she gave him — and when he was sent packing for sexual improprieties, reform PHA Executive Director Michael Kelly hiked her salary to $125,000 and put her in charge of PHA's human resources, which is what she became. Nine months later they were doing the housing hoochie koochie. I don't have to say allegedly because the married Kelly admitted the affair.
In Byko's telling, the story of the PHA isn't one in which a series of men took advantage of their power to get their jollies—but rather one in which those powerful men found themselves helpless before a "shapely" woman sipping "Singapore Slings" in a bar. Given what we've learned about Byko over the last year, it's hard not to read this column as speaking to some of his increasingly weird hangups—particularly when it comes to Asian women. But the whole thing comes off creepy and slut-shaming, while essentially giving the boys a pass. The man has editors, doesn't he? Maybe they should encourage him not to write about Asian women and sex anymore. They'd be doing us all a favor.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

How about we make the workers into shareholders?

At The Claremont Review of Books, William Voegeli--friend and occasional nemesis--acknowledges popular discontent with capitalism, and intriguingly suggests that can be fixed by making capitalism something people do--as opposed to something that happens to people. Most intriguingly, he suggests giving workers a stake in their companies by tying wages--in part or in whole--to the success of the enterprise. He suggests that labor unions have been the biggest obstacle to such an arrangement:
"The greatest monument to the illusion that employees can and should prosper regardless of the economic condition of their employer is the rusting ruin that's the American labor movement. In Which Side Are You On? (1991), labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan lamented that the failure to take the biggest equity position it could in the industries where it represented workers "was the longest-running mistake in the history of labor, the unwitting, almost Gandhi-like renunciation of power." Geoghegan's explanation is that unionists were so strongly committed to the idea that workers and employers' relationship had to be adversarial that they never accepted the possibility of it being collaborative. "The attitude in labor was: collective bargaining is for adults, stockholder meetings are for kids.""
Perhaps. And maybe I'm too cynical. But I think it might be difficult to persuade management and ownership of companies to share equity with their workforces--especially in the 21st century, when those workforces can be outsourced or replaced by high-tech robotics that can do the jobs of several humans, often faster and better. If there is popular discontent with capitalism, it's partly because workers perceive that they're not seen by management as collaborators--and perhaps not even quite human, but as balance-sheet entries that can all too easily be eliminated to fatten a company's margins. Maybe these issues can be resolved, however.

In any case, I'm also intrigued that Voegeli's capitalist response to the crisis of capitalism doesn't sound hugely different from that of actual self-described socialist Harold Meyerson, who regularly extols German-style industrial capitalism--in which workers are well-represented on governing boards, and thus have some skin in the game of the enterprise--as a solution to what ails us. There are some distinctions between their approaches, to be sure, but the underlying concept is sound: To restore capitalism, and confidence in capitalism, workers must be given a clear-cut stake in its success. After 30 years of watching the middle class stagnate while top incomes soared, that change in approach would be welcome indeed.

What does social science prove about gay marriage?

David French says that liberals are so committed to gay marriage that they'd be in favor even if it demonstrably harmed children of gay marriage:
"There could exist definitive social science that homosexual families produce — on average — worse outcomes for their children than heterosexual families, and the fervor of the gay-marriage advocates would be undimmed. After all (and like no-fault divorce), the case for gay marriage has never been about the welfare of children, but instead, the fulfillment of adults.  "
At risk of saying, "I know you are but what am I?": Does anybody really think that the mass of social conservatives would drop their opposition to gay marriage even if definitive proof existed that children did better in gay families? I think the mass of opposition to gay marriage is rooted in religious beliefs—people believe it to be morally wrong—and field research probably isn't going to persuade them otherwise. The emphasis on "the welfare of children" is the fighting ground mainly because it offers a secular reason to oppose gay marriage—though advocates undoubtedly believe it to be true, because they believe gay marriage is morally wrong. But if the child welfare argument weren't available to them, they'd find another objection. We all have our predispositions, but contra French, liberals aren't any more committed to theirs than conservatives are.

Let's raise taxes to pay for our wars

Walter Pincus makes a sensible suggestion:
"Given today’s situation, why doesn’t President Obama link his request to restore Clinton-level taxes on the wealthy to the $88.5 billion requested for fiscal 2013 to pay for continuing the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts worldwide? That Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, the supplemental appropriation created to fund Iraq, Afghanistan and other military actions abroad, is expected to continue as long as the United States has troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas confronting terrorists. 
For planning purposes, the Congressional Budget Office sees the OCO account running $44 billion a year through 2022. 
What about Obama, Romney or even hawkish members of Congress introducing a special excise tax on telephone calls or even Internet usage or ending some tax loopholes to pay that $44 billion a year. Taxes have been used to pay for America’s past wars going back to the War of 1812 — except for Iraq and Afghanistan."
There's an old saying: "If you want less of something, tax it." Since we have an all-volunteer military, the vast majority of Americans don't feel the effects of their country being at constant war around the globe--a situation that's persisted long enough now that most of us simply don't pay close attention anymore. Explicitly linking Americans' tax bills to those wars might give them some skin in the game--and force officials to justify their actions instead of relying on inertia to continue military operations. Which is why no such tax will be passed, probably. But it's galling to see some folks try to cut Social Security and Medicare while feeling little obligation to pay now for the wars we conduct.

The French bookselling model: Nice idea, but bad for readers

"Since 1981 the “Lang law,” named after its promoter, Jack Lang, the culture minister at the time, has fixed prices for French-language books. Booksellers — even Amazon — may not discount books more than 5 percent below the publisher’s list price, although Amazon fought for and won the right to provide free delivery. 
Last year as French publishers watched in horror as e-books ate away at the printed book market in the United States, they successfully lobbied the government to fix prices for e-books too. Now publishers themselves decide the price of e-books; any other discounting is forbidden. 
There are also government-financed institutions that offer grants and interest-free loans to would-be bookstore owners."
Notice who wins in this scenario: Publishers and booksellers. Readers? Not so much. It's readers who benefit from price competition, after all.

Consider this: The list price of "Do Not Ask What Good We Do," Robert Draper's new book about the House of Representatives, is $28. If America had a French-style book law, nobody in the country could sell the new book for much less than that. Here, though, you can buy it from Amazon for $18.10--$13.50, if you buy new from one of the third-party sellers who operate on Amazon's site. I bought the book for $15, its Kindle price; in France, I'd perhaps have still paid $28, a printing press price for a cloud-based book.

What France's model does is price lower-class readers out of the market for new books; they have to wait until such books show up used. And that's not culturally crippling, I guess. But if you're somebody like me, with finite resources but a great desire to read current books, the French model would be a real hardship.

The alternative argument, I suppose, is that readers benefit when booksellers and publishers remain financially healthy to keep producing and selling books, and that's true enough. But that benefit is indirect--and keeps prices high enough that it's easy to speculate that France, for all its love of books, is actually selling fewer than it could or should because it keeps prices propped artificially high.

Today in Philadelphia Police corruption: Yes, *that* dumb

"THE IDEA to start selling heroin apparently wasn't dumb enough in the mind of young Philly cop Jonathan Garcia. 
The 23-year-old had to go and do it on duty. 
In uniform. 
Across the street from the district headquarters where he was assigned in Point Breeze."
In fairness: There is no John McNesby quote defending the guy.

Death of football watch: Why 'Friday Night Lights' isn't quite as much fun

A New York Times feature on how even professional football players are saying they won't let their kids play, for fear of long-term health problems:
"Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said: “Football is really on the verge of a turning point here. We may see it in 15 years in pretty much the same place as boxing or ultimate fighting.” 
In other words, less a lucrative American colossus and more a niche sport beloved for its brutality."
On a related note, I (finally!) watched the pilot episode of "Friday Night Lights" last night, after years of hearing worshipful hubub from my friends. I was particularly struck by an early scene in which Taylor Kitsch's character--having shown up to practice half-drunk--is put at the center of a circle of teammates and tackled by each of them, taking turns, while the coach yells at him for his transgression.

The coach in the series is supposed to be a good guy. And the scene is meant to be a tough scene. But something has changed in the six years or so since it first aired: The scene felt cruel. Like I was watching "Hostel" or "Saw" or some other movie in the torture porn genre.

Granted, this is the same episode that (spoilers!) sees the star quarterback paralyzed with an in-game neck injury: "Friday Night Lights" doesn't shy away from the idea that the game is inherently violent. What's striking, though, is that after the kid is carted off the field, the game resumes, and we're treated to an underdog-comes-back story designed to give us goosebumps. And through the first two episodes, at least, nobody questions whether the game is worth the sacrifice of a young man's life and health. It's a tragedy, yes, but...tragedies happen?

Hey, it's just a TV show. And I intend to keep watching, for now: I'm told it's a good show that isn't about football, but which is set in a football milieu. OK. But the culture has shifted ever-so-minutely since these episodes first aired. Given what we know now about brain injuries and the number of football players who have committed suicide, it's initially hard to see "Friday Night Lights" as anything but the gasp of a dying era, and a dying sport.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nash Keune's misleading numbers on the food stamp program

At NRO, Nash Keune asks why the food stamp program is still growing if unemployment is coming down:
"In 2000, only 17.3 million people were on food stamps. That number has ballooned to 46.6 million. Of course, it makes sense that participation in a countercyclical program would increase during a recession. But the number of people using food stamps has grown much more than the participation in other similar programs. For example, Medicaid spending increased 27 percent during the recession, while food-stamp spending has jumped 110 percent. 
Conversely, as the unemployment rate has come down in the last couple of years, the participation rates have actually jumped. From FY 2009 to FY 2011 the number of people receiving food stamps increased by 11.2 million even while the unemployment rate declined modestly. Even according to the rosy economic predictions of the Congressional Budget Office, the number of people on food stamps is projected to drop back only to 33.7 million by 2022, a time in which the unemployment rate is expected to fall to 5.3 percent. This projection of 33.7 million recipients is still slightly higher than the number of people on food stamps in the heart of the recession in 2009, and it’s almost twice the number of recipients in 2000."
It's true that the unemployment rate has declined somewhat, though it's still more than double the 4 percent unemployment rate that existed in 2000.  And even that number is misleadingly optimistic, since the workforce participation rate is incredibly low right now—lots of unemployed Americans have simply given up trying to find a job, since they aren't finding a job.

What's more, even as the unemployment rate has declined slightly, America's poverty rate has continued to climb: 2009's 14.3 percent poverty rate was the highest since 1965. Then it went up to 15.1 percent in 2010. That was about 46.2 million people living in poverty—a number that corresponds pretty closely to Keune's 46.6 million on food stamps, no? 

Yes, but Medicaid spending has increased at only a quarter the rate of food stamp spending! Well, sure. And the explanation for that is easy: Except when emergencies strike, people can and will put off medical spending when they're poor. But you gotta eat.

The unemployment rate on its own is an insufficient indicator of whether people need the food stamp program; just because you have a job doesn't mean it pays well. The poverty rate is probably a better indication of our national need.

In any case, it's telling that Keune cites a "declining unemployment rate" while never specifying the size of that decline. Maybe it's because the jobs situation is still much worse than it was in 2000; it's clear the need for food assistance remains high as well.

Would Obama attack Iran to beat Romney?

I'm not sure what to make of this assertion from Victor Davis Hanson at NRO:
"Suddenly around October the world will become absolutely unsafe. In these dangerous times, Americans must forget their differences, come together, and embrace a bipartisan unity — given that it may be necessary, after all, to hit the Iranian nuclear facilities, since we’ll have learned that the bomb may be a reality by, say, mid-November. Just as we have been reminded that Barack Obama has saved us by his brave decisions to use double agents in Yemen, computer viruses in Iran, Seal Team Six in Pakistan, and philosophically guided Predator assassination hits, so too a strike against Iran may suddenly be of vital national-security interest, though keenly lamented by a Nobel laureate nose-deep in Thomas Aquinas. "
Emphasis added. There is a double-standard at work over the last 30 years or so: When Republican presidents go to war, they're righteously defending the country. When Democratic presidents go to war—and I'm also thinking here of impeachment-era Bill Clinton—it's wag-the-dog pandering designed to distract the country from the president's weaknesses.

It makes you wonder if the Republicans are, well, projecting a bit. Even if not, it's interesting: When Democrats are "tough" by Republican standards, it's additional proof of how weak they really are.

Me? I think we can probably ultimately live with a nuclear Iran, though I'd rather not have to. And I think President Obama—for all his many faults on the topics of war and civil liberties—understands that attacking Iran, no matter the timing, would be hugely destabilizing around the world. He seems to understand (in a way his predecessor didn't) that wars aren't just opportunities to look awesome—they can also create awful unintended consequences. I'm cynical, but I have a hard time envisioning him unleashing death and widespread misery merely for the sake of getting 270 electoral votes.

As for Victor Davis Hanson: He's basically asserting the president is willing to kill to win an election. If November comes without military action, I wonder if he'll apologize for his fact-free speculation of evil on the president's part. I doubt it.

One way to fight the recession: Communal living

Census Bureau: "In spring 2007, there were 19.7 million shared households — defined as a household with at least one “additional” adult. An additional adult is a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is neither the householder, the spouse nor the cohabiting partner of the householder. By spring 2010, the number of shared households had increased to 22.0 million while all households increased by only 1.3 percent."

Mitt Romney learned the wrong lesson from Sarah Palin

Something I think many rank-and-file conservatives have misunderstood about the left's emphasis on diversity is that it's not just about getting women and minorities at the table for the sake of getting women and minorities at the table—it's often an attempt to tap and develop the talents of people who have traditionally been blocked from fully practicing those talents. Republicans tend to cast diversity efforts almost exclusively in terms of pandering—which may be why, when they get around to trying to promote diversity in their own ranks, they often do it in the worst, most pandering way possible.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin.

Shortly after she was picked for the GOP vice presidential nomination four years ago, I wrote—in a blog post that appears to be lost to the ages—that if it failed, Republicans would learn learn the wrong lesson from that failure—and see the problem more in Palin's gender than in her obvious deficiencies as a national-level candidate. Via Jonathan Chait, we see that's precisely what happened
"I think, unfortunately, Palin poisoned the well on that," said one informal Romney adviser, fretting that any woman selected as VP would draw inevitable comparisons to the former Alaska governor. "I would guess if I were inside the Romney mind that they're worried that any woman chosen will be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny. "
It's true that some of the attacks on Palin were sexist. However: Palin was subjected to a fair amount of scrutiny for a couple of reasons: A) She was largely unknown at the national level when John McCain selected her as his running mate. B) She avoided interactions with the press, making it appear she had something to hide. C) When she did sit down for in-depth interviews, it sure looked as though she wasn't adequately prepared for federal governance. She invited scrutiny precisely because she had never before been scrutinized.

If McCain had selected Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson—which wouldn't have happened for other political reasons—the dynamic would've been different. Yes, there would've been scrutiny on her as the first national female GOP candidate, but she was also a known quantity who would've been prepared to discuss federal issues.

But the lesson Republicans have learned from Palin's candidacy isn't: "Unprepared candidates are bad candidates," or "Polarizing candidates are polarizing" but "women are bad candidates." That's kind of sexist, but mostly it's dumb—and, if true, will deprive the party of some of its best and most energetic talent. Which is even dumber.

'Religious freedom' is just another word for 'nothing left to lose'

I think we're entering the phase where invocations of "religious freedom" are increasingly losing their meaning. The latest example is in Harrisburg, where the Catholic Church is backing a bill to eliminate Department of Public Welfare oversight of church-based day cares and give it to the state's Department of Education—which, incidentally, has no power or infrastructure to actually regulate those day cares:
"The committee chairman, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), said the bill was needed because of "continuing encroachment that impacts the religious mission of schools and day-care facilities." 
When pressed by other lawmakers, neither Piccola nor a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which supports the measure, could cite an instance where there had been an attempt by state officials to interfere with any religious curriculum."
We have enough battles over the appropriate spheres of public and private responsibility that I'd hate to see the term "religious freedom" turn into some Orwellian phrase that disguises more than it illuminates. Seems to me that if you're going to allege that the state is trampling such freedom, you ought to have at least an anecdote available to make the case. As it stands, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference looks plenty cynical.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Alexander Aan: 'God does not exist'

Press release in my inbox just now:
Atheist Alliance International (AAI) has launched the 'God Does Not Exist' campaign to draw attention to the case of Alexander Aan, the Indonesian atheist attacked and arrested in January 2012 after posting 'God does not exist' and articles and cartoons about Islam on Facebook. Aan was convicted by an Indonesian court on 14 June 2012, sentenced to two years and six months jail and fined Rp100 million (c.US$10,600). 
AAI urges people to exercise their freedom of expression by tweeting messages of support for Aan with the hashtag #goddoesnotexist and posting 'God Does Not Exist' on their Facebook page.
Here's more on the case from the New York Daily News.

I mention this, because in similar cases in which people have been persecuted or prosecuted for making drawings of Mohammed, lots of folks on the "clash of the civilizations right" have been eager to show solidarity—and, not incidentally, insult Islam—by also drawing Mohammed. I understand the urge to blasphemy, but decided awhile back that it was mostly wrongheaded. The glee suggested to me that the intent of many Mohammed depicters was to blaspheme somebody else's faith more than to defend free speech. Their right, of course, but one that struck me ... distasteful.

I somehow doubt most folks who draw Mohammed will be moved to show solidarity with Aan this time by posting a statement—'God Does Not Exist'—that is general enough to implicate religions beyond Islam, to offend religious believers of a wider variety.

Alexander Aan shouldn't be in jail, period, for his expressions of unfaith. Are we willing to be just as vigorous—and offensive—in defending him as we are in other situations? I'm skeptical, but willing to be proved wrong.

Why Pennsylvania's liquor business should be privatized

Top LCB officials said to take gifts, favors from vendors:
"The report names LCB chief executive officer Joe Conti, board member Patrick J. "P.J." Stapleton III, and marketing director James Short as having accepted gifts and favors, including wine and tickets to sporting events and golf tournaments. 
It says one LCB vendor secured a round of golf with a pro for Stapleton during a tournament at Aronimink - and sent two employees to serve as Stapleton's caddies."
It seems to me that this is the kind of back-scratching behavior that goes on all the time among private business executives—maybe slightly unseemly, if that, but never rising to the level of outright bribery. What makes this report newsworthy is that it's not private business executives taking the gifts: It's state officials. And that's something different.

Saving liquor execs from charges of graft isn't really a reason to privatize Pennsylvania's system of state liquor stores—it's not even in the Top 10 reasons, really. But having the state dabble in what really should be a private business is going to create problems like this from time to time. Especially in a state like ours, where corruption isn't exactly uncommon.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Stay-at-home dads on the upswing

I'm a trend-setter: "Nationwide, the number of stay-at-home dads has more than doubled in the past decade, as more families are redefining what it means to be a breadwinner. There were only about 81,000 Mr. Moms in 2001, or about 1.6 percent of all stay-at-home parents. By last year, the number had climbed to 176,000, or 3.4 percent of stay-at-home parents, according to U.S. Census data."

Of course, that's still a very small trend.

Mayor Nutter hates home cooking

Me today at The Philly Post, writing a letter urging President Obama to hire Mayor Nutter away from us:
"You can probably sympathize with the mayor because he, like you, has found his time in office derailed by a cratering economy and the desperate, flailing need just to keep the ship afloat. Neither of you get the credit you probably deserve for the fact that our city and nation simply haven’t burned down in the last four years.

Still, Mr. President, you at least got a version of health care reform enacted. You ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. You ended the war in Iraq. These have been mostly good things, substantive stuff that improves lives.

Mayor Nutter’s had a harder time coming up with a signature achievement. The AVI failure is most recent, but it’s not been so long since he failed in his attempt to impose a tax on sugary drinks. Has any Philadelphia mayor so routinely failed to get City Council backing for his initiatives?"
Head over to PhillyMag to read the whole thing.

Billy Eger writes in

I hadn't heard from my most-loyal correspondent in quite some time. Never fear, he's still tracking me:
Hey joel,thats the first time in 3yrs you kinda told the truth.whats wrong giving up on your marxist ideas?that hope an change not working out like you thought?ps. Its been 3yrs he had to work on it NOT 27 months.your a joke
As is often the case: I have no idea what he's talking about. But it pleases me to receive Billy's emails. It really does.

Turns out Republicans don't want campaign-finance transparency, after all

Back when Citizens United was decided, I suggested that we'd soon see a movement toward keeping campaign donors secret: "The effects of corporate money flooding campaigns can be somewhat counteracted by know who is spending the money and where it’s going to. Soon, though, we might not even have that. And what we’ll have is millions upon millions of dollars being spent to sway voters without those voters having any understanding of how the system is really working. That’ll be good for corporations and the candidates they support. But it won’t be so good for the rest of us — or for our democracy." And I said it because that was the clear aim of the big-money advocates.

I mention this because, in a rare bit of vindication for my political prediction abilities, that's precisely what has come to pass. Fred Hiatt gives the overview today:
Republicans always dangled this apple in the most alluring way. Political money will find a path, they would insist. Give up! Give in! We will post every donation on the Web, instantly! We will give you transparency! Sunshine! Accountability!

What could be more democratic?

I never strayed, though, and now I thank the gods of McCain-Feingold that I did not, because the temptation turns out to have been nothing but a trick. The Republicans, apparently, never meant it. Now that they have Unlimited Donations, or something pretty close, they don’t want Unlimited Disclosure after all.

They want unlimited contributions, in secret.
Read the whole thing, as they say. It was all rather drearily predictable.

John McNesby hates accountability for Philadelphia Police, continued

In Philadelphia, a homicide detective falsifies his time sheets and gets fired—and his supervisors are reprimanded. FOP President John McNesby is on the scene:
"The murder rates in Philadelphia are through the roof, and guys like Kenny Rossiter clear the murder rates," McNesby said. "If I had a relative who had been murdered, I would want somebody like Kenny Rossiter on the case, whether he's home, whether he's at the office, or whether he's in North Wildwood."
We all love movies featuring hard-bitten detectives who have deep, compromising flaws. In real life, Kenny Rossiter effectively (and, perhaps I should say, allegedly) robbed Philadelphia taxpayers of money. And that's a problem: We can't find any homicide detectives who don't cheat their employers?

I sometimes wonder if I give McNesby too hard a time: He very often shows up in the paper when some bit of police malfeasance in the news, and it's his job to provide a defense to members of the union. And yet: The cumulative effect of his defenses is to suggest that the police alone are allowed to be lawless in this city. McNesby is breeding cynicism. Maybe he cares. Maybe he doesn't.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The ACLU: Not just a bunch of liberal hacks

Via Radley Balko, we see that the ACLU is defending (PDF) a student who wore an anti-gay-marriage shirt to school

Read the whole thing. And as always, I ask: Would the righty American Center for Law and Justice take similar action on behalf of a gay student? No. No it wouldn't.

Marco Rubio's bad reason to oppose President Obama's immigration policy "Congressional Republicans were more pointed in their criticism, but they too were careful not to oppose some kind of solution to the problem of young people who are in the country illegally but who are productive, otherwise law-abiding residents. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, denounced it as “possibly illegal” for essentially bypassing lawmakers. Mr. Rubio said the announcement would be “welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer,” but that by going around Congress, the president had made it “harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term” solution." (Emphasis added.)

Poppycock. The reason the president took action is that a "balanced and responsible long-term solution" has been impossible to come by in Congress. President George W. Bush tried and failed to achieve sane immigration reform when his party had control of Congress—but his party also has too many nativists who take a hard line against any path to citizenship for immigrants who are already here. President Obama, in the waning weeks of the Democratic majority in Congress in 2010, failed to secure passage of the DREAM Act that would give young immigrants a path to citizenship.

There's no reason—none—to believe that Congress is going to ever take a balanced and responsible action to resolve the situation. President Obama is walking up to the edge of his power in saying he affirmatively won't deport young illegal immigrants, but the idea that he's keeping Congress from doing the right thing is demonstrably ridiculous.

John Yoo doesn't like President Obama's immigration decision

Torture advocate John Yoo—who believes that the president has the legal power to order the testicle-crushing of a suspected terrorist's child and maybe even to suspend the First Amendment—believes that President Obama exceeded his power by saying he won't deport the children of illegal immigrants: "So what we have here is a president who is refusing to carry out federal law simply because he disagrees with Congress’s policy choices. That is an exercise of executive power that even the most stalwart defenders of an energetic executive — not to mention the Framers — cannot support."

This is actually completely consistent of Yoo, for one reason: President Obama didn't use "war" as the justification for the policy. But Yoo's history indicates there are virtually no limits on a president's powers if war-making is the justification. So Yoo would be conceivably be helpless—unless, of course, he's merely an opportunistic hack—if President Obama could justify his immigration decision in national security terms.

Let me offer one.

There is a national security concern that deporting young people—who, though they may not be actual citizens, have only known America as their home—to unfamiliar lands may radicalize them against the American government, a radicalization that, combined with their knowledge of the country and its customs, make them particularly useful allies to any terrorist organizations that wish to strike against us. 

Now, I don't think there's much of a chance that would happen. But what's the old Dick Cheney standard? The One Percent Doctrine? This seems to fit that doctrine. And under Yoo's view of executive power, it's all the justification needed for President Obama's action. "War"—real or not—means never having to say you're sorry.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why can't Obama work with Congress?

A conservative friend recently told me that President Obama needs to be replaced with someone "who can work with Congress." But it's not entirely Obama's fault that Congress has been so unworkable. Michael Tomasky explains: 
"On the night of Obama's inauguration, Draper writes, about 15 GOP legislators from both houses--along with Newt Gingrich, journalist Fred Barnes, and pollster Frank Luntz, who arranged the evening--got together at a Washington restaurant. 
They were not necessarily the party's official leaders, but they were the emotional leaders of the new breed--Jim DeMint, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy--which is to say, the cohort to whom many others were looking for leadership; indeed, if you know anything about Mitch McConnell, to whom the leadership was looking for leadership. They talked for four hours about what their posture should be. 
They agreed that night: oppose everything in completely unity. Show, Draper writes, "united and unyielding opposition to the president's economic policies." 
So, before President Obama had proposed a single idea, the Republicans had already decided that they would oppose everything he did. Didn't matter what it was. "
Emphasis added. And hey, there's nothing requiring Republicans to work with an opposite-party president. But Republicans have essentially broken the president's legs, then complained very loudly about how he doesn't run fast enough. It's not an honest criticism.

Is the private sector doing fine?

Maybe a little late, Ben and I discuss President Obama's comments in our Scripps Howard column. My take:
Obama was wrong: The private sector isn't doing fine. It's doing astoundingly great -- better than ever, in fact.

No, really.

How do we know this? Because corporate profits now comprise more than 10 percent of America's gross domestic product. As Reuters' Felix Salmon noted, that number has never been that big, ever. For comparison's sake, corporate profits topped out at just under 5 percent of the GDP at the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Instead of investing those profits and creating new jobs, which has been the usual pattern after previous recessions, corporations are sitting on the cash and hoarding the money. That's their right, but nobody should think that the private sector is doing poorly, and it belies the notion that Obama is running an anti-business administration.

It's the rest of us who aren't doing so well.

Corporate cash hoarding is one reason why. The other reason? Because government is slimming down.

No, really.

You wouldn't know that from Republican rhetoric that suggests the president has grown government bureaucracy to create a socialist kingdom. But the Washington Post's Ezra Klein ran the numbers, and the public sector -- including federal, state, and local governments -- has lost 600,000 jobs under Obama. Replace those lost teachers and social workers, and the federal unemployment rate declines to 7.8 percent -- still too high, but also a dramatic improvement.

For comparison's sake, President George W. Bush had grown public-sector employment by 3.7 percent at this point in his tenure, a number that, if duplicated today, would further reduce the unemployment rate to 7.3 percent. If Obama really was a big-government socialist, we might all be better off.

So Obama has produced huge profits and smaller government.

The private sector is doing fine, and it's clearly not enough. But ask yourself: What would Mitt Romney do differently?
Something I didn't address in the 300 words is what, if anything, federal policy can do to get big businesses to start investing in the economy again. But I'm not sure I have a good answer to that, in all  honesty.

John McNesby really, really hates accountability for Philadelphia police

Philadelphia Police are going to experiment with a new system that attaches cameras to cops and lets them record incidents from their point of view. John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, is naturally outraged: ""We're 500 cops below where we should be, so I'd be totally against it until they hired those officers, repaired every police station and put decent cars on the street," McNesby said. "When they finished that, I'd be more than willing to discuss putting cameras on officers.""

In other words: Never. You can have your accountability never.

Now: We all want police to have the best possible working conditions. But "best possible working conditions" shouldn't be necessary to ask police for some accountability. In any case, it's pretty obvious that  even if City Hall met McNesby's named conditions, he'd just move the goalposts a bit. The goal here to let police act as they will without interference from the public they supposedly serve.

On the bright side, though, McNesby's response reminded me of this:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

About Gays and Mennonites

Back in 2001, I attended a national gathering of Mennonites in Nashville that brought two strands of the church together into the new Mennonite Church USA. It was a weird week—one that both made me thrilled to be a Mennonite, but also helped set my path out of the church.

The official gathering was on the grounds of the Opryland Hotel. But across the street from that, there was a second gathering—of gay and lesbian Mennonites. While individuals were allowed into the main gathering of Mennonites, the group itself wasn't allowed to put up a booth or display in the convention hall. So they met separately, sharing stories and worshiping together.

I made the trip across the street, and doing so permanently transformed my feelings about the church and its treatment of gays. It was meeting two gay middle-aged Mennonite men—one of whom had nursed the other through a heart attack—that I found compelling. They shared a real love, one that allowed them to serve each other in a real and genuine way.

And in that moment I thought: "Surely God can't condemn this. And if God does condemn this ... maybe I don't care. Maybe that's not a God worth worshipping."

A year later, I was out of the church.

I mention all of this because my friend Joanna, who is now the pastor of Peace Mennonite Church where I last attended, is under fire within the broader church denomination for officiating at a gay wedding. And today, she shares some thoughts about why she wants to be able to do that and (unlike me) remain a Mennonite.

Here’s the thing, though–I am not United Church of Christ or Presbyterian or Episcopalian. I am Mennonite. Anabaptist to the core. I will not baptize babies. I will not put a flag in a place of worship. I value simplicity and discipleship and community. And if I get to sing a few hymns in four-part harmony every week, that’s a bonus! I want my life to mirror the life of Christ, and I cannot find any other group of Christians that encourages me in this pursuit as well as the Mennonites. 
And here’s the thing–there are so many GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) people who also want to follow Jesus in this way. They want–they need–a Mennonite community as much as I do. It breaks my heart to know of sexual minorities who cannot find a faith home because the churches that most resonate with their souls will not welcome them in the fullness of who they are. 
And here’s the thing–the Mennonite church needs the graces and gifts of GLBT folks as well. It breaks my heart to think of the wonderful leadership, music, art, ministry that the church is missing out on because we do not fully include GLBT people. (I wish you all could know Randy Spaulding and Sarah Klaassen.) At a recent preaching conference I met a young woman pastor from United Church of Canada. When I told her I was Mennonite she said, “Oh, I have a lot of lesbian friends who used to be Mennonite.” 
And here’s the thing–from my perspective, according to my reading of the Gospel, anything less than full inclusion for gays and lesbians in our churches is an injustice. More than that, our failure to embrace and support sexual minorities is a rejection of Jesus’ way of love. It is to side with the religious powers that be–some of whom make good money off of their tirades against gay people–over and against the radical message of Jesus.
Read the whole thing.

As for me, my faith is still a broken thing. I do know that I won't worship a God who supposedly hates love—real and wonderful love. But I've also tried very hard to make sure I leave the door open to a return to the faith. And Joanna—her bravery and strength under fire—is one very big reason why.

Using yourself as collateral for a college loan

There are a few problematic things about Luigi Zingales's proposal to privately finance the college education of bright young students—starting with the fact that if you have to pre-emptively explain to readers that "this is not indentured servitude," it's probably indentured servitude.

But what really bothers me about the proposal is the assumption underlying this entire statement from Zingales: "This is not a modern form of indentured servitude, but a voluntary form of taxation, one that would make only the beneficiaries of a college education — not all taxpayers — pay for the costs of it."

This presumes that only the recipient of a college education is the beneficiary, and that's not even close to true. One reason the feds underwrite student loans—and why states still pay for public universities, even if that commitment is diminshing—is that the country benefits hugely from having a better-educated workforce. Those trained minds help create innovation and streamline processes, which—in theory anyway—has numerous positive ripple effects throughout the economy. The beneficiaries of a college education, then, include the taxpayers.

Deep Thought

Hmmm. Looking at my posts today, I wonder if people will think I'm turning conservative. I'm not. I just believe in a liberalism that meets the world as it exists--and that world has lots of people who aren't liberals. It's tough to get much done without securing their assent—or, at least, the assent of enough of them.

Are gay rights and religious freedom in conflict?

I don't think they have to be, but it appears they are in New Mexico:
"In 2008, the New Mexico Human Rights Commission found Elane Photography, an Albuquerque photography studio co-owned by Elaine Huguenin and her husband, Jonathan, guilty of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for refusing to photograph Vanessa Willock’s same-sex “commit ment ceremony.” The court ordered the business to pay $6,600 in attorney’s fees.
If it was little surprise that the commission found in favor of Willock, it was a shock when, last month, the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. The three-judge panel rejected Elane Photography’s claim that forcing the business to photograph the same-sex ceremony against its conscientious objections constituted “compelled speech” in violation of the owners’ federal and state rights. It also rejected the Huguenins’ claims to protection under the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause and the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
I believe in gay marriage. And I also believe in a First Amendment that lets conservative Christians complain about gay marriage—which is why I suspect that this ruling will be struck down, although somebody more familiar with the law on "public accommodations" might be able to educate me further on that. Is there a good reason to require Elane Photography to take these photos?

One reason that some Christians vociferously oppose gay civil marriage is because they don't think they'll be left alone—they suspect that they'll be forced in some fashion to endorse those marriages against their conscience. Mostly, I think that's wrong: No law is going to require a Catholic priest perform gay commitment ceremonies, now or ever. But stuff like this is going to make it harder for gays and their allies to win and secure that right to civil marriage. If rights are treated as a zero-sum affair, then somebody has to lose something. And in that case, it seems unlikely the losers will be heterosexual conservative Christians.

Atrios is wrong about California's HSR and liberal spending priorities

I think Atrios is right to keep pounding away at the idea that our elites love to bail out banks and leave austerity to the poor masses. But I think he's wrong that liberals should love California's High-Speed Rail project, even though there are massive cost overruns and questions about its utility: "My point is, on the rare occasion that the government is considering giving us some nice things, we should probably just stand up and applaud, even if we can imagine even nicer things that the government should give us but won't. The choice isn't between HSR in California and What Atrios Wants To Spend Money On, the choice is between HSR and, you know, more high tech killing machines, money for war contractors, and tax cuts for rich people."

Not really. There will always be money for high-tech killing machines, war contractors, and tax cuts for the rich. So liberals really need to prioritize what they want to do with a not-limitless pot of resources—particularly if we want to have credibility with that taxpayers providing those resources. "Spending lots of money is awesome!" isn't going to win many political campaigns. Unfair? Maybe, but also reality.

'Mad Men' and the infantilization of America, continued

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner kinda-sorta confirms my theorizing about how Depression-era generation helped create the never-grow-up culture that followed it: "One of my things is that human behavior doesn't change, but certainly the manners change, and what you're watching is the manners changing.

And I use it in every aspect of the storytelling. And it's a very fine gradation, and it's hard to do, but I think the audience felt that there was this kind of precipice, and Don feels it, too. It's not just about people saying exactly what they want. When Megan's going to follow her dreams, because that's what she wants to do, and Roger says, "My father told me what to do," and Don says, "I grew up in the '30s; my dream was indoor plumbing." We take it for granted that you can choose what you want to do. That's all part of a new generation, and very soon there's going to be a generation doing whatever it wants, and they're completely supported by the generation before them. In the Rolling Stones episode, when Don's backstage with that girl, she says, "You don't want us to have fun because none of you did." It's actually the opposite: a lot of parents really indulged their kids because of that very thing, because they grew up in the Depression."

Emphasis added. I meant to mention Don's line about "indoor plumbing" in my previous post—it's a thought that stuck with me through the rest of the season.

Death of Football Watch: Pop Warner makes changes

The kiddie football league limits full-speed collisions—but only in practice. In games, it'll still be legal to watch your child get his block knocked off: "Dr. Matt Grady, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the new rules, while a good start, did not go far enough, and that the emphasis in football for players who have not yet reached high school should be on developing skill and technique, not learning how to tackle. “Playing tackle football at 10 years old doesn’t translate to being a pro athlete,” he said. “I think the ability to catch and run and throw translates to being a pro athlete. Players should develop these skills, and then we can add in the collisions later.”"

As I think I've said before, it's going to be increasingly untenable for most parents to let their kids play tackle football as it becomes more and more clear that the game takes a huge toll on their bodies. That'll dry up the supply of players over time. Football is going into decline.

Archbishop Chaput pleads for a state bailout

The leader of Philadelphia Catholics urges Harrisburg to pass vouchers, or he'll have to close schools: "What I noted in February is even more pressing today: Without new scholarship tax credits and school vouchers to relieve costs, more archdiocesan schools will close soon, and more of the financial burden of educating young people will fall on the public."

But even under Chaput's solution, more of the financial burden of educating young people will fall on the public. Students whose education isn't currently publicly subsidized would be for the first time, a likely hit to taxpayer wallets over time.

Conservatives who balk at auto industry bailouts will be amenable to Chaput's proposal. But it's worth considering the idea that Catholic schools are failing of their own accord: Philadelphia church pews aren't as full as they used to be, certainly, so it makes sense that the population of students for church schools would also be in decline. Chaput is blaming the closure of schools on financial challenges, but it might also be true that market forces are working as they do—and that Philadelphia families are voting with their feet.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hey, I think he's talking about me!

At least he managed to get the link right.

Richard Arenberg is wrong about the filibuster

A scholar writes in defense of filibusters: "But those seeking to end the filibuster would rue the day. We need only recall how overzealous majorities in the Wisconsin legislature attacked collective bargaining, or in Virginia sought to impose mandatory vaginal probes on women seeking abortions. We can easily imagine efforts to overturn health reform, repeal financial reforms, cripple environmental regulation, scale back Medicare, privatize Social Security, or drill for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. If Mitt Romney is elected with a Republican Congress, without the historic protections in the Senate rules, where could a Democratic minority turn?"

I'm fine with rewriting the rules, as Arenberg suggests—my own suggestion would be that filibusters actually be filibusters, and to make Mitch McConnell stand in the Senate well for 50 hours at a stretch if he really wants to block President Obama's appointments to the judiciary. It might simply be easier, though, just to scrap the filibuster entirely.

Yes, that means that legislative minorities might be brushed aside in crafting legislation. But it also means that legislative minorities could scrap that legislation once they became the majority again. (There is no such thing as a permanent majority in American politics.) Wise senators would hopefully take that into consideration and craft legislation that would be politically difficult to undo at the next change in power. Right now, the filibuster isn't used to protect Social Security—it's often used for no better reason than to make the president's life a living hell. I can't get misty-eyed about that. Scrap the filibuster and let the chips fall where they may.