Monday, February 28, 2011

From the comments: No pension, no Social Security

Allen, a former colleague, responds to my post about teachers getting large pensions because they don't get Social Security.

So here is a story that happened to my mother.

She started working for the school district at 55 to teach learning disabled children, a physically demanding job with kids who are often very strong but not necessarily in control of their own bodies.

The school district had it's own Teacher's Union, which had it's own pension system and didn't contribute into Social Security.

In all of her previous jobs, she had given a portion of her income to Social Security.

She worked for a few years, and then had a medical emergency which prohibited her from ever working again.

Because she hadn't been in the Teacher's Union long enough, no long term retirement benefits. Because she'd spent several years working for the Teacher's Union and not contributing to Social Security, she isn't allowed to collect Social Security either.

Long and short of it, she's now disabled and unable to work, and no retirement benefits from Social Security or the Teacher's Union.

And here I thought the ACLU hated Christians

Via Andrew Sullivan, an interesting bit of news:
The ACLU of Virginia has come to the defense of a group of Christian athletes in Floyd County.

In an e-mail sent Friday afternoon, the civil liberties group said it had e-mailed the principal of Floyd Co. High School (FHS), and urged him to allow students to post their personal views, including copies of the Ten Commandments, on the lockers.

The e-mail comes one day after WSLS first reported that members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at FHS claims school leaders took down the copies of the Ten Commandments on their lockers.

The e-mail from ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca K. Glenberg drew a distinction between "school imposed religious expression," and "the personal religion expressions of students." The ACLU distinguishes the situation at FHS, from the Ten Commandments controversy in the Giles County Schools system.
The ACLU, in other words, is for the right of individuals to express their faith—but not of government to impose those expressions on them. Sounds perfect to me. Too bad the ACLU will get almost zero credit for this among religious conservatives.

U.S. silent as Iraq quashes protests, kills dissidents

Say, I wonder if Bill Kristol and National Review will pipe up about the Obama Administration's failure to side with freedom ... in Iraq:
But in one of the least-noticed stories of the week, the U.S.-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq has resorted to imprisoning 300 journalists, intellectuals, and lawyers in order to stop ongoing protests, according to a well-reported Washington Post dispatch from Baghdad.

The Post story reports that about 30 people have been killed -- at least some of them gunned down by government forces seeking to disperse protests. And the imprisoned dissidents are not being treated humanely, according to one journalist who was detained.
Somehow I doubt we'll see those guys publicly call Obama weak for staying silent on the issue. I'm happy to be proven wrong.

Fan mail: Why the big public pensions? No Social Security.

It's not all insulting mail I get. Ed Spondike wrote this morning—probably a longer piece than I should reproduce here. A relevant excerpt:
A private sector worker has three sources of retirement income. He has Social Security, his own savings plan, and probably a company pension. Teachers do not get any Social Security benefits, so they rely heavily on a good pension plan. So, if you do away with the union's right to collectively bargain benefits, some teachers may be without retirement benefits that private-sector workers have.
Spondike raises a great point. Here's some relevant info from the New York Times:
More than six million public employees work outside the Social Security system, including roughly 1.7 million teachers in California, Illinois and Texas, and nearly two million employees of all types in Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada and Ohio, as well as Louisiana and Maine. For years, these and other states have insisted they could provide richer pensions at a lower cost, both to workers and taxpayers, because of investments.

Some of those states’ pension plans now have shortfalls so large that they need outsize contributions. Virtually all state pension funds have had big losses in the last two years, but the go-it-alone states appear especially vulnerable.
So: States promised big pensions to state workers who stayed off Social Security because it was cheaper. But the states failed to put enough money away to cover their promises. And now the states want to reneg on those promises because of "shared sacrifice." That means the states get teacher's services for lower cost than what those states valued those services at, both on the front end and the back end. And yet it's the union members—not state officials—who are being maligned.

The unions aren't the real plutocrats

Jonathan Chait points out a flaw in Kevin D. Williamson's screed against union power:
Obviously, unions exert a large influence in absolute terms. But relative to business, labor is indeed a tiny force. In the last election cycle, business groups out-spent labor on both lobbying and electioneering by more than a 3-to-1 ratio.

Fan mail: The problem with public unions

John Polena writes in:
Like most left wingers you probably have trouble breathing with all that sand in you nose from having your head stuck in it too long.

Your cutesy support for public sector unions ignores health care and pension plans which are outrageous. --------With all this passion you have for these poor pain afflicted unappreciated public workers, why don't you send in a couple extra thousand at tax time?? JCP

P.S.: You should contact your liberal buddy Richard Cohen, who incredibly has seen the light relative to this issue.

NRO almost gets it on Libya

For a second there, the folks at National Review were in danger of making sense:
The rebels are on the ascendancy. Absent some drastic change in the tide of events, it looks as if they will prevail. Why would we taint what would be the indigenous glory of their ouster of Qaddafi with an almost entirely symbolic Western military action? The reason that the revolts of 2011 have had a dramatic catalyzing effect across the region, when the invasion of Iraq didn’t, is that they are the handiwork of Middle Eastern populations themselves, and thus a much more appealing model of change...
Right! It's not about us, and Libyan rebels don't seem to need our help changing their own government. It's good to see NRO isn't trying to use the crisis there as a way to score cheap political—
Indeed, it is a sign of how home-grown these rebellions have been that President Obama’s mealy-mouthed passivity hasn’t stopped them from rolling on.
(Sigh.) Oh. Right. It's not about us, except to the extent that we can use it as a cudgel against President Obama for not making it about us.

NRO's Kevin D. WIlliamson: Wisconsin union-busting about defenestrating Democrats, not deficits

I think it's interesting that National Review's top online column at the moment is about how the real reason public-sector unions need to be busted is not because of the effect they have on states' bottom lines, but because they're quite effective at political organizing—whether or not they have collective bargaining rights. And this is bad for the public because ... well, mostly because those unions oppose GOP policy prescriptions.

I think it's worth noting that conservatives tried to temper criticism of of the Citizens United ruling by pointing out that unions would also be able to pour lots of money into campaign races—that it wouldn't just be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and wealthy plutocrats. But there's a number of legislative efforts underway (and not just in Wisconsin) to dilute the power of unions to organize workers, pool their money, and actually offer substantive opposition to the plutocrats. If the GOP wins its union-busting fights, that will only compound the ability of the Kochs and Americans for Prosperity to flood races with money. Williamson argues that the amount of money and organization unions can muster somehow distort democracy—but he doesn't bother considering how that's also true when the money supports conservative causes.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

(Not The) Netflix Queue: Mike Leigh's "Another Year"

Three quick thoughts about Mike Leigh's "Another Year," viewed this afternoon at an actual movie theater!

• The first thing you need to know is that this trailer is a goddamn lie:

What kind of movie does this look like? Maybe a James L. Brooksian dramedy with some sad moments, but ultimately a bit of uplift? Wrong! It's a Mike Leigh movie, and Mike Leigh movies are almost unremittingly, irredeemably grim. I knew this. It's why I don't generally go watch Mike Leigh movies, no matter how well-crafted they are. I don't need my movies to be all sunshine and light, to have a happy ending every time. But there's a limit the amount of nihilism that I want to experience at the cinema, and a single Mike Leigh movie generally fills my quota for five years or so. 

• This is a movie, really, about aging. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are the happily married couple at the center of the movie, and they are the ones who have aged well. They have good jobs, a community garden plot they tend together getting their fingers dirty in the wet soil, and a modest but well-appointed slightly-upper-middle-class rowhome where they make great meals, drink moderate amounts of wine, and read smart books. We follow them through "another year" of their life together, but the movie isn't really about them—it's about their friends, the people they host, people who have not aged well. 

• Chief among them is Mary, played by Leslie Manville, a boozy fading beauty who has always relied on the kindness of strangers. As "Another Year" progresses, we see the sad realization dawn on her that it's too late to achieve the kind of intimacy and good feeling that Broadbent and Sheen have in their marriage. Almost every one of Manville's scenes are excruciating, a well-drawn portrait of a self-deluded woman starting to lose those illusions. But Manville's performance illustrates my chief complaint about the movie: She is a three-dimensional character, but Broadbent and Sheen are not—they are archetypes, the mythical end-states of lives well-lived. They have to be, in order to make Manville's journey as pathetic as possible. (Otherwise, they would have realized what is plain to the audience: That Manville wants to screw their grown son.) Roger Ebert writes that "Every single character in 'Another Year' is human," but he's wrong. Only one, Manville, approaches full flesh. But it's a Mike Leigh movie: It makes sense that the most fully human character is also the most depressing. 


Friday, February 25, 2011

Buzz Bissinger's ugly lynch-mob advocacy column for the Daily News

Last week's Buzz Bissinger column—made up entirely of his Tweets—was hysterically banal, if such thing is possible. His first real column in today's Daily News is horrifying, and raises the question of whether he deserves the space Larry Platt is giving him.

Bissinger, like most of us, is horrified by the allegations against West Philly abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who stands accused of killing patients and live-born babies. Bissinger's solution? Let's kill Gosnell right now.

I believe that Gosnell deserves to be executed right now.

There is no need for months of delay. Nor is there any more need for why-did-this-happen stories. The culprits are always the same and always will be—state incompetence, local incompetence, the abortion politics of Harrisburg, regulations that are written up only to convince the public that the bureaucracy is actually doing something besides sending threatening letters that your tax payment is off by a dollar. It has happened before. It will happen again. Pure evil always overcomes its obstacles anyway.

I am against the death penalty. I think it is barbaric, an American stain. But I would pay to watch.

Bissinger gives a head-nod to the idea that Gosnell deserves a day in court, the but his overall approach here is something closer to a lynch mob. And it gets worse when he fantasizes about how, precisely, Gosnell should die.

I hope they hold him down on a bloody blanket and stuff his mouth with a cloth soaked with act piss. I hope they ask him if he wants painkillers and when he pleads that he does but has no money, they say he is out of luck because he has to pay for them. I hope they produce a weapon honed into a makeshift pair of scissors. I hope they plunge it into his neck and sever his spinal cord.

Granted, these are the same acts Gosnell is accused of perpetrating. They really are unspeakably horrifiying. But Bissinger's masturbatory fetishism here is nearly as disturbing.

I think newspaper columns should enlighten, entertain, and even provoke. I guess Bissinger's column does the latter, but to me it crosses a line into ugly and lurid Charles Bronson machismo that does little but inflame readers—and to what end? New editor Larry Platt wants people to buzz about the Daily News (and, here I am, writing about it) and I realize that tabloid standards are different from my own. But today's Buzz Bissinger column is starting to make me wonder if any standards of judgement, taste, and community-mindedness remain at the Daily News.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wisconsin and public unions

That's this week's Scripps Howard column this Ben Boychuk. My take:

Public unions aren't organized against the public. They're organized for their members, workers who can be exploited like other workers.

But public unions face a challenge that private-sector unions don't: The employer, apparently, can unilaterally revoke their bargaining rights.

Why is Gov. Scott Walker trying to take away those rights? Because (the story goes) Wisconsin faces a budget deficit that can't be properly tackled: Overpaid teachers and clerks won't make concessions needed to bring the state's finances under control.

One problem: Almost none of that is true.

Wisconsin government workers aren't overpaid. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute shows the state's public workers are paid about 4.8 percent less than private-sector peers with similar education and experience.

And the unions have said they will make concessions -- accepting cuts in benefits and the adoption of a merit-pay system for teachers. Why won't Scott Walker take accept that for an answer? Look at the details of Walker's proposal. All the public unions will have their bargaining rights taken away -- except for the police and firefighters unions whose members tend to support Republicans. The governor is plainly using his office to break the backs of a constituency that usually supports the Democratic Party. This is ugly stuff.

Private-sector workers shouldn't think these efforts are limited to public employees. GOP union-busting knows no bounds -- the Republican-controlled House in Washington D.C. last week tried and failed to eliminate funding for the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces laws that let workers unionize.

Unions helped create a vibrant middle class in America. The middle class is faltering these days, and Republicans want Americans to believe it's the fault of lowly DMV file clerks and overworked teachers. It's not. If Republicans get their union-busting way, the pain will only get worse for all of us.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Obama won't defend DOMA, but he will enforce it

Before my gay-rights-loving friends get too excited, here's a very important part of Eric Holder's letter to Congress:

The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in Windsor and Pedersen, now pending in the Southern District of New York and the District of Connecticut. I concur in this determination.

Notwithstanding this determination, the President has informed me that Section 3 will continue to be enforced by the Executive Branch. To that end, the President has instructed Executive agencies to continue to comply with Section 3 of DOMA, consistent with the Executive’s obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, unless and until Congress repeals Section 3 or the judicial branch renders a definitive verdict against the law’s constitutionality. This course of action respects the actions of the prior Congress that enacted DOMA, and it recognizes the judiciary as the final arbiter of the constitutional claims raised.

I'm ... not so impressed by this. "It's unconstitutional, but we'll enforce it" is ... lousy. Possibly even indefensible. I'm not certain what the federal government actually does to enforce the law, so it might be a moot point, but it's possible the president is making a very loud noise over very little substance here. 


From the blog logs:

Lexington, Kentucky arrived from on "Cup O' Joel" by searching for joel mathis shirtless.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kevin Drum on why we need unions

Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they're on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They're the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.

So sure: go ahead and fight the teachers unions on charter schools. Go ahead and insist that public sector unions in Wisconsin need to take pay and benefit cuts if that's what you believe. Go ahead and rail against Davis-Bacon. It's a free country.

But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven't made that clear, I don't know what will.

Violence in Libya, and why Egypt was probably the last peaceful transition we'll see anytime soon

A friend Tweets:

My response: "Yes. That's the whole point. I deplore it though."

It's worth mentioning, though, that after Tunisia and Egypt, we're probably done seeing peaceful transitions away from authoritarian rule in the Middle East—at least for a little while. Those countries' rulers passed from the scene with relatively little violence, and it's easy to see that other rulers in the region decided that the lesson was they'd either A) have to commit bloodshed to hold onto power or B) give up power. There's little chance, at this point, that they'll try to peacefully outwait the protesters: That route doesn't seem to work. For authoritarians, the incentives now belong on the violent side of things.

I'm not suggesting the protests are futile. The use of violence, as in the case of Libya, probably further de-legitimizes governments that are already illegitimate. But if this series of revolutions is to continue, the easy parts are probably already over.

Why is there income inequality?

Apologies for the lateness of this post compared to the first two. There's lots of other work to be done, and this series has required me to do some hard work in the form of thinking through things. It's more time-consuming than the usual point-and-shoot of blogging. 

So we've established that there is, in fact, growing income inequality in the United States. And the evidence of history suggests that such inequality can be a societal problem over time. So the next question is this: Why is inequality growing here? And what can be done about it?

Paul Krugman—whose 2007 book, "The Conscience of a Liberal" forms the basis of this series of posts—seems to offer a simple, even seductive answer: It's the Republicans' fault. They're the ones who radically cut marginal taxes on top earners after 1980, and they've done all they can to weaken the power of unions, who were a major factor in lifting the tide for working-class Americans in the post-Depression era.

Here's the crux of it, he says:

Over the course of the 1970s, radicals of the right determined to roll back the achievements of the New Deal took over the Republican Party, opening a partisan gap with the Democrats, who became the true conservatives, defenders of the long-standing institutions of equality. The empowerment of the hard right emboldened business to launch an all-out attack on the union movement, drastically reducing workers' bargaining power; freed business executives from the political and social constraints that had previously placed limits on runaway executive paychecks; sharply reduced tax rates on high incomes; and in a variety of other ways promoted rising inequality.

Krugman, of course, is as interested in reining in the elites as he is helping the working and middle classes get ahead.  I'm more concerned with the latter part of the equation, and it seems to me he doesn't do a good enough job addressing why that second part failed to happen. There's no reason that rising executive pay should necessarily require stagnating worker pay in a growing economy, it seems to me. And despite the efforts of some more committed conservatives, there's not really been much reining in of the welfare state in the last 30 years—Republicans have even expanded it without bothering to pay for it.*

*If they somehow manage to slash and burn Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, however, this statement is null and void.

This is leading me to a conclusion about the cause of the inequality problem, but I want to prod at Krugman a little more first. He spends much of his time exalting the 1950s—when inequality was low, marginal tax rates were high, and everybody lived better than the generation before them. And that's true. But Krugman doesn't really address something I've got to believe has to be a major factor in all of this: the 1950s also happened to be a time when the United States was, more or less, the only industrialized power left standing. All the other ones had been destroyed by World War II, and it took the Marshall Plan to get a lot of those economies starting to roll in the right direction. The United States had a big head start on the rest of the world, which means its workers had a head start on the rest of the world, right?

Fan mail: Billy Eger sets me straight

My most-persistent correspondent doesn't like my views on NPR. I wrote: "And the money spent on public broadcasting creates a public good far more valuable than those dollars would indicate: It creates a better-informed citizenry, the kind needed for a well-functioning democracy."

Billy's response:


billy from wickliffe

I enjoy Billy's pedantry. But for the sake of argument, here's James Madison's definition of a "republic," writing in Federalist 39

If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.

The government derives its powers "from the great body of people." Now. Billy's right that we're not strictly speaking a democracy. (Strict democracy is ... kind of socialistic.) But the term hasn't generally been used strictly, really. Lots of people—most people, I'd say, and certainly some notable conservatives—use and have used the term "democracy" to describe our republican form of government, so I don't think I was doing anything particularly ill-informed. Since our republican form of government derives its powers from the people, my point still stands. 


The Daily News' new ombudsman lives in ... North Dakota?

At the end of the first column from the Daily News' new "public editor" comes this startling bit of information:

Richard Aregood is the Charles R. Johnson Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota.

North Dakota?

Now, granted, Aregood isn't a stranger to the Philadelphia scene. As his UND bio notes, he "worked as a reporter, rewriteman, rock critic, city editor, deputy sports editor, and assistant managing editor before moving to the editorial page." He won a Pulitzer. And granted, he seems (appropriately) skeptical about the journalistic acumen of new Daily News editor Larry Platt.

But still. North Dakota.

The upside to this is that Aregood will have a lot of distance from the newsroom and editors he is supposed to critique on behalf of the public. The downside is that he's also going to have a lot of distance from the readers he's supposed to represent. 

Sure, you can email Aregood with your complaints and compliments about the Daily News. But it appears that Aregood won't be around Philadelphia to get a deeper sense of what people are saying to each other—say, at a food cart on Broad Street near City Hall—when they pick up a copy of the paper. Despite his deep roots at the Daily News, I suspect Aregood will be plenty willing to let the paper have it with both barrels when needed. But given that there's 1,500 miles of distance between Aregood and the community he's serving, I'm not sure he'll always know when it's needed.

Fan mail: No funding for lefty NPR

W.R. Engel writes me from Muncie, Indiana:

Joel, PBS, NPR should be defunded not to kill off Big Bird and friends (although I feel the world could do without Barney the big purple) but because taxpayer money should not be used to fund politically biased organizations. If you don't think there is a left-leaning bias at PBS and NPR I've a few bridges to sell you, or ask Juan Williams. Not to worry, Elmo, Bert and Ernie and all will find new homes and become millionaires.

This same issue was raised in the comments of an earlier blog post I wrote on the topic. My response, admittedly quite glib, was that NPR is "liberal" only in the sense that "informative" is somehow construed as being liberal. Less glibly, it's always tough for me to weigh these kinds of accusations: The kind of people who make these accusations seem to believe that every news organization that isn't explicitly conservative in its outlook is somehow liberal. I don't buy that.

But this kind of thing is in the eye of the beholder. To the extent we can quantify this, it's worth noting that NPR's listenership comes from all over the politicial spectrum—tilted, perhaps, ever-so-slightly to the left, but not by much. And that audience mostly believes NPR is very fair.

NPR is going to get into ideological dustups from time-to-time—like the Juan Williams imbroglio—because major news organizations can't really avoid them. I remain convinced that NPR (and, to a lesser extent, PBS) provides a profoundly good public service that the private market has shown little inclincation to provide. It is worthy of continued taxpayer funding.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

In Wisconsin, Republicans discover democracy

Love this from Sen. Lindsay Graham:

Graham: “In a democracy, when you run on something, you do have an obligation to fulfill your promise. [Gov. Walker] didn’t take anybody by surprise, he’s doing exactly what he said. There was a referendum on this issue and the unions lost, and the Democrats in Wisconsin should come back to Wisconsin to have votes.”  

Graham, of course, a starring member of the the Republican minority during the 111th Congress elected with President Obama. Somehow, Republicans--despite massive defeats at the polls--found it right to ignore the message voters sent then in order to mount a record 112 filibusters in one year. Lectures from Graham on the nature of democracy are frankly laughable.

Netflix Queue: 'The Twilight Samurai'

Three quick thoughts about 'The Twilight Samurai':

* This sweet, slow, and elegaic film focuses on Seibei Iguchi, a low-ranking samurai at the end of the samurai era. He is poor and dirty, loves his daughters and even encourages them to study books(!!), but serves out ancient obligations to his sponsoring clan. Because his clan is mostly at peace--until the end of the film--he and his fellow samurai have little to do; they serve as clerks and accountants instead, rarely drawing their swords in anger. Given this film was made in 2002, a few years into Japan's real-life "lost decade" of recession, it's not difficult to read his situation as an allegory of Iguchi's modern-day countrymen living lives as semi-neutered "salarymen" torn between past glories and current duties.

* The presence of women in this film is what makes it unusual, at least from my experience of samurai movie watching. In both Japanese and American action movies, we tend to like our sword- and gun-slingers somewhat ascetic, stoic, and bordering on chaste. Their deepest emotional attachments tend to be with other men--or, if with women, doomed. (Make of that what you will.) But Iguchi's love for his daughters shapes his other actions in this movie--and not in the usual "I've got to get vengeance for them or protect them from a threat" kind of way. That makes him a different kind of hero, actually vulnerable instead of movie vulnerable. And that's what draws us in, even if the pacing seems to drag a bit at times.

* In the end, Iguchi must strap on his swords and have a climactic battle. Though 'The Last Samurai' has an elegaic feel to it, it seems that here is where we're given permission not to mourn what has passed. Iguchi and his opponent do not fight for their own honor, or freedom, or anything noble. They're each performing the assignments they've been given--"You're an errand boy. I've been an errand boy too," his opponent says--in order to keep the pillars of Japanese feudal society in place. The fighting is messy, inelegant, fought by two complicated humans instead of Good Guy and Bad Guy. The fight and the film end on a bittersweet note, then: We are the warrior-protagonists in our own lives, and if the battles we're sent to fight are sometimes less-than-noble, or even outright incomprehensible, there's still an honor to be found in fighting the best we can, and in finding comfort in the ones we love.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Netflix Queue: 'Mean Streets'

Three thoughts about Martin Scorcese's 1973 debut, 'Mean Streets'...

• This is where Martin Scorcese started to become Martin Scorcese, after a few years of laboring under shlock king Roger Corman. It's got all the Scorcese touches, in an early and kind of raw form: The Rolling Stones on the soundtrack, New York, tracking shots and, of course, DeNiro. It's got a kind of punk rawness to it that's still kind of thrilling 40 years later.

• An immense part of the punk rawness comes from DeNiro. He's always been an intimidating, middle-aged presence in my mind--even when playing young Vito Corleone in 1974's "The Godfather Part II." So it's kind of amazing to see him playing, essentially, a kid—a cocky young man, wet behind the ears, barely into the world but already at war with it. He's beautiful and fierce, but (like Scorcese) he's not ROBERT DENIRO yet, and seeing the performance anew—after decades of DeNiro watching—is a kind of revelation.

• A friend on Twitter says this movie doesn't really hold up very well, and it's not aged well. It's got a slack Cassavettian talkiness that meanders nowhere in particular at times. There are scenes that appear to have been improvised by the actors without much in the way of direction except: "Argue! Now!" It's just not quite as entertaining as, say, "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas" or even "Casino." But it's still worthy of viewing, a movie that ties itself firmly to its time and place (New York in the early 1970s, when the city was falling apart) and, as a document of that time and the young vision of a great director, a fascinating piece of filmmaking. "Mean Streets" isn't a masterpiece, but it shows you the preparation for a career full of them.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Eugene Robinson on Haley Barbour's failure to denounce the KKK

For those who do not see the Civil War through a revisionist gauze of gallantry and Spanish moss, Forrest is an abomination. In 1864, his troops mowed down scores of black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender, in what became known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. After the war, Forrest became one of the founding fathers of the terrorist Ku Klux Klan - and was the group's first national leader, or "grand wizard."

Barbour was asked whether he would denounce the idea of honoring such a figure. "I don't go around denouncing people," he told reporters. "That's not going to happen."

I know many of my conservative and Republican friends really, really hate being tarred with the brush of racism—and I don't blame them. But if you want your movement disassociated from that sin, a good place to start would be by making sure your governors and former RNC chairmen unequivocally denounce the Klan. It's not a high bar.

Missing the Internet in Rural America, and why NPR should be funded by the feds

In my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week, I argued for continued funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting largely on the basis that it's rural parts of the country that would suffer if services like NPR—with its in-depth news and coverage—disappear.

A story in today's New York Times kind of reinforces my point:

COFFEEVILLE, Ala. — After a couple of days in this part of rural Alabama, it is hard to complain about a dropped iPhone call or a Cee Lo video that takes a few seconds too long to load.

The county administrator cannot get broadband at her house. Neither can the sportswriter at The Thomasville Times.

Here in Coffeeville, the only computer many students ever touch is at the high school.

“I’m missing a whole lot,” said Justin Bell, 17. “I know that.”

As the world embraces its digital age — two billion people now use the Internet regularly — the line delineating two Americas has become more broadly drawn. There are those who have reliable, fast access to the Internet, and those, like about half of the 27,867 people here in Clarke County, who do not.

In rural America, only 60 percent of households use broadband Internet service, according to a report released Thursday by the Department of Commerce. That is 10 percent less than urban households. Over all, 28 percent of Americans do not use the Internet at all.

There are a variety of problems with this. As the Times notes, there are economic, medical, and education consequences to the lack of access to the modern world. But one of the problems is informational:  “This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society," one of the Times' experts says, and he's right. Which is why cutting funding for the CPB really is a bad idea! The residents of Coffeeville, Alabama can't so easily call up the New York Times or the Washington Post or BBC News on their computers. NPR probably offers a nice and vital window to the broader world that isn't easily found otherwise. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Remember Larry King's old USA Today column? That's Buzz Bissinger's Tweets in the Daily News.

I'm not so sure this worked:

Buzz Bissinger, author of "Friday Night Lights" and "A Prayer for the City," has joined the Daily News as editorial adviser and occasional columnist.

He also has 19,607 followers on Twitter. Here's what @buzzbissinger was tweeting yesterday. Which may explain why we still don't have a column from him. And why he has so many followers:

The Philadelphia Daily News is so desperate they want to reprint my tweets. Think it's a completely f---ed up idea.

Nothing to rant on. Gaga. Repubs. Dems. Big f---ing deal. Been there done that.

Phillies starters best on paper. Let's see what happens. One of them will get hurt. Trust me. Burden of expectations. Only disappoint.

I haven't taken my meds today. I should soon. Between the anti-depressants, Coumadin, Lipitor, baby aspirin. F---ing pharmacy.

And so on. "Burden of expectations. Only disappoint." Indeed.

A great, kid-friendly repurposing of a skateboard

Seen at Almaz Cafe in Center City. The girl's father gave me permission to shoot, FYI.

Monday, February 14, 2011

More fan mail

A second missive from Billy Eger.

Dear Joel, you obviously don't know American history let alone world history,all your thoughts an reasoning are equal too that of a six year old but I expect that from a nutbag leftist Marxist fascist commie like you,let's see you are an infidel to the Muslim community , who will do nothing less than  chop your head off when thier done using you,democracies don't work, never have,we are a republic,something I know your 2 braincells can't  comprehend. So if you wanna prosecute someone start with yourself an charge yourself with treason to your country,oh wait you can't cause the commie fucks got rid of all the laws in their way too take over the country,you should be ashamed too being human cause obviously you don't have heart or truly understand what love is you'd rather spew your hate for your agendas of power,can't wait till the riots start here ,an for your sake you better hope are paths don't cross, shouldn't let words hurt you thier just words,be careful what you wish for.oh ps were you born an Asshole or did it come naturally?

billy from wickliffe

I should say: I welcome thoughtful and articulate disagreements with stuff I've written. I'll post such correspondence here when I get it. Until then, I'll post the thinly disguised threats and the like.

John Boehner unable to distinguish truth, untruth

Via Paul Waldman, a Sunday transcript:

MR. GREGORY: As the speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it's your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?

SPEAKER BOEHNER: David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people. Having said that, the state of Hawaii has said that he was born there. That's good enough for me. The president says he's a Christian. I accept him at his word.

MR. GREGORY: But isn't that a little bit fast and loose? I mean, you are the leader in Congress and you're not standing up to obvious facts and saying, "These are facts. If you don't believe that, it's nonsense."

SPEAKER BOEHNER: I just outlined the facts as I understand them. I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian. I'll take him at his word. But, but...

MR. GREGORY: But that kind of ignorance about whether he's a Muslim doesn't concern you?

SPEAKER BOEHNER: Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't--it's not my job to tell them.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

I'm a 'whining liberal douchebag'

Fan mail:
from Phil 
date Sun, Feb 13, 2011 at 3:05 PM
subject I read your blog today....

And it just validates what a great  country America is. After all, where else in the world could a
whining liberal douche bag like your self get published in an urban newspaper.
Get over it Joel- the people spoke last November, and don’t want  your brand of liberalism.
Pussies like your self get your panties in a bunch over the Patriot Act and Gitmo, but both
have helped save the lives of Americans.
And give up the tired mantra about  Bush, Cheney, Yoo, etc. as war criminals!!!!
Most Americans don’t obsess over the thoughts of radicals from Switzerland.
(Joel adds: Yes, he did include the Churchill photo at the conclusion.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bag o' Books: Michael Chabon's 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh' (McSweeney's iPad edition)

Three quick thoughts about Michael Chabon's 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh':

* I read this old book in a new way: On McSweeney's new iPad app. A day after I decided to give up reading fiction in digital form, McSweeney's announced its updated app would include access to a small number of e-books--each specifically designed and formatted for the digital medium, rather than (like so many e-books) merely pour text into the electronic format. McSweeney's promises to get more adventurous with future books; this one amounted to little more than a glorified PDF reader. Even at that, though, the experience of reading was a little more pleasurable than what I usually find in the Kindle or Nook apps on my iPad. Thanks to the typesetting and illustrations, Chabon's book felt like it's own thing--even within the app--instead of the Standardized Literature Content you find in so many of the main e-reading applications. That's the good thing. The bad thing is that nobody seemed to copyedit the McSweeney's version of the book, and it is replete with what appear to be electronic transcription errors of the type that happen when you convert (say) a Word document to a new format. Irritating, and shockingly shoddy. Still, I commend McSweeney's for attempting to utilize the format to its best, and I'm intrigued to see where it goes.

* As for the novel itself: This is Michael Chabon's first novel--written waaaaay back in the 1980s--with all the good and bad it implies. The good: it's lyrically written, with the mixture of good humor and tragedy that Chabon brings to his art. The bad: It feels less than fully formed, or less than fully Chabon's own. It's a coming-of-age-sexual-awakening story with gay men and Jewish gangsters thrown in, and it feels a bit like how F. Scott Fitzgerald might've written 'The Great Gatsby' had he been a fresh-faced novelist some sixty years later. Don't get me wrong: Chabon can do pastiche and homage, and do it well. But he was less able to pull it off successfully early in his career; here it feels more like imitation than his own hat-tipping creation.

* As for the Jewish gangster subplot: I'd rather see a full Chabon novel about these guys than what we get here. Instead, the thread feels designed to lend narrative structure to what would otherwise be a lovely, perhaps slightly rambling novella about The Summer I Started Having Sex With Men. But it feels churlish to complain; an early, half-formed Chabon is still strikingly readable. He's one of our best novelists, and it's fascinating to peek back in time to watch the seeds of his career start to sprout.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Matt Yglesias on the 'Obama apology tour'

I don’t even remember the president apologizing for our country. That conservatives are really pissed off at Obama for raising taxes is explained, in part, by the fact that bills he’s signed into law do in fact schedule large tax increases. But rage at the president’s non-existent habit of apologizing is a pure psychological manifestation of acute sensitivity around this issue. It’s a very pure distillation of the raw, hysterical, absurd atavistic nationalism that lies at the core of contemporary conservatism.

I mean, I assume Pawlenty doesn’t raise his kids to never apologize for their conduct. Apologizing is the right way to respond to wrongdoing. Sometimes I make factual errors in my posts and I try to apologize for them. I stepped on a woman’s foot by accident yesterday and apologized. That’s life. You apologize. Is it seriously an article of faith of the American conservative movement that the American government has never done anything worth apologizing for? That’s the official view of the political movement that allegedly thinks the other movement is too statist?

Conservatives don't own a love of freedom in the Middle East

Charles Krauthammer plays fast and loose:

Today, everyone and his cousin supports the “freedom agenda.” Of course, yesterday it was just George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and a band of neocons with unusual hypnotic powers who dared to challenge the received wisdom of Arab exceptionalism — the notion that Arabs, as opposed to East Asians, Latin Americans, Europeans, and Africans, were uniquely allergic to democracy. Indeed, the Left spent the better part of the Bush years excoriating the freedom agenda as either fantasy or yet another sordid example of U.S. imperialism.

This is a gross distortion—maybe even a lie about—arguments surrounding the Iraq War.

Here's the truth as I see it:

* Liberals, generally, have never been opposed to the greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East. We *have* disputed whether the United States can impose its vision of democracy on the region, whether it can do so without the long and hard work of building up the supporting institutions of that make liberal democracy possible, and—most notably—whether or not the United States and its allies could impose freedom and democracy at the point of a gun.

And we were right to raise those questions.

* To the extent that there's a loud argument that Islamic culture is incompatible with democracy, it's come almost exclusively from the right, from Mark Steyn and Andy McCarthy and Newt Gingrich and others who run around screaming about sharia law. The term "islamofascism" originated in those precincts, and it's a term that doesn't really exist on the left, except when used to parody the right.

It's not "freedom" that was questioned by liberals. It was the "freedom agenda," which is something else entirely. The debate is about not ends, but means, but Krauthammer—who is a smart guy—would rather conflate the two in order to score a political point.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The American Prospect's proposal to stifle press freedom

I think a lot of good work comes out of The American Prospect, but holy cow is this a bad idea:

Because of the important role the press is supposed to play in democracy, the courts have made it virtually impossible for those misrepresented in the press to win a defamation lawsuit. On one hand, this deference has created a free and vibrant press, uninhibited by fear of retaliation. But there's a flip side: With no accountability, false stories crowd out the truth, end up misleading the public, and leave victims without recourse. Freedom of the press, it turns out, often amounts to the freedom to deceive. Given that outright partisanship increasingly crosses the line into pure falsehood, shouldn't it be easier to sue?

The Prospect's Pema Levy proposes that a journalistic code of ethics be established—she doesn't say by whom, but I presume the government—which would create a standard of "substantial truthfulness" that could then be used by juries when the lawsuits inevitably come.

The problem with the proposal is that we have substantial evidence that making it easy to sue journalists doesn't do much to make them more truthful—instead, it makes it harder for them to actually report controversial truths. Look no further than the United Kingdom, where journalists get sued for reports that defendants merely don't like. The result is that U.S. publications with international readerships are routinely sued in Great Britain for reports that would be laughed out of court here.

Levy is right that it is sometimes more difficult to get the truth out once a lie has been established. I'm not sure how you solve that. But her proposal seems more likely to stifle the truth than to help it blossom. The process is messy and ugly at times, but it beats the alternative.

Mr. Mom Chronicles: This is why it is occasionally difficult to do freelance writing from home.

I didn't pose this picture. He just decided to crawl up the back of my chair while I was working.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Bush Presidency!

Just in case you forgot, from a fabulous new tool created by the Economic Policy Institute:

I'll return to income inequality writing this weekend.

Cutting government, Tea Party-style

Friend and sparring partner Rick Henderson suggests I wouldn't give the Tea Party credit for anything under any circumstances. Not so. I am kind of impressed by this, if it holds:

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.) has announced that the continuing resolution coming out of his committee — and likely to the floor sometime next week — will contain $100 billion worth of spending cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year (through September). This marks a significant political victory for House conservatives like Reps. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), RSC chairman Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), and freshman members who insisted that the cuts previously announced by party leadership were insufficient.

That's not to say that I'll like the proposed cuts. I certainly reserve the right to criticize the specifics. But I've been critical of Republicans for awhile because of their habit of shouting about the need for cuts but failing to come up with specifics or, you know, cut anything. There's political risk in cutting dollars from programs that have constituents, and every program has constituents. It would appear the fresh-faced Tea Party GOPers are willing to actually do something—and even if I think it might be the wrong thing, I can at least acknowledge that it's not cynical.

What the Tea Party can do to prove it's serious about liberty

Some Tea Party Republicans joined Democrats in defeating a renewal of Patriot Act provisions this week. That's the topic of my column with Ben Boychuk. My take:

It is appropriate the Patriot Act renewal was defeated the same week reports emerged that former President George W. Bush had canceled a trip to Switzerland, largely to avoid the possibility of criminal charges for approving the torture of terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11.

For one week, at least, the gap between the Tea Party's rhetoric and the reality of Republican governance was narrowed. It had been embarrassing to see conservatives decry "tyranny" in the form of slightly higher marginal tax rates and entitlement programs, all while offering silent acquiescence -- or full-throated support -- to the government's efforts to conduct warrantless wiretaps on Americans, operate secret prisons abroad, waterboard terror suspects, and then to try those suspects before the kangaroo courts known as military commissions.

The gap remains, however. While nine new Republican lawmakers voted against the Patriot Act renewal, 78 other GOP freshmen -- many backed by the Tea Party -- voted for it. And as President Bush's failed trip to Switzerland demonstrates, the United States has still failed to come to terms with the fallout from its worst actions after 9/11.

If those Republicans want to strike a blow for freedom -- and embarrass President Obama in the process -- they can push to close down Guantanamo Bay prison, hold public hearings about White House plans to assassinate American terror suspects abroad, and call for the prosecution of Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, and anybody else suspected of breaking the law (and American values) in the name of the War on Terror. They'd be striking a blow for freedom that many liberals hoped would come from a Democratic president.

Anybody can vote against the Patriot Act. Real civil libertarians prosecute Dick Cheney.

Ben would rather see the Tea Party focus on reducing government spending. Read the whole thing for his take.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why income inequality matters

See Part One of this series.

So we’ve established that there’s growing income inequality in the United States. The second question is: Does it matter?

This isn’t a question that’s well-answered in Paul Krugman’s “The Conscience of a Liberal.” He does a good job demonstrating that the inequality is growing, and he makes a reasonable case for why that’s happening—something that we’ll examine more closely in the next installment of this week’s series. And he talks a lot about pre-New Deal America (the Gilded Age, a time of extreme income inequality) being a time where the people on the low-end of the scale faced crushing poverty.

But Krugman doesn’t really make the case that the current growth of inequality is bad, so much as he takes it as a given. And while he laments the 1950s as a time when the middle class shared broadly in American prosperity, he seems more interested in seeing the country’s richest men and women get their comeuppance. He has, perhaps, not-bad reasons for that, but I’m not so much interested in keeping the elites reined in as in ensuring that the rest of Americans can fairly expect to provide for their families.

Can they or can’t they?

Relative to the rest of the world, they can. Here’s a chart that was posted last week in the New York Times’ Economix blog:

What’s notable about this chart is two things. First: America’s inequality is growing rapidly, but it’s still not quite as startling as the inequality in some emerging nations. (Although it is still massive, really massive, compared to other developed nations.) And relative to those emerging countries, America’s poorest workers are still doing quite well. Says the Times’ Catherine Rampell: “Yes, that’s right: America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest. Kind of blows your mind, right?” The cost of living is higher here, of course, but it does suggest that poorer workers here have a better shot at clothing and feeding their families than people in much of the rest of the world. Not to suggest that it’s easy or fun.

(Compared to other developed nations, though, the poorest 10 percent is actually … poor, with a median income below the median income of the poorest 10 percent for that group of countries. Our richest 10 percent, however, blow away the richest decile of every other nation.)

If we grant that low-income American worker aren’t quite so impovershed by worldwide standards, though, there’s still reasons, I think, to be concerned about widening income inequality. Here’s a few.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The text of the Equal Rights Amendment

Doing some reading about feminism tonight, which prompted me to look up the text of the Equal Rights Amendment. At the barest beginnings of my consciousness—back in the late 70s—I can remember some hubub. But I didn't know what the hubub was about. 

This is it:

bullet Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
bullet Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.


Doesn't seem like that should've been that big a deal. So why was it?

The problem of income inequality: Day One

When I pledged to make 2011 the year of my reading about income inequality and the welfare state, I thought I’d be able to contain myself to, oh, a dozen or so really smart books—representing a range of viewpoints—to give me a solid grounding. And I thought I’d start with Paul Krugman’s now slightly dated 2007 book, “The Conscience of a Liberal.” What I didn’t realize is that once I started thinking about these related topics, I’d start seeing good reading on them everywhere.  There’s been lots of magazine articles and blog posts to take note of just in the first month of this project. So this month’s installment will also draw on some recent magazine articles — “The United States of Inequality” by Timothy Noah at Slate, “The Rise of the New Global Elite” by Chrystia Freeland at The Atlantic, and “Business Is Booming,” by Harold Meyerson at The American Prospect—as well as Tyler Cowen’s new mini e-book, “The Great Stagnation.” (Other sources will be cited, as needed.) Instead of reviewing Krugman, he is the jumping-off point for the project.

 My sources generally come from the left side of the spectrum. Obviously I do to. But I’m going to try not to put my thumbs on the scale, because my aim is to understand the issues and what solutions, if any, are best suited to resolving them. Which is why, in coming months, you’ll see texts from the right of center, as well.

 That said, I had a series of questions in my mind when I started reading, and I’m going to take them one-by-one each day this week.

* Is there an issue of growing income inequality in the United States?

Yes. Next question?

OK, let’s add some depth. Here’s what it boils down to: Since 1980, the United States economy has grown quite a bit — even when taking the recent Great Recession into account. But those gains have gone almost entirely to the country’s ultra-elite: 80 percent of the gains went to the richest 1 percent of Americans. Wages for everybody else, on the other hand, have more or less stagnated. Case closed.
Here is one of a million charts that make the case:

“In the 1980s, however, it gradually become clear that the evolution of America into a middle-class, politically middle-of-the-road nation wasn’t the end of the story,” Krugman writes. “A small number of people were pulling far ahead, while most Americans saw little or no economic progress …. those trends continue to this day: Income inequality is as high as it was in the 1920s, and political polarization is as high as it has ever been.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

I have a white whale no longer

Longtime readers will know of my continuing disdain for the work of NYT Magazine's Deborah Solomon. Looks like I'll have to find a new target for my ire:

"My immediate plan is to devote myself to my long-overdue, almost-finished biography of Norman Rockwell, which will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I had eight great years writing the column, and I have been encouraged by the paper's top brass to continue writing for the paper. Naturally, I also plan to continue asking as many impertinent questions as possible."

The problem with Solomon's work wasn't that her questions were impertinent. It's that they were often impertinent for their own sake, journalism as a kind of masterbatory pugilism. As I wrote when I first got on my Deborah Solomon high horse, her interviews "are performance art pieces, designed to elicit discomfort in interviewees and readers to no good purpose at all." Good riddance.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Me @ Macworld: I review Rupert Murdoch's new The Daily

Announced on Wednesday, The Daily was touted by its creators at News Corp. as a rethinking of journalism for a new audience and new technology. There’s just one problem with the hype: Rupert Murdoch’s new iPad newspaper closely resembles other—often unsuccessful—attempts over the last decade to “reinvent“ the news. The only difference, from a user perspective, is that a few semi-new digital flourishes have been thrown into the mix.

'Democracy' in Iraq

There's a lot to say about how American conservatives have been coming out of the woodwork to suggest that regime change in Iraq veeeeeeery slowly sparked the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere around the Middle East in recent weeks. (A variant on this theme is offered by NRO's Jay Nordlinger, who writes: "It seems that a democratic revolution is sweeping the Middle East — spurred, I am sure, by American and allied actions in Iraq.")

So it's worth taking note of today's New York Times story that gives us a picture of what "democracy" in Iraq actually looks like:

Iraqi security forces controlled directly by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki continue to hold and to torture detainees in secret jails despite his vows last year to end such practices, according to a statement from Human Rights Watch released Tuesday.

The statement renewed longstanding criticism of Mr. Maliki that he has violated the Constitution by having some security forces in charge of pursuing terrorists report directly to his office. About 280 detainees are being held at Camp Justice, a military base in northern Baghdad, with no access to lawyers or their families, according to the report. They are being held by brigades that are supposed to report to the Defense Ministry, it said.

After the disclosure of a secret prison last year, Mr. Maliki said the detainees would be transferred to the Ministry of Justice, under which they were expected to receive proper legal representation. But Human Rights Watch, citing internal government documents and interviews conducted in Iraq with government officials and detainees, said that this has not occurred. 

I'm going to go ahead and suggest that Egyptians aren't really all that inspired by a US-backed "democratic" (remember, Maliki didn't actually win the last election) government that tortures its enemies. That's what they're protesting against! I'm guessing the sparks of the recent waves of protests involve a complicated set of kindling that I don't fully understand, but I do know that Iraq War apologists will never stop trying to extract "victory" from a very bad war.


The Inky takes on the death penalty

I'm just a touch perplexed by today's editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The ed board there is apparently extra-horrified by the way Ohio now plans to execute its death-row prisoners:

The continued practice of capital punishment got even more unsettling with Ohio's announcement that it will become the second state that executes convicts with a drug typically used to euthanize animals.

Pentobarbital is well-known to veterinarians, who use it to euthanize terminally ill pets.

Comparisons between executions and putting a pet out of its misery might be unfair, but they're unavoidable now. Some people call murderers "animals," which is how they will be treated when Oklahoma and Ohio dispatch them to eternity.

The whole apparatus of state-sanctioned executions is awful to comprehend, but even more so with the use of a drug pulled from your local vet's medicine cabinet.

I think the Inquirer is trying to say that the death penalty is bad, and I agree. But I don't get this particular set of quibbling. Is the death penalty really worse because states have exchanged one set of lethal chemicals for another? It's hard to see how. It would be one thing if the Inquirer wanted to argue the new chemicals will some how increase a convict's suffering during execution, but that's not what is being said here, and I'm not sure that's even the case. There are a host of reasons to believe that states shouldn't have the power of life or death over their citizens; I'm not sure that squeamishness is really going to rank that highly among them.

TSA backlash watch: Is the TSA getting it right?

Maybe the Transportation Security Administration is getting it, after all. The agency is debuting new body scanners that don't show so much ... body

The machines now produce a gray, cookie-cutter outline of the human form. The silhouette appears on a screen about the size of a laptop computer that is attached to the scanning booth.

If a passenger is cleared by the scan, the screen will flash green with an "OK." Suspicious items detected by the scanner appear as little boxes outlined in red, showing their location on generic front and back silhouettes on the screen.

Please do watch WaPo's video of TSA head John Pistole announcing the new scanner. Nice how they demonstrate it by showing a white woman going through the scanner without weapon — and a black man going through the scanner while concealing "suspicious objects." Way to be sensitive and avoid stereotypes, guys.

That said, this seems much less intrusive than the scanners that let airport officials see your nude body underneath your clothing. My family might be more willing to get on airplane if we aren't subjected to a virtual strip search prior to flying. But this technology is still in the testing phase; we'll see how long it takes to get all the way to Philadelphia



The Daily News takes on 'power' in Philadelphia

Still love the Daily News, and Lord knows I hate bullies. Still, I can't help but feel a bit off-put by this story in today's paper:

Upper Darby police yesterday arrested a seventh and final teen in a horrific bullying incident caught on video, and Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood said the tough guy was crying and vomiting when he was brought to the police station.

The 14-year-old was charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault and related offenses for allegedly being one of seven boys who shoved 13-year-old Nadin Khoury (right) in a tree and hung him on a fence on Jan. 11, police said. The entire incident was videotaped by one of the attackers on a cell phone, according to police.

I'm glad the kid is being brought to justice. But budding thug though he may be, he's still just a kid. And it just seems weird and unseemly for a major metropolitan newspaper to use its platform to mock an adolescent. The DN is ostensibly siding against bullies -- and I'm with them! -- but it ends up acting like a big bully itself. Uncool.