Monday, January 30, 2012

I thought the Obama Administration was making domesting oil drilling impossible

Oil well drilling activity continued to increase in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to API's 2011 Quarterly Well Completion Report: Fourth Quarter. The report estimates that 6,149 oil wells were completed in fourth quarter 2011, a 10 percent increase from year-ago levels.

"There's good news that domestic drilling continued to increase into the fourth quarter of 2011," said Hazem Arafa, director of API's statistics department.  "And with policies that allow greater access to the vast energy resources right here at home, we can provide even more of the energy our country needs while hiring more American workers and generating more revenue for our government."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is America's economy fair?

That's the question in this week's Scripps Howard column, following up on yesterday's Gallup poll and President Obama's State of the Union comment that "We can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules." My take:
"Fairness" can be a slippery concept, so let's use Obama's formulation as our guide. In the American economy, does everybody get a fair shot? Does everyone do a fair share? Does everyone play by the same set of rules? No. Yes. No.

No, not everybody gets a fair shot. Sixty-five percent of American men born poor stay poor, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Sixty-two percent of those born rich stay rich. Other studies show that it's much easier to rise from humble circumstances if you're a native of Canada, Norway, Finland or Denmark than in the United States. The poor often lack the education and resources to advance in today's high-tech economy.

Yes, the people who are able to obtain jobs do their fair share. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that American workers doubled their productivity between 2008 and 2009, and then did it again in 2010. Some of that is due to workplace mechanization, but some is surely due to American workers continually finding ways to "do more with less."

No, not everyone plays by the same set of rules. Banks get bailed out by taxpayers and their executives still collect bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but homeowners stuck with bad mortgages are sneered at as "losers" by television pundits. If you're rich, it's tough to stop being rich, no matter how badly you screw up.

If you're less well off, one mistake can doom your whole life.

It didn't used to be this way in America. There were once opportunities to rise from humble circumstances. That's not really the case anymore. Horatio Alger may have become famous writing rags-to-riches tales about opportunity in America. But Horatio Alger is dead and mostly forgotten. And it's not fair.
I guess I could've applied the test posed by John Rawls and asked if this economic system would've been agreed to by most Americans if they were blind to whether they'd be advantaged or disadvantaged by it. My guess: No. But I don't think the tweaks would actually be all that massive under such a scenario.

Ben thinks the economy is unfair ... to free enterprise. Bwahahahaha!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gingrich would bomb Cuba, is awesomer and less Communist than Reagan

Adam Serwer:
During his interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos this morning, Newt Gingrich was asked just how far he was willing to go in order to eliminate the Castro regime in Cuba. Gingrich said that he thought it was "baloney" that Obama intervened in Libya (a decision Gingrich was on both sides of on multiple occasions) but apparently hadn't thought of bombing Cuba. Gingrich said this contrast was "fascinating," and wondered why Obama "doesn't quite notice Cuba."
You know, I've wondered the same thing about Ronald Reagan. He too bombed Libya and didn't bomb Cuba! I blame Saul Alinsky and Kenyan anti-colonialism for Reagan's weakness.

More seriously: We don't expend much in the way of resources in toppling Castro because Castro represents no security threat at all the the United States. None. Zero. Zilch. He doesn't like us, and we don't like him, but the Communist regime there isn't going to do anything to us. We might see offing the regime as democracy promotion, but the rest of the world would see it (not without cause) as imperialist meddling. Gingrich should maybe shut up.

A very interesting poll on the fairness of our economic system.

Via Gallup, we learn that Americans are roughly divided on whether the country's economic system is fair—but that 62 percent believe that the system is fair to them personally.

Here's where it gets interesting. Fifty-six percent of Democrats believe the system is unfair. Fifty percent of independents believe the same. Only 42 percent of Republicans think the system is unfair.

Weirdly, though, more Democrats than Republicans believe they've profited from that system:

The columns, from left, are "fair," "unfair," and "no opinion."

There's a rough correlation between whether Republicans believe the economic system is fair and whether they believe the system is fair to them. That correlation pretty much disappears for independents and Democrats. Why is that?

The Philadelphia School District can't actually go out of business, can it?

Sounds preposterous, but via The Notebook, here's the City Controller formally and publicly telling the district that "we have identified various conditions and events that, when considered in the aggregate, indicate there may be substantial doubt about the School District's ability to continue as a going concern."

Man. I don't wanna move to the suburbs.

Who misses the 1950s now?

For most of my life, the 1960s have loomed large in the political life of the country. If you loved the 1960s, you were probably a liberal who loved the Civil Rights movement, feminism, Medicare—all the things that made the era perhaps the last great moments of center-left ascendancy in the United States. And if you hated the 1960s,  you probably missed the simpler times of the 1950s, when "Ozzie and Harriet" and Ward Cleaver ruled the airwaves, and life was orderly and a little more moral.

Somewhere in the last few years, though, the script has flipped. Liberals have come to embrace the relative economic egalitarianism of America in the 1950s—blacks and women notably excepted—while conservative Republicans seem to view Dwight Eisenhower as an accomodationist who too easily surrendered to the welfare state designs of his Democratic predecessors.

I'm not sure where all this started to change. Paul Krugman's "The Conscience of a Liberal" certainly celebrated the 1950s to a degree I hadn't often seen in liberal writings before. And Max Boot comes along today to offer the conservative critique:
From our standpoint today, there are some good aspects of the 1950s–the hard work, the sense of common purpose–but also much that we would reject, especially the pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes–not to mention the pervasive drinking, smoking, and other bad habits. America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies. 
On the whole this is a positive development–it is what has made possible the dynamism of an information age economy symbolized by Apple’s staggering earnings. We would all be poorer–literally–if we went back to more of a top-down command economy, which is what Obama seems to be pining for. Indeed per capita income in 1950 was $1,500 (which, adjusted for inflation, works out to around $10,000 today) compared with almost $40,000 today.
I think the "per capita" statistic is slightly misleading: The distribution of income is much more unequal today than it was in 1950—the critique that liberals have been making—so the "average" per capita American isn't necessary a typical American. The median household income in the United States—half of all households made more, half made less—was $3,319 in 1950, or about $31,000 in today's dollars. The median household income in 2010 was  $49,445. Taking these statistics and the ones Boot cites, America is roughly four times richer today than it was in 1950—but the middle American household isn't even twice as rich, in real dollar terms. (UPDATE: And that doesn't really address the fact that the middle American household probably has two incomes these days, whereas the 1950 household probably had one earner.) You may not see that as an actual problem (richer is still richer!) but it lies at the heart of the critique that liberals make of post-1980 politics and income inequality.

In any case, Boot says, "the 'Mad Men' world is not one most of us would like to live in today. It was, after all, a world where big institutions–whether big government, big media, big business or big unions–had far more power than they do today." Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems that conservatism once defended the role of big institutions in society as helping bring order and cohesiveness to the national community. What's changed (in part) since the 1950s, it seems, is that conservatism has taken a libertarian turn that rejects and attacks all of Boot's "bigs," with the seeming exception of big business.

Anyway, it's an interesting transition. The Weekly Standard likes to (frequently) depict liberals as cartoonish, aging hippies on its cover, but maybe it would be more accurate these days to stick a pipe in Ward Cleaver's mouth and a union card in his front pocket.

'Send me': These are the SOTU policies Obama won't actually pursue

One of my criticisms of President Obama has been his seeming willingness to sit back and let Congress take the lead on certain issues, refusing to wade into certain lawmaking issues that might force him to get his hands dirty. One reason the Affordable Care Act debate lingered for a year was that the president left most of the dickering to Congress.*

So the way I figure it, when Obama gives a State of the Union address and recommends policies, but casts himself in the passive role in getting those policies passed, you can be sure the president won't actually be pushing for those policies. 

My rule of thumb for determining what those policies are? When the president asks Congress to "send me" a bill—instead of suggesting he'll send Congress a bill to get passed. The passive "send me" happened four times in the State of the Union:
• He won't push to take tax breaks from companies shipping jobs overseas and give them to companies building their businesses here: "So my message is simple. It is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America. Send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away. " 
• He won't push for the DREAM Act—which provides a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. Heck, he didn't even call it by name. "Let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away." 
• He won't actually push to promote jobs and energy efficiency in one fell swoop: "Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy. So here’s a proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs." 
• He won't push Congress to stop using its position to enrich its members: "So together, let’s take some steps to fix that. Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress; I will sign it tomorrow."
Congress has its role, and the president can't necessarily bend the branch to his will. But I think that the president hasn't always applied the leverage that he has. When the president asks Congress to take the lead, it seems likely he's washing his hands of his own good ideas.

Maybe President Obama isn't so bad on signing statements

The Congressional Research Service offers an overview:
President Reagan initiated this practice in earnest, transforming the signing statement into a mechanism for the assertion of presidential authority and intent. President Reagan issued 250 signing statements, 86 of which (34%) contained provisions objecting to one or more of the statutory provisions signed into law. President George H. W. Bush continued this practice, issuing 228 signing statements, 107 of which (47%) raised objections. President Clinton’s conception of presidential power proved to be largely consonant with that of the preceding two administrations. In turn, President Clinton made aggressive use of the signing statement, issuing 381 statements, 70 of which (18%) raised constitutional or legal objections. President George W. Bush continued this practice, issuing 161 signing statements, 127 of which (79%) contain some type of challenge or objection. The significant rise in the proportion of constitutional objections made by President George W. Bush was compounded by the fact that his statements were typified by multiple objections, resulting in more than 1,000 challenges to distinct provisions of law. Although President Barack Obama has continued to use presidential signing statements, the Obama Administration has used the interpretive tools with less frequency than previous administrations—issuing 20 signing statements, of which 10 (50%) contain constitutional challenges to an enacted statutory provision.
I still believe that if you're going to use a signing statement to challenge a law, you might as well go ahead and veto the law. And certainly, conservatives have delighted in chiding President Obama for using the statements at all. (Their objections were mostly muted during the Bush presidency.)  But if Obama is wrong to use signing statements in this fashion, it's apparently the case that he's only 1 percent as wrong as his predecessor was. Obama: The lesser evil!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why learn history when you can just make it up?

A reader of the Scripps Howard column sent a lengthy reply--too lengthy for me to care to excerpt in its entirety--cataloging a list of destructive policies imposed on the country by Democrats. Some of it is hilariously off-base. For instance, did you know that Democrats created...
Slavery. This practice was originated by the Democrats in the middle 1800's so that farmers in the deep South could pick their crops with cheap labor. Democrats are quick to counter that these were different times and so was the party. But a look at the economic facts behind the practice of slavery shows that it was based on the same theme they are pushing today. Democrats advocated slavery as the only way the South could compete with the wealthy railroad tycoons like the Rockefellers in the North. This tired Socialist Doctrine mimics the Democrats campaign cry today that it's the "rich" who are responsible for all our problems. Slavery also was the beginning of the Democrats phylosophy of keeping their party in power by making the poor reliant on their policies. By convincing the public that someone else was responsible for their failure the Democrats both made the poor dependant on their services and guaranteed a loyal following. It is ironic that this model is followed by every Socialist dictator in the world.
1964 Civil Rights Law. Vowing that injustices such as slavery would never happen again the Senate set out to pass legislation that would cement this into law. The Civil Rights Law enjoyed unanimous support by the Republicans when sent to the Congress but hit a blockade put up by the Democrats. As previously mentioned the Southern Democrats were reluctant to drop their hatred of black citizens and in fact many were still members of the Ku Klux Klan (including Senator Robert Byrd). In the end this ground breaking civil rights legislation passed only because nearly every Republican Congressman voted in favor. That's two to zip when it comes to which party has proved its support for minorities!
That, of course, isn't true at all. In fact, most of the "facts" recounted, both above and in the letter, are ... absolutely false. (If you don't know why or how, crack open a book. Or Wikipedia.) But they help my reader weave a narrative of Republican heroism and Democratic perfidy, and I suspect that's all that really matters.

What's interesting to me is that this guy is apparently a newspaper reader--he caught the column in the Long Beach Press-Telegram--and reasonably literate. But the history he recounts sounds like a mishmash of half-remembered facts recounted at a retired guy's coffee klatsch, with no care given to ascertaining the truth. He thinks he knows the truth already.

Mama reads to boy

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Philadelphia School District's deficit could lead to the decline of Center City

Over the last year, there's been a lot of celebration in the local media about how college-educated parents are staying Philadelphia and raising their kids here—and even sending them to the better of the city's public schools. While Philadelphia has a lot of problems, the revitalization of Center City has generally been judged to be a good thing.

I suspect that progress is very much threatened:
In plainer, starker terms than it had ever used before, the School Reform Commission laid out the district's financial woes to the public in a dramatic meeting Thursday night.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun, who chairs the SRC's finance committee, said the situation was much worse than people realized.

And with 51/2 months before the end of the school year and little left to cut, the only options left on the table are bad ones - possibilities include cutting all spring sports, all instrumental music, all gifted programs, half the district's psychologists.
Oh, and all of school police officers, too—that in a year in which school safety has been highlighted as one of the district's biggest challenges.

I'm not sure what percentage of Center City kids go to public schools; obviously there's a relatively high proportion that end up in private schools. But I also know that we've stayed in our Fitler Square neighborhood apartment, in part, because we're in proximity to one of the city's most-praised elementary schools. We can't afford to send our son to private school in 2013, so we thought we could have our urban cake and eat it too by planting our flag right here.

But if schools are being stripped for parts because the administration couldn't see this financial disaster coming, I'm not sure what choices we'll have. We love living in the city. But we're not precious about it: I'm not willing to sacrifice my son's education and well-being just because I like being in walking distance of Rittenhouse Square.

And I'm willing to bet there are plenty of parents like me. Mayor Nutter really should be on alert: The crisis in the school district threatens the revitalization of Center City. What's bad for the schools could end up being awful for the entire town.

Christine Flowers distorts the record in Illinois

I actually agree with Daily News columnist Christine Flowers that churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., should have the right to choose their own ministers without government interference. But I think she distorts the facts of one case she references:
Things do get murky when money is involved. As Catholic Charities of Illinois found out, the state can put you out of the adoption business if it thinks that you're discriminating with public funds.
Just to be absolutely accurate: The state didn't put Catholic Charities out of the adoption business. Catholic Charities put itself out of the adoption business in Illinois rather than comply with state rules and help gay couples adopt kids. Flowers' description is legally defensible, I suppose—she is a lawyer, after all—but her characterization really misses the point of what happened.

End this war, already (A continuing series)

American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report obtained by The New York Times.

A decade into the war in Afghanistan, the report makes clear that these killings have become the most visible symptom of a far deeper ailment plaguing the war effort: the contempt each side holds for the other, never mind the Taliban. The ill will and mistrust run deep among civilians and militaries on both sides, raising questions about what future role the United States and its allies can expect to play in Afghanistan.

The continuing casualties from a decade of war

Suicides among active-duty soldiers hit another record high in 2011, Army officials said on Thursday, although there was a slight decrease if nonmobilized Reserve and National Guard troops were included in the calculation.

The Army also reported a sharp increase, nearly 30 percent, in violent sex crimes last year by active-duty troops. More than half of the victims were active-duty female soldiers ages 18 to 21.

David Leonhardt's must-read column about your tax bill

What is clear, though, is that a large majority of American households — about two out of three — pays less than 15 percent of income to the federal government, through either income taxes or payroll taxes.

This disconnect between what we pay and what we think we pay is nothing less than one of the country’s biggest economic problems.

Many Americans see themselves as struggling under the weight of a heavy tax burden (partly for the understandable reason that wage growth has been so weak). Yet taxes in the United States are quite low today, compared with past years or those in other countries. Most important, American taxes are not sufficient to pay for the programs that many people want, like Medicare, Social Security, road construction and education subsidies.

What does this combination create? An enormous long-term budget deficit.

Read the whole thing.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Newt's race-hustling campaign

Ben and I talk about Newt Gingrich's food stamp comments in this week's Scripps Howard column. Is he running a racist campaign? My take:
Here's a little rule of thumb: If a politician offends someone but doesn't immediately "clarify" his remarks after the backlash, he meant to give offense. The fact that Gingrich doubled down on his remarks with smirking, sneering, patronizing comments to Fox News' Juan Williams -- an African-American journalist -- leaves little doubt: He is counting on the racism of South Carolina's Republican voters to keep him alive in the GOP nominating contest.

There's a long, storied and relatively recent history of racist appeals to the South Carolina electorate. In 2000, John McCain appeared to be a threat to George W. Bush's march to the GOP nomination -- until someone circulated fliers accusing McCain of fathering a black daughter. McCain lost South Carolina, and with it his chance to be president.

So Gingrich's recent comments are par for the course. What's particularly frustrating about them is how wrong-headed they are. It's true that the number of food-stamp recipients has grown under President Barack Obama. But that growth started under Bush -- fueled both by the recession and Bush's changes to food stamp eligibility.

The truth is this: Whites, not blacks, are the leading recipients of food stamps. A fifth of food-stamp recipients are employed, but not making enough money to stay out of the program. And the use of the food stamp program has most notably grown -- in recent years -- in white, middle-class suburbs.

If Gingrich really wanted to deliver a stern message in favor of work and shunning food stamps, he wouldn't go to the NAACP. He'd drive down to the nearest Ikea.

The problem isn't food stamps or race, however. It's that Americans lack sufficient opportunity to get paid work that keeps them out of the safety net. Gingrich should focus on that; instead he's choosing to be a race hustler.
Ben says only liberals can hear racist "dog whistles."

Overcoming privilege and wealth somewhat similar to overcoming racism

Yes, I think that's the case that Seth Mandel is making today. Because Romney is really wealthy, he's a minority that will have trouble overcoming the prejudices of a majority of Americans who are unlike him:
If Romney is the Republican nominee there is no chance Obama would refrain from the class warfare rhetoric he has already outlined. But the ironic thing about this line of attack is that it must insinuate, because to say it plainly–that Romney is unlike most voters–would outrage many Americans. Obviously Romney’s election would not carry nearly the same cultural significance as Obama’s, but Romney would nonetheless face a challenge somewhat similar to the difficulty Obama had in explaining himself to voters.

If Romney is elected president, it won’t be quite so dramatic, to say the least. But it will mean he had overcome a parallel challenge: his story, that of an honest, hardworking family man who built a life for himself and his loved ones through effort, education, skill, and yet more effort, is also a classic American story.
Well, sure. Mitt Romney's story goes to show that you can start out as the humble son of an American car company president-turned Michigan governor-turned cabinet member and rise to really make something of yourself despite the dearth of opportunity! Brings a tear to my eye.

In fairness, Mandel suggests that Americans aren't really buying the idea that we're a classless society anymore, and that pretending we are might have electoral consequences. But I think he reaches too far with this comparison.

Americans Anti-Big Business, Big Gov't

Americans' satisfaction with the size and power of the federal government is at a record-low 29% and their satisfaction with the size and influence of major corporations remains near the all-time low at 30% -- making both highly susceptible targets for politicians and presidential candidates in this election year.

Monday, January 16, 2012

People, not profits: A response

A letter-writer responds to the Scripps Howard column on Mitt Romney and Bain Capital:
History shows that the "People not profits" slogan does "bear up under examination" contrary to Joel Mathis' assertion that it just "sounds cool". For example, KB Toys, an American company founded in 1922, employed manufacturing line workers, designers, engineers, and a host of supply chain jobs for thousands of workers. With health care and profit sharing for employees, KB was clearly a company that understood that when you consider people, profits come as a by-product. KB Toys wasn't in deep trouble, but the boom in electronic toys prompted KB to seek out Bain Capital for an infusion of money to bring the company in line with manufacturing more high-tech toys. Bain soon seized control of the company, off shored jobs, raided the company's pension fund, and eventually turned it into what is now Toys R' Us where you'd be hard pressed to find toys made in America or workers that are paid much more than minimum wage or have a benefit or profit sharing package. Ben Boychuk lauds Romney and Bain Capital for jobs created at Staples and Sports Authority as "how a dynamic economy works and grows". Both companies also pay workers minimum wage, offer no benefits, and sell goods manufactured mostly offshore. This is the free market capitalism Romney, conservatives, and the GOP envision for America.

David P. Lewis
Long Beach
Ben points out the KB deal was done after Romney left Bain.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bill Kristol doesn't understand how to fight the war he loves so much

Bill Kristol is good at finding new ways to be contemptible. It's bad that Marines in Afghanistan urinated on dead Taliban, he says, but you know what really makes him mad? The Obama Administration apologizing for it. 
So perhaps, as Rep. Allen West, once a battalion commander in Iraq, put it last week, all the sanctimonious Obama administration bigwigs “need to chill.” Did Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta really need to speak up at all? Couldn’t comment have been left to some junior public affairs officer at Camp Lejeune? And once he decided to weigh in, did Panetta need to condemn the Marines’ action as not just deplorable but “utterly deplorable”? Perhaps he felt a need to match Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expressed not just dismay but “total dismay.”

Maybe, our current civilian leaders should spend a little less time posturing and a little more time supporting the troops who’ve been sent abroad to fight at the direction of their administration.
Kristol is congenitally unable to praise Democrats, and the overall piece veers dangerously close to being an apologia for corpse desecration. (Patton pissed in the Rhine, after all!) But what he seems not to understand is that the Obama Administration very vocally deplored the urination video because it's otherwise it's a huge victory for the Taliban.

Even Kristol's fellow warmonger Max Boot understands this:
The Marines are fighting not a total war but a counterinsurgency in which their goal is not only to militarily defeat the enemy but to win over the population. This could potentially make that job harder. 
The Marines often speak of the “strategic corporal”–the notion being that decisions made even by a lowly corporal can have high-level repercussions. This is a perfect example; indeed, one of the urinating Marines was a corporal.
The reason top-level administration figures weighed in was because the acts of a few stupid Marines was potentially devastating to the war's strategic aims, one of which is winning over the population. (Afghan President Hamid Karzai is also pretty good at loudly condemning U.S. errors in order to shore up his own position.) Contrition from senior, recognizable figures was required to minimize the damage.

Kristol, though, turns this incident into one of Obama not loving the troops enough. "He and his administration have a responsibility to err on the side of supporting our troops, rather than competing to chastise them sanctimoniously," Kristol writes. But if those troops commit an act that actively aids the enemy, what the hell else is there to do? Bill Kristol wants his war in Afghanistan. But maybe he just mostly wants to use it as a cudgel against Democrats. Because this column makes clear that he has no clue about—and maybe less interest in—achieving victory.

Gary Schmitt, the forever war, and the First Amendment

Let's gut the First Amendment forever! That's not precisely what Gary Schmitt says today in The Weekly Standard, but that about covers the gist of it:
Congress and the president should enact a statute that straightforwardly makes it illegal to publish or circulate materials that support, praise, or advocate terrorism as long as we are still formally at war with al Qaeda and its allies.
Schmitt says such a statute could be "narrowly drawn" so that we don't go back to the bad old days of seditious libel. Maybe. But we still don't know which circumstances would cause the United States Congress to end the "war" authorizations spelled out in the AUMF and various other laws. Given the way our leaders have interpreted that so far, it might be a crime to praise the Muslim Uighurs who have rebelled against the Chinese government, or the Chechnyan Muslims who have revolted against rule from Moscow. More likely it might be used to prosecute Americans who praise Hamas. And that's where we start to get into plausibly scary territory.

Generally speaking: We don't know that the "war" will ever end. Which means a statute that sunsets when the war does is basically a statute on the books forever. Wanna draw First Amendment considerations a little more narrowly? You may well have the power to do so. Just don't pretend it's a temporary state of affairs.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Those dead Iranian scientists

I've been struggling with what to think—and how to express my thoughts—about the wave of assassinations directed at Iranian nuclear scientists. I think that war is bad and killing is bad, but I'm not the complete pacifist I was in my Mennonite days—back, that is, when I thought God would make everything OK in the end, making it easier to accept certain evils and injustices on Earth. Perhaps it's the Mennonite poking through, but the assassinations strike me as ... unsavory. Yet, unlike Glenn Greenwald, I'm not prepared to quite condemn it either. This troubles me. I like my moral conundrums easily resolved.

I suspect we could live with a nuclear-armed Iranian state. I don't think the mullahs are suicidal. I think they—like the U.S. and the old Soviet Union—would use the threat of nuclear arms use to throw their weight around the region and the world. But: The more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the more countries that get their hands on them, the more opportunities there are for something to go disastrously, genocidally wrong.

So what's the death of a few scientists compared to an averted genocide?

Yet, something doesn't feel quite right about that to me either. I found myself rubbed wrong by Jonathan Tobin's praise of the assassinations yesterday. He wrote: "Anyone who believes Iran should be allowed to proceed toward the building of a nuclear bomb has either lost their moral compass or is so steeped in the belief that American and Israeli interests are inherently unjustified they have reversed the moral equation in this case. Rather than the alleged U.S. and Israeli covert operators being called terrorists, it is the Iranian scientists who are the criminals. They must be stopped before they kill."

Wait. The scientists are criminals? That doesn't strike me quite right, either. It's entirely possible they're patriots, with all the good and bad that implies. (And I've heard a few experts suggest that the end of theocracy in Iran wouldn't necessarily mean the end of the pursuit of nuclear weapons; it's kind of rational for a country to want to have the ultimate weapon to use in its defense.) Or it's entirely possible, authoritarianism being what it is, that the assassinated scientists simply didn't have much choice about their participation: Show a talent for math or physics, and voila! You're working on a planet-killer. Do we have evidence that these scientists are, well, mad scientists, bent on the world's destruction? I'm not sure we do. Ascribing criminality to those individuals—instead of the regime they serve—seems a way of making us feel better about the awful thing that has happened.

But as awful as that hypothetical genocide?

I don't have a good answer to this. There's the certainty of the awfulness now, weighed against the (again) hypothetical danger avoided. It's a guessing game, but one in which a few lives or many might be sacrificed.

Rod Dreher gets at it better than I can here:
To be sure, I’m against war with Iran, and the main reason I would never vote for Santorum is that he relishes the thought of war with Iran. However, I am by no means certain that it was wrong for the Israelis to have killed this scientist, given that they are in a state of de facto war with Iran, and that the Iranian leadership has publicly and repeatedly vowed to exterminate the Israelis. My point here is that even if the killing of the Iranian scientist is justified as self-defense, it is nothing to be called “wonderful.” A grim, tragic necessity? Perhaps. But “wonderful”? We must not allow ourselves to bless these things, much less glory in them, as Santorum has done.
That sounds close to right to me. One reason I'm pretty sure I'll never become a certain variety of conservative is because I have enough Mennonite left in me to disdain glorying in such things. But I've also got enough distance from that faith to suspect that sometimes bad things must be done. I feel remorse about the death of the scientists. And I hope that their deaths served the (apparent) intended purpose. I suspect they'll just be another trigger in an endless cycle of recrimination that might one day end up immersing us in the awful violence we seek to avoid. I'm not sure we'll ever know the right answer.

Mom? Dad? MOM!?!?!?

In fact, people over 60 are now the fastest-growing group contracting sexually transmitted diseases, according to government agency figures. Since 2002, syphilis has tripled in the over-65s in the UK, and HIV is up by 60%.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It really is getting worse

After adjusting for inflation, the typical male college graduate earned about 12 percent less in 2009 than his counterpart did in 1969. Sounds pretty bad, right?

The numbers are even worse for men without a bachelor’s:

Inflation-Adjusted Change in Median Earnings for American Men, 1969-2009
Weekly Earnings, Full-time, Full-year Male WorkersAnnual Earnings of All Male WorkersAnnual Earnings of Male Population
Ages 25-64-1%-14%-28%
Ages 30-50-5-16-27
Less than High School-38-47-66
High School-26-34-47
Some College-17-24-33
College Degree-2-7-12
Not Married-2-14-32
Source: Adam Looney and Michael Greenstone, Hamilton Project

As you can see from the last column in this table, the median man whose highest educational attainment was a high school diploma had his earnings fall by 47 percent in the last four decades.

Romney's problem: Profits over people

Ben and I discuss Mitt Romney's venture capitalist past in our Scripps Howard column this week. My take:
This is the problem with the Republican version of capitalism, as practiced by Mitt Romney and so many of his Wall Street friends over the last few decades: Profit isn't just regarded as the highest virtue; often, it is seen as the only virtue.

It wasn't always this way. During the 1950s, a time when labor unions were ascendant, the American social contract expected that big corporations would make big bucks, yes, but that those employers would also provide their workers a comfortable living, and would even hang onto those workers during rough times.

Now, quarterly profits are the only thing that matter and if a few jobs have to be sliced to make the accounting work out, then that's what has to be done.

The result? Our businesses are richer. But our society feels poorer.

And Mitt Romney helped lead the way.

Profit isn't unimportant. What today's market enthusiasts forget, though, is that it's a means to an end not the end itself.

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner," economist Adam Smith said way back when, "but from their regard to their own interest." The Romney Republican version expects the butcher to buy out the brewer and lay off the bakers, which might maximize profits in the short term. But it leaves everybody hungry in the long run.

Today's lefties have a little slogan that sounds cool, but doesn't bear up under examination: "People, not profits." That doesn't work so well. Neither do profits without people. Romney's not a bad man for making a profit, but his venture capitalist past raises questions about whether he can truly serve America's citizens.
Ben's take: "Venture capitalism creates, sometimes through destruction. Crony capitalism merely stagnates."

Conor Friedersdorf on liberals and civil liberties

If progressives are frustrated that relatively doctrinaire libertarians are attracting the attention and support of people who care deeply about civil liberties, why don't they work to offer some alternative? Guys like me will probably still prefer Johnson. But is it really the case that the Democratic Party can't produce a prominent civil-libertarian politician who Glenn Greenwald would prefer to Ron Paul?

That is itself a devastating truth about the post-2009 left.

As Election 2008 proved, however, it isn't impossible to change. Democrats can in fact unapologetically run against indefinite detention, excessive executive power, and needless wars, and get elected doing it. What's additionally required is a civil-libertarian constituency big and motivated enough to hold them to their promises. That is what progressivism apparently lacks.

End this war, already

The U.S. intelligence community says in a secret new assessment that the war in Afghanistan is mired in stalemate, and warns that security gains from an increase in American troops have been undercut by pervasive corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan, according to U.S. officials.

Yeah, maybe it's time to simplify the tax code

There were approximately 4,430 changes to the tax code from 2001 through 2010, an average of more than one a day, including an estimated 579 changes in 2010 alone.  The IRS must explain each new provision to taxpayers, write computer code so it can process returns affected by the provision, and train its auditors to identify improper claims.

War crimes in Afghanistan?

US forces in Afghanistan are facing fresh accusations of war crimes after film emerged which appears to show American marines urinating on dead bodies and laughing.

The US military command in Kabul, which was severely embarrassed last year by revelations that Americans soldiers were running a "kill squad" murdering Afghan civilians, said it would investigate the undated video, and that if it proved to be authentic, desecration of corpses would be regarded as a serious crime. Despoiling of the dead is illegal under the Geneva conventions as well as under US military law.


I blame Newt Gingrich's attacks on Bain Capital

Conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in American society, according to a survey released Wednesday.

About two-thirds of Americans now believe there are “strong conflicts” between rich and poor in the United States, a survey by the Pew Research Center found, a sign that the message of income inequality brandished by the Occupy Wall Street movement and pressed by Democrats may be seeping into the national consciousness.

Republican constituency includes people who dislike Republican ideology

A Pew Research Center survey identified financially-squeezed “disaffected” voters as a Republican-leaning constituency; just 21 percent of them agreed that “most corporations make a fair and reasonable profit.”

In the UK, the 1 percent looks out for the poor

The government's plans to reform welfare were badly hit on Wednesday when it suffered three defeats in the House of Lords on proposed benefit cuts.

Plans to means-test employment and support allowance (ESA) payments for disabled people after only a year were rejected by peers.

The means test would have applied to cancer patients and stroke survivors, and was denounced by Lord Patel, a crossbencher and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, as an immoral attack on the sick, the vulnerable and the poor. "If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality," Patel said.

I'm not familiar with the ins-and-outs of British politics, but until now I honestly thought the House of Lords just sat there and looked pretty--performing more of a ceremonial function than doing actual governance. Now I have to learn some stuff.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

There aren't enough jobs for all the job seekers

In November, there were 13.3 million unemployed workers, an improvement from 13.8 million in October (unemployment figures come from the Current Population Survey and can be found here). Therefore the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings was 4.2-to-1 in November, a slight improvement from the revised October ratio of 4.3-to-1.

To put this figure in context, the highest this ratio ever got in the early 2000s downturn was 2.8-to-1, and in December 2000, the month the JOLTS survey began, the ratio was 1.1-to-1. While the job-seekers ratio has slowly been improving since it peaked at 6.9-to-1 in the summer of 2009, today’s data release marks two years and 11 months—152 weeks—that the ratio has been above 4-to-1. A job-seekers ratio of more than 4-to-1 means that there are no jobs for more than three out of four unemployed workers, no matter what job seekers do.

EPI points out that the ratio means that cutting unemployment benefits remains a bad idea. It probably also means that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's move to restrict food stamps will also have pernicious effects.

Pennsylvania goes after food stamp millionaires

I've been noting all fall and winter the growing Republican rhetoric against millionaires receiving food stamps. Now that rhetoric is translating into action in Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania plans to make the amount of food stamps that people receive contingent on the assets they possess - an unexpected move that bucks national trends and places the commonwealth among a minority of states.

Specifically, the Department of Public Welfare said that as of May 1, people under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings and other assets would no longer be eligible for food stamps. For people over 60, the limit would be $3,250.
Well, that's one sure way to make sure that millionaires don't get food stamps—make sure the thousandaires can't, either!

Conservatives, I know, want to ensure that people who use the safety net actually need the safety net. And hell, I don't want the well-to-do to abuse the system, either. There's not much evidence of abuse, though, which makes Pennsylvania's move appear to be more anti-poor than anti-abuse. I don't mind having an asset line to determine eligibility—but the line set by the state doesn't even pay two months' rent in parts of Philadelphia. In essence, the state now requires you to fall all the way through the safety net—to destitution—before being saved. Republicans are pretty good at demanding people lift themselves up by their bootstraps; it would help if they let food stamp recipients keep their boots.

Looks like American elections will stay American

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily affirmed a ruling by a three-judge district court in Bluman v. Federal Election Commission which had upheld the federal ban on campaign contributions and independent expenditures by foreign nationals temporarily residing in the United States. 

“We are pleased by the decision from the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court ruling and its recognition that certain restrictions on even independent expenditures are constitutional in federal and state elections,” Tara Malloy, Legal Center Associate Counsel, stated. 

Looks like American elections will stay American

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily affirmed a ruling by a three-judge district court in Bluman v. Federal Election Commission which had upheld the federal ban on campaign contributions and independent expenditures by foreign nationals temporarily residing in the United States. 

“We are pleased by the decision from the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court ruling and its recognition that certain restrictions on even independent expenditures are constitutional in federal and state elections,” Tara Malloy, Legal Center Associate Counsel, stated. 

Can Philly's police police themselves?

True story: I got of the Broad Street line in South Philadelphia a few years ago with a group of four or five cops right behind me. As I walked down to the Italian Market, I listened to their conversation behind me.

It was gossip, but interesting gossip. Apparently a young new police officer had been assigned to one of the cushiest precincts in the city. Why? His dad was an Internal Affairs officer, and he had marched his son before the precinct's higher-ups and told them, essentially, "You take my boy or I will start vigorously investigating every complaint against officers in this district."

I don't know if the story is true--I didn't think the police officers telling me the story would appreciate it if I revealed myself to be a journalist, listening in to their public conversation, so I didn't get in any follow-up questions--but the officers telling it sure seemed to think it was true.

So it's good that a few Internal Affairs heads are rolling for failure to investigate the case of guns that went missing from the department. But I can't help but wonder if the systemic rot in the part of the Police Department designed to hold officers accountable for their conduct is much more widespread than the scandal shows. And I wonder if Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey knows that--or if he's just taking care of the one problem that made the papers. Either way, I don't have a lot of faith in the ability of the police department to police itself.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Speaking of indefinite detention and civil liberties...

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, today introduced the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011, legislation that states American citizens apprehended inside the United States cannot be indefinitely detained by the military.

The Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011 amends the Non-Detention Act of 1971 by providing that a Congressional authorization for the use of military force does not authorize the indefinite detention—without charge or trial—of U.S. citizens who are apprehended domestically.

The Feinstein bill also codifies a “clear-statement rule” that requires Congress to expressly authorize detention authority when it comes to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. The protections for citizens and lawful permanent residents is limited to those “apprehended in the United States” and excludes citizens who take up arms against the United States on a foreign battlefield, such as Afghanistan.

Feinstein said: “The argument is not whether citizens such as Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla—or others who would do us harm—should be captured, interrogated, incarcerated and severely punished. They should be.

“But what about an innocent American? What about someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? The beauty of our Constitution is that it gives every citizen the basic due process right to a trial on their charges.

“Experiences over the last decade prove the country is safer now than before the 9/11 attacks. Terrorists are behind bars, dangerous plots have been thwarted. The system is working.

“We must clarify U.S. law to state unequivocally that the government cannot indefinitely detain American citizens inside this country without trial or charge. I strongly believe that Constitutional due process requires U.S. citizens apprehended in the U.S. should never be held in indefinite detention. And that is what this new legislation would accomplish.”

Let's see where this goes.

Obama, civil liberties, and security

Over at No Left Turns, Bill Voegeli offers a thoughtful response to my Philly Post piece decrying President Obama's signing of the NDAA. I suggested Obama had betrayed the cause of civil liberties; Voegeli sees it a bit differently. If I'm reading it correctly, his argument is two-fold:
The now-bipartisan embrace of once-unthinkable security measures represents a considered response to the terror threat that the United States faces. "National security is a hard, grave business. Candidates who spoke as glibly as bloggers and editorialists about respecting boundaries regardless of the consequences become far less categorical when they're in important positions of national power and must confront just how horrific those consequences might be."

Secondly, that we're at war, and sometimes during war the Constitution is set aside in order to save it. "Drawing the lines and rightly understanding the nation's exigencies is not merely a post-9/11 problem. The most famous example is Abraham Lincoln suspending the writ of habeus corpus - first by executive order, later according to congressional enactment - as secession and civil war consumed the nation in 1861. He defended his actions in a message to Congress: 'The whole of the laws which were required to be faithfully executed, were being resisted, and failing of execution, in nearly one-third of the States. Must they be allowed to finally fail of execution, even had it been perfectly clear, that by the use of the means necessary to their execution, some single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizen's liberty, that practically, it relieves more of the guilty, than of the innocent, should, to a very limited extent, be violated? To state the question more directly, are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the [president's] official oath [of office] be broken, if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law, would tend to preserve it?'"
Let's take the second point first. More than a decade after 9/11, it seems apparent to me that a "war" framework for dealing with terrorism badly serves the United States and its citizens. War, after all, is an emergency: Lincoln had a sense that the emergency would end when he set aside habeas corpus; FDR had the same sense when he gave Nazi saboteurs a kangaroo trial during 1942 and confined Japanese-Americans to prison camps.  Sooner or later, the war would be over—and eventually the excesses undertaken in the national defense would recede into a half-embarrassing history generally understood to be at odds with the longer, stronger narrative of American liberty. It's a pattern that's repeated itself over and over again throughout the country's history.

America has spent more days at war with Al Qaeda than we did enmeshed in the Civil War and World War II combined. There is no end in sight. I have no reason to believe that the "emergency" represented by the War on Terror will end in my lifetime. So the "temporary" excesses—the setting aside of certain Constitutional safeguards—doesn't appear to be temporary at all. It's the new normal, one that is a clear departure from 200 years of an American journey toward greater-liberty.

What's remarkable about the NDAA and its expanded detention powers for government is that it comes at a time when Al Qaeda has essentially been defeated. To use Voegeli's Civil War reference, it's as though General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appamattox—and then the federal government decided it was really, really time to get serious about cracking down on insurgents. And it's a further indication that the war will go on forever, even when the men and group that initiated have vanished from both the earth and operational effectiveness.

But there are, clearly, still bad men out there who will try to do bad things to America. Given the current dynamics of American politics and law, as long as there is even one non-state terrorist attempting to harm the United States, we remain at war. Our laws and policies—our Constitution—can be held hostage by a few people with bad intent. That's where we're at. Whatever the deficiencies of the "crime" approach to terrorism, it at least didn't trap us in an unending emergency. To use an old trope: "Tell me how this ends." If you can, I might be more sympathetic to the excesses, knowing eventually they'll end. But nobody really can, and I'm not.

Which leads us to the behavior of the political establishment.

One might see the bipartisan consensus for the NDAA as proof of its wisdom. But one might also take a look at how political incentives have developed since 9/11, where even unsuccessful attack attempts have been used as proof of a president's supposed weakness. The president and Congress have decided they have more to lose, politically, by not being "tough" than they do by being steadfast about America's history of civil liberties. That, of course, means they've judged the American public is more interested in safety than civil liberties.

At some point, I guess, I have to accept that. My viewpoint on these matters probably isn't the majority viewpoint.

But I remain irritated, to say the least, that there are many people in American politics who see creeping tyranny in EPA regulations but are happy to support indefinite detention. Kim Jong-Il, after all, isn't reviled because he made North Koreans fill out paperwork on toxic chemical spills.

And given the eternal nature of the War on Terror, we shouldn't fool ourselves that we're on the same path of liberty that Americans have imperfectly been trodding for a couple of centuries. We're choosing a slightly different path, in the name of security. Most of us might not even notice the difference in our daily lives—we probably won't see the differences except in occasional Pulitzer-winning newspaper stories about how "other" people have been made to suffer—but it will be different all the same. We're not setting aside the Constitution and law in order to save them; we're simply setting them aside.

Maybe we'll be safer. We'll certainly be less free. When the next attack succeeds—somewhere, eventually, it will—the laws will be tightened even further. And so on and so forth, with cries of "freedom" escaping our lips the whole time, even as we forget what we once thought that word meant.

Updated: I misspelled Voegeli's name in the first edition of this post. My apologies.

Upside to austerity?

Britain and the US, close allies who are both victims of the debt crisis, will today agree to scale down their military capability and back away from the kind of armed intervention they have enthusiastically supported in recent decades.

That will be the clear message from the first meeting between Philip Hammond, the UK's new defence secretary, and Leon Panetta, his opposite number in the Pentagon, officials say. The Washington meeting will also be the first opportunity for Hammond to confront the US over particular British concerns, notably the availability and soaring cost of the US-made joint strike fighters destined for Britain's new aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.

As the US plans to withdraw more troops from Europe in what is building up to be a turning point in transatlantic relations, Hammond will also lambast European members of Nato for not pulling their weight.

With Panetta expected to announce sweeping cuts in his defence budget, Hammond will point to similarities in the US and UK economic situations, according to officials. "Without strong economies and stable public finances it is impossible to build and sustain, in the long-term, the military capability required to project power and maintain defence," he is expected to tell the Atlantic Council thinktank.

There may be some overlap between "projecting power" and "maintaining defense." But they aren't necessarily the same thing. Maybe there's an upside to austerity.

Today in inequality reading: Horatio Algier moved to Denmark

At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.

Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.

Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Ron Paul is the new Louis Farrakhan

As surely as Ron Paul speaks to a real issue--the state's broad use of violence and surveillance--which the America's political leadership has failed to address, Farrakhan spoke to something real, something unsullied, which black America's political leadership failed to address, Both Paul and Farrakhan, in their glamour, inspired the young, the disaffected, the disillusioned. 

To those who dimly perceived something wrong, something that could not be put on a placard, or could not move the party machine, men such as this become something more than political operators, they become symbols. Substantive charges against them, no matter the reasons, are dismissed. The movement they represent means more. But as sure as the followers of Farrakhan deserved more than UFOs, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, those of us who oppose the drug-war, who oppose the Patriot Act deserve better than Ron Paul