Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Quick Note About The ACLU

Regarding that gun confiscation story, let me note this tidbit near the end:

Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania's Philadelphia office, said that the cases seem "pretty outrageous."

"This idea of taking people's guns who are carrying them legally and arresting them is absurd," she said. "The police don't get to decide what is a crime - they only get to enforce what is a crime.

"They are simply acting as vigilantes here and deciding they know better than the law."


Roper said that citizens should remain wary of police who arrest people complying with the law and take their property, even if it is a gun.

"The public may be saying, 'You're getting guns off the street,' " Roper said.

"But there's got to come a point where you want your police, of all people, to respect the law.

"This isn't technical, it's fundamental."

Conservatives like to treat the ACLU as if its a lefty special-interest group. Me? I just think it's an organization trying to protect our rights. I'm glad it's there. Maybe conservatives should be, too.

"Officers' safety comes first, and not infringing on people's rights comes second."

I'm pretty much on record that I find gun ownership the most ambiguous of all the civil rights. It's not that I dispute the meaning of the Second Amendment -- that debate, I think, is for all intents and purposes over -- but, let's be frank: Guns are instruments of violence. Period. I'm not at all certain that the Second Amendment is always and everywhere a good thing.

But I like civil rights a whole bunch, and it seems to me that if I call on folks to defend them when they don't like it, I should do the same thing. That's why I find this story in the Philadelphia Daily News so disturbing:

In the last two years, Philadelphia police have confiscated guns from at least nine men - including four security guards - who were carrying them legally, and only one of the guns has been returned, according to interviews with the men.

Eight of the men said that they were detained by police - two for 18 hours each. Two were hospitalized for diabetic issues while in custody, one of whom was handcuffed to a bed. Charges were filed against three of the men, only to be withdrawn by the District Attorney's Office.

Read further into the story, and you'll hear tales of men arrested after they offered their legal permits to carry the weapons to officers -- who either didn't know the law well enough to accept the documentation, or, because of other issues, couldn't independently verify those permits in a quick and reasonable manner.

In such cases, it seems to me, the call goes to the person who is exercising their rights. If police can't prove you're violating the law, they shouldn't be able to arrest you or confiscate your property. But that's not really the case in Philadelphia, at least. Enter Lt. Fran Healy, a "special adviser to the police commissioner," and this somewhat chilling statement of values:

"Officers' safety comes first, and not infringing on people's rights comes second," Healy said.

That sounds reasonable enough on the surface -- and certainly, nobody wants to see any cop dead -- but: Spend any time in a courtroom, like I have, and you'll realize that "officer safety" is the loophole to end all loopholes. As a general rule, police have to have "reasonable suspicion" -- evidence derived from their observations or witnesses -- to stop you, to frisk you, to arrest you. Under the guise of "officer safety," though, officers can frisk you to (wink) make sure you don't happen to have a weapon. And if they happen to dig criminal evidence out of your pockets -- evidence they wouldn't have had the right to collect otherwise -- well, that's just what happens in the course of things.

Sometimes, you end up with innocent men in state custody for 18 hours because the police can't or won't get their act together.

Like I said: I do want Philly cops to be safe. And guns make the city scary, at times. But I want the police to operate on the presumption that they honor the rights of the citizens they serve. Stories like today's don't offer me comfort.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Netflix Queue: 'Tetsuo: Iron Man'

Really. I don't even know how to discuss this movie. What I can say is that I thought about Takashi Miike's horrifying "Ichi The Killer" tonight, and opted for what I thought would be the less-disturbing flick.

I was wrong.

I won't even attempt a summary. Here's the Netflix description:

Soon after he accidentally runs down a man with a fetish for implanting scrap metal into his body (Shinya Tsukamoto, who also directs), a businessman (Tomorowo Taguchi) begins eerily morphing into a hybrid man-machine, accompanied by twisted, metal-related nightmares. Is the metal fetishist somehow controlling the transformation? Now, the businessman must track down the man he thought he killed before the horrific metamorphosis is complete.

But that makes the flick sound much more benign than it is. A friend called it "torture porn," but that doesn't seem quite right. It also doesn't seem inaccurate, either. There's a lot of phallic imagery in this movie; the main character's penis does, in fact, transform into a giant working drill bit that is put to the expected horrifying uses. So: Not exactly a pleasant evening.

The movie's only about an hour long, and almost completely free of dialogue, but the rapid-fire editing -- if it doesn't trigger a seizure -- ends up being tedious at times. Still, these are movies I thought of, visually and thematically, while watching "Tetsuo":

* Akira Kurosawa's late 1940s work.

* The collected films of Terry Gilliam.

* "Edward Scissorhands"

* "Alien: Resurrection"

* "Godzilla"

* "Eraserhead"

* "Pi"

* "I Know What You Did Last Summer"

* "Crash" (David Cronenberg edition)

* "Planet of the Apes"

One doesn't need to have "fun" watching a movie to appreciate it. But more than a lot of taboo-challenging movies I've seen -- I'm thinking of the "Vengeance Trilogy" and "Three Extremes" here -- I feel somewhat traumatized having seen it. Maybe I'm getting older. I don't know. Whatever: I can't really recommend this film.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Irshad Manji's Questions for the 'Ground Zero Mosque'

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Irshad Maji suggests that both sides of the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate have been emoting more than thinking. To cut through the clutter, he she suggests that the following questions be posed to the Cordoba House/Park 51/Whatever Is Is This Week organizers:

• Will the swimming pool at Park51 be segregated between men and women at any time of the day or night?

• May women lead congregational prayers any day of the week

• Will Jews and Christians, fellow People of the Book, be able to use the prayer sanctuary for their services just as Muslims share prayer space with Christians and Jews in the Pentagon? (Spare me the technocratic argument that the Pentagon is a governmental, not private, building. Park51 may be private in the legal sense but is a public symbol par excellence.)

• What will be taught about homosexuals? About agnostics? About atheists? About apostasy?

• Where does one sign up for advance tickets to Salman Rushdie's lecture at Park51?

Well, sure. And next time a Catholic or Baptist church gets built in Manhattan, we should be putting those exact same questions forward as well! Either they let Larry Kramer preach from their pulpits, or they hate America!

Look, I'm under no illusion that even a "moderate" Muslim congregation would conform to my -- or any liberal's -- criteria for "right thinking." That's not really the point of this whole exercise for the so-called "tolerance" crowd. "Americans have the opportunity right now to be clear about the civic values expected from any Islam practiced at the site," Manji writes -- and that's the problem with this whole debate. Muslims are being held to a different, higher standard than the rest of us. That's not right.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Federalist 37-38: Making Government Is Hard! (A Two-Part Blog That Includes Supreme Court Musings)

James Madison is sure a whiny sonofabitch.

Sorry. That's crass and vulgar, not at all in keeping with the high-minded aspirations of this project of reading all the way through The Federalist Papers, which is the Founding Fathers' gift to us, the best explanation we have on hand of why they did what they did in crafting the Constitution of the United States.

But in Federalist 37 and 38, we're reminded that the Founders weren't actually demigods who met at a modern Mount Olympus and received the text as a gift from some even higher power. (Not that Madison and others weren't interested in promoting that storyline: "It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.") They were politicians, really, and very human. And like all humans who have worked really hard on a project, they got irritated at the challenges put forth to the work they'd done.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is It Time To Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb-Bomb Iran?

That's the question raised in The Atlantic's September cover story, and is also the topic of my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week. My take:

An attack on Iran, whether by Israel or the United States, would have devastating consequences for the rest of us: Iran would almost certainly respond by unleashing its terrorist proxy groups to make war on Western targets, and it could easily make life miserable for shipping in the Straits of Hormuz -- a critical passage for oil exports from the Middle East to the rest of the world. Many people would die, and a shaky world economy might be plunged into depression.

And that's what would happen if the attack worked.

Iran learned the lessons of Israel's attacks on nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria during the last three decades. The country has spread out and buried its key nuclear facilities. Western intelligence probably doesn't know where all those facilities are located. Even proponents of an attack admit that bombing Iran might not keep that country from obtaining a nuclear bomb -- it just might slow the process a little bit.

Whether you believe an attack is justified, then, depends on your answer to this question: Are Iran's leaders so crazy they would actually use a nuclear bomb once they obtained it?

Certainly, there's little reason to love President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or the mullahs who back him. They are Holocaust-denying totalitarian theocrats. But there's little evidence they're ready to commit national suicide. If Israel didn't destroy Tehran with a retaliatory nuclear attack, the United States almost certainly would.

A nuclear-armed Iran is undesirable. It may also be inevitable. The suffering unleashed by an attack on the country, though, would be guaranteed -- while the consequences of a nuclear Iran remain, at this point, hypothetical. If the debacle in Iraq has taught us anything, it is that we should wait for a true threat to reveal itself, instead of squandering blood and treasure trying to ward off a chimera.

Ben's solution? "Let's kill the mullahs."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Weekly Standard, the 'Ground Zero mosque' and selective McCarthyism

The Weekly Standard, July 26:

Many who object to construction of an Islamic facility so close to the site of the World Trade Center feel that a large, if not dominating Muslim presence there would be at best insensitive and at worst a symbol of the very Islamist supremacy that is the goal of al Qaeda and other jihadist killers. Such sentiments are hardly the last word in a question of public policy. But the background support and financing for this ambitious undertaking are matters that deserve to be addressed. 
Nancy Pelosi yesterday: "There is no question there is a concerted effort to make this a political issue by some. And I join those who have called for looking into how is this opposition to the mosque being funded."
Follow-up: Speaker Pelosi announces that she is reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), abolished in 1975. Hearings on the Opposition to the Mosque, featuring inquiries, under oath, as to whether witnesses are now or have ever been members of the American Anti-Mosque Party, will begin when the House reconvenes in September.
 What Nancy Pelosi said was stupid. Full stop. But The Weekly Standard seems to be fine calling for investigations when minority Americans exercise their First Amendment rights. So it's hard to take Bill Kristol seriously when he takes umbrage just because he's on the receiving end of the same treatment.

Managing My Digital Life (Or: How I Learned To Love The Internet Without Surrendering To It)

I've spent the last few months trying to figure out how to live a thoughtful, contemplative life in a digital age. There's been a lot of talk lately about Nicholas Carr's book, "The Shallows," and about how The Google Life is one of endless multitasking and short-circuited thoughts that, not so slowly, is robbing us of the ability to think or read deeply, or at length.

For awhile, I tried a little bit of cold turkey -- deactivating my Facebook and Twitter accounts -- and pondered the idea of giving up the digital life entirely. I discarded that idea ultimately: Giving up the Internet is, frankly, impractical. Twitter, it turns out, is a useful networking tool. And Facebook, well ... Facebook connects me with my friends, old and new. I would miss them.

Plus: I like blogging.

Instead, I've had to set limits for myself. The problem for me isn't so much the Internet -- there's tons to love about the Internet -- but my own capacity for endless, shallow farting around. So:

* I'VE LIMITED MYSELF TO 100 FEEDS TO FOLLOW ON TWITTER. AND I KEEP IT ENTIRELY TO THE BROWSER. Once I reactivated my account, I remembered why I'd abandoned Twitter in the first place -- too many feeds, updated too frequently. I'd previously used the Twitterrific desktop client, and Twitter updates would thus push themselves into my consciousness constantly whenever I was using the computer. Now Twitter is waiting there for me when I choose to go get it. And there's not as much for me to get: I'm at 100 feeds I'm following now -- when I add one, I drop one. It's that simple.

* I'VE DEEPLY LIMITED MY RSS FEEDS: I'm down to Philly's newspapers, a couple of local blogs and one major liberal blog, one major conservative blog and one major libertarian blog. I also subscribe to Memeorandum, which allows me to track the flow of blogospheric conversation without having a million blogs pushing their updates into Google Reader. Yes, there are good bloggers whose work I still want to follow -- but I can either drop in on them from time-to-time or I can catch their highlights from their Twitter feed. It's less oppressive than having 1,000 unread posts in my reader.

* I'VE CHANGED HOW I USE INSTAPAPER: If you haven't used Instapaper, you should, because it offers one potential solution to Carr's vexations, letting you save long-form written pieces for later reading -- when you're in less of a scanning RSS mode and readier for meatier reading. But it comes, for many people, with a new problem: The piling up of unread articles in the Instapaper queue. My solution? I won't let myself have more than five items in the queue at any one time. (Six, in a pinch.) If a story lingers for a couple of days, I recognize that I'm probably not going to get to it -- and delete it. Generally speaking, though, my approach here is the same as Twitter: If one new story comes on, another must go off. Preferably, I've read it first. But not always.

What's more, I read Instapaper articles only on my iPhone. The temptations to multitasking are simply too great on my computer. I can engage the text a little better if it's the only thing in front of me -- and iPhone is good at keeping just one thing in front of you. If Instapaper had highlighting and note-taking options available -- like the Kindle and Nook for iPhone do -- I'd be completely set.

The next couple of things I'm less good at, but trying to incorporate into my life:

* NO NET AT DINNERTIME: My wife and I realized that popping on a movie at dinnertime was having the effect of distracting our toddler son from actually eating -- with consequences for the entire family at bedtime. So, no more videos at mealtime. There's a temptation to futz on my iPhone at the point, but I'm trying to turn it off completely and enjoy the company of actual humans over food. A little music in the background is OK.

* THE COMPUTER COMES OFF COMPLETELY AT 9 PM. This one I'm worst at. But the nights I turn it off and retire to bed with a good novel are the nights I sleep best and wake up most refreshed.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it offers virtually limitless access to information, video and dialogue. But my time is limited, as is my attention. So I'm setting limits on my engagement with the Internet, so that I can live a life that is enhanced by what the web has to offer -- not dominated by it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is it bad if Bill Gates gives away half of his estate?

That's the question I tackle with Ben Boychuk in our column for Scripps Howard News Service. You already got an early version of my take on this blog, so I'll give the floor to Ben.

The problem here isn't charity. The problem is Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Americans tend to disdain the gaudy rich and ostentatious displays of wealth. Gates and Buffett are what might be called ostentatious donors. Through his family foundation, Gates has donated tens of billions of dollars to causes ranging from education reform to vaccinations for poor women in third world countries. Buffett has given $8 billion alone to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Have they helped people? Probably. Have they shaped public policy? Almost certainly. The question is whether those billions have shaped policy for the better.

To the extent Gates and Buffett have pushed for reforms that expand the scope and reach of national governments, that's not positive change. Gates and Buffett both have used their power and fortunes to advocate, among other things, greater federal say over corporate governance, choice in health care, and public education.

Americans may or may not agree with Gates and Buffett. I don't. Happily, Americans remain free to support charitable causes that advocate other points of view.

And the fact is, Americans are amazingly generous with their time and money. Despite the recession and high unemployment, Americans in 2009 gave more than $303.75 billion to charitable causes, according to Grenzenbach Glier and Associates, a consulting firm specializing in nonprofit philanthropy.

Self-described conservatives are especially giving. Arthur Brooks, who is now the president of the American Enterprise Institute, published a terrific book in 2006 called "Who Really Cares." In that book, Brooks provided data showing conservative families in 2000 gave about 30 percent more money per year than liberal-headed families on average, while earning 6 percent less income.

Brooks is careful to say it's not simply a matter of conservatives being more generous than liberals. Religion, family, source of income and beliefs about the role of government all influence how people give. But clearly charitable giving is not a "bottomless pit." At its best, it can be an investment in life-saving work or world changing ideas.

I think it's somewhat funny that Ben suggests the root of the complaint against Buffett and Gates is -- partly -- that they're "ostentatious givers." Step on a university campus sometime and you'll have a difficult time making your way around without seeing any number of buildings named for the donors. Is it ostentatious? Darn tootin'. I'm OK with that: vanity philanthropy is still philanthropy, at the end of the day.

The other part of the complaint, I suppose, is that Gates and Buffett tend towards the liberal side of things and put their money to use accordingly. I guess I have a similar complaint about the Koch Brothers. But I don't think -- and wouldn't be silly enough to say -- that David Koch's funding of the New York City Ballet somehow is a betrayal of capitalism.

To be fair, I don't think Ben would say that either. This'll probably sound condescending, but he's smarter and more generous of spirit than a lot of the people he's putatively called upon to defend in this week's column. He's better than they deserve.

"Bang 'em": How the death penalty reduces us to the level of criminals

Even if I favored the death penalty, I'd feel a little bit sick at the display that occurred in a Philadelphia court today:

"Walk back into this courtroom and say: 'Bang 'em, bang 'em.' "

Using the words uttered by convicted cop killer Eric DeShann Floyd against him and codefendant Levon T. Warner, a Philadelphia prosecutor today asked the jury to return two death sentences for the 2008 shooting of Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski.

In an impassioned 35-minute speech to the Common Pleas Court jury of seven men and five women, Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy argued that Floyd and Warner forfeited their right to life on May 3, 2008 when they advanced their long criminal careers to include bank robbery and the killing of a pursuing police officer.

He then turned to the jury and told them to return the double death penalty "not out of vengeance" but because "it's what the law requires and it's what justice demands."

But Conroy is clearly asking the jury to act out of a sense of vengeance, and it's silly to pretend otherwise. For most people that'll be ok: Floyd and Warner are cop killers -- if anybody deserves the death penalty, it's these two guys.

Maybe I'm just a namby-pamby, though, but even in these circumstances I don't want the state being quite so gleeful in its pursuit of the death penalty. That's an awesome power given to prosecutors, juries and the courts, and if that power must be used, well, is it too much to ask that it be used soberly?

Instead, prosecutor Conroy used the exact same words of death that cop-killer Floyd used, in order persuade the jury to impose a death penalty. It's pretty damning proof that the death penalty reduces the justice system -- and the society it serves -- to the level of murderous criminals.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why civilian agencies can't help counterinsurgency succeed in Iraq

This isn't probably all that widely known, but a key aspect of the counterinsurgency doctrine Gen. David Petraeus helped develop back in his Fort Leavenworth days -- before he became a celebrity superhero in Iraq, and now Afghanistan -- is this little point: The military can't do it alone.  The American government's civilian agencies -- ranging from Treasury to (seriously) the Department of Agriculture -- all have a vital role to play in helping win over a secure the population where the insurgency is taking place.

This doesn't happen as well as it should -- at least, that's what military types say with a fair amount of frequency. But part of the reason that may be the case is this: where political types back home in Washington are frequently willing to write blank -- or, at least, very big -- checks to fund military efforts abroad, they're stingier when it comes to those civilian agencies. Here's a story in today's Washington Post:

Beginning in September, the State Department will take over all police training in Iraq from coalition military forces, and it has proposed replacing its current 16 provincial reconstruction teams spread across the country with five consular offices outside Baghdad.

But since planning for the transition began more than two years ago, costs have skyrocketed and the money to pay for them has become increasingly tight. Congress cut the State Department's Iraq request in the 2010 supplemental appropriation that President Obama signed late last month; the Senate Appropriations Committee and a House subcommittee have already slashed the administration's $1.8 billion request for fiscal 2011 operations in Iraq.

The State Department has signaled in recent weeks that it will need up to $400 million more than initially requested to cover mushrooming security costs, but lawmakers seem in no mood to acquiesce.

"They need a dose of fiscal reality," a senior Senate aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity amid ongoing negotiations over the State Department funding.

I'm all for fiscal reality -- and I'm a fan of efforts to impose that reality upon America's efforts abroad. Still: Does anyone think that Congress would be so stingy if Petraeus was asking for this exact money, for the exact same reasons, and in the exact same "oops we miscalculated" context? It's extremely doubtful.

The defense establishment has long been extremely talented at attracting funding and resisting even modest cuts to the growth of its budgets. But there's a double-edged sword to that success: The military on its own cannot -- and should not -- bear the only burden of achieving America's aims abroad. But it may be the only institution that's given the fiscal latitude to do so.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Weekly Standard doesn't want "our" Muslims talking to "their" Muslims

America'ssmiling face to the Muslim world?
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the so-called Ground Zero mosque, is apparently set to take a State Department trip to "to help people overseas understand our society and the role of religion within our society.” John McCormack of the Weekly Standard responds with confusing pugnaciousness:

If the purpose of the junket is to "help people overseas understand our society"--and not to help Rauf raise the $100 million for his mosque--wouldn't it make sense to send someone representative of the vast majority of Americans who oppose the Ground Zero mosque? Perhaps the State Department could send someone--maybe Juan Williams or Rich Lowry or Abe Foxman or Bill McGurn or Neda Bolourchi or Sarah Palin or Rod Dreher or Christopher Caldwell or Bill Kristol--to explain to the people of the world that Americans aren't bigots but simply find it offensive and insensitive to build a mosque two blocks from the site of a horrific Islamist terrorist attack?

This is simply brain-dead.

The purpose of the trip is clearly to do the "soft power" work of making the United States seem, to Muslims abroad, like a nice place with nice people trying to make a nicer world. It only makes sense that the U.S. might send emissaries who can relate, culturally and linguistically, to the target audience -- it makes more sense, after all, than putting Karen Hughes in front of a crowd for the purpose of looking completely out of touch.

There's only on Muslim, Neda Boloruchi, on McCormack's list. Just about everybody else on the list tends to buy into the whole "clash of the civilizations" stuff that sees not radical fundamentalist jihadist Islam as the problem -- but Islam itself. Why in the hell would you send Bill Kristol to present America's smiling face to the Muslim world? I admire Rod Dreher in a lot of ways, but he's also the last person for the job.

My guess is that McCormack isn't serious. He can't possibly be. He's just engaged in some political point scoring, some "why don't they send a real American blah blah" stuff that goes down well with the sort of demagogery the Standard is indulging in these days, but which should never be mistaken for the thoughts of anybody who would ever have to be responsible for the fallout of their suggestions.

Obama, Gibbs, Ungrateful Liberals and the Art of Politicking

President Obama on Monday:

"We have spent the last 20 months governing. They spent the last 20 months politicking," Obama said of Republicans. With three months to go before the election, Obama all but said "bring it on": "They've forgotten I know how to politick pretty good."

Back in Washington, his spokesman Robert Gibbs:

The White House is simmering with anger at criticism from liberals who say President Obama is more concerned with deal-making than ideological purity.

The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”

All I can say is: Way to motivate the base, guys. Part of politicking is making sure your side is motivated to get out and support your candidates. Attacking the people most likely to support your candidates -- particularly in terms that sound like this -- isn't actually a very effective way to do that.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Conservatives Against Philanthropy: Are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Socialists?

They're wearing red. That can't be a coincidence.
I confess I don't get this reaction to the June story in Fortune about how Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are trying to persuade other billionaires to leave half their estates to charity:

As it turns out, however, the writer, senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, struck a raw nerve with Fortune readers. Most were outraged – regarding the philanthropy plan as grandstanding that would do nothing to create jobs or to address horrific problems, including runaway government spending, the spiraling deficit, and the near-comatose state of the economy. As Fortune notes in its July 26 issue, “When Carol Loomis reported on Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ plan to pledge half of their wealth away, the comments – nearly 500 of them – came in fast and, literally, furious.”

According to Fortune’s own tally, the comments ran 2-to-1 against Buffett and Gates. The included 36 percent of who readers described the philanthropy plan as “a publicity stunt/dangerous/the work of socialists” and another 26 percent who said the money that Buffett, Gates, and the other billiionaires were proposing to spend on charity should be spent in other ways – to pay off the U.S. debt, to help individuals, or reinvested in the creation of new businesses and job opportunities.

Any number of readers wrote in to urge Buffett and Gates to remember that they were supposed to be capitalists. As one put it, “For all their vast wealth, these people don’t have a clue about how economies flourish and fail. Don’t GIVE your money away. That’s called putting it in a bottomless pit. INVEST IT. Create some badly needed jobs by creating something called BUSINESSES with that capital.”

This is why I'm confused: Conservatives have typically sought to defuse allegations that they're heartless moneygrubbers by saying that they're not against helping poor or needy people, exactly -- they just think it's the job of communities and churches and private charity, not the state. But if they're now so critical of private individuals actually giving their money to charity, what's left?

Is the Ayn Randization of the business community becoming complete? Is the only virtue to build yourself and your profit? Is altruism morally suspect in this universe?

A conservative friend suggests that some of the response is less "anti-charity" than a reaction against the kinds of charity Gates and Buffett are supporting. (Buffet has, quietly, used his philathropical reach to try to expand access to abortion.) And their efforts do seem aimed at more than feeding the hungry and healing the sick -- they want to use their billions to transform societies. From the Fortune article, a description of a dinner where several billionaires told their stories of philathropy:

The charitable causes discussed in those stories covered the spectrum: education, again and again; culture; hospitals and health; the environment; public policy; the poor generally. Bill Gates, who found the whole event "amazing," regarded the range of causes as admirable: "The diversity of American giving," he says, "is part of its beauty."

But it's not as though Gates or Buffett have the power to compel other rich people to give to charity -- much less determine which philanthropies those rich people choose to fund. So statism -- usually the bugaboo of capitalist-conservatives -- seems to be absent from the equation. How the effort equates to "socialism," I'm at a loss to understand.

As it happens, today's New York Times has a front-page story about India -- that economic up-and-comer whose growth sometimes seems to come at the expense of America's -- and the debate there over whether the poor have a right to eat. Even with the availability of more good-paying jobs than ever before, there are still many, many Indians in poverty: 421 million. Which happens to be more people than exist in the United States, rich or poor.

The point here is not to disparage capitalism. It may have some warts, but it has also created more wealth -- and lifted more people out of poverty -- than any other force in history. So Gates and Buffett's critics are right to an extent: Start some businesses and put some people to work! You know what? That can easily be done with the billions of dollars each man will still have, even after their sizable philanthropic donations. It's not an either-or question.

The critics seem more than a little  foolish when they suggest that two self-made billionaires don't understand economics. They're also guilty of narrow thinking. As India shows -- and American history demonstrates -- there are places the market cannot reach and people the market cannot help, even in the most vibrant of economies. (There are places it probably shouldn't reach, but that's another discussion.) Conservatives usually seem to know this, which is why they've advocated private charity as a solution to such ills. To see them now sneer at altruism is weird and a little unsettling.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Federalist 30-36: This Government Was Made For Taxin'. And That's Just What It'll Do.

The farther I read into the Federalist Papers, the more I'm convinced the Tea Partiers only know about half their history.

Back up: I didn't start reading the Federalists with the aim of debunking the Tea Partiers. But it's impossible to read historical documents about the nature of governance in America when there's a coalition of folks out there who so strongly identify with those historical personages.

Their narrative, I believe, goes something like this: America was born, essentially, in a tax rebellion. And the Founding Fathers then created a limited government in order to avoid oppressing the people either with burdensome taxes or directly tyrannical rule. And maybe, just maybe, if the tax burden gets too large -- well, maybe, Americans have the right to resort to rebellion again.

Like I said: I think that's only partly right. Because the Federalist Papers -- the documents we most use, aside from the Constitution itself, for insight into the Founders' thinking -- seem to favor a rather more expansive vision of government than the Tea Party narrative would suggest.

I already mentioned this theory back in Federalist 15. But it's' greatly reinforced by reading Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 30 through 36.

Why? Because those chapters are about the topic nearest and dearest to the hearts of Tea Partiers: Taxation.

And get this: Hamilton was arguing that the power to tax was a central reason -- maybe the central reason -- the Constitution needed to be passed. And not just any power to tax: Unlimited power to tax.

This kind of goes against the narrative we hear lately, but there it is in Hamilton's own words: Without unlimited power to tax, the government will be a weak and ineffective thing.

How is it possible that a government half supplied and always necessitous, can fulfill the purposes of its institution, can provide for the security, advance the prosperity, or support the reputation of the commonwealth? How can it ever possess either energy or stability, dignity or credit, confidence at home or respectability abroad? How can its administration be any thing else than a succession of expedients temporizing, impotent, disgraceful? How will it be able to avoid a frequent sacrifice of its engagements to immediate necessity? How can it undertake or execute any liberal or enlarged plans of public good?

Now, Hamilton was speaking from some experience here: A reason the Articles of Confederation were considered to have failed was that the Congress under the articles couldn't raise its own money -- it had to ask the states, essentially. And the states weren't always forthcoming. That left the United States unable to expeditiously pay its debts from the Revolutionary War.

Here's where honesty compels me to note, though, that Hamilton's call for unlimited power of taxation -- and I'm serious here: he wanted it to be unlimited -- didn't seem to be in the service of creating a welfare state, but rather to pay for the common defense. (Federalist 34: "The expenses arising from those institutions which are relative to the mere domestic police of a state, to the support of its legislative, executive, and judicial departments, with their different appendages, and to the encouragement of agriculture and manufactures (which will comprehend almost all the objects of state expenditure), are insignificant in comparison with those which relate to the national defense.")

But unlimited power is, of course, unlimited power. And that's what Hamilton was arguing for. Here he is 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.

This, of course, was horrifying to the antifederalists. And -- not to drive the point home with too much earnestness -- it was horrifying to them in a way that today's Tea Partiers would find very familiar. Here's "Brutus" writing in Antifederalist 32:

We may say then that this clause commits to the hands of the general legislature every conceivable source of revenue within the United States, Not only are these terms very comprehensive, and extend to a vast number of objects, but the power to lay and collect has great latitude; it will lead to the passing a vast number of laws, which may affect the personal rights of the citizens of the states, expose their property to fines and confiscation, and put their lives in jeopardy. It opens a door to the appointment of a swarm of revenue and excise collectors to prey upon the honest and industrious part of the community, [and] eat up their substance. . . .

If you're a Tea Partier, that sounds like a fairly accurate description of what happened, I suppose.

But the antifederalists were wrong, to some extent. They were concerned, it seems, with preserving a fair measure of state sovereignty -- "state's rights" you might say -- and their biggest worry about the Constitution's grant of unlimited power to tax was that it would, over time, deprive the states of their power to tax. It hasn't really worked out that way.

In the end, Hamilton rejected every suggested limitation to restrict Congress' power to tax. The only real check, he suggested, was the voters themselves -- and their ability to send to Congress wise people who would understand how to balance the needs of government against the income of its citizens.

There is no part of the administration of government that requires extensive information and a thorough knowledge of the principles of political economy, so much as the business of taxation. The man who understands those principles best will be least likely to resort to oppressive expedients, or sacrifice any particular class of citizens to the procurement of revenue. It might be demonstrated that the most productive system of finance will always be the least burdensome. There can be no doubt that in order to a judicious exercise of the power of taxation, it is necessary that the person in whose hands it should be acquainted with the general genius, habits, and modes of thinking of the people at large, and with the resources of the country. And this is all that can be reasonably meant by a knowledge of the interests and feelings of the people. In any other sense the proposition has either no meaning, or an absurd one. And in that sense let every considerate citizen judge for himself where the requisite qualification is most likely to be found.

Two-hundred years later, the only question I can ask is: How's that working out for ya?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Now that Proposition 8 has been struck down, will gay marriage become the law of the land?

That's the central question of my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week. My take:

Whether the Supreme Court strikes down gay-marriage bans may depend entirely on the attitudes and disposition of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who tends to be the swing vote on controversial issues. Reading his 2003 opinion in Lawrence v. Texas -- the ruling that struck down laws making homosexual sex a crime -- it's difficult to see how state bans on gay marriage will survive.

It is true that Kennedy, in his 2003 ruling, was careful to state that decriminalizing such sexual practices did not require formal government recognition of gay relationships. But the logic of that ruling is compelling in the context of gay marriage.

The logic was this: To use the law to set apart homosexual conduct "demeans the lives of homosexual persons," and thus is at odds with the guarantees of liberty provided by the U.S. Constitution.

Kennedy was right then, and he would be right now to say the same thing about gay-marriage bans.

Such a ruling would invariably bring cries of "judicial activism" from the right, but it's entirely appropriate for the courts to get involved. Since at least the late 1960s, the right to marry has been considered a "fundamental right" under the U.S. Constitution --and nobody seriously contests that. Fundamental rights, it should be noted, cannot and should not be contravened by legislative action or statewide referendums. They simply exist.

Walker correctly realized this in his ruling. Gay couples, he wrote, "do not seek recognition of a new right. To characterize (their) objective as 'the right to same-sex marriage' would suggest that plaintiffs seek something different from what opposite-sex couples across the state enjoy -- namely, marriage. Rather, plaintiffs ask California to recognize their relationships for what they are: marriages."

If the Supreme Court follows its own precedent, it will agree. And that will be a good thing.

Ben obviously has a different take on things, about which I can say little more than what I have. I do have to take issue, though, with one of his remarks:

Marshalling one-sided testimony from social scientists led Walker to conclude: "Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage," "parents' genders are irrelevant to children's developmental outcomes" and, incredibly, "the evidence shows same-sex marriage has and will have no adverse effects on society or the institution of marriage."

Here's where it must be noted that if the testimony in the case seems "one-sided," it's because the Proposition 8 proponents who argued the case at trial barely bothered to put on a case. They called just two witnesses, one of whom -- David Blankenhorn -- wasn't a researcher, exactly, but a pundit. (From Prop 8 on Trial: "He has never written a peer-reviewed article on the effects of same-sex marriage nor, by his own admission, studied any of the legal cases in which the United States Supreme Court has declared marriage a fundamental right.") I think it's fair to say that Ben is just about as qualified as Blankenhorn to make the pro-Prop 8 case -- and Ben, despite being widely read and a great writer, isn't qualified at all to testify as an expert witness.

Qualifiactions aside, though, he wasn't exactly a stellar witness for his side:

Under cross-examination by David Boies, an attorney for challengers of the ballot measure, Blankenhorn admitted he knew of no study that showed children reared by gay couples fared worse than those raised by heterosexual parents.

Blankenhorn also conceded that same-sex marriage would probably "improve the well-being of gay and lesbian households and their children."

Further down our column, Ben complains that Judge Walker "simply asserts" that voters based their decisions based on moral disapproval. But the pro-Prop 8 attorneys basically tried to assert their way to legal victory in this case. That's not the fault of Walker, nor is it the fault of gay marriage advocates. And it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the pro-Prop 8 lawyers barely put on a case defending the Constitutionality of a gay marriage ban because, well, they didn't have much of a case to make.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Proposition 8 and judicial activism

This excerpt from Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling strikes a proper balance, I think:

An initiative measure adopted by the voters deserves great respect. The considered views and opinions of even the most highly qualified scholars and experts seldom outweigh the determinations of the voters. When challenged, however, the voters' determinations must find at least some support in evidence. This is especially so when those determinations enact into law classifications of persons. Conjecture, speculation and fears are not enough. Still less will the moral disapprobation of a group or class of citizens suffice, no matter how large the majority that shares that view. The evidence demonstrated beyond serious recknong that Proposition 8 finds support only in such disapproval. As such, Proposition 8 is beyond the constitutional reach of the voters or their representatives.

Emphasis added.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Obama Disappointment Watch: Cordoba House Edition

I'm starting to wonder if President Obama can give nuanced speeches on controversial topics only when his own bacon is in the fire. Because in the history of cowardly question-ducking, this one goes pretty high on the list:

As the proposal to build a 13-story Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero moves forward and controversy surrounding the plan grows, top New York Democrats are maintaining radio silence on the matter.

President Obama is also declining to take a position on the issue. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today the decision to build the mosque next to Ground Zero is "rightly a matter for New York City and the local community to decide."

When a reporter asked why Obama would use his powers of moral suasion on other issues where religious freedom is concerned, but not this issue, Gibbs ducked the question and said it was a local matter.

This is Grade A political cowardice. And it's furthermore nonsensical: The First Amendment is a "local matter?" Umm ... where to begin?

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum wonders whether Republicans who are summoning the country to a culture war over the Cordoba House issue -- Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, most prominently -- are "venal or stupid." It doesn't actually matter, but the question moves him to state: "For once, I really do miss George Bush. The damage he did to the American cause in the Muslim world is incalculable, but at least he never countenanced this kind of lunatic bigotry."

That's exactly right. And the problem with Obama right now isn't that he's "countenancing lunatic bigotry." The problem is that he's doing nothing to counter it.

Now, the country's fairly well split these days, and it's possible -- I suppose -- that an Obama statement would be greeted along more or less those lines. But as many commentators have noticed, the Cordoba House initiative really isn't a local matter: It's being watched by "peace-seeking" Muslims around the world to gauge if the United States makes good on its promises, or if this country is willing to bend or even break its own rules to deny Muslims the right to full participate in American life. That makes the debate something of a national security issue -- and thus demands the president's participation and leadership.

Instead, we're left to seek statesmanship and moral leadership in the unlikeliest of places: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dear Steve Levitan: Don't take 'Modern Family' offline!

James Hibberd reports:

If it was up to Steve Levitan, his ABC hit "Modern Family" wouldn't be available online.

During an ABC-sponsored coffee break at TCA, Levitan said he's unsuccessfully lobbied Disney-ABC TV Group president Anne Sweeney to remove online versions of his hit show.

Noting there's roughly 2 million people watching "Modern Family" episodes online whose viewership is not fully monetized Levitan said that, in theory, those viewers could be watching the comedy on regular ad-supported TV.

I'm one of those 2 million viewers. And I need to let Mr. Levitan know something: I'm not going to watch "Modern Family" on TV if you take it offline. I don't have a TV. (I don't say that snobbishly; I'm obviously watching TV shows anyway.)

If you take "Modern Family" off Hulu, then, one of three things will happen.

* I will stop watching "Modern Family" entirely. There's no money in that for you!

* I might hypothetically watch, ahem, less than fully legal feeds of "Modern Family" that will be easy to find online anyway. There's no money in that for you!

* I will wait a year or two for "Modern Family" to show up on Netflix Streaming, or some after-the-fact placement on Hulu, and watch it then. In which case, you probably get some money -- but only about as much as you're getting now!

As Levitan surely knows -- or, at least he should -- 2 million viewers online isn't really 2 million viewers he's not getting on television. Some people might go back to the TV, surely, but a lot won't. Instead of seeing the 2 million viewers of "Modern Family" online as "not fully monetized," he should instead think of them as "additional monetization we might not be getting otherwise." Hulu is ad-supported, after all.

The web video genie is out of the bottle. It's not going back in.

A reader challenges me on the Cordoba House and religious freedom

"Capt. Jack Gilles," a reader of the Scripps Howard column, writes to challenge my position in favor of the Cordoba House mosque at Ground Zero.

If there is no debate then:Shouldn’t ground zero not contain a Synagogue and a Church as well as a mosque ?

And my response to this is: Of course! If any Jewish or Christian congregations want to build near the site and there's a space for them, let them build! I don't advocate for the Cordoba House because I'm an evangelist for the Muslim faith; I advocate for the Cordoba House because I believe in American values and laws, particularly as represented in the First Amendment.

Gilles also repeats the canard that the the Cordoba House mosque amounts, essentially, to trophy-claiming by Muslims for their "victory" on 9/11. It's a common view -- one, again, that assumes that American Muslims are indistinguishable from Osama bin Laden in their beliefs and sympathies. I do not believe that and I do not grant that.

After the jump, Gilles' full letter:

Tom Corbett and me in the Philly Daily News

If you saw my blog last week, you already know what I think about GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett's ongoing "unemployed people are lazy" meme. I expand those thoughts in today's Philadelphia Daily News -- and even add a little research to show just how bad the jobs situation is in Pennsylvania right now:

Between June 2009 and June 2010, this is what happened:

* The state lost roughly 9,000 professional and technical jobs that had a prevailing annual wage of $73,808.

* Another 10,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in a sector that typically pays $51,529 a year.

* And the construction industry - which pays on average $51,928 a year - cut another 5,000 jobs.

So where did the state's job growth come from?

* The biggest growth was in "administrative and waste services" - 23,000 new jobs. But they paid just $30,887 a year.

* Pennsylvania added another 15,000 "leisure and hospitality" jobs, with prevailing wages ranging from $14,848 for food-service workers all the way up to $26,583 for "arts and recreation" employees.

* Only one high-wage sector added jobs: The mining industry, with prevailing annual wages of $59,907, added 3,000 new jobs.

The trend is clear: Most of the state's new jobs pay just half the wages - or worse - of all the lost jobs. If you were recently unemployed and trying to restart your career, would this be an attractive picture to you? Would you feel confident in your ability to feed and house your family?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The persecution of Christians in Indonesia

Terrible story in Sunday's New York Times:

For Luspida Simanjuntak, the Christian congregation’s leader, the problem is simple: Her flock of 1,500 has no church, and no one here will let her build one. In Indonesia, houses of worship can be built only with permission from the surrounding community. This is a measure that critics say contributes to a tyranny of the majority and forces minorities to hold services in private homes, hotels, shopping malls and streets.

“We’ve been worshipping for 15 years, more or less, moving from house to house because every time we try to build a church, we’re faced with mobs who won’t let us build,” Mrs. Simanjuntak said.

On the Muslim side of the police cordon, a speaker warned that the Christians were trying to provoke Muslims into violence and were seeking to turn local children into kafir, or infidels.

It's a good thing nothing like that could ever happen in the United States!

Andrew Breitbart comes to Philadelphia

Andrew Breitbart came to Philadelphia on Saturday; I missed the event, unfortunately, but this Philadelphia Inquirer article crystallized what about Breitbart, exactly, troubles me so.

It's not his willingness to peddle misleadingly edited videos, or his well-documented arrogance (some would call it flair) or the fact that he gives shelter, on his Big Government site, to conspiracy peddlers like Frank Gaffney. (No, I'm not going to link to that.) These things bug me, but they're not the thing that bugs me about Andrew Breitbart.

This is the thing that bugs me: Andrew Breitbart has made himself famous and influential by raging against (he says) a liberal establishment colossus. But he's used his power, essentially, to try to crush ants. He's done that loudly, sure, but that doesn't change the essential dynamic.

Let me elaborate, by referring to the Inky article. Here's Breitbart describing his mission, echoing statements he's made elsewhere:

Andrew Breitbart, the Hollywood Internet celebrity with a flair for controversial video, fired up about 300 Tea Party devotees rallying on Independence Mall Saturday afternoon, denouncing a "media cabal," the Congressional Black Caucus, NAACP, liberals, and everyone else who has "ripped apart" America.

The media, he told reporters, in cahoots with black politicians and the Democratic Party, are dividing the country with false charges of racism aimed at the Tea Party groups.

"It's cynical politics," he said. "I'm more than happy to talk about this very noxious form of trying to stifle political speech in the United States. It's un-American."

This is typical Breitbart stuff -- if anything, a bit understated in his example. He's not simply arguing back against liberals and Democrats with whom he disagrees -- he's mounting a full-scale cultural rebellion against the leftward bias of some of the country's leading institutions. The media, after all, provides most of what you read and watch. The Democratic Party is in control of the government. Let's not even get started on the universities.

So how does Andrew Breitbart rebel against the establishment? By embarrassing office workers and mid-level bureaucrats.

Think about it. What are Breitbart's two big contributions to mainstream debate in the last year?

* The ACORN tapes. Enough's been said about this that I don't need to pile on, except to note that the tapes don't show ACORN leaders plotting to do anything nefarious or illegal, and certainly not working to steal elections -- the fantasy scenario of so many conservatives. What the tapes did show was office workers in big American cities being, essentially, being polite to Breitbart's minions. It's the right-wing version of "Borat," which made Americans look racist and dumb by virtue of their willingness to accomodate a stranger. I'll go out on a limb, though, and suggest that few -- if any -- of the ACORN workers depicted in the tapes were making even $30,000 a year.

* Shirley Sherrod. Who really ever heard of this woman before Breitbart made her famous? I hadn't. I bet you hadn't either.

So Breitbart, essentially, has been making his bones off of people who were only very loosely "public figures," individuals who didn't know they were front-line participants in our nation's great debates -- until he thrust them into the spotlight without so much as a how-do-you-do.

This, frankly, is the stuff of bullying and cowardice.

Now the genius of Breitbart is that, somehow, he's managed to convince his audience that each embarrassment of a minor, unknown figure somehow counts as a mighty blow against the hated liberal establishment. It doesn't; it's bread and circuses stuff, really.

It's probably too much to hope that Andrew Breitbart takes his energies and argument against the establishment to the establishment itself. It's much easier picking on small fries, and just as lucrative -- maybe more so. Breitbart might be a crusader, but he's also a bit of a wimp. It works for him.