Monday, July 30, 2012

Larry Mendte is wrong about Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A

My Philly Post colleague Larry Mendte says this morning that people who boycott Chick-fil-A over Dan Cathy's stance on gay marriage are probably being hypocrites.
I need to get my car inspected this week, but first I have to send my mechanic a short survey to find out where he stands on a number of controversial issues. If he disagrees with me, I can’t possibly give him my business. And when I go to the supermarket, I need a grocery list of how the makers of each of the products I plan to buy stand on gun control, abortion rights and immigration. 
It sounds awfully silly, but that seems to be where we are heading after the Chick-fil-A gay marriage controversy.
Well, no.

The reason Mendte doesn't know about the political positions of his mechanic or grocers is because those folks probably haven't actually publicized those positions.  Dan Cathy, on the other hand, sat down for an interview with the Baptist Press that was explicitly designed to promote the link between the business and "Biblical values."

Here's part of the rest of the interview:
Cathy believes strongly that Christians are missionaries in the workplace. "Jesus had a lot of things to say about people who work and live in the business community," he said. His goal in the workplace is "to take biblical truth and put skin on it. ... We're talking about how our performance in the workplace should be the focus of how we build respect, rapport and relationships with others that opens the gateway to interest people in knowing God."
Now, there's something kind of admirable about this. There are plenty of Sunday Christians who leave their sense of morality and ethics in the sanctuary when they go to work the rest of the week; Cathy isn't one person at church and another at the office. So, you know, great.

But: Cathy has also made it his mission to publicize the thread between his faith and the way his business operates.  He has made "Biblical values"—and, specifically, "traditional marriage"—part of the Chick-fil-A brand.

That's his right. It's also the right of consumers to decide they don't care much for that brand. (It's not the right of government to punish Cathy's business for that stance, however.) It's not hypocritical for them to decide they'd rather spend their chicken sandwich money elsewhere.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jonah Goldberg, the death penalty, and James Holmes

UPDATE: Welcome, National Review readers! You can find my response to William Voegeli here.

Jonah Goldberg has a column at NRO, saying that death penalty opponents are noticeably silent after the Aurora massacre because, hey, James Holmes is pretty inconvenient for their cause: "I say, let us give Holmes a fair trial. If convicted, execute him swiftly. If you disagree, explain why this man deserves to live."

The reason the death penalty debate hasn't flared up, post-Aurora, is because the debates have been focused on actions and policies that might've prevented the massacre in the first place. There are cases to be made both for gun reduction and arming citizens more thoroughly; there are arguments to be made about our mental health care system. Is anybody making the argument that the threat of the death penalty would've deterred Holmes? Even Goldberg isn't making that case. So the death penalty debate is kind of beside the point, as far as our current discussions go.

But, you know, Goldberg wants to have the debate. Since he implicitly concedes that deterrence isn't the point of the penalty—Colorado does have the death penalty, though it's rarely used—retribution is the real aim here. I'm not thrilled by the state killing people out of pure retribution, but I'll concede that many people may find it justification enough.

Goldberg's broader point, though, is that the existence of James Holmes somehow legitimizes the death penalty. There's no real question of his guilt, and he's white, so you can't say he'd be getting the punishment as the result of a racist system. Goldberg brushes off the idea of mental illness in this case, probably too easily, but there you go. This is an easy case, he's saying, so why not the death penalty now?

I've mentioned before the old lawyer's saw that "hard cases make bad law." Well, sometimes easy cases make bad law. James Holmes' plain guilt in this matter wouldn't make the death penalty system less likely to impose racially disparate punishments, wouldn't clear up the muddled questions of guilt in so many other cases. Goldberg doesn't argue that the death penalty system works well in the hard cases, only that it would in the easy cases. Well sure. That doesn't make the death penalty system worth the expense or the rampant injustice it's been shown to mete out. 

Bottom line: James Holmes doesn't prove the death penalty works. Want to execute him? The law seems to allow for it. Just don't pretend it means anything more than it does.

Death of football watch

New York Times: 
An autopsy report released this week, just before N.F.L. training camps opened, concluded that the former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who committed suicide in April, had a degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head. 
Easterling, who played for the Falcons for eight seasons in the 1970s, began coping with apparent dementia and depression about a decade into his retirement. Easterling was 62 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his longtime home in Richmond, Va. 
The autopsy by the medical examiner in Richmond found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, progressive damage that has been linked to blows to the head, and determined that it was the underlying major condition that accounted for Easterling’s difficulties.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Local governments shouldn't crack down on Chick-Fil-A

I'll outsource my commentary to Adam Serwer:
Blocking construction of Chik-fil-a restaurants over Cathy's views is a violation of Cathy's First Amendment rights. Boston and Chicago have no more right to stop construction of Chik-fil-As based on an executive's anti-gay views than New York City would have had the right to block construction of an Islamic community center blocks away from Ground Zero. The government blocking a business from opening based on the owner's political views is a clear threat to everyone's freedom of speech—being unpopular doesn't mean you don't have rights. It's only by protecting the rights of those with whose views we find odius that we can hope to secure them for ourselves.
Yup. I'm not going to go out of my way to boycott Chick-Fil-A, because I've never actually had a meal there that I recall. But that's my private choice. A government decision to punish somebody's political or religious beliefs is wrong.

More to the point, it may also get in the way of actually advancing gay rights. One of the counterarguments to gay marriage is that conservative Christians fear they'll be legally required to, essentially, bless such unions. They see rights as a zero-sum affair: If gays win, they lose. That's not the way it has to be, and it's not the way it should be. If Boston and Chicago mayors prove otherwise, that will stiffen religious resistance to civil marriage. Which means that those cities' mayors aren't just wrong, they're also being tactically stupid in the service of scoring political points. That's not really all that principled.

UPDATE: A friend says that the mayors aren't actually threatening to block construction. That's mostly true: Boston's mayor started out in that spot, but backed off. Chicago's mayor is apparently just being blustery, but an alderman there seems to be trying to block stuff nonetheless. I don't blame these men for articulating their values, but government officials should always be leery of being seen as using their official powers to chill speech.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Maybe Noam Scheiber should pipe down

If you're going to adopt modest, smart, common-sense changes to gun ownership rules in this country, there's going to have to be one guiding mantra for liberals: "We're not going to take your guns away. We're not going to take your guns away. We're not going to take your guns away." Repeat.

Why? Because the NRA types out there are sure that every tiny move in the direction of regulation isn't merely a slippery slope, but a cliff over which the government pushing them straight into the jowls of tyranny and other purple-prosey mixed metaphors. The ability to stop psychos from ordering 6,000 rounds of ammunition online, like they're so many baby wipes, depends greatly—entirely—on the ability of advocates for such rules to convince those NRA types that we're not going to take your guns away. 

So while I'm the last guy who would ever tell a journalist to pipe down with his or her opinions because they don't actually help anything get accomplished in the real-world political realm: Maybe Noam Scheiber should pipe down.

One more thought about Jonathan Haidt and 'The Righteous Mind'

There was a moment at the end of our podcast with Jonathan Haidt when I wanted to leap up from my seat indignantly and shout, "You just don't get it sir!" I was restrained by a couple of things A) time constraints and B) the collegiality that is our default mode during these podcasts.

Some background: Haidt is a proponent of the "Moral Foundations Theory," which posits that humans essentially have six areas of morality that they care about. How does this make a difference in our politics? Well, Haidt says that conservatives tend to score highly in caring about all six areas of morality—but that liberals seem to care mostly about three. (Liberals apparently care less about proportionality, purity, and loyalty—and this puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to engaging their fellow citizens and earning their votes)

It was the loyalty part—conservatives care about it, liberals don't—that got me tripped up. I explain why in an early part of the podcast: Because my moral sense tells me that appeals to a national sense of loyalty can often be abused. Just look at what Michele Bachmann has been up to lately.

But toward the end of the podcast, we revisited the idea of loyalty, and Haidt ... well, "sneered" isn't too strong a word: He sneered at that fine old liberal bumper sticker that urges readers to "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home."

Here's what Haidt said:
"If you put that on your car, you're basically admitting you have no clue what it is to support your team when it's fighting an away game. You have no clue what it is to support the troops. You're saying (shifts into simpering voice): 'Well, morality is about protecting people from getting hurt, and I don't want the troops to get hurt, so I want to bring them home.' That just embarrasses your side. And liberals do this on a lot of issues."
Well. To heck with that.

In my lifetime, that "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home" slogan was used mostly in reference to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the years of warfare that followed. Lots of liberals were fine going to war in Afghanistan—we had been attacked on 9/11, after all—but were appalled by the decision to go to war in Iraq. There were several elements to this: Lots of folks doubted that Iraq had WMD weapons at all; others didn't think think the threat rose to the level of requiring armed intervention, but lots of people simply thought it was wrong to simply go start a war and invade a country that hasn't actually hurt you first.

Liberal opposition to the war did have a strong moral element then. It wasn't just "don't hurt people." It was "don't hurt innocent people." "Don't hurt people who haven't hurt us." "Don't hurt people for causes—WMDs—that turn out not to exist."

Most Americans didn't initially agree with liberals. But liberals turned out to be right.

And yet, many liberals also gave serious effort to "supporting the troops." Some of this was leftover from Vietnam, and its residual sense that returning troops had been unfairly treated. Some of it was the recognition that the troops have a job to do, and a boss who gives them orders, that Private John Doe isn't necessarily gung-ho about patrolling Baghdad, but is loyal and serves the country, and that those moral feelings of loyalty deserve—yes!—respect from liberals.

In other words: "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home" represented an often-conscious effort by liberals not to concede recognition of the troops' virtues to conservatives—but to do it within a framework that also holds onto the liberal moral belief that the war itself was wrong: That just because your "team" has taken the field does not always, automatically, make that team right. "Support the troops" and "bring them home" are ideas that are in tension, yes, but for me and millions of others, living with that tension is the morally praiseworthy thing to do.

Haidt's mockery, then, suggests to me that—despite all his research and well-intentioned efforts to hear the best of both sides—what he ultimately believes is that liberals should ignore their own moral judgements and let conservative moral judgements rule our sensibilities.

Again, to heck with that.

I think there are some fine things that liberals can learn from Haidt's research and books. We don't do a very good job understanding conservatives, it's true. Liberal dominance of the academy can lead to skewed research focus and interpretation, yes. It will not hurt us to be more aware of these things.

But if Haidt—a former liberal turned centrist—is concerned about academia's tendency to pathologize conservatism, I think it possible that he's done more or less the same thing in reverse. Liberals must do a better job understanding conservatives, yes. We don't need to become them to become better.

Who is behind the gun violence stalemate?

Craig Whitney's gun-violence op-ed in today's NYT is probably just a little too even-handed. "Unless gun-control advocates and gun-rights supporters stop screaming at each other and look for common ground on how to deal with gun violence, the next massacre is only a matter of time," he writes, and that sounds right. Let's dig out of our polarized mindsets and find some common ground!

Only there's this:

Liberals have to deprive the National Rifle Association of its core argument, that the real aim of all gun control measures is to strip Americans of their right to have and use firearms. Gun-control supporters must make clear that they accept that Americans have had this individual, common-law right since Jamestown and the Plymouth Colony; that this right was recognized in the Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1791; and that the Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality in 2008. 
Here's the thing: That's pretty much exactly what liberals—those in positions of actual leadership—have done. It's largely a political thing: Democrats figured out in the mid-1990s or so that opposing guns was a sure way to lose votes, so they pretty much stopped opposing guns.

And it hasn't mattered. President Obama is remembered for his "clinging to their guns and their religion" comment, but almost nobody remembers that he also unequivocally stated: “I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms." The NRA has refused to take "yes" for an answer, instead asserting without evidence that Obama has a "secret plan" to eviscerate the Second Amendment.

While liberals have moved to the right on the issue, so has the NRA. Which keeps even modest, commonsense restrictions off the table: In Pennsylvania, the legislature has worked to undermine rules in Philadelphia and other cities that require gun owners to report "lost" or "stolen" guns—guns that often end up in the hands of criminals and used in crimes. Even that modest requirement of responsibility is considered too steep an infringement on the right to own guns.

Liberals are already at the table of compromise—as Whitney later concedes in the op-ed, but only after advising them to do what they've already done. They just don't have a negotiating partner.

Meanwhile, a 13-year-old boy and his 17-year-old brother were shot to death in Philadelphia last night.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Who loses their freedom over gun violence?

There has been, of course, quite a bit of debate the last few days about gun violence and how to address it. At City Journal, Heather Mac Donald offers one effective solution: Stop and frisk
The police are heavily deployed in certain neighborhoods because that’s where incidents like Sunday’s shooting occur. Toddlers and recreational basketball players are not getting shot in the West Village; if they were, the police would be making stops there as well. Once in a high-crime area, the police use every tool they have to send the message that law and order remains in effect. Had the ordinary means of social control—above all, the family—not broken down in those neighborhoods, the police would not need to look out for and intervene in suspicious behavior. If communities don’t control their teenagers, however, the police will have to. And until mothers and fathers start socializing their children so that shooting someone no longer seems a normal response to a dispute, the choice will remain stark: put up with a higher level of stops (which, of course, should be conducted lawfully and respectfully) or with a higher level of shootings. There is, to date, no middle ground.
In fairness to Mac Donald, she doesn't at all mention Friday's Aurora shootings, and probably wrote the piece before the massacre happened.

And yet, there's something telling here.

When gun violence occurs in the inner city--among African Americans--our concerns for Constitutional rights are not as vigorous as they might be. Stop and frisk? It's the only way to preserve safety. It should be done legally of course, but is there anybody who sees the word "legally" here without ironic italics? It's almost always profiling, with almost no real cause to stop, and everybody knows it.

Move that violence to less urban, whiter enclaves--where it's perhaps less frequent but often much more spectacular--and First Principles are asserted with a vengeance. Yes, a dozen people are dead, but Founding Fathers! Second Amendment! Right of Self Defense! And politicians, wary of messing with the NRA, back down.

We are, in short, very willing to infringe on other folks' freedoms in response to gun violence. I somehow doubt we'll be profiling brilliant white loners anytime soon.

Penn State: 'Question What It Is You Revere'

Shortly after I posted about Penn State this morning, Daniel Victor—media maven, Penn State alum, and (from what I know of him) all-around good guy—tweeted:

That's a great point.

Here's the underlying truth for me: I advocate harsh punishment for Penn State largely because I don't actually believe that Paterno, Spanier, etc. were all that unusual in their failure to report Jerry Sandusky. I am terrified by how banal evil can be, how easily bureaucratized and accommodated, and the truth is that I don't fully trust myself to be an exception to this rule. I advocate a harsh punishment because I suspect it will provided a much-needed jolt to the consciences of the vast majority of us who usually go along to get along. The pain of accommodation needs to exceed the the reluctance to rock the boat.

As a young reporter in Lawrence, Kansas, I covered a case where two players on the University of Kansas football team were accused of sexually assaulting a female soccer player, who was from Europe. Uncertain of how to navigate the matter, the player went to her coach, who in turn took her to then-KU football coach Terry Allen, who promised to take care of it.

He made the players run bleachers as punishment. For an alleged sex assault.

Eventually the soccer player figured out what had happened, and went to police. But it was months after the assault, and prosecutors never brought charges. The culture all too easily accommodated sex assault, and Coach Allen wasn't even fired over the incident—he later lost his job because the team kept losing.

This isn't restricted to football. We in Philadelphia have seen, close-up, how the culture of the Catholic Church protected dozens of abusive priests. A "culture of reverence" that allows for abuses isn't just a Penn State thing, it's not just a sports thing—or even a winning sports thing. It's a human thing.

It's why I feel very bad for my Penn State friends today, even though I've made some of them very angry at me. A harsh punishment for the Nittany Lion program will demonstrate a committment to one thing we're supposed to revere—the innocence of children, and our duty to protect them from evil.

Why I'm OK if Penn State football gets eviscerated today

I have several friends who are Penn State alumni--good people who not so long ago revered Joe Paterno, good people who have been devastated by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and everything that has followed. I feel bad for my friends today.

On the other hand, I also hope that today's NCAA sanctions cripple the Penn State football program. 

Penn State defenders point out that if the program is hobbled, it will punish students and a new coaching staff and others who didn't do anything wrong, who didn't let Jerry Sandusky molest children. And they're right.

On the other hand, there's this scene from Sunday's removal of Joe Paterno's statue.
Margaret Walsh knelt in prayer before the stumps of metal that remained, tears streaming down her face. An obstetrician/gynecologist and Penn State alumna who once baby-sat Paterno's children, she had driven nearly six hours from Chesterfield, Va., to pay the statue her respects. 
"Everything is being done so fast," she said. "I pray to God that justice be done and that he be vindicated."
Less obscenely, I'm reminded of this:
Janitors who observed Jerry Sandusky performing a sexual act on a young boy in the Lasch Building showers in 2000 kept quiet out of a fear of Joe Paterno and the power he held at Penn State, according to this morning's Freeh Report. 
Individuals cited in the report as "Janitor A" and "Janitor B" both observed disturbing behavior in Fall 2000, and the report points to Joe Paterno's "excessive influence" in creating a chilling effect for lower-level Penn State employees to report football team misdoings. 
"The University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs," states the report as a characterization of the interview conducted with the janitor last week. The incident "would have been like going against the President of the United States [...] I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone."
The Freeh Report concluded that the football-loving "culture" of the university bore some blame for Sandusky's ability to evade arrest and prosecution for 14 years, and Margaret Walsh's bitter tears suggest that that culture resonates yet. And that culture involves far more people than just the few men who are indicted or lost their jobs over this sad, sorry situation.
So destroy it. Tear that culture out of the ground like a diseased tree and set it on fire so that only ashes are left. Punish Penn State so severely that the janitors know the program isn't bigger than their responsibility to save children. Let Margaret Walsh's tears salt the earth outside the football stadium so that nothing can grow in its place. 

If the culture bears responsibility for molested children, then yes, the culture must be punished. It will be painful, and I do feel terrible for my friends who really bought into the Grand Experiment. But the experiment is a farce and a failure, and an example must be made.

UPDATED: A comment from a friend that originally appeared in this post has been removed. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Barack Obama may have the better of the tax argument

Raising Taxes on Rich Seen as Good for Economy, Fairness - Pew Research Center: "By two-to-one (44% to 22%), the public says that raising taxes on incomes above $250,000 would help the economy rather than hurt it, while 24% say this would not make a difference. Moreover, an identical percentage (44%) says a tax increase on higher incomes would make the tax system more fair, while just 21% say it would make the system less fair.

Most Democrats say raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 would help the economy (64%) and make the tax system more fair (65%). Republicans are more divided: 41% say this would hurt the economy, while 27% say it would help and 24% it would make no difference. And while 36% of Republicans say raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 would make the tax system less fair, 30% say this would make no difference and 25% say it would make the tax system more fair."

'via Blog this'

Ramesh Ponnuru on Republicans and defense cuts

I've written a couple of times about the hypocrisy of Republicans who worry that defense spending cuts will hurt the economy. That's Krugmanesque Keynesianism under the rubric of "national security," and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Today, conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru does the labeling, though he comes to a slightly different conclusion than I do:
Needless to say, on the theory that the Republicans are advancing, the federal budget can never be cut. The U.S. Conference of Mayors will be able to say that cuts in social spending will devastate the economy of our cities with at least as much justice as defense-heavy areas can complain about cuts to the military. Rural areas can say the same thing about farm subsidies. 
Yet the purpose of the defense budget shouldn’t be to subsidize particular people or areas. We don’t buy tanks and train soldiers to keep beauty salons in business. The Republicans resisting big defense cuts generally think that they would jeopardize our national security. That’s a debatable proposition. So debate it. What Republicans should not do is make an economic argument for defense spending that is both untrue and inconsistent with everything else they say about spending and the economy.
I'm not sure I agree with "untrue," but otherwise: Yup.

Walter Kirn and the Mormons

If you haven't already, please read Walter Kirn's TNR piece, "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon." It touches only lightly on the subject of Mitt Romney's religious beliefs and the role they play in this election season and instead focuses on biography: How a brief conversion to Mormonism helped Kirn's father stabilize a life that was spinning out of control, and how (a generation later) Kirn's residence in a house full of Mormons helped him find his own foundations.

Kirn's somewhat ambiguous about the state of his own faith in the piece, but I found it a useful reminder: In the public sphere, we treat religion like it's merely a set of beliefs and doctrines. I've written--and still think--it's fair to test how Romney's own adherence to Mormon beliefs and doctrines affects his views of public policy.

But Kirn's piece reminds me that religion is more than a set of fit-slot-A-into-tab-B rules for getting into heaven: Very often it's a source of community and belonging for people who desperately need it. Which is most of us. And one can benefit from those features without necessarily following the party line on the doctrine stuff: It certainly appears that Kirn did.

About a decade ago, shortly after I'd told my pastor that I had lost my faith and was withdrawing from the church, I attempted to go to church again. It wasn't that I'd changed my mind about my lack of belief; it was that I missed the people desperately. Some of the people I'd attended church with in Lawrence, Kansas, had shown me how I could be an adult in terms that I wanted and made sense to me: They'd helped me, in a very real sense, to become a man. (Though that is, frankly, an unending process.) But my return lasted precisely one service: As Huck Finn said, "You can't pray a lie." I couldn't, at least. And remaining part of that community without partaking of its most regular, weekly, ritual, proved untenable.

I wrote last week that I'm able to construct meaning without God in my life. And that's true. Constructing community has been, and remains, trickier without resorting to church. Maybe that's not the case for everybody, but I spent 30 years in the church: It's difficult to shake old ways of doing things.

So Kirn's piece is a welcome reminder of such things, as is its placement in a political magazine. We--I--get so busy with day-to-day jousting in political matters that we--I--forget about the broader human project. Kirn's piece is so good, because it's so humane.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How John Roberts killed the Affordable Care Act, continued

Me, last month:
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.
James Capretta and Yuval Levin, today at National Review:
In the wake of the Roberts decision, participation in Obamacare’s insurance scheme is optional. Rather than a requirement to buy coverage backed with a penalty for violators, the law now offers Americans two equally lawful and legitimate options: buy expensive insurance (which Obamacare will make all the more expensive), or pay a modest (and still largely unenforceable) tax and just buy insurance for the same price later if you need it. Presented as a choice, not a command, this provision will invite a straightforward comparison, and for many Americans the choice it would pose would be a very easy one. 
Obamacare was always going to lead to a disastrous meltdown of America’s health-insurance system, but in the wake of the Court’s decision, many of its former defenders should acknowledge this fact too. If you argued that the mandate was the linchpin of the system, and that it would work despite its low and unenforceable penalty because Americans are a law-abiding people, you should now see that the mandate as you understood it no longer exists.
So prepare yourselves for the next battle--probably about 10 years from now. It'll probably be a choice between scrapping Obamacare entirely, or replacing it with a single-payer system. I don't imagine that battle will be any easier for liberals than past ones have been.

Dear Democrats: Stop bluffing about the fiscal cliff*

No, no, no:

Democrats are making increasingly explicit threats about their willingness to let nearly $600 billion worth of tax hikes and spending cuts take effect in January unless Republicans drop their opposition to higher taxes for the nation’s wealthiest households. 
Emboldened by signs that GOP resistance to new taxes may be weakening, senior Democrats say they are prepared to weather a fiscal event that could plunge the nation back into recession if the new year arrives without an acceptable compromise. 
In a speech Monday, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Senate’s No. 4 Democrat and the leader of the caucus’s campaign arm, plans to make the clearest case yet for going over what some have called the “fiscal cliff.”
Ain't gonna happen.

Listen, when Republicans threaten to scuttle the nation's fiscal infrastructure by not raising the debt ceiling, they've got a plausible reason for doing so: Their constituents won't punish them for not raising the debt, and they might punish them for raising the debt.

What, exactly, do Democrats have to gain by plunging the country back into recession? Does Patty Murray think middle-class Americans want to see wealthy Americans taxed at a higher rate more than they want to preserve their own fiscal futures?

Top earners will see their Bush Tax Cuts extended by the end of the year. Count on it.

* Bluff. Cliff. See what I did there? 

Are 10 percent of American students sexually victimized at school?

Today's Philadelphia Daily News has an op-ed from Terri Miller, president of SESAME Inc.--an acronym for "Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation"--about how we need to do more to protect our children from predators like Jerry Sandusky. No problem there: Who disagrees with that?

But one thing she said in the op-ed jumped out at me: "Overall, an estimated 1 in 10 students will be the victim of educator sexual misconduct during their school career, a ratio that equals about 4.5 million current K-12 students."

This appears to be a statistic she uses regularly: She also used it during testimony before Congress in support of the Jeremy Bell Act, which requires schools to report suspected incidents of educator sexual misconduct.

If she's right, then American parents need to press the panic button: 10 percent of all students are being sexually victimized at school? That's a huge problem, one that would--should--be devastating to the very system of public education itself if true.

One problem: It may not be true. Here's a Slate piece from February explaining where that number comes from.
The best available study suggests that about 10 percent of students suffer some form of sexual abuse during their school careers. In the 2000 report, commissioned by the American Association of University Women, surveyors asked students between eighth and 11th grades whether they had ever experienced inappropriate sexual conduct at school. The list of such conduct included lewd comments, exposure to pornography, peeping in the locker room, and sexual touching or grabbing. Around one in 10 students said they had been the victim of one or more such things from a teacher or other school employee, and two-thirds of those reported the incident involved physical contact. If these numbers are representative of the student population nationwide, 4.5 million students currently in grades K-12 have suffered some form of sexual abuse by an educator, and more than 3 million have experienced sexual touching or assault. This number would include both inappropriate romantic relationships between teachers and upperclassmen, and outright pedophilia.

These statistics are uncertain, however, because no one has ever designed a nationwide study for the expressed purpose of measuring the prevalence of sexual abuse by educators. The Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services can’t agree on whose domain teacher sexual misconduct falls into, and Congress has shown little appetite to spend money on the issue. In the study described above, surveyors asked participants if they had ever experienced sexual improprieties at school, then asked students who reported abuse to identify the perpetrator. Since the study was intended to measure student-to-student sexual misconduct, the original investigators didn’t focus on teacher-offenders. A third-party academic later used the raw data to suss out the prevalence of teacher sex abuse. A few smaller or less methodologically rigorous studies have also addressed the question, with wildly inconsistent results. One looked at college sociology students and estimated that nearly half had experienced sexual harassment by a teacher. Another surveyed 4,000 adults, with 4.1 percent reporting inappropriate sexual contact with a teacher during their high-school years. But the sample included only urbanites, and white respondents were overrepresented. A third study used responses to a questionnaire published in Seventeen magazine and estimated that just 3.7 percent of children suffer sexual abuse from their teachers.
In other words: Miller uses the biggest and most-inflammatory number to make her case--but it's a number that, once examined, seems a bit less of a sure thing. I'm not saying that 10 percent of American students aren't victimized by educators; I'm saying that a 12-year-old study that wasn't intended to measure that particular problem may not be a totally reliable piece of evidence.

We do need to understand the extent of this problem, and root it out where possible. But there's something about Miller's number that smells like the hype and scare-mongering of the 1980s child-molestation terror epidemic. That turned out to be overblown. Jerry Sandusky taught us--again--that we need to take allegations very seriously. That doesn't mean we have to resort to hysteria. 

How the White House censors journalists (And a solution)

Turns out that when you read quotes from White House officials, you're only reading quotes that have been pre-approved for publication by the White House. This is some kind of obnoxious:
It is a double-edged sword for journalists, who are getting the on-the-record quotes they have long asked for, but losing much of the spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews. 
Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager, can be foul-mouthed. But readers would not know it because he deletes the curse words before approving his quotes. Brevity is not a strong suit of David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser. So he tightens up his sentences before giving them the O.K. 
Stuart Stevens, the senior Romney strategist, is fond of disparaging political opponents by quoting authors like Walt Whitman and referring to historical figures like H. R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff. But such clever lines later rarely make it past Mr. Stevens. 
Many journalists spoke about the editing only if granted anonymity, an irony that did not escape them. No one said the editing altered the meaning of a quote. The changes were almost always small and seemingly unnecessary, they said.
Now, the story makes clear it's a bipartisan practice. Whatever. It's still bull. And it gives the White House direct control over the content of journalism that appears before the public. That's effectively the power of censorship, even if the processes are essentially informal and don't require the use of an FBI agent to enforce. It's still insidious, and it should be unacceptable in a free society.

But journalists acquiesce because if they don't give White House officials the power to censor their quotes, they don't get quotes at all. And yes, that puts them in a tough place, professionally. So what to do?

The Times' story is a good start, but it's not enough. Every time an official refines a quote before giving permission for it to be used in a story--in every single story that it happens--journalists should state that to their audience. Every single time. Something like:  "I think the president is all kinds of awesome," David Axelrod said, in a quote he pre-approved for publication. 

Would this end this odious practice? Probably not. But it would at least make the process of reporting and gathering a story more transparent to the audience--and the knowledge of how government (or wannabe government) officials operate the levers of power over reporters would be useful for the general public to have. As it stands, I trust Washington-based reporting just a little bit less than I used to.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dennis Prager's case for God

I think, after today, I'm going to try to stop writing about Dennis Prager. I have conservative friends who deeply respect him, and I admit to being somewhat confused by that: To me, his liberals are always straw man liberals (who always seem to be pulling the country toward Stalinism) and his atheists are always straw man atheists. We won't even talk about his straw woman feminists. There's always an audience for such things, of course, but the people who give credence to Prager are usually thoughtful. I'm obviously missing something.

If Prager has or attempts a moral imagination that lets him consider lives and viewpoints other than his own in non-hyperbolic, non-stereotypical fashion, it is not evident in his writing. And while I admit that my conservative friends might say the same thing about me from time to time, the effect of Prager's style is that it is impossible to really constructively disagree. That means he's mostly irritating, and almost never—in my experience—thought provoking.

His style is on display in an NRO column about why the Higgs Boson discovery is meaningless, particularly if there is no religious belief accompanying it.
One must have a great deal of respect for the atheist who recognizes the consequences of atheism: no meaning, no purpose, no good and evil beyond subjective opinion, and no recognition of the limits of what science can explain.
Prager's case for God boils down to this: Without God there is no meaning, therefore God. 

In other words: He starts from a debatable premise, then makes a conclusion that doesn't necessarily proceed from the premise.

I don't want to be an evangelistic agnostic. If Dennis Prager finds his meaning in the existence of God, well, good for him. I suspected he's joined by the vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of people. And again: Good for them.

But it seems that what Prager is ultimately saying is that my life is meaningless, probably even to me, because I don't infuse it with religious belief. And I reject that idea: Yes, my first years out of the church were a little confusing because I'd relied on that framework for such a long time. Since I left the church, I've gotten married and, with my wife, had a son. I endured a couple of tough years, and somehow didn't throw myself off a bridge. These are not acts of nihilism. I take satisfaction and find meaning in them, but I don't attribute a Larger Meaning to them. That's OK.

I also recognize that Prager and folks who think like him might think I protest too much. That's OK, too.

'The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama': A discussion

The following is a chat transcript with my friend Lex Friedman about Tom Junod's Esquire piece examining how President Obama uses drone warfare—and how his actions might be infringing on American civil liberties.

Lex: So I read that long long piece you linked yesterday.
  About the Lethal Presidency.
  I am above making a joke about how the worse crime by far is the overwrought writing style the author brought to the piece.
 me: Heh. Fair enough.
9:24 AM Lex: I understand the author's argument.
  But I do not agree.
 me: How so?
9:25 AM Lex: I see targeted killings as he (negatively-ish) paints the administration as seeing them: an evolved form of war. Instead of killing soldiers with little stake in the battle, or putting our own soldiers with limited stakes at direct daily risk, you go for the people who are actively involved in plotting against you.
9:26 AM If we grant the president the right to send troops to fight wars—and we do!—then we're trusting him with lots of lives on both sides.
  If this approach means that fewer people die overall, which I think it does, I like it.
9:27 AM me: There are two issues, one narrower but perhaps more important.
 Lex: That said, I probably come down on the wrong answer on this question:
9:28 AM me: Three, three issues. American citizenship, Obama's honesty, and blowback.
9:29 AM Lex: I gotta tell you, the American citizenship issue doesn't faze me at all. Plenty of Americans criticize America all day. If anyone, American or not, is inciting or directing violence against Americans, I don't treat those instigators any differently from anyone else inciting same.
9:31 AM me: The first is the biggest: The president has reserved to himself the right to assassinate an American citizen who is not currently engaged in the field of battle. He's furthermore done that without an explanation of the legal standards involved beyond a "trust me" vibe that sets a bad precedent. I don't trust individuals; I trust processes. We don't know what the processs is. And I don't trust Obama's successors, particularly, to have the power that his precedent grants them--at least not without some ability to restrain or review it. There's a saying in the legal profession: "Hard cases make bad law." Well, al-Awlaki's assassination might be making bad law for the rest of us.
9:33 AM 
2. Obama's honesty: The administration has reported that civilians aren't really killed in these attacks. Part of the way it arrives at that conclusion is by deciding that any "military-aged male" in the vicinity of a targeted bad guy is ipso facto a bad guy. Maybe, but maybe not. That underlying assumption reduces my trust in the president.
 Lex: Even that argument doesn't faze me. Whether Obama makes it a policy/precedent or not, the next better or worse guy could have done the same. There was no precedent for preemptive strikes until W made it. My point being, president precedent doesn't mean much to me, because any new president can set it.
9:35 AM me: 3. Blowback: The use of drones is narrower and more targeted than sending armies to conquer foreign lands. But if your family is on the receiving end of a bomb, it's not going to feel narrower. It only takes a few pissed-off individuals to make an attack of some kind, and I fear that the parameters of the drone war have grown so expansive that the benefits of "narrowly" targeting individuals have been somewhat diminished. That's my weakest argument, because there ARE bad guys out there, but it remains a concern.
9:36 AM Regarding precedent: You're right, to an extent, but also not: Precedent does matter: Even the George W. Bush felt compelled to couch his actions by citing instances from World War II and the Civil War.
9:37 AM And here's the thing: I wouldn't have trusted George W. Bush with these powers. I didn't. So I'm hard-pressed for a logical reason (other than my faith in the good-guyness of Obama) to trust this president with them either. In fairness, I don't think I can.
9:38 AM Lex: I didn't trust W sending the forces of which he was commander in chief into battle.
9:39 AM I'm opposed to all state-sponsored killing, really. I oppose the death penalty, I oppose war, I don't like any of it. The idea that we can kill people, as a nation, frightens and disgusts me all the time. But I recognize that in the current world order, it's not going away any time soon / ever.
  And if the options are the Old Way and the New Way, I prefer the New Way.
  Even if the New Way merely puts a dent in the Old Way.
9:42 AM me: Hey: I'm a lapsed Mennonite. My instincts are still toward pacifism, but I also recognize that's not the way the world works. Maybe what Obama is doing is the best we can realistically hope for. And for that matter, I'll even concede that the Bush Administration—while it gleefully grabbed for a chance to strengthen presidential prerogatives—also had a deep fear of inadvertently allowing another 9/11. The incentives are aligned toward security, not civil liberties. But I don't want to surrender the civil liberties without a fight.
9:43 AM Lex: I naively support civil liberties for good people, and not for people who want to kill good people.
  I say "naively" because someone has to decide which are the good people.
  I think it's a guarantee no president will ever order a drone strike against a friend of mine.
 me: Right. We do civil liberties for everybody, in part, so that good people can feel free to exercise their goodness.
9:44 AM And in most cases, there's a defined process for denying the bad guys of their liberties. When it's skipped or fudged, that's when I get nervous.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Latest podcast: Robert Draper

Ben and I chatted with Robert Draper for the latest podcast, on his newest book about the House of Representatives. It's a good read, and a good discussion. Take a listen here.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Netflix Queue: 'Goon'

Not a bad flick. Not a masterpiece, but it's the kind of thing I can see 17-year-old guys gathering in basements to watch for the next couple of decades:

I'm not really a hockey fan, and it's hard to watch this movie without thinking of guys who have sacrificed their health--and maybe even their lives--to this kind of way of living. But 'Goon' does (or almost does) one really interesting thing: It asks us to consider the options available to people who simply aren't that gifted. For Sean William Scott's Doug Glatt, the option is to fight. And that's about it. We're allowed to see him use that option as a kind of triumph for the little guy. But it's hinted to us--through Liev Schreiber's character--that what comes after isn't so pretty. But mostly we're meant to have a good time, so those themes are touched upon lightly. Like I said: Not a great movie. But not the worst, either, if you're prepared to stomach some extreme profanity and a little ultraviolence.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

How books—even cookbooks—make our worlds bigger.

I felt a sense of loss this morning, reading in the New York Times that the western wildfires had destroyed the Flying W Ranch in Colorado.

Why the loss? I'd never personally visited the ranch. As a child, my mom had the "Cow Country Gourmet" cookbook—essentially a compilations of recipes from the Flying W Ranch. It seems to me that she used it regularly, though my memory might be faulty on that front.

But I remember staring at the cover from time to time: What kind of world did it come from, that one could have a sit-down dress-up dinner under the open sky? Next to cattle? In front of a teepee?

 I've never personally opened the cookbook to make a recipe from it. Yet that cover, which got a little bedraggled over the years, burned itself into my mind's eye. It made the Flying W Ranch—or some fantasy version of it, at least—a part of my childhood. I am sad to see it go.

Netflix Queue: 'Wing Chun'

Yes, we've been watching a lot of Chinese movies lately. Here's one of my favorites on Netflix: It's got young Michelle Yeoh, young Donnie Chen—in the only movie that I've seen of his in which I find him halfway charming—and orchestrating it all: Woo-ping Yuen, the man who choreographed the stunts in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the "Matrix" films, and "Kill Bill." This early-1990s pic doesn't have the production values of those films—listen to the cheesey soundtrack music above—but the fight choreography is inventive. Don't expect anything epic or narratively complex: This is a light comic piece in the tradition of "The Legend of the Drunken Master." It's a trifle, but a fun, well-made trifle.

Friday, July 6, 2012

'Jayhawkers' on Kickstarter

I'm not in the habit of pimping my friends' work, as a rule, but my former Lawrence Journal-World colleague Jon Niccum contacted me to let me know about a movie project he's working on—one that's crowdsourcing its funding from Kickstarter.

The movie is called "Jayhawkers," and yes it's got some University of Kansas stuff going on, but it also sounds pretty cool. It tells the story of how Wilt Chamberlain went to KU—changing not only college basketball, but helping alter race relations in Lawrence, Kan.:
The movie’s emotional climax comes during the triple overtime 1957 National Championship bout between the Jayhawks and their bitter rivals from The University of North Carolina, a game that is decided in the final seconds, and one that has been called the greatest in college history.

Jayhawkers tells the powerful fable of how a small group of unlikely allies modernized college sports and changed a small Midwestern town, serving as a parallel to the Civil Rights movement that would transform an entire American society.
The director is Kevin Wilmott, who is on faculty at KU, but who has also done a fair amount of film work—including the acclaimed movie "CSA: The Confederate States of America" that reimagined American life as if the Confederates had won the Civil War.

The producers are trying to raise $50,000 in production costs. I've pledged a little bit; if you think the movie or its production team sound interesting, they can use the help. The deadline is Aug. 2.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Threading the needle on public unions

In a recent piece for PhillyMag, and more recently here, I've suggested that public unions bear more scrutiny than their liberal allies have generally given them. But I've also said—much, much less prominently, admittedly—that the problems afflicting municipalities these days can't be blamed solely on those unions. In my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week, I flesh out the rest of it a bit with a look at the bankruptcy of Stockton, California.
Public unions aren't perfect. Too often, they act as constituencies to whom favors are owed rather than partners in building the cities they serve. Democrats are often loath to acknowledge such flaws, for a couple of reasons: a) Unions are a critical source of campaign funding; and b) You never really see Republicans biting the corporate hand that feeds them. Why alienate allies and disarm unilaterally? 
Public unions didn't solely create the problems faced by Stockton, or any other city facing financial trouble. They are, however, being asked to bear the brunt of the solution. 
Before the Great Recession started in 2008, many cities -- flush from a growing economy and a housing bubble that inflated their property-tax collections -- didn't bother preparing for the proverbial "rainy day," instead embarking on vanity construction projects and (like many Americans) digging themselves into a pile of debt. Stockton built a sports arena, for example, and paid singer Neil Diamond $1 million to open the city's new concert hall. 
Good times never seemed so good. That kind of hubris, however, really isn't the fault of municipal unions. 
Cities like Stockton also failed to do one other thing: save enough money to pay for the retirement promises they'd made their workers, hoping that economic growth and tax collections would somehow save the day. Mayors and city councils acted foolishly for decades, avoiding preparations for the retirements they knew would come. 
It may be that America's cities can only be saved with an act of pension sacrifice by municipal workers. Note this, however: When Mitt Romney's Bain Capital enjoys big profits but deserts workers in bad times, the firm is castigated. When local governments do the same thing, it's the workers who get blamed. 
Public unions deserve scrutiny, yes. But they shouldn't be scapegoated. Stockton dug its own hole.
Ben's take: "It's wrong to ask taxpayers to sacrifice a larger portion of their incomes and accept fewer services to pay for benefits that the vast majority of people will never have." You'll have to hit the link to read the whole thing.

Netflix Queue: 'Submarine'

Great movie: It's kind of like "Rushmore," only if Max Fischer were Welsh, had a complete set of parents, and was much less able to overwhelm people with the force of his personality. Oliver Tate also has a way of being alienating, but it's more in the mode of the usual dumb antics of a teen boy than in Fischer's attempts at being precocious. Charming movie.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Walter Russell Mead and the lost Christianity of America's elites

I actually found Walter Russell Mead's post--about how American elites have lost their way by losing Christianity--to be somewhat compelling, if not entirely convincing. This was the passage I found challenging and a bit moving.
Serious Christians have to struggle continually against the temptation to view “merit” uncritically. To begin with, any gifts that you have are just that — gifts. Your ability to score 800 on the math section of the SAT is something for which you can personally take no credit whatever. It’s like a pretty face or perfect pitch: it’s very nice to have, but it’s God’s sovereign choice, not your sublime inner nature, that is responsible for this. And of course, he doesn’t give his gifts without a purpose. 
And guess what: the reason God made you smart wasn’t to make you rich and to make you special and to allow you to swank around in the White House or at Davos. He made you smart so that you could serve — and the people he wants you to serve are exactly all those people you feel so arrogantly superior to. At the end of the day, they aren’t going to be judged on how much they deferred to you, respected you, and handed over to you all those rewards you felt you deserved. God isn’t particularly interested in what the Paul Krugmans of this world think though he wants us all to do our best to get things right; he’s interested in how much Paul Krugman and the rest of us loved and sought to serve one another. 
You are going to be judged on how much you did for the “ordinary folks.” Were those Downs’ syndrome kids any better off because of the way you used your mathematical and reasoning gifts? Were the poor better fed and better housed because of the use you made of the talents God trusted to your care? Did you use your power and the freedom that came with it to help others live freer and more dignified lives, or did you parade your superiority around like a pompous and egotistical ass, oppressing and alienating the world when you should have been enlightening it?
Folks, what he's talking about here is humility.

And while I don't begrudge Mead for seeing it Christian terms, I disagree that it's necessarily experienced as the result of a religious outlook. It should be the result of a thinking, contemplative outlook, one that atheists, agnostics (like myself), and religious people of all stripes can share in.

 One doesn't have to be Christian to realize that one's life is shaped by factors beyond our control. Where we're born--what country, what region of a country,the particular wealth and education of our parents, even the genes they pass on to us--none of these things are in our individual control, but all can make a significant difference in our lifetime prospects. When all those factors align favorably, they're the foundation upon which hard work can be used to create a stunning success, or offer a safety net that allows the taking of risks. Sometimes, they're even enough to guarantee a comfortable life without any hard work or risk-taking.

From a non-religious viewpoint, then, all of that stuff is a crapshoot. For those of us who have attained any measure of success, that knowledge can and should be humbling, something that causes one to look around at one's fellow humans and resolve to do better--and yes, maybe even to serve them.

Mead is correct, I think, in that our society currently train people to believe that what what they've attained, they've attained almost solely through their own efforts. He lays this at the feet of non-religious "progressive meritocrats," but that's (at the very least) an incomplete answer. The enduring faddishness of Ayn Rand-style "I Am The Master of My Destiny, And All You Puny Pukes Merely Hold Me Down" thinking hasn't restricted itself to Objectivists and their God-denying ilk; it's spread more broadly into the half of the country that thinks of itself conservative, to a great many self-professed Christians who seem, these days, to think that to give a man a fish and to teach a man to fish are both contemptible acts.

So what we need is a revival of humility, I think; if religiosity is a necessary component for some people to achieve that, good for them, but I don't see that as necessary overall. And we need to find a way to help people think about "public service" in such a way that the term doesn't drip with irony when heard by the great mass of Americans. The basis for all of this is recognizing the fragility of our good fortune, seeing it (at least partly) as a blessing instead of a boast. Even if they might squirm at the term "blessing," there's no reason atheists and agnostics shouldn't help lead that project.

Netflix Queue: 'Let The Bullets Fly'

What a bizarre movie: I'm still scraping my thoughts together about this, but: It's a cross between a gangster film and a Shakespeare mistaken-identity farce, featuring about 13 or so twists and double crosses along the way. It kept doing things that I completely did not expect it to do: For example, Chow Yun-Fat played the villain with queeny ostentation. So I'm going to have to watch it again.

Why I'm still grumpy about National Review and the false 'Obama in Paris' story

My piece for The Philly Post, documenting how and why a good number of Republicans believe that Barack Obama is spending today--July 4--raising campaign cash, had a good run this week: Mentions at New York Magazine, Slate, and last night on the Rachel Maddow show. Both NY Mag and the Maddow show featured a tweet from Andrew McCarthy acknowledging he'd made a mistake.

But that's not quite good enough for me.

Maybe it's the old newspaper guy in me, but I think you should acknowledge and correct and error in the venue that you made it. And in this digital era, you should acknowledge and correct and error by noting it on the very post you made it.

As of the morning of July 4, Andrew McCarthy's original, incorrect post remains uncorrected.

So it's fine he tweeted his correction--it means he's not totally disengaged from the truth. But leaving the original post uncorrected means that it'll sit there, evidence for any activist who Googles it a year from now to make the case that President Obama really hates his country. I can only hope that the Googler notices all the related pieces saying "No, this isn't true." But McCarthy and NRO really should be saying that, too, in the venue where they committed the error. That they don't says something to me, at the very least, about NRO's editorial standards.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The New York Times normalizes John Yoo

Perhaps this is my bugaboo, but I cannot stand the way the New York Times mentions torture advocate John Yoo this morning. My problem? They don't mention the torture advocacy. And it seems relevant.

Why? Because the mention comes in a story about how conservatives are angry with Chief Justice John Roberts' vote on the Affordable Care Act.
By Saturday, John Yoo, a former Bush administration lawyer, was suggesting in The Wall Street Journal that there had been a catastrophic vetting failure in 2005 when the administration was considering Chief Justice Roberts’s nomination. 
“If a Republican is elected president,” said Professor Yoo, who teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley, “he will have to be more careful than the last.”
But Yoo isn't just a "former Bush administration lawyer" who "teaches law" at Berkeley. He's the lawyer who campaigned for an exceptionally expansive reading of the president's commander-in-chief duties under the Constitution—opening the legal gate to torture, yes, but also eavesdropping on Americans, suspending the First Amendment and crushing the testicles of innocent children.

So he's not just another conservative angry about expanded government powers. He's a conservative who provided the paperwork for the scariest expansions of federal power in the last decade—and that deserves a footnote of some sort every damn time he's quoted protesting government overreach. What's more likely to threaten your liberty: A president who can detain, torture, and silence you? Or one who, with the cooperation of Congress, tries to expand access to health care?

Yoo deserves to be a pariah, frankly. But since he's not, New York Times, is it too much to ask that you note the dissonance when quoting him? He's not just another Obama Administration critic.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

'Liberals Against Labor Unions'

That’s the title of a very short essay I have in the July issue of Philadelphia Magazine. (It’s not online, that I can find, but it’s on newsstands now.) It’s a piece I fear will cost me a few friends in this town--and possibly beyond--and so I hesitated to write it. I don’t like making my friends mad!

But: I wrote it. And I stand by it. Now I’d like to elaborate.

The central point of the essay is that the city’s public labor unions--in virtually every sector of public governance--contribute to the sclerotic can’t-do-much-but-do-it-expensively-and-slowly-but-intrusively nature of Philadelphia governance. Let’s face it: Governance in this city sucks. They’re not the only culprits, but mostly public unions appear to act as constituencies that are owed favors and pandering instead of partners in making the city better.

It hurts to write that, because I believe it’s not a coincidence that the decline of unionization in America has coincided with stagnating middle class wages. And I don’t think you forfeit your right to seek a better life just because you go into public service.


Here’s a good place to go back and examine one’s underlying principles. Conservatives are for small, limited government. They tend to believe--or at least, say--that liberals are for big government, possibly for its own sake. I’ve never felt that way, personally. But I do want government to do stuff--to provide infrastructure, education, policing, and a safety net for those who are unemployed, sick, or old, a regulatory framework to protect us from unnecessary harm--so that we as citizens are freed to make the most of our gifts and resources. Bigger government is a byproduct of that, but it’s not the goal.

The thing is: I think conservatives are right to some extent that a bigger government is one that’s more likely to reach into your life in ways that are burdensome instead of helpful. So liberals (like me) who advocate for doing all these things should be at the forefront of making sure they’re done well, so that the burden is more than offset by the benefits. And when they’re not done well, we have to examine where the fault lies.

In Philadelphia, there are many reasons that governance is so sclerotic. The Republican Party gave up being competitive a long time ago, letting Democrats get fat and happy in their mediocrity. Huge chunks of the civil service are patronage machines aimed at delivering jobs to allies instead of services to citizens. Our recent mayors have either been (let’s be honest here) shady or (in the case of the current occupant) surprisingly ineffective at working the levers of power. L&I could get its own paragraph here.

But Philadelphia’s public unions also, from what I can see, carry a measure of responsibility. So we have to deal with the fact that their pensions currently outstrip our ability to pay for them; we have to deal with the apparent disregard they have for the citizens they serve; we have to deal with how they often seem to stand in the way of reforming government for fear of losing jobs.

(One thing: My piece was written and in the editor’s hands long before the school district’s blue-collar workers offered $20 million in givebacks to save jobs. Knowing that would’ve tempered how I wrote the original piece, admittedly. But I think the long-term trends are nonetheless clear.)

I am not Scott Walker. I am not a Republican. I don’t want to end public unions. (Neither does Walker, exactly; remember, that police unions were exempted from his Wisconsin crackdown, which means the moves there have been about consolidating Republican power rather than defending some small-government principle.) I want them to do better.

Living in Philadelphia has made me both more and less sympathetic to my libertarian-leaning friends. I’m not sure this (or any big city) can survive without a strong central government. But I also see how such a government, when it’s ossified and not-at-all nimble, makes the city a worse place to live. Right now, Philadelphia’s government makes this city a worse place to live for many of us who simply want to live and earn a living here. The public unions are part of the reason why. If those of us who are their natural allies acknowledge this, we can help them be part of fixing the problem.