Saturday, December 31, 2011

I will defend to the death your right to burn the American flag

...but seriously, Occupy Charlotte people, you convince exactly nobody of the rightness of your cause when you do so. That's not effective dissent; it's masturbatory radicalism: It might make you feel good, but other people think it's icky and it's completely unproductive. Yeesh.

Friday, December 30, 2011

What about Ron Paul?

A libertarian friend of mine is very disappointed in me for semi-endorsing Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination over Ron Paul. After all, he points out, Paul's anti-imperialistic views of the presidency—both in war-making and in executive power, generally—are closer to my own than any other GOP candidate. Heck, on those two areas, I like his views better than President Obama.

So why can't I support Paul for the GOP nomination? Easy. I think he'd be a disaster for the country.

Put aside his dubious explanations for the racist newsletters. Put aside the fact that he'd have nearly zero support for his agenda in Congress. Let's look at the agenda itself. (I take all the following statements from his website.)

He'd cut $1 trillion in government spending in the first year of his presidency, on the way to a balanced budget by Year Three. The debt is a problem, I agree, but I believe yanking so much money out of the economy would probably deepen our the Great Recession into something more of a Depression.

He'd eliminate the income, capital gains, and inheritance taxes on his way to keeping the government in its strict Constitutional limits. (Also, to make it easier for you to buy silver and gold coins: His website actually uses that as a rationale for eliminating the capital gains tax.) Maybe that would be replaced by a single flat tax, but mostly he'd eliminate. I'm not really sure how we'd pay for the government that is left.

He'd repeal the gasoline tax. How would we pay for roads?

He'd make it harder for unions to organize.

He'd "abolish the welfare state."

He'd make it impossible to rationally deal with the illegal immigrants present in the United States. (UPDATE: Specifically, he wants "no amnesty" for such immigrants. Which sounds fine, I guess, except the U.S. isn't going to deport the 11-12 million such folks who are here. Combine that with the abolishment of birthright citizenship, below, and Paul's policy would create a permanent underclass of non-citizens doing our menial work without the protections or responsibilities of citizenship. Yuck.)

He'd abolish birthright citizenship for the sons and daughters of immigrants.

So I generally—but warily—agree with Paul's instinct to be restrained in the use of American force abroad. But my impression of his overall agenda is that it would produce a crumbling country, meaner and more Darwinian. I'm not a libertarian, even though I have those instincts in certain areas. Some of what I've described above sound like features to my libertarian friend, I'm sure; it sounds like bugs to me.

If effective, Ron Paul would be a disaster. But given the unlikelihood of cooperation with Congress, I think he'd be merely ineffectual. Either way, why would I support him?

The government can be sued for warrantless wiretapping. The telecom companies can't.

LA Times:
Residential telephone customers can sue the government for allegedly eavesdropping on their private communications in a warrantless "dragnet of ordinary Americans," a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, upheld dismissal of other cases that sought to hold the telecommunications companies liable, citing Congress' decision to grant them retroactive immunity.
I'm kinda-sorta OK with this outcome. The telecom companies facilitated the eavesdropping at the government's behest; targeting the companies for their participation was always a way of trying to hold somebody accountable for the government's illegal actions. I'm no fan of big corporations, but if the government that has regulatory power over you prompts you to do something illegal in the name of preventing terrorist attacks—well, I imagine that prompt would be pretty difficult to ignore. The government's responsible here; let's hold the government accountable.

That said, remember: Then-Senator Obama voted to give the telecoms immunity. It was an early indication that maybe he wasn't quite as committed to the civil liberties cause as we hoped.

The Charlie Savage survey: Treaties are law

The New York Times' Charlie Savage is an essential reporter on issues of presidential power. He does us all a great service today by surveying the presidential candidates about their views of such power. (President Obama—who answered Savage's 2008 survey, declined to answer; so did Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.) I'll be dipping in and out of the questions today with an observation or two.

Like this one. Savage asked: "Under what circumstances, if any, is the president, when operating overseas as commander-in-chief, free to disregard treaties to which the United States is a party?"

There are some bullshit evasions. (Rick Perry: “'Disregard' is a vague and subjective term.") Outside of Ron Paul—who will get his own blog post on this matter—Mitt Romney offers the most cogent answer:
The president’s most important obligation is to protect the United States in a manner consistent with the Constitution and U.S. law. The president should also heed binding international agreements, so long as those agreements do not impinge upon the president’s constitutional duties or authorities granted by applicable statute.
The suggestion here is that the United States' international treaties are subordinate to domestic law. Which sounds reasonable, except for one thing: The United States treaties are binding law.

That's what the Constitution says, in Article VI:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
Treaties aren't lesser-than, under the Constitution: They're the "supreme law of the land." It's possible for both laws to conflict, or to be un-Constitutional. But for a president to disregard a treaty means that he's ignoring the judgement of (probably) both a predecessor president and two-thirds of the Senate that the treaty was constitutional and appropriate. To quietly ignore a treaty—as the Bush Administration did when it tortured terrorist suspects—is to quietly break the law. Romney's answer elides that important truth.

The payroll tax cut really worries me

For the first time in the program’s history, tens of billions of dollars from the government’s general pool of revenue are being funneled to the Social Security trust fund to make up for the revenue lost to the tax cut. Roughly $110 billion will be automatically shifted from the Treasury to the trust fund to cover this year’s cut, according to the Social Security Board of Trustees. An additional $19 billion, it is estimated, will be necessary to pay for the two-month extension.

The tax cut is supposed to be temporary. But as squabbles over this issue and the Bush tax cuts have revealed, short-term tax cuts in Washington have a way of sticking around longer than planned, especially as economic growth remains slow and lawmakers are wary of raising anyone’s tax bill.

The prospect of policymakers continually turning to the payroll tax as a way of providing economic stimulus troubles experts, some lawmakers and both public trustees of the Social Security trust fund. Their concern: that Social Security will lose its status as a protected benefit owed to every working American and instead become politically vulnerable, just like any other government program.

Hey, I'm really glad to have the extra money, I won't lie. But I will be very, very, very sad if there's no Social Security someday. More sad then, I think, than glad now. So I'm willing to accept the pay cut.

Today in Philadelphia police corruption

ANTHONY MAGSAM, a Philadelphia police officer who has been at the center of a long-running Internal Affairs investigation, resigned from the force earlier this week.

The Daily News first reported in August that Magsam, 30, had allegedly stolen automatic weapon parts from the department's Firearms Identification Unit while he was working in the unit in 2009.

Numerous police sources with direct knowledge of the incident said Magsam had confessed when he was confronted by colleagues and returned the parts.

The alleged crime was never reported to higher-ups, however.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

When did Matt Taibbi start writing for National Review?

He hasn't. But Kevin Williamson's piece on the nexus of Wall Street and Washington is devastatingly reminiscent of Taibbi's Rolling Stone reportage, albeit from a right-of-center point of view. Here's a sample slice:
When President Obama opined during his 2011 State of the Union speech that a corporate tax-rate cut might be just the thing for America after a year of record corporate profits, his left-wing base was shocked and dismayed. Heck, some conservatives were caught offguard, too. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed who was running the Obama administration: In large part, the same guys who plan to be running the next Republican administration.

#ad#Barack Obama (Nasdaq: bho) has been a pretty good buy for Goldman Sachs et al. Sure, the Frank-Dodd financial-reform bill is going to be a sharp pain in Wall Street’s pinstriped posterior, and it’s going to cost some moneymen some money, but not enough that anybody’s going to be out a champagne saber. Mostly, Big Business has got just what it wanted from the Big Government guys in the Obama administration: Frank-Dodd did not do much of anything to lift the cloud of opacity over the world of structured finance, which is what the investment bankers feared most. President Obama has made some noises about ending the carried-interest treatment that allows the fine fellows who run private-equity funds to pay 15 percent in taxes on their gazillion-dollar take-homes instead of 35 percent, but the private-equity guys know that isn’t going to happen, mostly because they’ve heard this story before, from Senator Schumer, and they recognize it for what it is: an inelegant appeal for campaign donations. Beyond Wall Street proper, your Fortune 500 types are looking at the many-splendored tax credits and subsidies and grants and stimulus dollars lavished upon firms such as the now-defunct Solyndra and the really-should-have-been-defunct General Electric and wondering: How do I get me some of that?
Williamson points out—to his credit—that the same dynamic would exist under a Mitt Romney administration. He doesn't name a GOP candidate who might change things.

Ralph Nader rose to spoiler status in 2000 because many liberals believed Bill Clinton had dragged the party into an alliance with Wall Street at the expense of workers and the poor. Twelve years later, not much has changed in that regard: President Obama's Kansas speech was remarkable both for its populist rhetoric and its absence of any specific measures to make good on the rhetoric. If you don't trust the parties not to sell you out, and if you think the Occupy Wall Streeters are too stinky or radical, where do you go? What do you do? Who represents your interests?

Mitt Romney for president. Sort of.

The Iowa caucuses are around the corner. In this week's Scripps Howard column, Ben and I try to weigh which candidate would be best for America. My take:
Asking a liberal which Republican they favor in 2012 is like choosing one's favorite flavor of arsenic: You have options, but none will go down very well. Nobody in the field seems likely to attract many Democratic votes in November.

As an American, though, I want to see the GOP put its best and most-qualified candidate forward to challenge President Barack Obama. And that candidate is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas might be appealing on civil liberties, but he also appeals too much to racists and conspiracy-mongers. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are so retrograde on social issues they don't deserve consideration. Texas Gov. Rick Perry isn't bright, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is Newt Gingrich. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is Romney without the electoral support. So that leaves us with Romney.

Understand: Liberals aren't -- and shouldn't be -- happy with the way that Romney has distorted Obama's record on the issues. The former Massachusetts governor has suggested the president has been on an "apology tour," asking forgiveness for the country's sins. Romney has shifted right on issues like gay civil liberties and abortion rights, in a transparent act of pandering to the GOP base. As a politician, there's not much to like.

But the presidency isn't merely politics. It's governance. Romney probably wouldn't govern the country in a manner that liberals like, but his record suggests that -- unlike the Tea Party Movement activists who comprise much of the Republican base -- Romney actually believes that government can occasionally solve problems. More broadly, his own history suggests that he is a problem solver.

That's how he passed Massachusetts' health care law -- once a model for conservatives, until Obama emulated it. And it's an approach likely to produce better results for the American people than all the "government is the problem" bumper stickers the rest of the GOP field can supply. Romney, then, is the least-bad choice.
Ben weighs in for Rick Perry. Which, honestly, I find too disappointing for words.

Thank you, readers

Sometime overnight, December 2011 became the highest-trafficked month in the history of this blog. That's even though the last week of the month has been a holiday period, in which my writing and your readership inevitably decline. I'll skip numbers: Suffice it to say the blog is still small—I'm not doing Andrew Sullivan numbers, clearly—but that it's not tiny anymore. And it continues to grow.

I'll keep doing what I do in 2012: Read, try to learn, and occasionally embarrass myself with wrongheaded opining. Thanks for reading.

Gay rights, Catholic rights, and adoption

Big battle brewing in Illinois:
Roman Catholic bishops in Illinois have shuttered most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in the state rather than comply with a new requirement that says they must consider same-sex couples as potential foster-care and adoptive parents if they want to receive state money. The charities have served for more than 40 years as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children.
Catholic bishops say they're fighting for their religious rights. “It’s true that the church doesn’t have a First Amendment right to have a government contract,” said one official, “but it does have a First Amendment right not to be excluded from a contract based on its religious beliefs.”

And if it were just about beliefs, I'd agree. But this is about practices. And the Catholic Church doesn't believe it can offer services in accordance with the rules and practices of the state that it ostensibly serves in providing adoption services. So Iowa is left with two choices: Adapt state policy to serve the Catholic Church's beliefs. Or let the Catholic Church withdraw and preserve its conscience.

That's a legitimate choice for the Catholic Church: It shouldn't do anything it considers evil. But I do find it sad that the church apparently believes that the lesser evil is to let a young child be without loving parents if those parents are gay. In the long run, maybe it's better that the church withdraw from this arena.

Why aren't men going back to school?

The New York Times has an interesting story this morning about how women are using the recession* to leave work, go back to school, and bulk up their credentials for the job market. Men, on the other hand, are working lousy jobs. (Probably, the story suggests, because men still feel a need to be familial breadwinners in ways that women don't.) Once the recession lifts, though, the newly educated women are going to have an advantage over their grind-it-out male counterparts for new jobs.

When I lost my job, nearly two years ago, I thought ever-so-briefly about going back to school. Time off from career seemed attractive, as did the opportunity to formally upgrade my skills. It was a short consideration, though. I was stopped by two thoughts:

• Debt. Going to school would've cost a lot of money I didn't have. I couldn't see adding graduate-level debt to my financial burdens unless there was a likelihood of employment—improved employment, financially—on the other side of that degree.

• And I couldn't necessarily see that. A master's degree in journalism (for example) would've been useless—those degrees are mostly for people who spent their undergrad years majoring in philosophy, and who wanted to pick up some useful skills for the job market after all. Besides, job opportunities in the field aren't exactly expanding: I felt—and feel—my resumé is strong enough that I don't need to add an academic degree to bulk it up.

Anything else I would've felt suited for or interested in—English, American Studies, political science—all seemed to be on a path to academia. A doctorate would've been required. Assuming I even had the patience and time for that kind of work, the sad truth is that finding a job in academia after earning a doctorate is still terrifically difficult: It's like being drafted by the NBA after playing college ball—you can be very, very good at something and still not be good enough to make the pros.

The Times gets at this glancingly, in the last couple of paragraphs of the piece:
Those attending more expensive private schools, like Ms. Baker, will have an even tougher time guaranteeing that their educational investment pays off. Including the loans that financed her undergraduate education at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, she will complete her master’s program next year owing about $200,000 in debt.

“I have to have faith that I will eventually get a good job that pays enough to pay my living expenses and pay back my loans,” she said, “and hopefully make me happy in the process.”
I didn't have that faith. That made graduate school a losing proposition.

* I know: Technically the recession is over. It doesn't feel like it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A quick note about e-reading "The Federalist Papers"

I didn't plan to take a year-and-a-half to read "The Federalist Papers," but I got distracted along the way. But I finished them tonight on my brand-new Kindle. In fact, I read the entirety of them using the Kindle app on a variety of machines. For the record, these are the devices upon which I read the book:

• An HP netbook.
• An iMac desktop computer.
• My iPhone.
• An iPad 1.
• An iPad 2.
• The Kindle.

Remember when we used to pick up a book and just read the book? I love today's flexibility, though, and I use it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What kind of president would Ron Paul be?

This year, for instance, Paul has sponsored 47 bills, including measures to withdraw from the United Nations, repeal the federal law banning guns in school zones and let private groups coin their own money.
None has moved, and 32 have failed to attract a single co-sponsor.
“He’s somewhat of an introvert [and] a little quirky, so he doesn’t work the legislative process like most do,” said former congressman Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who served with Paul from 1997 to 2010. But Wamp said Paul, as president, might succeed where Paul the legislator had not.
“When you’re president, they can’t just ignore you,” Wamp said. “Because you have a mandate.”
I had a period of about four hours a few weeks ago in which I considered whether supporting Ron Paul was the right way to go: The performance of the president on civil liberties issues has frustrated me that much.

But Paul has too easily lent his name—if not his mind—to racist sentiments and crank conspiracy theorizing. And as the above article suggests, he's wholly ineffectual at operating within the system. And that's probably for the best! But the president *runs the system.* He's not quite Lyndon LaRouche with a portfolio, but he's not far off that mark either.

UPDATE: My Philly Post column is about Ron Paul's appeal to racist voters.

Congress is getting wealthier, faster than you

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home ­equity.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

The death of public universities

At the University of Virginia, state support has dwindled in two decades from 26 percent of the operating budget to 7 percent. At the University of Michigan, it has declined from 48 percent to 17 percent.

Not even the nation’s finest public university is immune. The University of California at Berkeley — birthplace of the free-speech movement, home to nine living Nobel laureates — subsists now in perpetual austerity. Star faculty take mandatory furloughs. Classes grow perceptibly larger each year. Roofs leak; e-mail crashes. One employee mows the entire campus. Wastebaskets are emptied once a week. Some professors lack telephones.

Behind these indignities lie deeper problems. The state share of Berkeley’s operating budget has slipped since 1991 from 47 percent to 11 percent. Tuition has doubled in six years, and the university is admitting more students from out of state willing to pay a premium for a Berkeley degree. This year, for the first time, the university collected more money from students than from California.

As an individual matter, I despair of getting my son a top-flight college education some 15 or so years from now.

As a societal matter, two points:

First, a lot of parents are going to despair of getting top-flight educations for their children. The death of public universities is going to mean the death of opportunity for a lot of smart kids—and, to some extent, the death of merit in this country. Talent will still out, on occasion, but this exacerbates income inequality by robbing young people of proving grounds where they could demonstrate their ability to climb the social ladder. If you can afford a great public university, good for you. And if not, too bad.

Second: The research done at those public universities has helped spur innovation that, in turn, has helped drive the American economy. We're robbing ourselves of our future.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Holiday homophobia

Somebody took part of their Christmas Day to post these comments to my blog, and I thought the were worth sharing with the wider community, without comment:
Dude you and your article on gay rights is a total load of crap. The backlash against Gay Filth in AMERICA is building daily, The people of Hawaii will have a Statewide Day of Shame to show their anger and disgust for allowing civil rights to be allowed by a wacko governor in direct opposition to the 70% of voters who are opposed to the encroachment of homosexual perversion.

What type of article will you write when the first homosexual military member is brought up on charges for sexually harassing a straight fellow soldier or when a straight soldier kills a homosexual that can't take no for an answer. Then we will see if you are so elated over the end of DADT

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in the country has begun.

Taken at Valley Township

Don't trade away unemployment benefits, Mr. President

This inability to connect economic policy to the larger problem of joblessness is a real problem with the debate over the payroll tax cut. This disconnect explains why the unemployment insurance extension bundled with the payroll tax cut have attracted so much less attention. After all, if all that matters is the first tranche of money, the payroll tax cut will affect many more households than the UI extension. But all serious economists agree that the extension of unemployment insurance is a far more efficient fiscal support – providing about 50 to 100 percent more jobs per dollar added to the deficit.

What makes unemployment insurance so much more efficient? It is laser-targeted at families in genuine distress, meaning that the recipients will spend every marginal dollar that comes in the door. This also makes the extension better targeted at alleviating actual economic misery.

Read the whole thing.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011: A great year for gay rights

The advancement of gay civil rights is the best thing that happened this year, I argue in the Scripps Howard column.
The best event of 2011? The gains made for gay civil rights.

Other good things happened -- most notably, the Iraq war came to a close for the United States, ending a disastrously dumb conflict that never should have happened. But the end of a huge negative isn't really a positive. So instead, it was in the arena of gay rights where two big events took place that could wonderfully alter the landscape for future generations.

First was repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The law itself passed late last year as Congress was closing out its session, but the law was implemented this year. Despite the hysterical cries of opposition from anti-gay forces, the military seems to have weathered the transition pretty well.

Second was the legalization, in New York State, of gay marriage. This was important for two reasons: New York is one of the most populated states, and the law was passed by an act of the state legislature. There were no "judicial activists" imposing a "gay agenda" on the state; the representatives of the people did the people's business.

Simply put: In 2011, gay Americans took a huge step toward attaining full citizenship in this country.

There is much work to be done, and some of it may be done in 2012: There are court challenges both to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing those legal marriages in New York, and to California's Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal there. And outside the courtroom, support for gay rights continues to spread among the citizenry.

There will always be opponents to gay equality. Time, however, is on the side of those who favor civil rights. In 2011, we found out we might not have to wait much longer.
Ben's favorite development? The emergence of Occupy Wall Street. Yes, he's being cynical.

How did the guy who was president in 1979 end up doing?

Throughout 2011, an average of 17% of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. That is the second-lowest annual average in the more than 30-year history of the question, after the 15% from 2008. Satisfaction has averaged as high as 60% in 1986, 1998, and 2000.

Satisfaction With the Way Things Are Going in the U.S., Annual Averages

1979 was a comparable year, according to Gallup. But Jimmy Carter fared pretty well in the next year's election, right?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is Bill Conlin innocent?

Over at The Philly Post (where I contribute weekly) Victor Fiorillo has a provocatively titled column: "Bill Conlin is innocent." Conlin, of course, is the legendary sportswriter who retired this week after 40-year-old child molestation accusations surfaced.
You’re well aware of this concept: that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, that the accused has no obligation to produce evidence, that the accused has no obligation to make an argument or say anything, for that matter, and that the government has the obligation to prove guilt—beyond a reasonable doubt—and to get 12 people to agree to it, too. You “know it” like you read about it in school. But you sure are quick to forget about it in cases like this.
Well, we probably forget about it because the presumption of innocence is only applicable in a court of law—we in the public are under no requirement to make a similar presumption. That doesn't excuse us from wisely weighing the evidence in public, though.

And the evidence is that three women and one man have told stories about being molested by Conlin in the early 1970s. What's more, there's evidence that they aired those accusations to parents and relatives at the time—thus, these aren't just stories that are being created now.

For the public to continue to offer Conlin the presumption of innocence, then, one must believe that three women, one man and their parents have all conspired to devastatingly besmirch his reputation. That's not unimaginable, but it seems unlikely. Who gains what in this scenario?

I don't favor media-driven witch-hunts. But as Fiorillo notes, Conlin will never face a criminal trial on these allegations because the statute of limitations has passed. (If Conlin is innocent, though, he might consider legal action of his own, in the form of a civil case against his accusers.) Fiorillo's suggestion seems to be that we in the public thus suspend our judgment of the case in perpetuity. That's unlikely, to say the least. All we can do is weigh the evidence before us and use our common sense.

Fiorillo is wise to warn us against a rush to judgment. Given what we've been told, though, it's difficult to see the scales tipping in Conlin's favor.

Why we shouldn't cut unemployment benefits right now

From EPI:

Things appear to be improving, but honestly: We're not anywhere close to having enough jobs for job-seekers. Cutting unemployment benefits right now could be a real disaster.

The best of Netflix Instant for 2011

Looking back at my viewing logs, it's amazing to me how much I used Netflix to watch old TV shows this year. There are two reasons for it: A) Again, the three surgeries really killed my concentration and steered me to "comfort food." B) My son, now 3, is old enough to understand stuff I don't want him to be exposed to. So that means grownup movies often wait until he goes to sleep. Which is often too late to start a movie.

That said, I know people complain about the selection at Netflix Instant, but I don't usually have a hard time finding something I like to watch. Here were some of my favorite Netflix movies of 2011:

"I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK"

"Jet Li's Fearless"

Woody Allen's "Love and Death"

"A Room with a View"

"Eat Drink Man Woman"

"The Red Balloon"

"Wing Chun"

"Bodyguards and Assassins"

"The Dirty Dozen"

"The Black Stallion"

"A World Without Thieves"



"Drunken Master"


"The Italian Job" (Michael Caine original)

"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (Walter Matthau original)

"The Bride of Frankenstein"

"Let The Right One In"

"The Twilight Samurai"

"Mean Streets"

"Kelly's Heroes"

"The Specials"

"Election" and "Triad Election"

"Hudson Hawk"

Some good TV I watched on Netflix: The entirety of "Mad Men" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," as well as Season One of "Breaking Bad."

And it's worth mentioning a couple of movies I saw on Amazon Video on Demand and Vudu that were pretty good: "13 Assassins," "Rango," and "Ip Man 2."

So it was a very Chinese/Japanese movie year for me, with some World War II sprinkled in. Not too bad.

Books I read in 2011

This was a really terrible book-reading year for me. Three surgeries clouded my head enough to make sustained concentration difficult: I started a lot of books, but finished precious few. The only novels I finished were, frankly, pulpy stuff. I hope to get my game back in 2012.

Here are some of the books I read to completion this year:

"Bossypants" by Tina Fey.

"The Conscience of a Liberal" by Paul Krugman.

"Winner-Take-All Politics" by Paul Pierson and Jacob S. Hacker.

"Cooking Solves Everything" by Mark Bittman (Kindle Single).

"The Gated City" by Ryan Avent (Kindle Sngle).

"The Great Stagnation" by Tyler Cowen (Kindle Single).

"Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain.

"Star Trek: The Lost Years" by J.M. Dillard.

"Power Wars" by Charlie Savage (Kindle Single).

"The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction" by Alan Jacobs.

"Empire of Illusion" by Chris Hedges.

"The Score" by Richard Stark.

UPDATE: "The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Surprised I forgot this one, since it unsettled me so.

It's cheating, really, to count the Kindle Singles. Like I said: It was a horrible reading year for me. I have an excuse, but it still feels like I wasted time. Grrr. 2012, excelsior!

UPDATE II: A week later, I've added Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night," Justin Blessinger's "The Favorite," and Founding Fathers' "The Federalist Papers" to my list of completed books for 2011. That makes the list a bit less lame.

Ditch the payroll tax cut. Keep the unemployment benefits.

I'm already on record thinking the continued payroll tax holiday is a really bad idea. I think it undermines the long-term viability of Social Security, and more than a few critics agree with me. But I'm really, really against continuing the tax holiday if the price is cutting unemployment benefits to 3 million people.

As a macroeconomic matter, which is going to have a bigger impact on the economy? Lots of workers having a few extra bucks to spend? Or 3 million workers losing all the bucks they have to spend? I very much doubt the stimulative effect of the first outweighs the recessionary effects of the latter.

The payroll tax cut is a bad idea. Achieving it by cutting a bad deal is even worse.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Are you paying for some football?

Are you ready for some football?

You are paying for it regardless.

Although “sports” never shows up as a line item on a cable or satellite bill, American television subscribers pay, on average, about $100 a year for sports programming — no matter how many games they watch. A sizable portion goes to the National Football League, which dominates sports on television and which struck an extraordinary deal this week with the major networks — $27 billion over nine years — that most likely means the average cable bill will rise again soon.

Well, I'm not paying for it: I don't have cable. (Though I do pay an Internet bill to Comcast, so it's possible a few of my dollars go to football. But only indirectly.)

There's been increased talk about a la carte cable purchasing lately, which would allow TV viewers to buy the channels they want and not pay for the channels they don't. But that's hardly even necessary anymore. Between Hulu and Netflix—along with the occasional timely purchases from iTunes or Amazon Video on Demand—I watch what I want to watch and don't worry about access to the stuff I don't. The only problem I occasionally run into is sports, but A) a surprising amount of that is legal and free online, B) I can always walk down to the tavern to see the other stuff, usually, and C) I don't watch that much sports.

We've gotten quickly used to having every bit of media ever created at our immediate disposal, but it's good to remember that (until recently) scarcity has been the rule rather than the exception. But having a little scarcity in my video consumption has saved me money and let me focus on stuff I really want to watch, instead of letting a TV drone on in the background because I'm too lazy to get up from the couch and turn it off. I'm not paying for football because I'm not paying for cable. If you don't like football, why are you paying for it?

Poll: More concern about economy than income inequality

These data, from a Nov. 28-Dec.1 Gallup survey, show that while 46% of Americans believe it is extremely or very important that the federal government in Washington reduce the income and wealth gap between the rich and poor, 70% say it is important for the government to increase equality of opportunity, and 82% say it is important for the government to grow and expand the economy.

I'm not so sure the weak economy and income inequality are discrete issues, myself, but to the extent they are this is probably the right set of priorities. You fight over your share of pie when you actually have a pie to split.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I don't think America is as worried about income inequality as I am

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans are now less likely to see U.S. society as divided into the "haves" and "have nots" than they were in 2008, returning to their views prior to that point. A clear majority, 58%, say they do not think of America in this way, after Americans were divided 49% to 49% in the summer of 2008.

Read the whole thing. Pretty interesting.

Now I'm an anti-car-fatality bigot

Just kidding. After a week of more-than-expected heat over our column on Tim Tebow, Ben and I have finally produced another column for Scripps Howard News Service. It's about the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation to ban cell phone use by drivers. Ben thinks it's nanny-statism run amok. I differ:
Sometimes the "live free or die" crowd takes its motto a little too seriously. When it comes to driving and cellphone use, though, that motto accurately sums up the choices.

Should drivers be free to kill two people and injure 38 others? That's what happened in Missouri in August 2010, when a pickup truck rear-ended a big rig, which slammed into a school bus, which rammed another school bus. The NTSB's investigation showed the pickup driver had sent 11 messages in the 11 minutes leading to the accident -- the last message coming "moments" before the tragedy.

Should a tractor-trailer driver be free to kill 11 other people? That happened the same year in Kentucky, where a cell phone-using driver crossed the center lane and slammed into a 15-passenger van.

Should bus drivers be free to be careless with their passengers? In 2004, such a driver was too busy talking on his phone to avoid slamming into the underside of a Virginia stone bridge -- injuring 11 of the 27 high school students on board.

Anti-nanny-state conservatives will argue such tragedies don't justify federal intrusion into state laws. But the NTSB's recommendation is just that -- right now, there is no federal requirement that states ban drivers from cellphone use. And many federal, state and even local roads are built using federal tax dollars. The emergency personnel and police that respond to disastrous events are paid for from your pocket. The NTSB isn't overstepping its proper bounds, nor are governments that adopt its recommendations.

Distracted drivers are deadly menaces that consume public resources.

There are reasons to worry about a rampant nanny state run amok. The NTSB's recommendation isn't even close to the top of the list. In this case, Americans don't have to choose: Live free. Don't die.

Tim Tebow* and 'All-American Muslim'

Defenders of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow have responded to critics of his faith exhibitions with one consistent response: "What if he was Muslim?" The idea being that Christian-hating politically correct liberals would probably celebrate if Tebow was praying to Mecca in the end zone.

We do, of course, have examples of high-profile Muslim athletes to consider. Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar both came in for intense criticism for their conversions to the faith—really intense criticism, which makes the "controversy" surrounding Tebow look like teatime debate by comparison. More recently—but before 9/11—Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (an NBA player) was regularly booed during the 1990s after he decided the Star Spangled Banner was an expression of "nationalistic worship" incompatible with his faith. (Some Christians think the same thing, incidentally.)

Beyond sports, though, there's been a recent example of American Muslims trying to publicly demonstrate how they intertwine their faith and lives: The TV show "All-American Muslim." And it's a useful example. Lowe's and other businesses have pulled advertising from the show under pressure from the Florida Family Association—which doesn't like the show because it depicts residents of Dearborn, Michigan as regular folks. The FFA would prefer—demands—that Muslims be shown as jihadist killers and oppressors.

And of course, we all remember the outrage that greeted the "Ground Zero Mosque" last year.

So: When Tim Tebow expresses his faith, he becomes the subject of discussion on talk shows and op-ed pages, all while making big money to promote brands like Nike. American Muslims who express their faith are lumped in with killers and concerted efforts are made not just to criticize them, but to drive them entirely from the public square.

What if Tim Tebow was Muslim? He's lucky he isn't.

* I expect this to be the last time I refer to Tebow for quite some time. For all our sakes.

According to the New York Times, Internet pirates have horrible taste in pop culture

WASHINGTON — Type “download movies for free” into Google, and up pops links to sites like the Pirate Bay, directing users to free copies of just about any entertainment   — the latest “Twilight” installment, this week’s episode of “Whitney,” the complete recordings of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fox News says I'm an 'anti-Christian bigot'

Hey, at least they spelled my name right. Apparently I'm an anti-Christian bigot for having the temerity to criticize Tim Tebow, using Scripture no less. Which, fine. But what amuses me is that the commentator also paints Kurt Warner with the 'anti-Christian bigot' brush—yes, the same Kurt Warner who was previously the highest-profile evangelical Christian in the NFL. Purity is tough, man.

Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to Gene Marks

When I read this piece I was immediately called back, as I so often am, to my days at Howard and the courses I took looking at slavery. Whenever we discussed the back-breaking conditions, the labor, the sale of family members etc., there was always someone who asserted, roughly, "I couldn't been no slave. They'd a had to kill me!" I occasionally see a similar response here where someone will assert, with less ego, "Why didn't the slaves rebel?" More commonly you get people presiding from on high insisting that if they had lived in the antebellum South, they would have freed all of their slaves.

What all these responses have in common is a kind benevolent, and admittedly unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn't a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation which offends our modern morals. In the case of the observer of slavery, it is the chaining and marketing of human flesh. In the case of Mr. Marks, it's the astonishingly high levels of black poverty.

It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings--to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.

Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, but on the whole, mediocre. 

That mediocrity is oft-exemplified by the claim that though we are unremarkable in this easy world, something about enslavement, degradation and poverty would make us exemplary. We can barely throw a left hook--but surely we would have beaten Mike Tyson.

Read the whole thing.

Unemployment insurance helps, not hinders, Americans looking for work

Claims that unemployment insurance benefits dissuade the jobless from looking for work are untrue, as the accompanying chart shows. Research by Carl Van Horn and the Heldrich Center at Rutgers University shows that unemployed workers who receive unemployment compensation do more to find a job than those who never receive benefits. They do more online job searching, are more likely to look at newspaper classified ads, and are more likely to send email inquiries and applications to prospective employers.

The reason unemployed Americans can’t find jobs isn’t a failure to look. As EPI economist Heidi Shierholz points out, they can’t find jobs because there are 10.6 million more unemployed workers than there are available jobs.

And now: A moment of snark about Zbigniew Brezezinski

The former national security advisor writes this morning about how to confront and accomodate China's rise: By making allies with everybody else!
A successful U.S. effort to enlarge the West, making it the world's most stable and democratic zone, would seek to combine power with principle. A cooperative, larger West—extending from North America and Europe through Eurasia (by eventually embracing Russia and Turkey), all the way to Japan and South Korea—would enhance the appeal of the West's core principles for other cultures, thus encouraging the gradual emergence of a universal democratic political culture.
I could be wrong, but Brezezinski seems to want to enlarge the West to include ... everyplace but China and Africa. And I could be wrong, but that seems to be far too large a coalition to actually be effective. As we're seeing in Europe, it's tough to hold continental coalitions together—there are just so many competing interests. Growing the "West"—even informally—seems unlikely.

Soon, foreign nationals may have more ability to influence elections than you do

At least, that's what I take away from Paul Sherman's Wall Street Journal piece today. There's a case winding through the courts in which foreign nationals—both residents of New York—are suing to be allowed to make contributions to political campaigns, saying they have the right to do so under the First Amendment.

On Dec. 12, the Supreme Court passed up its first opportunity to announce whether it would take the case. Some observers take this as a hint that the court is going to let the D.C. panel's ruling stand. That would be a mistake, and a sharp reversal from the hard line the court has taken recently on speech-squelching campaign-finance laws. 
The panel's ruling stemmed from a conviction that "foreigners" are different and that foreign speech poses a unique threat to the American political system. As to the first point, foreigners surely are different—they can be prohibited from voting, holding elective office, or serving in certain roles of government authority. But none of this has any bearing on whether their speech is entitled to First Amendment protection. After all, corporations are not allowed to vote but, as the Supreme Court recognized in Citizens United, they are still permitted to speak out about candidates.
Sherman is a cheerleader for letting foreign citizens contribute to American campaigns, but man this seems like a bad idea. If the Supreme Court affirms his vision, it will—in recent years—have allowed both corporations and foreign nationals unlimited power to promote American political candidates of their choosing. You know who this crowds out of the game? Actual, flesh-and-blood voting American citizens—folks whose political cash contributions are necessarily small, for the most part, if they exist at all.

I'm not sure how to write this without sounding like a paranoid crank. I really don't believe that free speech is a zero-sum affair. I'm not a nativist. I do believe that the best answer to bad speech is more speech.

But yeah, I'm concerned that a group of wealthy citizens of China or Israel or Russia could get together and bundle their contributions to tip the balance of an American presidential election. I'm concerned that if money equals speech, then it's often impossible to answer bad speech with more speech in any meaningful way. And I'm concerned that—again—actual flesh-and-blood regular American citizens are going to wind up the least influential players in the political process.

On the last count, it's possible that's already happened. But it should be resisted at each and every turn.

Nobody gets married anymore

Barely half of all adults in the United States -- a record low -- are currently married, and the median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7), according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.

In 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today just 51% are. If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years. Other adult living arrangements-including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood-have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.

The Pew Research analysis also finds that the number of new marriages in the U.S. declined by 5% between 2009 and 2010, a sharp one-year drop that may or may not be related to the sour economy.

That last paragraph reminds me of a favorite conservative trope—espoused by National Review's Rick Lowry, among others—that poor people can not be poor if they get married, because married people tend not to be poor. But correlation isn't causation, of course, and I wonder if the declining marriage rates/rising poverty rates don't tell a different story: That there are a lot of people who simply don't feel like they have the economic resources to formally form a household and start a family.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gene Marks is apparently not a poor black child in West Philadelphia

PhillyGrrl and Dan Denvir have already hopped on Gene Marks for his "if I were a poor black child" piece for Forbes, but it really is breathtaking in its awfulness. Marks writes about what he would do, as a poor black child in West Philadelphia, to stop being so poor.

Shorter Marks: "If I were a poor black kid, I'd use all the advantages I have from not being a poor black kid."

Sound too harsh? Check out these two, entirely representative paragraphs: 
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become expert at Google Scholar. I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes andCliffsNotes to help me understand books. I’d watch relevant teachings onAcademic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy. (I say relevant because some of these lectures may not be related to my work or too advanced for my age. But there are plenty of videos on these sites that are suitable to my studies and would help me stand out.) I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbookand Wikipedia to help me with my studies. 
I would use homework tools like Backpack, and Diigo to help me store and share my work with other classmates. I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school. I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.
All you have to do to not be a poor black child is hop on your computer and go online!

Here's the problem: That's not actually an option for lots and lots and lots of poor kids in this town. At one North Philadelphia school, it's estimated that only 25 percent of the students have access to a computer and the Internet at home. A year ago, the Knight Foundation estimated that 40 percent of Philadelphia residents do not have home Internet service. 

And the Public Health Management Corporation not-so-long-ago released this survey of Philadelphia Internet habits. Among the findings:
• Philadelphia residents are more likely to be non-Internet users than are their suburban counterparts. More than a quarter (27.3%) of Philadelphia adults do not use the Internet. 
• For those who do not use the Internet, the most common reason cited was lack of access. More than one-third of adults who do not use the Internet (36.5%) indicated they did not have access or did not have a computer.

• Poverty was also a factor. Adults living in poverty are much more likely to be non-Internet users than are non-poor adults: 42.5% of adults living below the federal poverty line do not use the Internet, versus 16.0% of adults living above the federal poverty line.2 Latino adults (34.7%) and black adults (28.1%) are more likely to be non-Internet users than white adults (15.6%).
There aren't really numbers here to indicate the level of access that Philadelphia's "poor black kids" have to online resources like the ones described by Marks, but it's not hard to draw a conclusion from all the other numbers: That access is most likely insufficient.

There are other problems with his essay: He urges kids—the one, ahem, reading Forbes—to aim at getting in a magnet school. Which sounds great, but isn't easy: They have restricted-size enrollments, and getting in can be a bit of a crapshoot.

Overall, the tone of Marks' essay reminds me of an old Sam Kinison bit about hunger in Africa. The answer to the problem, Kinison would scream, is to go "LIVE WHERE THE FOOD IS!" Which is both obvious and dumb. It's nice, I guess, that Marks is thinking about the plight of poor black kids in Philadelphia. It's just too bad there's little evidence he's tried to understand the challenges that are actually involved.

Doesn't economic growth cause income inequality?

A commenter asks: "Can liberals and conservatives politely agree that the only time an economy can grow is when 'income inequality' is widening?"

Sure. Absolutely. In a hypothetical case where everybody's income was growing 10 percent a year, that 10 percent would add up to a lot more dollars for the rich guy than the poor guy. But a chart depicting their incomes would show more or less the same rate of growth rising in concert with each other, even as the gaps between the lines grew wider. That might eventually produce a problem—but then again, it might not.

That's not really the situation in the United States, though. Here's a chart from the CBO's October report about income inequality.

The 21st through 80th percentiles—essentially, the middle class—barely see their income edge up between 1979 and 2007. The Top 1 Percent? With a brief break for the post-9/11 recession, their income curves sharply, sharply up, diverging from the other lines pretty dramatically. It's true the economy was generally growing during these periods. But it's also true the gains from that growth went almost entirely to the top of the distribution curve. To me, that suggests something is out of whack.

Four job-seekers for every opening

Today’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of job openings decreased by 110,000 in October to 3.3 million. The total number of unemployed workers in October was 13.9 million (unemployment is from the Current Population Survey). Therefore the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings was 4.3-to-1 in October, a deterioration from the revised September ratio of 4.1-to-1.

A recession is a crappy way to reduce income inequality

Since I harp on income inequality a bit around here, it's important to take note of this New York Times story today:
The share of income received by the top 1 percent — that potent symbol of inequality — dropped to 17 percent in 2009 from 23 percent in 2007, according to federal tax data. Within the group, average income fell to $957,000 in 2009 from $1.4 million in 2007.
If the Top 1 Percent saw its share of income reduced, that means other groups saw their share of income rise. Good news, right? Well, not really. The same recession that kicked the Top 1 Percent in the teeth did the same thing to everybody else. The median household income has actually dropped in recent years, thanks also in large part to the recession.

The problem with growing income inequality isn't merely that the rich are getting richer. That happens. The problem has been that the rich have gotten richer while everybody else has seen stagnating incomes to go along with increased productivity, and often needed to add a second person in the household working just to keep up.

There are some people who will probably be plenty happy to see the rich become less rich, but not me. I want to see working- and middle-class folks be able to get ahead. A recession-fueled flattening of the economic bell curve isn't really cause for celebration. And as the Times notes, it's probably short-lived anyway—history shows the Top 1 Percent will likely start to pull away again. It probably won't be because a rising tide is lifting all boats. The problem still exists.

Gingrich, sharia, and the fundamentalist mindset

Michael Gerson has a terrific column today about Newt Gingrich's crazy alarmism over sharia law. It needs to be quoted at length:
The Republican front-runner set out his argument about Islamic law in a speech last year to the American Enterprise Institute. The United States’ problem, Gingrich argued, is not primarily terrorism; it is sharia — “the heart of the enemy movement from which the terrorists spring forth.” Sharia law, in his view, is inherently brutal — defined by oppression, stonings and beheadings. Its triumph is pursued not only by violent jihadists but by stealthy ones attending the mosque down the street. “The victory of sharia,” he concludes, “would clearly mean the end of the government Lincoln was describing.”

Who else shares this interpretation of sharia law? Well, totalitarians naturally do. Gingrich joins Iranian clerics, Taliban leaders and Salafists of various stripes in believing that the most authentic expression of sharia law is fundamentalism and despotism.

Other Muslims — many other Muslims — dispute this. The varied traditions of Islamic jurisprudence assign different weights to scripture, tradition, reason and consensus in the interpretation of Islamic law. Some assert it is identical to the cultural and legal practices of 7th-century Arabia, creating a real global danger. But others believe it is a set of transcendent principles of justice separable from its initial cultural expression and binding mainly on the individual. Most Muslims respect Islamic law. But the interpretation of sharia varies greatly from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia to Tanzania to Detroit.

The governing implications of Gingrich’s views are uncharted. Would President Gingrich reaffirm his belief that the most radical form of Islamic law is the most authentic?
That last sentence, to me, is key. Gingrich, as a converted Catholic, can't really be said to be a "fundamentalist" in the sense that many Americans use the term. But he's clearly tied into America's fundamentalist mindset. And it seems to me that the people most alarmed about the imposition of a radical form of sharia law in America are, like Gingrich, tied into that fundamentalist mindset. They mock and hold contempt for Christian religious moderates and believe that a more austere form of the religion is true—and they transfer that worldview onto Islam, scaring themselves half to death in the process.

The problem is that, while threats do exist, it doesn't actually paint a realistic view of the world we live in, or Islam as it's practiced by many Americans. Gingrich's alarmism isn't just offensive as a matter of demagoguery—it's also scary because it reveals an apocalyptic worldview that seems dangerous in the hands of a national leader.

Millionaires and food stamps, revisited

Back in October, I issued a challenge:
But how many millionaires are gaming the system to get food stamps? I'm guessing maybe ... this guy. Maybe there are a few others out there. But I'll pull a number out of my posterior and guess that 99.99 percent of all food stamp recipients are not millionaires. And I defy anyone to prove otherwise.
The New York Times tries to get an answer today, and doesn't really come up with a number:
Department of Agriculture officials dismissed the notion of millionaire food stamp recipients. “Federal law is clear,” said Aaron Lavallee, a spokesman for the department. “The program is intended for households with income not exceeding 130 percent of poverty.”

Among the 46 million Americans who receive the assistance — roughly one in seven Americans — few seem to be millionaires.
That's not entirely satisfying, because we don't know how few are millionaires—even if we can surmise, as the Times does, that precious few are. But maybe we can extrapolate from the unemployment insurance numbers:
From 2005 to 2009, millionaires collected over $74 million in unemployment benefits, according to an estimate by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who has paired with Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, to push to end the practice.

According to Mr. Coburn’s office, the Internal Revenue Service reported that 2,362 millionaires collected a total of $20,799,000 in unemployment benefits in 2009; 18 people with an adjusted gross income of $10,000,000 or more received an average of $12,333 in jobless benefits for a total of $222,000.
Now, we know that more than 20 million Americans collected unemployment insurance in 2009. If I'm doing the math correctly—never my strong suit—that means that roughly 1 percent of 1 percent of unemployment insurance beneficiaries were millionaires.

Now, unemployment insurance is linked to one's employment status—no matter how much you make, you're eligible if you lose your job. Food stamps are linked to your income: Which means it's probably very much harder to get such benefits if you're a millionaire. Republicans can produce the occasional anecdote, but I feel comfortable sticking with my assertion that 99.99 percent of all food stamp recipients are not millionaires.

None of which would be worth mentioning, except that Republicans are using the specter of millionaires receiving poor-people entitlements as justification to start to trim the safety net. It's "welfare queens" all over again, and it's dishonest.

Monday, December 12, 2011

National Review's disingenuous editorial on gay rights

National Review's editors aren't happy with the Obama Administration's new efforts to protect gay rights abroad:
Support for human rights has a place in foreign policy, albeit a subordinate one. Among those rights, certainly, is the right of homosexuals to be free from violent attacks and other draconian punishments. As Clinton rightly notes, if there are fundamental rights at all (and the foundational premise of this republic is that there are) then they “are not conferred by the government,” but ours “because we are human.” The secretary then goes on to claim that human rights and gay rights are “one and the same,” which we suppose is true insofar as the latter collapses into the former. What we don’t understand is how Clinton’s view — that being human vests us with certain rights — entails or even is compatible with a second set of rights that one enjoys by virtue of being homosexual. When Clinton says, “It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation,” no recourse is required to a gay right. The words “because of their sexual orientation” are superfluous. When she says that the horrors of “corrective” rape against women who are suspected of being homosexual are violations of a right, to what right could she be referring besides the right not to be raped, simpliciter?
Which makes a certain amount of sense on its own. It doesn't make sense in light of National Review's longtime efforts to call attention to Christian persecution abroad. Here's a typical example from earlier this year:
The Arab Spring has not been kind to Egypt’s Christian minority. Over the weekend, Muslims apparently incited by Islamist hardliners again terrorized Coptic Christians, in what is now a pattern of attacks against them and their churches. Possibly the Islamists are jockeying for political power in this transitional period, or even trying to immediately effect a religious cleansing similar to the one that has happened in Iraq.

Coptic Christians in the Imbaba district of Cairo report that on Saturday night they were assaulted by Muslims who looted and burned St. Mina’s Church and the Church of the Virgin Mary and attempted to burn St. Mary and St. Abanob Church. The press has reported that, according to the Copts, twelve people were killed. According to the Egyptian interior ministry, which habitually downplays or ignores attacks against Christians, possibly six victims were Christian and six were Muslim. More than a hundred people were injured, as Copts fought back with sticks and stones.
By National Review's logic today, we shouldn't really care so much that Christians were the victims of those attacks in Egypt; isn't it bad enough and criminal enough that anybody was beaten or attacked? Who cares what the motivating factors were?

I don't excuse the religious persecution, by the way. I find it repugnant and contemptible, just as I find it repugnant that gays are targeted for beatings and rapes and murder. But National Review isn't really in a position to suggest, with a straight face, that we should focus on behaviors to the exclusion of motivations.

Mitt Romney is rich? So is Obama

Over at The Philly Post, my column this morning is about how I don't really care about Mitt Romney's attempted $10,000 bet with Rick Perry:
The fact that our presidential candidates are rich isn’t a big deal. The fact that Mitt Romney wants to make a $10,000 bet isn’t a big deal. The fact that Romney and Newt and Perry all the rest of them want to govern the country on behalf of the rich—that’s the big deal. The fact that they want to do so at a time of skyrocketing income inequality is a big deal.

Instead of having a forthright discussion about those issues, though, we’re forced to sit through a kind of minstrel show where rich candidate after rich candidate after rich candidate pretends to be a “regular guy” with the “common touch.” And it has nothing to do with whether or not that candidate would be a good president.
Obama is among the rich candidates, incidentally, and Republicans are just as interested in tarnishing him with a silver spoon. To wit, take Andrew Malcom's column in today's Investor's Business Daily, which takes the Obamas to task for all their ... Christmas decorating:
The extravagance of 2011's decorations, however, are striking given the widespread joblessness, pale economic growth, home foreclosures and grim outlook for 2012, not to mention the incumbent president's historically low approval rating heading into his reelection bid.

How simple, politically astute, symbolically helpful and cost-effective it would have been for the Obamas this year to say that in sympathy with so many struggling countrymen, they were curtailing holiday decorations to match the sacrifices of others.
How tedious. I could get into all the ways that White House Christmas decorating isn't just about the family occupying the White House, but serves as part of the national celebration, but ... meh. How tedious.

Obama is comfortable. Romney is comfortable. There is no likely candidate for president who isn't far and away richer than the rest of us. So who cares? The question is: Who do you trust to govern on behalf of your interests? Net worth makes little difference in answering that question.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On writing about religion

Some people like writing. Others like having written. Me? I like having written without giving offense to people I love and respect.

By that standard, my musings in "Tim Tebow's ostentatious faith" and "Tebow, revisited" have been flaming disasters, with responses from my Christian friends generally ranging from stern disagreement to angry chastisement. The common theme in those responses: That (perhaps) I'd let antipathy to Christianity cloud my judgment.

The estimable William Voegelli weighed in with the least-angry but still-pointed variation on this theme: "If your point is that we would be better off rediscovering the value and satisfactions of reticence, I'm on board. If you're singling out Tebow because fundamentalist Christianity gives you the heebie-jeebies, I'm not." Privately, a close friend suggested (in not-so-many words) that I'd made a shtick out of being a big-city agnostic who was once a small-town Christian.

I didn't sleep much, or well, last night. It's quite a thing to have produced as intense a reaction as that.

But having examined my conscience, let me say this, unreservedly: Christianity doesn't give me the heebie-jeebies.

Here's my dirty little secret: You can take the man out of the church, but you can't really take the church out of the man. I know that 30 years of immersion in Christian circles—particularly among Mennonites—still shapes both me and my worldview. And though I've been frank about my own fall from faith, I've also felt a deep desire that (in the words of Paul writing to the Romans) I "not cause my brother to stumble." I've never wanted to undermine anybody else's faith: They have their journeys and I have mine. The idea of evangelical agnosticism is kind of silly if you think about it, anyway, and I've not had much use for the fundamentalist atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

There's a "but" coming, however.

I also don't believe that religion or Christianity are necessarily unmitigated forces for good, nor above critique. Just this week, Rick Perry released an ad that I believe to be a shining example of Christian chauvinism. It's not his faith that offends me; it's the political and societal implications of how he wields that faith that I find frightening and objectionable. I think it's possible to criticize that without being anti-Christian. But I also understand that if you're a conservative Christian, such criticism might look anti-Christian to you. To some extent, then, I have to offer my critiques in (er) good faith and let the chips fall where they may.

So what does any of this have to do with Tim Tebow, you may be asking. He's just a guy who is public about his faith, right? It's not like he's running for president or anything. Fair point. Why does an athlete deserve my critique?

Well, for one thing: Tebow's big news. His faith is big news, and controversial. Seems worthy of discussing in an op-ed column, then.

But let me tell a personal story. A number of years back, I was walking down Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, Kan. A church had gathered at one corner—as it often did weekly during early summer evenings—and one man stood atop a planter, shouting a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon at traffic and passerby. This was when I was still immersed in faith and church, but I stopped and chatted with one of the leaders. And what I told him was this: If the church was trying to win converts to Christ—it was—then the planter sermons were a bad idea. They were alienating far more people than they were attracting; the result being that by the church's own lights it was pushing more people away from Christ (and thus possibly condemning them to hell) than it was saving. This seemed alarming to me. It didn't seem to bother the street preachers.

In other words: What I say now is pretty much precisely the thing I was saying when I was a Christian.

Obviously, I'm not a man of faith anymore, so maybe I'm not the best person to counsel Tim Tebow about the effectiveness of his ministry. But if you look not-terribly-closely at what I wrote, some of the main thrusts were A) the Christ that Tebow worships seems to urge modesty in one's public displays of faith and B) evangelizing the way Tebow does might be counterproductive. I didn't tell Christians to shut up; in fact, I proclaimed that idea "undesirable." Given that I'm not a Christian, it seems likely that I was perceived as using Scripture to try to stifle Christians. I can see how it would look that way. From my perspective? I was evaluating Tebow by the standards of the Scripture he claims to adhere to. When you are so very public about your faith, that is going to happen. And it's often going to be people with a real antipathy to the faith doing the evaluating.

It legitimately grieves me that my Christian friends would perceive me as attacking their faith. I'm not sure what to do about that without forfeiting my option to write about issues involving Christianity—a bad idea in a still-quite-religious nation.

But I wrote in a provocative tone. And I provoked. I accept that some of my friends found that hurtful. I can't say I won't do it again. I will, however, be mindful.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How much money makes you rich?

Americans say they would need to earn a median of $150,000 a year to consider themselves rich. However, 30% say less than $100,000 would be enough, including 18% who would consider themselves rich if they made less than $60,000 a year. On the other hand, 15% say they would need to earn at least $1 million per year before thinking of themselves as rich.

This should actually vary from region to region—the amount of money I'd need to be comfortable in my Kansas hometown is probably a lot less than what I'd use here in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, $150,000 isn't a crazy number: It's three times the median household income in America. That's not not rich, at the very least.

Tebowing, revisited

I revise and expand my comments about Tim Tebow for this week's Scripps Howard column:
You know who would love to see Tim Tebow take it down a notch? Jesus.

At least, that's what the Bible seems to suggest in the sixth chapter of Matthew. That's where Jesus talks to his followers about prayer, and warns them against ostentatious displays: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

Tim Tebow is, by all accounts, a man of great and genuine faith so perhaps he knows better than Jesus how to properly worship Jesus.

That seems unlikely, however.

Taken to its logical end, though, we would ask Christians to shut up about their faith entirely and stick it in a deep, dark hole. That's both unlikely and undesirable. Faith cannot, ultimately, be silenced.

But most of us have learned to live with boundaries -- to avoid thrusting our religion into arenas where it is unexpected or unwelcome. If you make a big sale at work, for example, you're unlikely to bend on knee in front of co-workers and customers to start giving thanks to God.

That would make them uncomfortable, and would be kind of rude as a result. Rudeness, in turn, makes few converts and conversions seem to be the point of Tebow's enterprise. Why be counterproductive? Tim Tebow, then, is the NFL equivalent of the telemarketer calling at dinner. He's free to make the call, but no one should be surprised if many of us are turned off by the salesman and his pitch.
Ben suggests that "Tebowing should be more emulated than scorned" in his take. You'll have to click the link to read the whole thing.

GOP rhetoric doesn't even have to make sense anymore

So the GOP, as expected, is blocking President Obama's nominee to lead the new consumer protection bureau. Republicans want changes to the structure of the bureau, basically to make it toothless. That doesn't sound great, though, so here's how they're playing it:
“We’re not going to let the president put another unelected czar in place, unaccountable to the American people,”said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).
But the whole point of Senate confirmation is that the appointee is anything but an "unelected czar" operating without accountability: They're accountable to the Senate. McConnell's rhetoric suggests that every cabinet member and every judicial nominee is somehow illegitimate. If that's the case, then McConnell and the Republicans believe we should tear down our form of government and raise something new in its place.

But I don't think that's the case. I think they're just cynical.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Federalist 58: Filibusters suck

It's true that when America adopted its Constitution, the Founders who wrote the Federalist Papers didn't put much—any—effort into defending the filibuster tactic that is so widely used in today's Senate. Why? Well, the Constitution itself didn't mention the filibuster: That's something the Senate decided, on its own, to allow in the rules.

Still, while reading Federalist 58, it's pretty easy to see what the Founders would've thought about the filibuster: They wouldn't have liked it. We can surmise as much when James Madison grapples with whether the Constitution should've required much more than a quorum for the House of Representatives to vote on weighty matters. Madison didn't like the burden that would create. Why? It would enable a minority of Congressmen to block legislation simply by not showing up:
It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale. In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences.
Some of my conservative friends defend the filibuster as a minority legislative defense against the tyranny of the majority. But it's pretty clear the Founders—or at least Madison—weren't interested in giving the minority the power to block legislation, seeing it as a reversal of "the fundamental principle of free government."

Combine this with Federalist 22, in which Alexander Hamilton railed against the idea that two-thirds of Americans would "submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third"—roughly the ratio needed for the Senate to sustain a filibuster—and it's sure seems clear the practice is both undemocratic and a betrayal of the Founders' vision.

A conservative friend says I may modify my position on this when I read further into the Federalists. Right now, though, the filibuster isn't really faring well.

What caused Pearl Harbor? Flappers and jazz.

Victor Davis Hanson, National Review's "classical historian" in residence, idly speculates why Admiral Yammamoto planned the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor:
But it may be just as likely that Yamamoto’s earlier years in the United States, at Harvard in particular, rather than convincing him of the futility of attacking such an industrial colossus had encouraged his prejudices that Western society, especially in its Roaring Twenties excesses, was decadent and lacked the martial steel for an eventual war with the Japanese.
Now, there's no reason to actually produce any evidence in support of this theory, but it's fun to play with. "Of course we can beat the Americans! With General Jay Gatsby misguidedly leading the troops, there's no way we can't win! Twenty-three skidoo indeed! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!"

Of course, it might just be that Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because the Japanese wanted to expand their control over Pacific island resources, and the American fleet stood in the way. You don't have to have contempt for your rival's character to want what he's keeping from you. It helps, but it's not a requirement. Without offering any evidence to support his argument, it sure appears that Hanson is engaging in an age-old "blame America" argument.

I know: I'm the one who wrote earlier today that we need to let Pearl Harbor not be such an urgent memory. But we're obviously going to remember it still. It would be nice if we didn't mis-remember it in order to make political arguments about our present-day policy.