Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Music V

I hear there was a party in London today, so how about some British rock.

Bloc Party, "Helicopter"

A Brief History of Birtherism

I somehow missed David Weigel's article over at Slate on Wednesday tracking the history and evolution of birtherism.  He has serious reservations about the president's decision to engage the issue:
President Obama did not end the "birther" movement today. Hours after the president released his long-form birth certificate—years after releasing the short-form one that proved he was a citizen—the issue had already evolved. Republicans who'd been on the hook demanding proof of his citizenship wondered why it took so long. People with too much time on their hands—in other words, the majority of people surfing the Internet for this kind of stuff—were combing the document for proof of forgery.

So Obama did not end birtherism. He did end one era of conspiracy theories about him—the fifth era, by my count. And maybe all he did was make sure the sixth era got started with as loud and embarrassing a bang as possible. If you understand how this started, and who played the biggest roles in elevating it, maybe you can also understand why it's not going to end.
Weigel's conclusion is that Obama has shown himself willing to engage with buffoons like Trump, meaning the conspiracy theorists will keep coming now that they know they have a soft target.  I sort of agree with that.  It probably would have been better to keep being dismissive of birthers, rather than to give them any sort of credence.  As the last few days of innumerable (debunked) attempts to prove the birth certificate a forgery, the people who subscribe to birtherism continue to do so in the face of all evidence to the contrary for a very simple reason: because it suits them.  If yesterday's scrap between yours truly and Dad29 proved nothing else (apart from the implacable differences between the two of us), it is that birtherism is just a tool for those who just want to hurt the president (guilt by association with negative ideas works too), whether they believe it or not.*  In fact, those people are very willing to shrink from explicit birtherism, if only to look more "reasonable."  Fred Dooley's email to Zach W. of Blogging Blue is a great case in point.

The fact of the matter is that there simply is no evidence whatsoever that could convince them, because disproving one set of claims just gives rise to a claim that the evidence is forged, or else the conspiracy theorists move on to new and different theories.  The 9/11 Truth movement is a perfect analog.  Either way, it is belief in a conspiracy because it fulfills the needs of the believer, even if the believer has to change justifications in order to continue his or her belief.  What's the point of engaging with yahoos who can't be persuaded anyway?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trump, trumped

Sullivan has the scoop.  China may be "raping our country" according to the walking bad hair day, but that doesn't stop him from having his brand of shirts manufactured there.

And Jon Stewart was on fire last night, mocking Trump's ridiculous celebration over President Obama showing his long form birth certificate and essentially telling The Donald to STFU.  Personally, I wouldn't have given any credence to Trump's rantings, but if we get humor like this, then I guess it's okay.

About that birth certificate

Allow me to drop some knowledge on you.  Meet United States Code Title 8, Section 1401:
The following shall be nationals and citizens of the United States at birth:


(g) a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years[.]
The President's mother was an American citizen who had very clearly spent more than five years physically present in the United States.  In other words, Barack Obama could have been born on Neptune and he would still be a natural born citizen of the United States under the jus sanguinis (bloodright), as opposed to the jus soli (right of soil, i.e., place of birth).  It simply does not matter where he was born, so even a presupposition that his birth certificate is fake and that he wasn't born in the United States doesn't get birthers racists anywhere.  Unless they now wish to claim that his mother wasn't his mother.  Which wouldn't surprise me.  How long can it be before they're demanding DNA samples?

If the 9/11 Truthers have proved anything, it's that no lie is too big and no conspiracy too elaborate for the creative imaginations of credulous idiots.

POSTSCRIPT: I realize some may see it as a cheap shot to link to Dad29 using the words "credulous idiots" and making an analogy to the 9/11 Truth movement hoax.  But I think I can adequately defend myself by pointing out that truth is always a defense, and by citing the doctrine of "if the shoe doth fit, verily must thou wear it."  To believe that the birth certificate is a forgery also requires that the newspaper announcement was likewise a fake, with the only conceivable aim of the conspiracy being the sure and certain knowledge almost fifty years in advance that this baby was going to be elected President of the United States (this at a time - 1961 - when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had not yet been enacted) and so he'd better damn well be a US citizen.  I think "credulous idiot" is actually a pretty charitable description of someone who is stupid enough to believe that such a thing is not just possible, but more likely than the possibility that President Obama was born in Hawaii to an American mother and a Kenyan father in 1961.  A less charitable description might be that such conspiracy theorists are either racists, charlatans, or in desperate need of mental help.  And still wrong, as 8 USC 1401 demonstrates.

UPDATE: Dad29 has edited his post to add:
(Let me make something perfectly clear. I don't give a flying $%^&*&& about Obozo's citizenship. I DO care, Very Much, that Obozo's residence, beginning January 2013, is anyplace BUT the White House. Hawaii's nice that time of year, I hear.)
Simply put, this is nonsense. People who don't give a flying whatever (and it's so nice to see bloggers who are afraid of magical four letter words like "fuck") about the president's citizenship do not post things about Xeroxes and link to so-and-so's "questions about the long form."  Dad doth protest way, way too much.

UPDATE 2: Dad29 is all class:
I happen to find the topic interesting, bozo.
I'm sort of flattered, actually.  Usually when someone responds to reasoned argument with name-calling, it's an admission that they have no reasonable response.  Or just no reason.

The "vote fraud" two-step

With a tip of the hat to my friend Tom "illy-T" Foley, check out these dance moves from the Prosser camp:

With a recount in the race now under way, this is an effort to fact-check those claims, which have come in e-mails, blog postings and a press release last week by the Republican National Lawyers Association, which blasted the recount requested by Kloppenburg and called instead for an investigation into “potentially massive fraud that occurred in Dane County.”
Yes, it's the vote fraud two-step.  There's never any fraud when we win, but there's always voter fraud on the other side, even when they lose.  You have to kind of admire that kind of doublethink.  I wouldn't imagine it's easy training one's mind to be so dissonant, er, flexible.

But why bother?  Well, in an unrelated post, Jeff Simpson from Blogging Blue draws attention to this piece from the New York Times on the efforts of Republicans to curtail voting.
Spreading fear of a nonexistent flood of voter fraud, they are demanding that citizens be required to show a government-issued identification before they are allowed to vote. Republicans have been pushing these changes for years, but now more than two-thirds of the states have adopted or are considering such laws. The Advancement Project, an advocacy group of civil rights lawyers, correctly describes the push as “the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century.”
Anyone who has stood on the long lines at a motor vehicle office knows that it isn’t easy to get such documents. For working people, it could mean giving up a day’s wages.
A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that 11 percent of citizens, 21 million people, do not have a current photo ID. That fraction increases to 15 percent of low-income voting-age citizens, 18 percent of young eligible voters and 25 percent of black eligible voters. Those demographic groups tend to vote Democratic, and Republicans are imposing requirements that they know many will be unable to meet.
Isn't that convenient?  Make a lot of noise about vote fraud even when your side wins and the potential payoff is a law that keeps the other side's voters away from the polls permanently.  Combine this with Governor Walker's anti-union moves, which are clearly designed to destroy that base of Democratic power, and they can conceivably make it impossible for the Democrats to win.  In theory.

Besides the obvious potential for backlash, I have real doubts about the legality and even political wisdom of any "voter ID" law.  Consider: If the state requires any voter to obtain a special photo ID in order to vote, is there any way to construe that as anything other than a functional poll tax?  Bear in mind, poll taxes are outlawed at all times and in all places under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The only remedy would be for the state to eat the cost, which would amount to many millions of dollars.  Does Scott Walker really think that in the midst of his slashes to education and services, that the voters want the state to throw good money after bad to install an unnecessary voter ID system?  Fiscal conservatism, that is not.

Then again, what's the point of principles if you can't use your time in power to destroy the opposition?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Filming the police

...can be hazardous to your health. Simply outrageous conduct by a police officer caught on film. Namely, battery and false arrest.

The Las Vegas DA has dropped the bogus charges against the cameraman. One wonders A) how long it can be before the city gets slapped with a (deserved) lawsuit, and B) why the police officer has not been charged yet.

H/T: Sullivan.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cowles recall petition to be filed on Thursday

I have no idea if the votes exist up here to recall Cowles.  But, according to the Press-Gazette, there are enough signatures to get the process started.  And the fact that I heard an ad with Cowles promising to bring jobs and prosperity to Wisconsin on the radio today is proof enough that at least the man is worried.  As well he should be.  Balancing the budget on the backs of teachers and public servants ought not to be something undertaken without consequence.

UPDATE: More proof that Walker's forces are in retreat?  Here's the Press-Gazette again, this time with the news that the Budget Committee probably isn't going to go along with Walker's budget proposals on recycling and prescription drugs.  The plot thickens.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tom Coburn takes on Grand Inquisitor Norquist

As I've said before, if the GOP is tilting toward becoming the Church of Cut My Taxes, surely Grover Norquist would be the most likely candidate for that church's Grand Inquisitorship.  Well, now Tom Coburn, of all people, has decided to publicly go after Cardinal Toquemada, er, Mr. Norquist.  Take it away, Brother Coburn!
"Which pledge is most important... the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don't?" Coburn asked. "The fact is we have enormous urgent problems in front of us that have to be addressed and have to be addressed in a way that will get 60 votes in the Senate... and something that the president will sign."

"Where's the compromise that will save our country?" he asked. "This isn't about politics that is normal."
Dare I say, "Amen?"  And it gets better:

Both Coburn and Conrad declined to offer details of their plan but dropped a few possible clues: no middle-class tax hikes, closing offshore tax loopholes and some entitlement reforms
Obviously, this is far from a final proposal, let alone becoming law.  But it's truly encouraging to see some members of the Republican Party coming to grips with the reality that cuts alone won't solve the problem, and something has got to be done about increasing revenue.  I don't even care that Coburn is probably the most backward social conservative to be found in these United States.  Social issues can be fought over later, after the budget gets fixed, and the President needs allies in the GOP to make that happen, in order to counter know-nothing, dead-ender demagogues like Norquist.

Sullivan rejoices:
The Bush tax cuts were premised (falsely) on a large and growing surplus. I supported them as a way to prevent all that revenue being soaked up by the feds. But they were very quickly revealed as imprudent.

They were imprudent because the surplus wasn't real (it was largely a function of the tech bubble) and because the country was about to embark on two massively expensive global wars and a massive new domestic entitlement, Medicare D. They were only passed on the condition that if cicumstances evolved which revealed them to be imprudent, they would be sunsetted by now.

Like Coburn, I think we have a golden opportunity to raise necessary revenues without hiking tax rates, if we do this through tax reform. Norquist responds not by substantively defending his draconian supply-side mess of a budget proposal, but by claiming Coburn had broken a no-tax-increase pledge in 2004. Yes: 2004.

I remain a fan of Coburn's in this, if not in social policy. The real fiscal conservative is not playing ideological games right now, He's seeking a politically viable compromise on spending and taxes in which both parties will need to take their lumps. I see no other practical way to avoid the iceberg ahead.
More of this from the GOP, and I'll have to take back my complaint about the whole party becoming the Church of Cut My Taxes.  I doubt that Norquist and his ilk have lost that much power just yet, and they certainly won't go without a fight, but perhaps Tom Coburn can convince some of his colleagues to listen to reason and save the country.

As I said in the earlier post bashing Norquist, American politics used to be all about dealmaking.  Maybe this is the start of getting back to the tradition of compromise.

Of course, the tea partiers are the elephant in the room.  What happens, for instance, if pissed off Oklahoma tea-baggers decide to challenge Coburn in a primary?  That would be incredibly short-sighted politically, since Coburn's seat is his for as long as he wants it, but such action would certainly go a long way to stamping out hopes of a deal.  Similarly, the threats to challenge Boehner in a primary over his budget-shutdown-averting compromise with the President fill me with anxiety.  This is a time to make deals and be practical.  The tea party is, well, anything but practical.

So, whither the tea-baggers?

Brown County Board to add supervisors?

It's at least being considered, according to the Press-Gazette.  Compare and contrast with Milwaukee County considering removing some supervisor positions.

Personally, I'm in favor, if for no other reason than maybe the new district(s) would elect people to stand against the Chairman (and surprise proponent of expanding the board), certifiable whackjob Guy Zima.  Anything that dilutes Zima's power base is just fine by me.  And anything that expands the accountability of the county to the voters is likewise a good thing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Music IV

This weekend is Easter for those who keep it, and while I may not care much for religious institutions, I do have a great appreciation for religious art, and so this weekend seems a good time to break out one of my favorite pieces from Bach, the opener to his Ascension Oratorio, BMV 11.

J.S. Bach, "Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen" ("Worship God in his Kingdoms")

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I need to pause and speak a word about the bane of blogging and political discourse in general: futility.

Any sane person who takes up the pastime of engaging in political and philosophical debate and disputation almost certainly does so with at least the hope of convincing someone.  Why else would anyone bother?  True, in my own case, I feel a pressing need to get certain opinions off my chest, but even that wouldn't mean much if I didn't think I could be convincing.

At the same time, I do sometimes wonder if the discourse in this country is not poisoned beyond the point of no return.

I'm not fully committed to the liberal position on every issue.  I can at least see and sympathize a reasonable conservative criticism to liberal policy, even if I do not share that criticism.  I certainly acknowledge that American politics at least used to be entirely about dealmaking.  But then you have the "tea partiers" and other conservatives of an uncompromising bent, and that is a different story.  Look at the reaction to both parties agreeing to avert a government shutdown.  These people are dead-enders.  "My way or the highway" is their creed.  No argument, no matter how well-founded in logic or reason will convince them.  And, I confess, not a single argument of theirs would likely convince me, so perhaps I am guilty of the same close-mindedness.  I simply do not wish to live in a country resembling the one they desire to bring about.

And what is the country the tea party desires?  Ever decreasing taxation on the rich, ever decreasing services for the poor and middle class.  The best health care becoming a luxury only the wealthy can afford.  Economic opportunities becoming ever more loaded in in favor of the haves while becoming extinct for the have-nots.  Discrimination against hispanics, gays, Muslims*, and blacks (If you doubt this, check this out and then tell me I'm wrong).  Open carry of firearms at all times in all places.**  Some would even like to see a particular brand of Christianity enforced as a compulsory national religion and religious law enforced on the same level as civil law (they're called Christian Reconstructivists).  Laws that completely override the ability of women to decide for themselves what to do with their own bodies.  More and more wars with countries like Iran and North Korea.  And on and on.

Sure, not every tea partier agrees with all of these positions.  But as a whole, that list is pretty inclusive, and nothing on that list resembles anything like the sort of country I want to live in.  And I don't think I'm alone.

But then, what is the point?  Are the disagreements simply so vast that we must throw up our hands and give up?  Why engage at all?  I wish I had a good answer to those questions.

*While my opposition to religion in general certainly extends to Islam in that I find it to be just as founded on mythology and superstition, and therefore, just as wrong, as Christianity, but I also acknowledge that the law of the land gives Muslims just as much right to practice their religion as anyone else.

**I'm not opposed to gun ownership, but I think the wild west is proof that having everyone packing heat is a recipe for violence.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thought of the Day V

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake.  As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.  Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is easiest for a person to know.  Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution.  Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial - notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
-Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

A bit of advice for Vicki McKenna

I usually try to avoid deliberately pissing off people who protect my life and property.  Like, oh, I don't know, police officers and firefighters.  Or calling people who enforce the law "thugs."

Also I try to avoid lying about people booing the national anthem and things like that.

I think these are decent guidelines for people with self-respect.

Re: NFL schedules

What exactly is the point of the NFL releasing the 2011 schedule when the labor situation is such that anyone with a even limited knowledge would evaluate the probability of, say, the opening game (Packers-Saints on Sept. 8) actually happening as somewhere between not-at-all-likely and icicle's-chance-in-hell?

I refuse to get my hopes up until negotiations accomplish something more than both parties sitting in a room for a long time and then racing each other to be the first to say "WE'RE WINNING!" to the nearest camera or microphone.  At this rate, even if the season were to magically start on time, there's no way players will have enough off-season time with coaches and trainers, meaning we get to see out-of-shape players on teams that haven't fully installed or practiced their playbooks, to say nothing of the personnel disaster sure to come from little or no time to resolve free agency snags and sign draft picks.  In short, the season is probably headed towards an unmitigated catastrophe of epic proportions.

The thing that annoys me, though, isn't the chance of a delayed or low-quality season.  What bothers me is that the owners, who rigged the system to lockout from about a year and a half ago when they opted out of the CBA, aren't feeling any financial pain at all.  The television networks still have to pay them billions of dollars for meaningless broadcast rights (that's being fought out in court, so we'll see), season ticket holders still owe them thousands apiece for seats at games that probably won't happen* (sure, they'll pay you back with pennies worth of interest if the games don't play, but it's still basically an interest-free loan to them), and of course there's still merchandising revenue.  Theoretically, the owners don't need another game to ever be played, as long as they keep inviting everyone to hope that maybe someday there'll be football again.  That's extreme, of course, but consider that the players, meanwhile, have exactly zero dollars coming in (except the tiny minority of players with advertising deals) and you can see the disparity in the situation.  One side is essentially profiting from a work-stoppage, while the other one is being faced with a choice of continue to not work or accept the owners' outrageously one-sided proposals.

I guess that concept of negotiating in good faith is obsolete.  Much better to have your lockout and profit from it too.

*Although I love the Packers greatly, I am not a season ticket holder, and if I were, I think my response to the team asking me for advance payment for tickets to games that aren't going to happen would be an invitation to take those tickets and shove them straight up Roger Goodell's ass.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A "God gap" in US Foreign Policy

With a friendly hat tip to my friend Tom at illusory tenant: You just can't make this stuff up.
The State Department has a "rigidly narrow" view of diplomacy that neglects religion's role in foreign affairs, a prominent Catholic ambassador charged on Sunday (April 17) as he announced his resignation.

Other foreign policy experts have another name for it: Religion Avoidance Syndrome. And the departure of Douglas Kmiec as ambassador to Malta, they say, is symptomatic of a longstanding God gap in American foreign policy.

Kmiec, who helped shape an intellectual framework for President Obama's outreach to Catholics during the 2008 campaign, was slammed in a recent State Department report for spending too much time writing about religion.

Kmiec's focus on faith, "based on a belief that he was given a special mandate to promote President Obama's interfaith initiatives ... detracted from his attention to core mission goals," the State Department's Inspector General wrote in a February report made public in early April.
 Oy vey.  Where do you even begin with this?  First, as I noted in my comment on the illustrious tenant's post, there is already far too much God in our foreign policy for me and, I think, most sane human beings.  For proof of this, one need only remember that one Cardinal Bernard Law, accessory both before and after the fact to God only knows how many child molestations while Archbishop of Boston, is not ever going to face justice for his revolting crimes.  Instead, he gets to be Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, hanging out in the Vatican, an ecclesiastical state with which the United States has diplomatic relations.  The interference of religion in our diplomacy and foreign policy is demonstrated by the fact that the US can and will do nothing to demand the extradition of this fugitive.  Were the decision mine to make, I would be threatening to level the Sistine Chapel with an airstrike unless the Cardinal were immediately turned over.

But the article gets even worse
"Our diplomats are very well trained and they are very capable," said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2006. "But they have not really focused on religion per se as a subject of study."
Okay, I'll take a step back here.  The article is correct in noting that religion is the cause of a lot of strife in the world today.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that almost all current conflicts, and the vast majority of conflicts for the last several decades, have their roots in religion.  But it sounds like Albright and Kmiec's solution to this problem would be to have our diplomats be more religiously trained, which inevitably is code for just more religious.  Is there anything the world needs less than just another nation claiming God is on our side, or any side at all?

Wouldn't it be nice if American diplomats could be the rationalists who can talk with, say, the Israelis and the Palestinians and say, "Look, you both have these beliefs, but there's room enough for two countries in the area if only you are willing to coexist."*  It would at least be a better start than current American foreign policy, which is to pander to the US evangelical community (who want the temple to be rebuilt so they can hasten the apocalypse) by simply going along with whatever Israel does, even when they're doing outrageous things like shooting unarmed civilians on a ship in international waters or creating untold suffering and misery with their ill-advised and disproportionate invasions of Lebanon and Gaza (not that the Palestinians are doing themselves any favors).  To quote Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great:
Two peoples of roughly equivalent size had a claim to the same land.  The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side.  Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass?  And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it.  But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war.
In other words, religion is exactly what we don't need in diplomacy.  Once you inject the idea that people can believe certain of things with no evidence (i.e., God exists), they allow themselves to believe other things with no evidence (i.e., God wants us, and not those other people, to live on this particular piece of land).  Why should the American foreign service be sucked into this mug's game?  Was the Northern Ireland situation (mostly) resolved because the United Kingdom gave more religious training to their negotiators?  Methinks not.

If the United States is going to be part of the solution to international crises, rather than a contributor to the problem in the first place, then we need to continue running people like Doug Kmiec out of the foreign service.

*I would add that the Israel-Palestine question is partly insoluble because of religious issues, but also because there are elements on both sides that have absolutely no interest in peace.  The day Israelis and Palestinians stop killing each other and learn they have nothing to fear from the other will be the end of both the Israeli far right and of Hamas and Hezbollah.  Which is precisely why those are the groups you see perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Grover Norquist, Grand Inquisitor of the Church of Cut My Taxes

Matt Yglesias posts on a very telling exchange between Alan Simpson and Grover Norquist at a deficit conference in Colorado.
[Alan] Simpson said he confronted anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist when the commission met and they exchanged words over the legacy of Ronald Reagan, claimed by both as their personal hero. When Reagan was president, he raised taxes 11 times, Simpson said, a bit of history that made Norquist squirm.
“I knew Ronald Reagan and you, Grover, are no Ronald Reagan,” Simpson said he told the president of Americans for Tax Reform, who famously said his goal was to make government small enough it could be drowned in a bathtub. Reagan didn’t raise taxes to give Norquist something to complain about, Simpson said. “He probably did it to make the country run.”
 Of course, Simpson is a smart man, and he knows full well that this conversation is proceeding from a false assumption.  Norquist doesn't want the country to run.  Period.  It's right there in his "bathtub" declaration (which I've always regarded as one of the more asinine things said in American history).  As for correcting Norquist on the actual record of the Reagan Administration, it should be painfully obvious that the current GOP doesn't really much care what Reagan actually did, only that they can use the graven image of St. Reagan to promote their current agenda, because we all know Reagan had more charisma than any of today's Republicans have.  I don't think anything proves that better than this piece from The Onion:
The GOP's humiliating blunder was discovered last weekend by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, who realized his party had been extolling "completely the wrong guy" after he watched the History Channel special Eisenhower: An American Portrait.

"When I heard about Eisenhower's presidential accomplishments—holding down the national debt, keeping inflation in check, and fighting for balanced budgets—it hit me that we'd clearly gotten their names mixed up at some point," Priebus told reporters. "I couldn't believe we'd been associating terms like 'visionary,' 'principled,' and 'bold' with President Reagan. That wasn't him at all—that was Ike."
That would be hilarious if it weren't historically accurate.  Pity that Reince Priebus would never admit it.

But the rest of Yglesias' piece is worth reading too.
I’m not sure if Norquist understands this or not, but in the current moment of institutional weakness for American liberalism, he’s the most powerful advocate we have. At the end of the day, the long-term level of taxation is determined by the level of money that’s spent. Every dollar the federal government spends will be repaid, with interest, out of taxes. And currently in Washington we have lots and lots of Democrats—from Barack Obama to Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet—arguing for reductions in scheduled spending. And the main thing standing in their way is Grover Norquist, his tax pledge, and his insistence that no Republican vote for any spending cutting bill that also includes some increases in revenue. So far, that’s denying cuts-oriented Democrats the working legislative majority they need to implement their agenda, and giving congress’ small number of hard-core progressives the ability to veto cuts in Social Security. 
I wouldn't be quite so cavalier as Matt wants to be in making this statement.  While it is true that I am gleefully mocking the GOP's ridiculous position on taxation with my Church of Cut My Taxes trope, the bottom line is that I still find it sad that one party is willing to think of increasing revenue from unsustainable and historically low levels, but doesn't have the guts to really make a push on that issue for fear of scaring the electorate, while the other party is willing to bring up the issue all day long while indulging the childish fantasy that more and more tax cuts will fix the deficit.  We have, in other words, a mature but timid party on one hand, and a fanatical cult of tax cuts desperately seeking converts on the other.  Ick.

Whatever happened to the spirit of compromise in American politics?  While it is true that some of these compromises where moral abominations (the 3/5ths Compromise, the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1850 all come to mind - but they all had to do with slavery), the history of 20th Century American politics is a history of deals and dealmakers.  FDR, Truman, Rayburn, Eisenhower, LBJ (who, as Senate Majority Leader, was arguably a better friend of Ike's Administration than Eisenhower's own party in Congress), Nixon, Reagan, O'Neill, even Clinton, Dole, and Gingrich (even if Newt had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the bargaining table) - all of these men were, ultimately, dealmakers.  Right now it seems like the Democrats are willing to make serious cuts, as long as there's some sort of revenue enhancers to make sure that the poor and middle-class don't absorb the whole burden.  But the Republicans aren't having any of it.

What do you expect from a party that cuts taxes on the rich while fighting two overseas wars?  Shared sacrifice is for suckers.

Alan Simpson, on the other hand, is a brave man.  He's advocating for tax increases, so it can't be long before he is excommunicated from the Republican Party, branded a RINO, and accused of being a liberal.  I'm sure Grover Norquist has a bell, book, and candle somewhere.*

So be it!

*Apropos of nothing in this post, is there anything which is more probative of the contrived, manufactured, and false nature of religious institutions than the concocting of elaborate rituals to declare that someone has fallen out of the deity's good graces and is henceforth banished from the flock?

Jay Bullock tallies Sarah Palin's lies on Saturday so you don't have to

I may be an atheist, but this post even I can call "doing God's work."

Reading a well-written takedown of Sarah Palin is a better morning pick-me-up than coffee.  Definitely worth the read.

Am I wrong to dream of a Trump-Palin ticket for the GOP in 2012?  It could go down in history as "Dumb-and-Dumber."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Thought of the Day IV

Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in your name, and beyond the grave they will find only death. But we will keep the secret, and for their own happiness we will entice them with a heavenly and eternal reward. For even if there were anything in the next world, it would not, of course, be for such as they. It is said and prophesied that you will come and once more be victorious, you will come with your chosen ones, with your proud and mighty ones, but we will say that they saved only themselves, while we have saved everyone. It is said that the harlot who sits upon the beast and holds mystery in her hands will be disgraced, that the feeble will rebel again, that they will tear her purple and strip bare her "loathsome" body. But then I will stand up and point out to you the thousands of millions of happy babes who do not know sin. And we, who took their sins upon ourselves for their happiness, we will stand before you and say: "Judge us if you can and dare." Know that I am not afraid of you. Know that I, too, was in the wilderness, and I, too, ate locusts and roots; that I, too, blessed freedom, with which you have blessed mankind, and I, too, was preparing to enter the number of your chosen ones, the number of the strong and mighty, with a thirst "that the number be complete." But I awoke and did not want to serve madness. I returned and joined the host of those who have corrected your deed.  I left the proud and returned to the humble, for the happiness of the humble.  What I am telling you will come true, and our kingdom will be established.  Tomorrow, I repeat, you will see this obedient flock, which at my first gesture will rush to heap hot coals around your stake, at which I shall burn you for having come to interfere with us.  For if anyone has ever deserved our stake, it is you.  Tomorrow I shall burn you.  Dixi.
-The Grand Inquisitor to Jesus in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

It almost sounds like Dostoevsky foresaw the rapist priest scandal from a century in advance.  And he knew full well just how much corruption religious institutions are capable of.

Friday Music III - Special Edition

It's my wife's birthday, so I owe it to her to at least put up a song that always makes me think of her.

Guster, "Satellite"

Joe Klein lights up the Church of Cut My Taxes

Here's the truth no one on the right wants to talk about:
And so it's painful when reality intrudes. Here is the reality: the Republicans have spent the past 30 years creating deficits and the Democrats have spent the past 30 years closing them. The unimportance of deficits became an article of faith during the second Bush Administration: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter," Dick Cheney famously said. It has been rather hilarious for those of us with even a minimal grasp of recent history to watch these folks pull fierce 180-degree turns on the issue--and it is even more hilarious to watch them accuse Obama of hyper-partisanship after the dump-truck full of garbage they visited upon his head these past few years.

Indeed, the sheer hatred that Republicans have for Obama has led them to overreach, to latch onto Paul Ryan's well-outside-the-mainstream budget plan. They now face a presidential election where they are completely tied to the idea of destroying the most popular government program out there--Medicare. They are now tied to the incredibly cruel and witless notion that they're going to ask 90-year-olds to make free market choices, with vouchers constantly diminishing in value, in an extremely complicated health market. And most important, as the President said, they are now tied to a slick attempt to make middle class people pay more for Medicare while demanding lower taxes for the wealthy.

And so, the predictable screechings: It's class warfare (as if Ryan's plan isn't)! It's vague (actually, it's based on the findings of the bipartisan deficit reduction commission)! It's hyper-partisan (guffaw)!
Yes!  Does anyone remember that the 2001 Bush tax cuts were specifically sold as being temporary?  What happened to that?  What happened to the Clinton-era surplus that was going to pay off the national debt entirely?

Oh, that's right.  The Republican Party happened.  And now the Church of Cut My Taxes is insisting that even more tax cuts for the haves and even more cutbacks for the have-nots will fix it.  It is well past time we called this what it is: patent bullshit.  If tax cuts for the top 1% worked, they would have worked years ago.  They haven't, the budget is in crisis, and it is time to pay up.  Want more proof?  Have some:

Of course, the effective rate on the top 1% is actually around 23% because of things like itemized deductions that help the rich a lot more than the middle-class.  Not to mention that the payroll tax cap means that the payroll tax is essentially a regressive tax, because you pay a smaller and smaller percentage of your income as you get wealthier and wealthier.    And the top 1% are a lot better equipped to hire accountants and lawyers to make use of every single loophole in the tax code.
But one party is (finally!) willing to look at this and all other avenues to balance the budget.  Cuts need to be made, to be sure, but revenue simply has to increase.  The GOP just plugs their ears and screams "I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" whenever the very idea of the well-off paying a bit more comes up.

After a decade of "deficits don't matter," why the hell should we listen to the Church of Cut My Taxes now?

Objectivism and the GOP (with footnotes!)

With due respect to Shel Silverstein, this seems like an appropriate image to start things off:

I promised to expound on Paul Ryan and the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and what I think are some of the serious problems with trying to run a country in accordance with Rand's views.*

For a while now, Andrew Sullivan has been doing a series of small pieces about Objectivism (he's not a fan), and this post with one of his readers' responses had some really good insights.  Specifically,
Rand believes in the perfectability of genius. To her, to be a genius is to be incapable of making an error.

They never overestimate their expertise in fields outside of their own ability, they are never uninformed or cling to outdated beliefs. This is why Rand's heroes never listen to other people. To be a genius is to be correct. If someone else is a genius, then they must agree with you. If they disagree with you, obviously they are not a genius and they must be ignored.

This echoes my own thoughts on Rand's philosophy.  When I was in high school, I read The Fountainhead and wrote an essay to the Rand cult (er, "Foundation") for their scholarship, figuring "What the hell?  I need money to pay for college."  Of course, being an idiot, I didn't bury my distaste for the novel or its main character, Howard Roark, very well.  Mind you, I didn't write what I actually thought and still think, which is that Roark is a terrorist, and the novel itself is the product of an infantile author damaged by her experience of the Bolshevik Revolution and much too enthusiastic about 1920's ideas about social Darwinism, the corrupt understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche promoted by Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth after he was overtaken first by madness and then by death**, and not a well-written one, either.  But I did write that it simply was not possible for Roark to possess all knowledge required to design a functioning building (electricity, plumbing, structural concerns, safety, etc.) by himself without any input from others, as Rand insisted.  In the book, Roark is not only capable of being completely infallible, but his design is so artistically brilliant that he blows up his own building when some inconsiderate jerk dares to alter his design.  And is acquitted in court.  Who can take such stuff seriously?

But this philosophy is extremely dangerous when applied to politics.  Rand divides the world, ultimately, into the worthy and the unworthy.  The worthy are the geniuses, who must all think alike, and must never, ever be questioned or imposed upon in any way by the unworthy.  They are captains of industry, gods among men, etc., etc.  Religion is evil because it wants these men to be ashamed of their success.***  The unworthy are mere insects to be squashed the moment they get in the way of Rand's heroes.  They are a barrier to the worthy reaching their full potential.  They are, fundamentally, less than human.

Terrible as I think this philosophy is, it's truly disastrous when people thinking this way get into power.  Why?  Because thinking that way, the Great Depression really wasn't that bad.  So the rich and powerful made unwise economic choices that crashed the global economy and lead to more than a decade of poverty and suffering and war****, but that's just the cost of doing business.  This kind of thinking simply does not and cannot acknowledge that Person B has every right to be upset when Person A swings his or her arm and impacts Person B's nose, no matter what the class or intellect of Persons A and B.  According to Rand, if Person A is a genius, than he can do whatever he or she wishes.  The wider Person A swings his arm, the more power he has, and the greater he becomes.  Mowing down swathes of people with his arm simply demonstrates his status as powerful.  Governments cannot stand on that proposition.  A line has to be drawn for arm-swinging, and governments and laws are instituted precisely for the purpose of regulating what happens when your arm intersects with my nose.

Rand perfectly explains Paul Ryan's budget plan.  It doesn't really balance the budget at all, but it sure does give lots of goodies to the rich and powerful, while making some very well-aimed slashes to the social safety net.*****  Who cares about the little people?  All that matters is that the worthy have ample room to succeed and be powerful.  Never mind that those captains of industry need someone to whom to sell their goods, and that market really won't be very large if the economy goes down the tubes because Paul Ryan and company were too busy making life comfortable for the wealthy.

In fact, one can almost look at the budget as the building in The Fountainhead.  The GOP are Roark.  They've built a pretty massive deficit under Reagan and George W. Bush (Clinton actually balanced the budget, remember) and now there's a Democratic president who dares to change their design.

Solution: Blow it up!

*Not to mention the hypocrisy of Ryan and the entire GOP for passing a massive entitlement expansion when they were in power (Medicare Part-D), and yet proudly declaring (or at least implying) that we should be entirely without entitlements at all now, and proposing a budget plan that effectively ends Medicare.

**Nietzsche's sister deliberately pandered to the Nazis, among other things.  No one who has seriously read Nietzsche could doubt that he would never have approved of anything the Nazi Party had in mind.

***For the record, I'll just briefly summarize that I think religion is bad because on a basic level it wants us all to die, and wants to bring about the end of the world and the coming of a celestial dictatorship (not to mention that I see no evidence to conclude that any gods exist) - but that is the subject of another post.  Stay tuned, I'm working on an essay on Christian eschatology to demonstrate what I mean.

****Is there any doubt that Hitler would never have risen to power in Germany without the depression wrecking the German economy?  Look at Nazi Party percentages in elections and rally attendance before and after 1929 and tell me I'm wrong.

*****I bet those folks with the idiotic "Keep government out of my Medicare!" signs at Tea Party rallies will just love it when they find out a non-inflation-adjusting voucher to buy private insurance is going to replace their precious non-government Medicare under Ryan's plan.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Paul Ryan: Not a fiscal conservative

The record speaks for itself:
Every policy change of the last decade that increased the deficit—the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—Ryan voted for.
The most glaring part of this is the Medicare Part-D boondoggle.  I have yet to hear a coherent response from conservatives as to why a Republican administration and Republican Congressional leadership rammed that through, knowing how hugely expensive it was going to be.  But the Democrats are supposed to be the fiscally irresponsible ones.  Sure.

I'll be posting in depth later about Paul Ryan and the GOP's current love affair with Ayn Rand.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thought of the Day III

"Once freedom lights its beacon in a man's heart, the gods are powerless against him.  It's a matter between man and man, and it is for other men, and for them only, to let him go his gait, or to throttle him."

-Zeus to King Aegistheus in Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Flies"

Let's call the whole thing off

I happen to know quite a bit about insurance, for reasons of career and education.  But that knowledge is pretty much unnecessary to decipher that this is a terrible idea:
Mandated increases in auto insurance coverage will be rolled back under legislation signed by Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday.

The measure rolls back coverage minimums passed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature in 2009 but would still require motorists to have coverage.

"This is one more step toward empowering consumers across the state of Wisconsin," Walker said at a Capitol bill-signing.
"Empowering consumers."  Sounds awesome, doesn't it?  Except it really isn't.  And there's no reason for it.

The group Citizen Action of Wisconsin has released a report that questions insurance industry claims that changes made by Democrats caused an increase in insurance costs of at least 33%.

Wisconsin historically has had some of the lowest car insurance rates in the country.

The website lists Wisconsin car insurance rates as of March as being 40% below the national average - similar to the rates in the surrounding states except for Michigan, where rates are slightly higher than the national average.
So this obviously isn't really about allowing insurance companies to cut premium.  And even if it was, I can tell you that most of the time when consumer protections get loosened up and insurance companies get more leeway, they'll almost always find a way to justify either keeping premiums exactly where they are and reducing benefits, or raising premiums.  It makes perfect sense.  Why would Insurance Company XYZ suddenly decide they want to make less money per insured?  And rolling back the coverage limit from $50,000/$100,000/$15,000 (for per person/per incident/property damage) to $25,000/$50,000/$10,000 just gives insurance companies cover to charge the same while providing less coverage.  But wait until you see some of the other sweetheart provisions.
The measure also would allow insurers to put drivers buying insurance for the first time into a high-risk category, allowing them to charge higher premiums.

It also includes a provision that would allow insurers to insert clauses into their policies that could lower the amount drivers collect when they are hit by underinsured drivers.
This is an auto insurer's dream come true.  Your teenage child who is all excited about getting their driver's license at 16?  Prepare to pay outrageous premiums to provide coverage.  And as if getting hit by someone without enough insurance, or no insurance at all, wasn't already a worrisome proposition, now if that does happen, your own insurance company can screw you too.

So, summing this up: Pay the same or possibly more for less coverage.  Check.  Pay out the ass to cover first-time drivers (read: your children).  Check.  And get left up a creek without means of propulsion if some moron who was too lazy to have insurance happens to injure you in an accident.  Check.  And this is what Scott Walker calls "empowering consumers."  That's an interesting name for it, because I would call it a massive middle-finger to consumers.  I guess Scott Walker says po-tay-to, while I say po-tah-to.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Civil War, 150 years later

Much will undoubtedly be made of the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of the opening shots of the American Civil War being fired upon Fort Sumpter.  Many historians (Shelby Foote comes immediately to mind) have written eloquently about how, even today, that conflict remains crucial to an understanding of American culture and politics.  Of course, I have my own thoughts.

I'm something of a history buff, particularly with respect to the American Civil War.  When I was in middle school, I was given a book, The Civil War Battle Atlas, full of maps and pictures and orders of battle, that I read and looked through so often that today the binding is virtually destroyed, and the pages are literally falling out.  Any list of my favorite books would have to include such works as Foote's The Civil War (especially the excerpted books, Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863, and The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862-July 1863), James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, and novels like The Killer Angels.  Lee Kennett's biography of William Sherman is probably my favorite example of that genre.  Ken Burns' PBS documentary ought to be required viewing.  Having lived in the Midwest my whole life, I haven't had the opportunities to actually see the places where the war was fought to the extent that I would like, but I've had the pleasure of spending days at the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, which owes its very existence to that war in general, and the enmity of General Montgomery C. Meigs toward Robert E. Lee after the former's son was killed in battle - prompting Meigs to seize Lee's Arlington estate and begin burying Union dead on the grounds so that no one could ever live there again - in particular.

I'm not listing all of this to be vain or boastful, but to demonstrate just how even a bratty 20-something living in the 21st Century can be steeped in the history of America's bloodiest war.  In fact, considering all the time spent documenting the history of the Civil War, its causes and its consequences, you would think our country would have found a way to move past it.  You would think, in other words, we would have come farther than to see garbage like this:

Ah yes, the Confederate battle flag.  On this subject, I do not even pretend to be objective, and with good reason.  The fundamental fact of that flag is not, as those who defend it so disingenuously claim, its historical importance or symbolism of Southern heritage and culture.  The truth is that the flag represents, at a basic level, a treasonous uprising against the United States (which failed), that was entirely brought about because of reactionary fear of the coming abolition of slavery, upon which the Southern economy, culture, and lifestyle was entirely (and unjustly) based.  Imagine, and entire part of our country was economically and culturally dedicated to the proposition that one man's life and freedom was worth less than that of someone whose skin was a different color.  What a hateful concept.  That is what that flag represents.  It is entirely analogous to the swastika.  Fundamentally, they are both symbols of just how cruel, just how inhumane, and just how evil human beings can be when they are convinced that Group A are the true human beings, while Group B are less than human.  The only difference is the scale of that evil.

In short, anyone who tries to separate that flag from the institution of slavery, from the notion of white supremacy, and ultimately from disloyalty to the United States is simply talking nonsense.  The Confederacy itself would have been completely unintelligible without those core ideas.  A Confederacy without slavery would have been no Confederacy at all, because there would have been no reason to secede and no reason to fight a war.  Few things are more pathetic than the revisionist "Lost Cause" historians who try to separate the institution of slavery from the Confederacy, as though the one had nothing to do with the other.

More to the point, although I don't want to be entirely dependent upon "might makes right," this t-shirt does seem to communicate the appropriate stance with respect to the battle flag:

I'm not suggesting that we should do what postwar Germany did with the swastika and ban the Confederate flag.  That would run afoul of the First Amendment.  But I will maintain that anyone who flies the Confederate flag is endorsing a message of white supremacy.  If nothing else, we should at least be able to agree that our moral faculties have evolved in the past 150 years to the point that no one in their right mind feels that it is moral or acceptable to believe that one person is less of a person than another.  History teaches fairly clearly that the summa of human evil is never far away when we start thinking that way.

The end of the war brought about the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, effectively settling with law those matters which had already been settled with steel and wholesale quantities of blood.  But neither the law, the bloodshed, nor the victory are really what prove the wrongness of the Southern cause.  The only argument one need make to firmly establish which side of the Civil War was in the right, and which wasn't, is the one immortalized in the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal."

And so, 150 years after Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard commanded the batteries in Charleston Harbor to open fire, I do wish we'd relegate the Confederate flag, once and for all, to the dustbin of history.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thought of the Day II

All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part.  The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is - marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state.  No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to ever be fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.
-Joseph Conrad, Author's Note to The Shadow-Line

Speak for yourself, Scott Walker

I have no idea how I missed this piece last month about Scott Walker's religious fervor, but it doesn't surprise me.  That's right, Governor Privatize Everything says he's doing what he's doing because Sky Daddy said so.
Walker said that God has told him what to do every step of the way, including about what jobs to take, whom to marry, and when to run for governor.

When he had first met his wife, he said, “That night I heard Christ tell me, ‘This is the person you’re going to be with.’ ”

He said he was trusting and obeying God when he took a job at IBM and then at the Red Cross. ““Lord, if this is what you want, I’ll try it,” he said. It was all about “trust and obey.”
Funny that he doesn't mention his decision to drop out of college before graduating.  But the piece gets so much more depressing.
He then qualified that statement a little: “I don’t mean that means it’s going to work out for a win. . . . I don’t believe God picks sides in politics. I believe God calls us to be on His side.”
This man is cleverer than I give him credit for!  Do you see what he did there?  "God didn't pick my side, but I just so happen to be on God's side!"  What a brilliant way to claim a divine mandate while making it appear that you aren't insane or the most arrogant creature on the face of the Earth.

Finally, there's the "turn your life over to [insert deity of the speaker's choosing here]" chestnut that those of us with respect for reason and human dignity find so incredibly conceited and offensive.
He urged everyone in the room “to turn your life over 100 percent to what Christ tells you what to do.”
Once you do that, he said, your life will be complete:

“The way to be complete in life is to fully and unconditionally turn your life over to Christ as your personal lord and savior and to make sure that every step of every day is one that you trust and obey, and keep looking out to the horizon to the path that Christ is calling you to follow and know that ultimately he’s going to take you home both here at home and ultimately far beyond.”

Fourteen months later, at his inaugural prayer breakfast, Walker said, “The Great Creator, no matter who you worship, is the one from which our freedoms are derived, not the government.”
Let's try to put these thoughts together in a little syllogism.  It doesn't matter which God you worship, but your life can't be complete unless you believe in Christ and blah, blah, blah.

I really shouldn't have to explain why statements like this are disturbing.  I shouldn't have to point out even that both parties pander to the religious impulse.  I shouldn't have to note that, despite our national Constitution's explicit enjoining of any religious test to hold public office, the idea of an unbeliever running for President is virtually unthinkable.

The simple fact is that a great and growing many of us (fact: "nonreligious or secular" is the fastest growing religious group in the United States today) do not require a "Great Creator" to explain our origins; we have science.  We don't need YHWH or Allah to explain from whence our freedom is derived; we have politics, law, and philosophy.  We have no need of a savior to take away our guilt; we have personal responsibility, restitution, and forgiveness.  All of these things can perfectly well exist without appealing them upward to a heavenly dictatorship.  As La Place told Napoleon Bonaparte when he presented his model of the solar system - which, Napoleon noted, did not feature God - "Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothese."  ("I did not need to make such an assumption.")

Of course, Scott Walker is, to make an oldies reference, the son of a preacher-man.  But that doesn't make statements like his any less offensive.

H/T: Capper.

Postscript: I am reminded of then-Attorney General Ashcroft's pronouncement some years ago that America had "no king but Jesus."  As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his book God is Not Great, that statement was exactly two words too long.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Channelling my inner Charlie Sykes

Let's just say that I suspect if 10,000 votes for a liberal or Democratic candidate had just magically appeared in, oh, I don't know, Dane County, I'd bet Charlie and the other righties would be screaming their heads off about fraud and irregularities.  Yet 10,000+ votes materialize out of the ether, two days after an election, in a conservative stronghold like Waukesha County and that's perfectly normal.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along.

Adios, Glenn Beck

Gary Farber at Obsidian Wings is dancing on his television show's grave.  Worth the read, if only for a laugh at just how crazy the man is.

Jon Avlon from the Daily Beast joins in:
A low-lights reel of Beck’s worst moments on Fox would take hours to watch, but it would offer a useful seminar on the politics of incitement and near-mainstreaming of conspiracy theories in the Obama era. A talented broadcaster, Beck used his perch to echo old narratives straight out of the paranoid style in American politics—sinister plots to impose one-world government, the intentional subversion of the Constitution, the oppression of the faithful at the hands of a secular socialist elite hell-bent on replacing the American experiment with tyranny. “The Glenn Beck Show” is the closest the John Birch Society has ever come to having their own national program, reaching millions and poisoning political debate in the process.
 Here's hoping Beck's ratings collapse is a sign of a return to sanity.

A short essay: The Absence of Reason

At this point, I've been blogging on the topic of the Republican Party being renamed the Church of Cut My Taxes for nearly a week, and I think I ought to expound a little further on what I mean to say by this.

In previous posts (here, here, here, and here), I've pointed out that the GOP position on taxation for nearly the last decade has been that tax cuts are necessary in all budgetary and economic circumstances.  When George W. Bush came into office, the economy was growing and the national budget was in surplus, working toward paying off the national debt.  President Bush campaigned on the idea that the surplus should be given back in the form of tax breaks.  Fine.  Of course, then the budget slipped into deficit, and the economy into a recession.  Then we were told by the Republicans that it would be disastrous to raise taxes in a recession (despite Reagan and Clinton both having done so with very successful results), and we got more tax cuts.  That "stimulus" didn't really work, and as a result we've gotten a continual meme from the GOP that ever more tax cuts are the only solution.  Not only that, but the implication is that when the current tax cuts don't work, it's because we didn't cut taxes enough and we'd better get about cutting them further.

This reasoning (or lack thereof) is completely circular and self-sustaining.  When tax cuts work, we need more tax cuts.  When they don't work, guess what, we need more tax cuts.  The suggestion of ever increasing taxes is anathema, and grounds for excommunication.  This is the way the fundamentalist religious mind operates.  That the GOP's fervor for tax cuts has become so dogmatic is really unsurprising, given the growing interconnectedness between the Party and religious extremists.  Hence, the Church of Cut My Taxes.  Even secular conservatives have fallen into religious thought in this respect.

The ultimate problem, I would argue, is absence of reason in general.  The acceptance of claims without evidence in one sphere of life leads to the acceptance of other such claims elsewhere.  Here we are in the year 2011, with science making new and breathtaking discoveries about every facet of the universe.  These discoveries are based on a scientific method of hypothesis and research of claims that are falsifiable.  A scientific theory that cannot at least in some imaginable scenario be proved false is no theory at all.  And yet at the same time, "faith," by which I mean the blind acceptance of a proposition without evidence, is promoted as a virtue.  Most especially, faith is directed at concepts which simply cannot be proved or disproved, like the existence of God or the supernatural.  That sort of faith is antithetical to reason and clear thinking.  And not without consequence.

To steal an analogy from Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, suppose that I tell you I have a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You'd probably be skeptical, since dragons are presumed not to exist (based on the evidence that no one has ever seen one), and you'd demand that I prove the existence of my dragon.  When you look in my garage and, lo and behold, there's no dragon, you're probably going to think you've been proven right, and that I have no dragon.  Ah, but did I mention my dragon is invisible?  And what about the fire?  Surely we should feel the heat from a fire-breathing dragon.  "No," I tell you.  "My dragon breathes heatless, invisible fire."  Then you could try to feel for my dragon, but I also forgot to mention that the dragon is intangible.  And so on.  In other words, I have an invisible, intangible dragon that breathes heatless fire.  But you cannot prove that the dragon doesn't exist, since I have defined my dragon in such a way that there isn't any method to prove or disprove that it does exist.

Of course, that is all nonsense.  As Sagan summarizes:
Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.
The English philosopher Bertrand Russell made exactly the same analogy with his famous teapot, and modern-day religious satires, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn, likewise make fun of the absurdity of such thinking.  Is someone irrational for saying that they don't believe in dragons, unicorns, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?  Absolutely not.  Yet express disbelief about a supposedly omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, invisible, intangible deity and people of faith will accuse you of defective reasoning at best, and wickedness at worst.  President George H.W. Bush even voiced the opinion that atheists should not be considered equal citizens of the United States.  All this for refusing to accept on no evidence whatsoever a claim that is on precisely the same standing as the aforementioned dragon in my garage.

But I've wandered slightly off my chosen topic now.  My point is that this sort of irrational thought, the kind that religion requires above all else, leads to the acceptance of other claims on just as little evidence.  Some of this, of course, comes down to command theory.  If you believe in a deity, and you further believe that said deity has rules and laws, then obviously any violation of those laws cannot be tolerated.  The entire opposition to marriage and other rights for homosexuals, for instance, is entirely incoherent without the belief that God himself condemns homosexuality.  That position is still incoherent, but not in the mind of the believer.  What other reason is there to care whether two gay men who love each other want that relationship to be on the same footing as my relationship with my wife?  There is none.

But divine command is only the most obvious way in which minds become susceptible to unreason once it becomes customary to form beliefs based on faith and not evidence.  Take an extreme example - in this case, a racist.  The racist believes that, for instance, aryans are superior to any other races.  What evidence supports that position?  None whatsoever.  In fact, scientists have shown that there really isn't much genetic basis for "race" at all.  Still, the racist believes what he believes because he or she believes it, and for no other reason.

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood here, so I'll be very clear: being in favor of tax reductions and racism are not at all the same sort of belief, and I am not trying to draw a moral connection between the two.  But a person who dogmatically believes that more and more tax cuts are always necessary is taking that position on faith, especially when one looks at the evidence that the last two recessions in the '80s and '90s ended when taxes increased.  Of course, not all proponents of tax cuts believe so dogmatically.  Just as there is a time to increase taxes, there is a time when cutting taxes is appropriate.  A person who says that understands that a worthwhile position must be contingent - that is, it must be subject to change upon changing evidence and circumstances.  Otherwise it is merely dogma.  Most atheists, myself included, are even willing to grant that their unbelief is contingent.  Upon being shown conclusive proof that God exists, I would change my mind.  I just haven't yet seen such proof, and I doubt the possibility of it.

The key point is to understand that positions need to be falsifiable and contingent in order to have any meaning.  A pacifist who dogmatically states that "War is never the answer," is just as wrong as the person who claims that tax cuts are always the answer.  There are some international crises that can be resolved through no means apart from conflict, regrettable as that fact may be.  The Second World War springs immediately to mind.  That does not mean war is always the answer.  It depends, and disagreement is okay.  Most questions don't have a right or wrong answer, but the reasonable mind is willing to be convinced by evidence, even if that evidence is unpleasant.  So it should be with tax policy.

Minds may disagree about when it is appropriate to cut, increase, or maintain tax rates, but the person who says that one of those is the solution to every problem has disqualified himself from the discussion, because no argument - no matter how well supported - in favor of the opposite position would convince that person.  The dogmatic believer instead stubbornly refuses to hear the evidence contrary to his or her position and takes it as a matter of faith that of course their position must be the only justifiable one.

Next time you run into a tea partier who demands budget cuts to programs for the poor and middle-class while insisting that they are "taxed enough already," try asking them when they think a tax increase would be appropriate.  Wartime?  A national debt crisis?  Government revenue at the lowest percentage of GDP since the 1950s?  If they say yes to those things, well, that's what we're up against right at this moment.  But if they cannot imagine a state of affairs where their present belief is not applicable, then they are simply the dogmatic believer, rejecting evidence and reason for the self-satisfaction of faith.

Or, as I prefer to put it, just another congregant of the Church of Cut My Taxes.

Ryan's real target

Here's a more detailed takedown of Paul Ryan's fairytale plan, courtesy of Robert Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

This is the same kind of garbage we've seen here in Wisconsin.  The budget falls into deficit, and rather than ask those who have more to pay a little more, or even asking everyone to carry the load a bit more, instead the GOP just demands draconian cuts to programs that either help everyone (like education) or those most in need of assistance.  As Greenstein puts it,
The plan of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who co-chaired President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, established, as a basic principle, that deficit reduction should not increase poverty or inequality or hurt the disadvantaged. The Ryan plan, which the chairman unveiled in a news conference, speech, and Wall Street Journal op-ed today, charts a different course, turning its biggest cannons on these people.
Greenstein is even generous enough to provide methodology behind the numbers.  I won't waste space reprinting it here, but the piece is pretty thorough.

And remember that all of this is supported by economic projections that The Economist called "laughably overoptimistic."  Not that that matters to the Church of Cut My Taxes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A query for Paul Ryan

Rep. Ryan, your party lambasted President Obama for proposing (and ultimately passing) a health care plan that, you claimed, "rationed" care.  How is it, then, that providing a $5000 voucher for health care is not "rationing?"  Just asking.

Even consistency must give way when the gods of the Church of Cut My Taxes demand sacrifice.  Andrew Sullivan has the same realization:
There are a few infallible, eternal truths that must be adhered to, like a papal bull, if one is to remain in good standing with the GOP - regardless of the circumstances. So cutting taxes is sacred if we are in a boom or a bust, if we have soaring debt and if we have a healthy surplus. The same with foreign policy, where the orthodoxy demands constant intervention abroad, a crude reliance on firepower as a measure of strength, and a public stance of us-or-them belligerence personified by Palin and phonily mimicked by Romney.
Dare I say, "Amen?"  Not that the Democrats are much better, considering how utterly cowed they have been by the GOP's rhetoric.  Where is the party leadership on this?  Where is the President?  Democrats should be fighting to get in front of every camera and microphone in Washington to point out the unseriousness of Ryan's proposals, and the devastating impact of his plan on the middle class.  Instead, they've allowed the GOP to steal the stage, and portray even a return to Clinton-era tax rates as unthinkable, and virtually un-American.  How contemptible.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Paul Ryan: Unserious on the economy

Rep. Paul Ryan wrote a piece in the WSJ today.  How's this for a great example of fantasy economics?
A study just released by the Heritage Center for Data Analysis projects that The Path to Prosperity will help create nearly one million new private-sector jobs next year, bring the unemployment rate down to 4% by 2015, and result in 2.5 million additional private-sector jobs in the last year of the decade. It spurs economic growth, with $1.5 trillion in additional real GDP over the decade. According to Heritage's analysis, it would result in $1.1 trillion in higher wages and an average of $1,000 in additional family income each year. 
Nevermind that Heritage is a right-wing think-tank that will basically concoct data to fit the needs of any Republican plan.  Even if that weren't the case, those projections would be wildly optimistic to the point of being delusional.  Where the hell are these 2.5 million jobs coming from?  Thin air?  Moreover, what reason is there to believe that the GOP wants or cares about higher wages for everyone and not just the ultra-rich?  The last decade has seen the disparity between the wealthy and the middle-class spread to insane proportions, and all the while the GOP has defended that disparity as the cost of doing business.  Yet now we're supposed to just take on faith that Ryan and Friends care.  I'll believe that when I see something more realistic than made-up fairy tale projections.  Here's a piece from The Economist pretty unequivocally popping Ryan's balloon.  Money quote:
It's an assumption, in other words, that's unrealistic enough to be considered somewhat bizarre. Everyone puts a positive spin on their policy proposals. But fundamentally worthy policies shouldn't need to promise laughably overoptimistic outcomes to win support.
That sounds like politically correct for "whoever wrote this was high when they wrote it."  When even The Economist is unreservedly criticizing a proposal so swiftly, I'm inclined to question the seriousness of the proposer.  Andrew Sullivan, who yesterday expressed some optimism about Ryan's proposal, is disappointed to say the least.
The assumption, moreover, is that major income tax cuts will dramatically boost economic growth. So why then were the Clinton years - after he raised taxes - such a success, and the Reagan years when he raised taxes such a boom, and the Bush years, with huge tax cuts paid for by borrowing from the Chinese, such a disappointment?
That's exactly my point.  This dogmatic blather from the Republican Party that ever more tax cuts, and a healthy dose of soaking the poor and middle-class, can save our economy has got to stop.  Tax increases alone won't solve the problem, but they're part of the solution.  They worked for Reagan, and they worked for Clinton.  I don't understand why the GOP is so averse.  Do they not realize that an economic turnaround under their plan would be something they could take credit for going forward, not to mention that it would, I don't know, be good for the country?  Or are they so utterly committed to the Church of Cut My Taxes that they're willing to sacrifice our economy to their ideology?

Like I've said before, you can keep putting the screws to the non-wealthy on behalf of the uber-rich and large corporations, but ultimately it's the rest of the country that buys goods and services to keep businesses operating, simply because those groups make up the vast majority of the market.  That's not a call to class warfare.  That's simply reality.  I do wish the GOP, and Paul Ryan in particular, would give that some thought.

Gwen Moore, deficit hawk?

Read her editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and draw your own conclusions.  Personally, I like what she's saying.
But so far, Republicans are only cutting non-defense, discretionary funding, which accounts for somewhere around 14% of the budget. Mind you, 14% is a lot, and it includes funding for health centers, schools, transportation, medical research, veterans, housing and much more. But with this year's deficit projected above $1.5 trillion, even if we eliminated all of this, we won't balance our budget.

Right now, as a share of our economy, federal revenue is the lowest it has been since Harry Truman was president and federal spending is the highest it has been over the same time frame. This is unsustainable. And it is proof positive that we cannot balance our budget on spending cuts alone.
This is what I've been saying for quite some time now.  The areas where the Republicans in Congress want to cut simply can't balance the budget without looking elsewhere.  I saw a recent poll where Republican voters thought that foreign aid spending and funding for NPR made up 5% of the budget.  In reality, they represent something like .01%.  Sorry to say that you can't balance the budget just be eliminating "librul" programs.  But wait, there's Moore (ba boom tish):
Unfortunately, my friend Rep. Paul Ryan, won't consider any revenue raisers. Our tax code lets corporations and people with lawyers pay less than their fair share. Our tax code encourages companies to keep earnings off shore. Our tax code even has a provision that favors debt as a financing source. Now, let's remember, companies with too much debt were a cause of the financial crisis. Changing this provision from a pre-tax deduction to a tax credit would save $77 billion.
(Italics mine.)  And why is this the case, Congresswoman Moore?  Because, as I said yesterday, the current incarnation of the GOP might just as well be reconstituted as the Church of Cut My Taxes.  Thanks to the ever-changing rhetoric of the Bush Administration, which somehow managed to justify cutting taxes in every possible economic and budgetary climate (surplus, deficit, expansion, recession), one party in this country is now wholly committed - with nigh-religious fervor - to the proposition that no increase in government revenue is ever justifiable or necessary.  And bear in mind, before you throw out lines about "tax-and-spend" liberalism, that those Bush-era tax cuts took place within the context of massive expansion of government spending, particularly because of two hugely expensive wars (tax increases in wartime used to be considered patriotic - see, e.g., FDR) and a gargantuan entitlement boondoggle (Medicare Part D) rammed through a Republican-controlled Congress by the Republican leadership at the behest of the Republican White House.  Say what you want about "tax-and-spend," at least that system expands expenditures along with revenue.  21st Century Republicanism has consisted entirely of cutting revenue but spending more anyway.  How absurd is that?

The arithmetic is clear.  You simply cannot balance the budget without talking about defense spending, entitlement reform (there, I said it - and so did Congresswoman Moore, you'll notice if you read the article), and increased revenue.  One party, it seems, is willing to have a serious discussion about these things.  Hell, the Secretary of Defense wants to cut $80 billion in spending from his own department.  Unfortunately, the party in control of Congress seems to be too busy pandering to ignorant tea party-types (who actually believe we can balance the budget by cutting discretionary spending alone) to listen.