Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The austerity tide is turning

Yesterday Neil Irwin wrote an article with a powerful headline: The era of austerity is over (for now). He cites several things that have happened recently - both internationally and in the U.S. - to indicate that the tide is turning.

For example, there's the fact that the research by Reinhardt/Rogoff, which suggested that federal deficits are a drag on the national economy, was recently proven to be based on errors.

Then there's also the fact that our federal deficit is now shrinking faster than at any time since WWII. So much so that for the first quarter of 2013, the Treasury Department was able to pay off some of our national debt.
The Treasury Department announced Monday that it would reduce its level of debt in financial markets for the first time since President Obama took office.

The department said it expects to pay down a net of $35 billion in its marketable debt for the second quarter of 2013, the first time it has done so since 2007.
It's very possible that this is why Republicans are shifting away from a focus on cuts to entitlement programs and towards tax reform as their main issue on the economy.

Of course there will always be those ideologues on the right who cling to austerity as a principle rather than an actual pragmatic need. But perhaps now is the time to pay attention to what the Group of 20 leading nations of the world said following their recent spring meeting.
We reaffirmed our determination to raise growth and create jobs.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"We can do better - all of us"

President Obama was hilarious at the White House Correspondent's Dinner this year. I found myself literally laughing out loud on several occasions - especially this one.
I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. And look, call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with. Hello? Think of me as a trial run, you know? See how it goes.
All of that has gotten plenty of attention. But what not many people are talking about is the end of his speech - when he got serious. In a way that reached out for the best in all of us - he called out the media, political, entertainment and business communities for feeding the cynicism that is all too rampant these days.
And in these past few weeks, as I've gotten a chance to meet many of the first responders and the police officers and volunteers who raced to help when hardship hits, I was reminded, as I'm always reminded when I meet our men and women in uniform, whether they're in war theater, or here back home, or at Walter Reed in Bethesda -- I'm reminded that all these folks, they don’t do it to be honored, they don’t do it to be celebrated. They do it because they love their families and they love their neighborhoods and they love their country.

And so, these men and women should inspire all of us in this room to live up to those same standards; to be worthy of their trust; to do our jobs with the same fidelity, and the same integrity, and the same sense of purpose, and the same love of country. Because if we're only focused on profits or ratings or polls, then we're contributing to the cynicism that so many people feel right now.

And so, those of us in this room tonight, we are incredibly lucky. And the fact is, we can do better -- all of us. Those of us in public office, those of us in the press, those who produce entertainment for our kids, those with power, those with influence -- all of us, including myself, we can strive to value those things that I suspect led most of us to do the work that we do in the first place -- because we believed in something that was true, and we believed in service, and the idea that we can have a lasting, positive impact on the lives of the people around us.

And that’s our obligation. That’s a task we should gladly embrace on behalf of all of those folks who are counting on us; on behalf of this country that’s given us so much.
Tell it Mr. President!

Oh, this is rich! Now that Obama has offered chained-CPI, Republicans want tax reform instead (updated)

You really don't know whether to laugh or cry.

For a long time now Republicans have been screaming about the coming armageddon if we don't cut entitlement programs. President Obama offered to meet them halfway in his 2014 budget by switching to chained-CPI as a way of measuring inflation for Social Security benefits (and other government programs) and raising Medicare premiums based on income.

But as soon as he did that, Republicans had an (umm...) change of heart.
With another fight over the national debt brewing this summer, congressional Republicans are de-emphasizing their demand for politically painful cuts to retirement programs and focusing on a more popular prize: a thorough rewrite of the U.S. tax code.
No...seriously. You can't make this shit up!

Steve Benen lays out the process.
1. Republicans create a debt-ceiling crisis, demanding spending cuts.

2. President Obama accepts spending cuts.

3. Prioritizing debt reduction, Republicans demand more cuts, this time to Social Security and Medicare.

4. President Obama grudgingly says he'll accept cuts Social Security and Medicare as part of a debt-reduction compromise.

5. Republicans condemn the Social Security and Medicare cuts they requested, and decide they want tax reforms instead.
And Jonathan Chait sums up the Republicans message on this.
But what is the GOP position on tax reform? It’s that tax reform must cut tax rates and not raise any revenue at all. So House Republicans are prepared to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to let them cut tax rates without increasing revenue. Their extraordinary threat, first presented as a way to force a reduction in the deficit, is now being wielded to prevent a reduction in the deficit.
Comparing the Republicans strategy these days to the Keystone Cops would be too kind.

UPDATE: I just can't help myself. I have to add a note of caution for all of you to avoid any smoke inhalation as the hair-on-fire-about-chained-CPI emos try to absorb this news ;-)

Democrats: pay attention to the "coalition of the ascendant"

The Associated Press headline pretty much summed it up: In a first, black voter turnout rate surpasses whites.
America's blacks voted at a higher rate than other minority groups in 2012 and by most measures surpassed the white turnout for the first time, reflecting a deeply polarized presidential election in which blacks strongly supported Barack Obama while many whites stayed home.

Had people voted last November at the same rates they did in 2004, when black turnout was below its current historic levels, Republican Mitt Romney would have won narrowly, according to an analysis conducted for The Associated Press...
"It remains to be seen how successful Democrats are if you don't have Barack Obama at the top of the ticket," he [Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant who is advising GOP Sen. Marco Rubio] said.
This kind of analysis flies in the face of those who are predicting that if Hillary Clinton is the nominee in 2016 she'll win in a landslide because she'll be able to woo those white racists who wouldn't vote for Barack Obama back into the Democratic fold. Its true, she might be able to do that - but at what cost? It would likely mean lower voter turnout among some members of the coalition of the ascendant.
Much of this year’s Washington story is about Obama aligning the Democratic agenda with the priorities of the “coalition of the ascendant”—minorities, the millennial generation, and college-educated whites, especially women—that powered his 2008 and 2012 victories.
If Hillary Clinton or any other nominee wants to take the reigns and continue moving this country FORWARD, they should heed the words of David Simon.
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance.

You want to lead in America? Find a way to be entirely utilitarian — to address the most problems on behalf of the most possible citizens. That works. That matters...

Regardless of what happens with his second term, Barack Obama’s great victory has already been won: We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

OFA to climate change deniers: You should be embarrassed

Yesterday I talked about the fact that this last week President Obama launched two new major initiatives and noted that the first of these was a Drug Policy for the 21st Century. Today I want to talk about the second. And no, its not about the new White House Tumblr ;-)

At the start of his second term, the President was clear that he had five major objectives: job creation, gun violence reform, immigration reform, a balanced approach to reducing the deficit and dealing with climate change. Lots of people were curious to know what he was going to do about that last one. Now we know.



Like many of you, I got an email from OFA this week:
Right now, way too many lawmakers in Washington flat-out refuse to face the facts when it comes to climate change.

We're never going to make real progress on this issue unless members of Congress get serious. Instead, some of them have made a habit of publicly mocking it.

We thought it was time to call them out for denying what's basic science.
Climate change activists were happy to see this but immediately wanted to know "where's the beef?" In other words, where are the policy proposals? Here's what Ivan Frishberg, OFA's climate change campaign manager, had to say about that.
"I think there is something that's fundamental about starting the conversation by saying this thing is real," Frishberg said. "If we can't start there and have a consensus there, then how do you ever move the conversation forward? You can disagree or agree on different policy approaches. But if people are throwing out those premises-- the impact on people's lives, the clarity of the science -- if they're throwing that overboard, it's hard to go much further."...

"We have a Congress that is filled with folks who reject the basic science of climate change," said Frishberg. "So a lot of what we're going to be doing is focusing on a long-term effort to change the conversation."
Does that sound like our Community Organizer-in-Chief or what?

As we've already seen, when it comes to the Department of Defense and the entire National Security apparatus, the President is making great strides on climate change in areas where he has executive authority. But when it comes to Congressional legislation - nothing is going to happen when 240 members have voted to say that climate change is a hoax.

If the overwhelming evidence from science won't motivate them to pay attention - perhaps its time to embarrass them.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The voice of an angel

No words...just listen.

Obama announces the end of the war on drugs - anyone notice?

So what did you miss while you were anguishing over George W. trying to rehabilitate his legacy and worrying about whether or not the Boston bomber would be read his Miranda rights and setting your hair on fire because Congress fixed the FAA furloughs? A lot!

President Obama launched two new major initiatives this week. But WAY too many people are more interested in setting their hair on fire to notice. Yeah, I'm pissed about that. So I'm going to do my small part to focus on what I think is really important.

First of all, the White House issued A Drug Policy for the 21st Century. In doing so, a few of us noticed that this validates what Mark Ambinder predicted almost a year ago...that in his second term, President Obama would pivot to the drug war.
According to ongoing discussions with Obama aides and associates, if the president wins a second term, he plans to tackle another American war that has so far been successful only in perpetuating more misery: the four decades of The Drug War.

Don't expect miracles. There is very little the president can do by himself. And pot-smokers shouldn't expect the president to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. But from his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama has considered the Drug War to be a failure, a conflict that has exacerbated the problem of drug abuse, devastated entire communities, changed policing practices for the worse, and has led to a generation of young children, disproportionately black and minority, to grow up in dislocated homes, or in none at all.
Ambinder was right. There are no "miracles" included in what the White House announced this week. I've read the page on the White House web site I linked to above as well as taking a look at the report issued by R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy (pdf). This statement from the web site pretty much sums up my own mixed feelings.
While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem. Put simply, an enforcement-centric “war on drugs” approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly. At the other extreme, drug legalization also runs counter to a public health and safety approach to drug policy. The more Americans use drugs, the higher the health, safety, productivity, and criminal justice costs we all have to bear.
The bold statement about the "war on drugs" being counterproductive, inefficient, and costly is ground-breaking from a presidential administration. Lets mark this day and remember it! The war that Richard Nixon declared in 1971 has been declared over by the Obama administration.

On the other hand, merely tossing off the other extreme as "legalization" means that there will be little attempt to grapple with some of the hard stuff. To fail to distinguish between the different types of drugs that were caught up in this war and put them all under the same rubric continues the lie that marijuana should be treated the same as heroin or crack cocaine.  Its really way past time that we got honest with the American people - especially young people - about all that.

With that said, there are some really positive initiatives that are included in this report...things like focusing on prevention rather than incarceration, expanding access to treatment, support for drug courts, diversion, and re-entry programs, and eliminating the barriers currently in place for people in recovery.

In other words, this is a major step forward towards some sanity in our drug policy. Its not the end game, but its a start. We need to get the word out and get this ball rolling FORWARD!

P.S. Later I'll write a separate piece on the second major initiative President Obama launched this week. Keep your eye out for that one.

President Obama's detachment from the obsessive insiders

Over the last few years the Washington DC villagers have developed a myth that President Obama is cold, aloof and detached. That myth is directly contradicted by those who actually know him and people he interacts with outside the beltway bubble.

So you have to wonder what all those folks will do with this storyline once Mark Leibovich's book This Town about the incestuous and manipulative nature of those inside that bubble is finally published.

We already know that Politico reporters Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei are pretty nervous because they wrote what is clearly a pre-emptive strike on the book before its even published. But Jim Newell at The New Republic wrote that their reaction demonstrates exactly the point Leibovich is likely to make.
Politico attempts to pass off its column as a neutral, "fun" look at an anticipated Beltway book that's still under the lockdown of a particularly stringent publisher's embargo. But Allen and VandeHei don't do the discretion thing very well, and it's clear before long that this is their clunky attempt to kneecap a writer whose upcoming revelations may well depict them as the people that they are: obsessive insiders who are obsessed with insiderism.
From what I've seen so far, none of this is really all that newsworthy or interesting except that I'm always up for a Politico takedown.

But as a justification for why President Obama keeps his distance from all of that insider obsession, its a pretty powerful statement. Its clear the culture is sick and dysfunctional. That the President choses to remain cold, aloof and detached from it all speaks boldly to his own wisdom. That none of them seem to notice speaks only to their own obsession with it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Don't sweat the small stuff (updated)

I'm not going to get my undies in a bunch because Congress voted to give the FAA some leeway on how they implement the sequester.

Sure, its cowardly to work on behalf of people who can afford to fly while not seeming to give a shit about regular folks who are being damaged by the sequester. And believe me...I'm noticing how my own Senator Amy Klobuchar seems so intent on taking care of her corporate clients lately. You can bet she'll be hearing from me about her priorities.

But lets take a big picture look at what's happening here. Its not like they took money from some other program to cover costs for the FAA furloughs. They simply gave the agency more flexibility in implementing the cuts.

And notice how many Democratic Senators were willing to stand up and object to this...zero. Not even the lauded Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Why? Because to do so would be like giving airline travelers a big FU for no apparent reason other than to try to score political points against Republicans.

More importantly, the sequester is law for the next 5 months. The MUCH bigger question right now is the one about what is included in the next budget. Save your powder for that one folks. Its going to come right on the heels of the lunatic caucus wanting to blow things up over the debt ceiling. Pissing off a good portion of the electorate over intransigence on this one - not a good idea.

UPDATE: I've disagreed with Ezra Klein before, but I've never seen him be this sloppy.
In effect, what Democrats said Friday was that in any case where the political pain caused by sequestration becomes unbearable, they will agree to cancel that particular piece of the bill while leaving the rest of the law untouched.
NO! The FAA cuts were not cancelled. The agency was given more flexibility in how to implement them. And then this:
If sequestration is permanent, however, they might as well make it a bit less painful.
Who said anything about sequestration being permanent? They are not included in the Senate Democrat's proposed budget nor in President Obama's budget. None of this changes that. I suppose there are some who would suggest that agreeing to this alteration of the sequester makes their inclusion in future budgets more likely. I don't buy that argument.

Where Ezra could be considered to be right is that by agreeing to this bill, the Democrats have probably lost any battle they might have waged over the next 5 months to end the sequester. But I doubt there was much chance of that happening anyway.

No surprise that Steve Benen is able to recognize some limits to seeing this as a total "win" for Republicans.
Republicans "scrambled" just as quickly this week, fearing they might get blamed for the delays, too. It's precisely why they launched such an aggressive public-relations campaign, hoping to divert responsibility for the spending cuts they claim to love.

Tough days for the Orange Man

These are challenging days for Speaker John Boehner. And its not just because this week he had a "guess who's coming to dinner" moment (LOL).

Perhaps you've heard how Eric Cantor's efforts to try to sabotage Obamacare instead of repeal it kicked off an internal battle with the Republican lunatic caucus and wound up with the bill being pulled from a vote on the House floor. But you won't get the full picture on what an embarrassment that all was until you read this summary of the email battles over the whole thing.
The collapse of the bill was a humiliating defeat for a leadership team that has struggled for years to keep its conference in line and is a testament to the continuing tenuous grip they have on their members.

"It's the outside groups' obsession," said a senior Republican aide, complaining that pressure from these groups was directly responsible for members abandoning their leader.

"We built this. We built our majority in 2010 on this. And now it may consume us," the GOP aide said Wednesday.
Wow! I couldn't have said it better myself. In 2010 the Republicans rode the wave of lunacy and now its consuming them.

Immigration reform is next up on the agenda. With both McCain and Rubio standing by the Senate bi-partisan proposal, someone is going to have to breech the divide in the Republican ranks between them and the lunatic caucus in the House that can't countenance a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

Finally, even if they manage to get through all of that intact, there is the looming debt ceiling issue that will arise yet again over the next few months. Republicans know now that President Obama isn't going to play games on that one so they have zero leverage. But its still a fight the lunatics are demanding.
“The one real frustrating thing is that the impending [debt-limit debate] that we’re about to have — there’s no plan for that. There’s no meeting, no discussions ...” the Republican lawmaker said.
So the lunatics are itching for a fight and Speaker Boehner doesn't seem to want to play. Different issue, same conclusion.
John Feehery, a former aide to ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and a columnist for The Hill, defended the House GOP leadership: “When the followers don’t follow the leader, it weakens the team..."
What's most appalling about all this is that - in the midst of this kind of incompetence battling lunacy - anyone with even a few brain cells would be talking about the shortcomings of President Obama's skills at governing. Until Republican leadership finally tells these lunatics to sit down and STFU, let there be no doubt about what's broken in our political system right now.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Driving emos nuts!

President Obama at a fundraiser in Dallas Wednesday night:
“Occasionally I may make some of you angry because I’m going to reach out to Republicans, and I’m going to keep on doing it,” he said. “Even if some of you think I’m a sap, I’m going to keep on doing it because that’s what I think the country needs.”
Yep, we've been telling you this for a very long time now...that's how this guy rolls.

"A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes" (updated)

The quote in my title is from Mark Twain. If he were alive today, he might be surprised by how prescient  he was so long ago about information in the age of technology. We have a perfect example of that unfolding as I write - and the culprit of the lie is one that both journalists and news junkies should have gotten wise to by now...Politico.

Here's a little background. One of the things included in Obamacare is that members of Congress and their staffs will be required to purchase their health insurance on the state exchanges created by the law. So Politico's headline screams: "Lawmakers, aides may get Obamacare exemption." They then go on to explain how very secret meetings (that only Politico knows about, of course) are going on to let Congress off the hook.

There was one sentence that caught my eye - but no context was given and so it seems to have been ignored by most people.
The problem stems from whether members and aides set to enter the exchanges would have their health insurance premiums subsidized by their employer — in this case, the federal government.
What Politico failed to mention is that currently the federal government pays 75% of the premium for members of Congress and their aides. I'll let Ezra Klein take if from there.
It’s not clear that the federal government has the authority to pay for congressional staffers on the exchanges, the way it pays for them now in the federal benefits program...

But no one is discussing “exempting” congressional staffers from Obamacare. They’re discussing creating some method through which the federal government can keep making its current contribution to the health insurance of congressional staffers.
But of course everyone from the baggers of fire at naked capitalism to the baggers of tea at Hot Air are all over this one.  And for every one person who might eventually learn the truth about this story, there will be hundreds that carry on assuming that the health care exchanges are so terrible (and costly) that both congressional Democrats and Republicans are weaseling out of them while mandating regular folks to participate.

The moral of this story for any thinking person should be...NEVER trust a rumor started by Politico!  They do this kind of thing all the time.

UPDATE: Since even some writers like Brian Beutler at TPM seem pretty ignorant about what's going on here, Ezra Klein has written a bit more on all this.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I nominate Yoda

People keep talking about who the nominees will be in 2016. I know...I've said that I won't be talking about that for another couple of years. But I've made my choice early this time. Here's the nominee I'll be supporting.

Seriously folks. It seems clear to me that no matter how much Republicans obstruct progress, our media seems intent on blaming Obama. The only recourse I see is to elect someone who is actually capable of doing that "Jedi mind-meld" thing. So that's what I'm going with.

YODA FOR PRESIDENT!

Rand Paul develops a severe case of Romnesia

I'm not a doctor and I don't play one on the internet. But it seems clear to me that Senator Rand Paul is suffering from the very same affliction that plagued Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign...Romnesia.

Case in point: You might remember than during Senator Paul's filibuster about the use of drones on American soil, he said that “When I asked the president, can you kill an American on American soil, it should have been an easy answer… It should have been a resounding and unequivocal ‘no.'"

And then yesterday, he said this:
“…I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him, but it’s different if they want to come fly over your hot tub, or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone, and they want to watch your activities.”
Just a bit of an equivocation there, I'd suggest.

But then when his #StandWithRand supporters got pissed at him for that, here's how he explained it last night.
My comments [on Tuesday] left the mistaken impression that my position on drones had changed. Let me be clear: it has not. Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster.
Now...unless you think that someone coming "out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash" should be considered an "extraordinary, lethal situation where there is an ongoing, imminent threat" (already one gigantic equivocation), then I'd suggest we're looking at a rather severe case of Romnesia.

But really, the only reason this particular iteration of that malady stands out is because Sen. Paul drew so much support from the emo/libertarian crowd for his filibuster. As we saw with candidate Romney, Republicans do this kind of thing all the time. Its why some folks like me are suggesting that they are in a post-truth/post-policy mode these days. They've made the calculation that they can say something one day and completely contradict themselves the next. The only thing that is consistent about anything they propose is that it has to be in direct opposition to whatever President Obama is doing/saying. That's what Romnesia does to you.

Here you go Senator Paul - I believe a little brain laxative might be just what the doctor ordered ;-)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A study in contrasts...Obama does not equal Bush

As I read around the internet, I keep running into people who are saying that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can't be tried as an enemy combatant because he's an American citizen. That isn't the case, as Adam Serwer points out.
The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which Graham vocally supported, defines as eligible for military detention "a person who was a part of or substantially supported Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners." There's no evidence yet that the suspects in the Boston bombing acted with the support of or at the behest of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces. Unless that evidence emerges, it wouldn't be legal to hold Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, even if he and his brother were motivated by extremist religious beliefs.
The reason this is important to point out is that it demonstrates why its been significant for the Obama administration to refocus George W. Bush's "global war on terror" to a "war on al Qaeda." If that language restricting military detention to "Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces" hadn't been included in the 2012 NDAA, folks like Lindsay Graham might have a legal case to make regardless of citizenship - even though the Obama administration has refused to use that provision when it comes to people with actual ties to al Qaeda.

Being able to label any act of violence as "terror" and then use that designation to replace the rule of law with the rule of war was the very reason the Bush administration declared a global war on terror in the first place. It gave them free reign to do whatever the hell they wanted. When folks like Senator Graham push for any "terrorist" to be tried as an enemy combatant, they are harking back to those days.

One of the things the American public is in the midst of witnessing is the very stark contrast between the Bush and Obama administrations. We've already seen that our law enforcement is up to the task of dealing with the Boston bombing. And now we're in the beginning stages of a very public display of how our courts are up to the task as well.

There's a reason why the neocons are squirming at all this. Here's the Boston Globe editors explaining that:
Some candidates seem to feel that asserting a manly contempt for defendants’ rights is a winning political stance. But it’s also hard to avoid the impression that McCain, Graham, and some other hawks are rehashing the battles of the Bush era, in search of vindication.
The Obama administration is in the midst of undoing the damage of declaring a global war on terror. These guys know that - and they don't like it one little bit.

Its true that some of our emo friends have been so tied up in their own biases that the contrast they're seeing now caught them off guard and forced retractions of their "hair-on fire" within days. But I suppose that expecting them to learn from their mistakes going forward is perhaps too much to ask. No big deal though. Maybe they actually enjoy being wrong ;-)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Republicans can't seem to get over their "lose/lose" strategy with Obama

Some people I admire a lot are suggesting that the gun background check legislation failed because of monied interests on the part of folks like the NRA. I'm not buying that argument. What we saw in the 2012 election was that with everyone from Karl Rove to the NRA - other than perhaps keeping some candidates alive during the Republican primary - money didn't matter. The Republican Party is not being controlled by money these days - but by grassroots lunatics who threaten to primary anyone who doesn't toe their line.

So why did 90% of Republican Senators vote against a bill that is supported by 90% of the American public? I'd suggest its the same reason they've always been opposed to anything President Obama supports. Their lunatic base can't countenance anything that gives the President a "win."

Thinking about it all this morning, I remembered a time when Mistermix over at Balloon Juice nailed it. See if his words from 2 1/2 years ago don't still ring true today.
...Ezra Klein thinks that Obama’s a bad poker player. He may be right, but the analogy isn’t helpful. Poker is a win/lose game. Negotiation is a win/win game, because both parties get something when a deal is struck. Republicans aren’t playing poker or negotiating. They are playing another game, call it “You Must Lose”. They’re happy with win/lose, if they win, but they’ll tolerate lose/lose as long as Obama loses.

The only analogy that springs to mind when I look at the Republicans’ recent behavior is a bad divorce. Think of a situation where Lisa and Bob are getting a divorce, and Bob is so hell-bent on hurting Lisa that he doesn’t care about their kids or their bank account. Bob will deploy a hundred variations on the same tactic: put the Lisa in a bind where she has to choose between damaging the children and losing money. Lisa will lose money almost every time in order to save the children.

In this situation, capitulation is inevitable, the only question is what form it will take...

Obama has three tactics he can use, all of them weak: The first is to try to fracture the Republican caucus...The second is to use executive power to its limit, by rule-making...The third is institutional reform, specifically, ending the filibuster.

None of these tactics is especially effective, but when you’re working with someone who’s only happy if you lose, what else is there?
Some people are suggesting that Republicans voted against the background checks bill because they know they're going to have to vote for immigration reform soon and didn't want to have to explain supporting two Obama "wins" to their lunatic base.

If enough Republicans are prepared to trade a lose/lose on gun reform in order to make peace with a win/win on immigration, at least they are demonstrating that elections have consequences. That would never have happened without their resounding loss among Latino voters in 2012.

What we need is a massive voter turnout in 2014 to get it through to them that we've had it with the lose/lose game. Anything that takes our eyes off that prize (and yes, that includes folks like the emos and Maureen Dowd) simply prolongs the power of the Republicans to keep us deadlocked in this lose/lose nightmare. Its time to wake up and smell the big picture folks. Nothing - and I mean NOTHING - is as important as breaking this one for good.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What a family therapist notices in the stories about the Tsarnaevs

Even though I often call myself a "recovering therapist," when I hear stories like the ones that are being told about the Tsarnaev family, I tend to revert back to my old ways. So allow me to round up some things I've seen/heard that seemed significant to me.

My first clue about something amiss in this family came when I heard the suspect's two uncles talking on camera while law enforcement was still searching for the second suspect. They both said that they had broken ties with their brother's family (the suspect's father) several years ago. None of the reporters questioning the uncles caught the significance of that statement or attempted to pursue what had triggered it.

In describing how/why the family came to the US, I've heard variations on this theme:
She [Zubeidat: suspect's mother] told me that she and her husband had been lawyers and political activists in Russia. They had fled the country after “something that her husband did.” Her daughter had recently been divorced at this time, and her daughter’s ex-husband had taken their child to Russia, refusing to return him. Finally the child was returned. When my mom asked Zubeidat how they had gotten the child back, she told her that “my [Zubeidat’s] husband is crazy” and everyone knew it.
It seems as though the family had recently come apart at the seams. Notice the link in timing.
Tamerlan’s turn to Islam came as the family seemed to be disintegrating, according to neighbors and court records.

A next-door neighbor on Norfolk Street, who declined to provide his name, said he would constantly hear yelling and police would often show up at the family’s apartment. Another neighbor also described “screaming and arguments.”

The parents divorced, and spent extended periods of time back in Russia.
We know that Tamerlan had been abusive with his wife. But this story raises a whole host of questions as well.
Gym owner Allan said that Tamerlan had once introduced him to an American, Brendan Mess, whom Tamerlan described as his best friend.

Two years ago, Mess and two other men were brutally killed in a Waltham apartment where they were found by police with their throats slit and their bodies covered with marijuana. The murders remain unsolved.
These stories don't provide us with enough information to draw conclusions. But it sure seems to me that this was a family with members who had been involved in some dark business...things that seem much more important to me than what religion they practiced.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What you need to know about Miranda

Whether or not Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will get his Miranda rights read to him seems to be much more important to some people right now than whether or not he's currently healthy enough for these legal issues to matter. But such is the state of mind of people with Obama Derangement Syndrome - be their name Graham or Greenwald.

And so I thought I'd collate some informative reading on the subject for those of you that - like me - might be scratching your heads and wondering WTH is going on.

Doug Mataconis writes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Miranda, And The Public Safety Exception:
Contrary to the conclusion that most people are likely to gather from watching crime dramas like Law & Order, officers are not required to give the warning before they arrest someone and failure to give the warning will not result in dismissal of the case. Miranda is more properly seen as an evidentiary rule that the government must follow if it wishes to interrogate a suspect and eventual defendant and use whatever statements that interrogation elicits against him in court. If a suspect is not given his or her Miranda warnings and the state then attempts to utilize post-arrest statements against him, then the government will generally be barred from using that statement against him in Court.
Orin Kerr writes Tsarnaev and Miranda:
A lot of people assume that the police are required to read a suspect his Miranda rights upon arrest. That is, they assume that one of a person’s rights is the right to be read their rights. It often happens that way on Law & Order, but that’s not what the law actually requires. The police aren’t required to follow Miranda. Miranda is a set of rules the government can chose to follow if they want to admit a person’s statements in a criminal case in court, not a set of rules they have to follow in every case.
Mike Thompson writes Pontificating about Miranda Rights:
The biggest misconception of our Miranda rights is that somehow, someway it is a violation of the law for law enforcement to not give us our Miranda rights upon arresting or taking us into custody.

One of my biggest pet peeves as a civil rights attorney is the mistaken impression that police officers are required to advise us of our Miranda rights in order to arrest us. Guess what. That is just plain wrong...

Read carefully what I write here…

The failure of the police to give you your Miranda rights merely means that what you say to them while in custody is not admissible at trial. As should be evident from the Miranda case quotes I referenced above, Miranda is all about protecting your right not to incriminate yourself. It does not protect you from the things you said and did prior to being taken into custody though. And, as should be obvious, it does not protect you from the things you say freely after being given the advisement.
As these writers go on to point out - law enforcement currently has more than adequate evidence to convict Tsarnaev in a court of law. What they are interested in is things like whether or not there are other explosives either set to go off or stored in hiding someplace, did he have any other accomplices, etc. Its highly unlikely that anything he has to say now will affect the outcome of the case against him.

So can we please stop with all the hair-on-fire about Miranda?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sort by race

Like most everybody today, I'm busy following the news about the brothers who are responsible for the Boston marathon bombing.

But yesterday - as the fuzzy pictures of them were released - there was rampant speculation about their race/ethnicity. Some people really made fools of themselves in the process.

The truth is that "race" as a construct was created by white western europeans in an attempt to distinguish between "us" and "them."  It has no basis whatsoever in biological science.

As an educational tool to demonstrate what a ridiculous construct "race" is, the PBS special Race: The Power of Illusion created an online tool I highly recommend that you check out. Follow that link and click on the button that says "begin sorting." It will show you pictures that you are asked to sort into the 5 "races" recognized in the U.S. (the same site provides you with the information that other countries recognize different racial groups). After you've finished sorting, you can check your results.

What's happening as we watch the media cover this story is that people are reacting in the moment and they're demonstrating how totally ignorant so many of us are when it comes to truth about race.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ain't No Sunshine


I'm gonna require massive amounts of pity because this - my friends - is what the world looks like up here in the tundra on April fucking 18, 2013. Since early this morning, we've had rain, sleet, snow and tornado sirens. And you don't even want to hear about the commute home tonight!

For now, I'll console myself with this.

Senate hearing today on Perez nomination as Labor Secretary

There's a lot of news to keep track of today, but one of the things I'm going to be paying attention to is the Senate hearing on the nomination of Thomas Perez to be the next Secretary of Labor. Not too long ago, I wrote about the case the racists will likely make against this nomination of the first Dominican American to a cabinet position.

I'd like to give a shout-out to Adam Serwer for keeping an eye on this story. Today he tells us that the House government oversight committee issued a report on Mr. Perez's involvement in the city of St. Paul's case about the use of disparate impact as a way of determining violations of the Civil Rights Act.
But missing from the report issued by GOP dominated oversight committee was any evidence that Perez—who consulted with ethics lawyers at the Department of Justice before making a decision—broke any laws or ethics rules. Republicans oppose the use of the disparate impact standard, a legal guideline that says that discrimination doesn't have to be intentional to qualify as discrimination. They were hoping that the St. Paul case would give the conservative-dominated Supreme Court an opportunity to strike down the use of disparate impact in housing as unconstitutional. They're mad at Perez for his role in preventing that from happening...

The Democrats on the House oversight committee issued their own memo on Monday: "Rather than identifying any inappropriate conduct by Mr. Perez or other Department officials, it appears that the accusations against Mr. Perez are part of a broader political campaign to undermine the legal safeguards against discrimination that Mr. Perez was protecting."
This situation strikes me as one of those instances where our inability to have a conversation about racism as it is manifest today can get in the way of making progress.

As Serwer pointed out - the idea of disparate impact removes the need to prove intention as an ingredient for making a case of discrimination. Thanks to the Civil Rights movement, we are beyond the stage of simply refusing jobs, housing, or service at a lunch counter based on a person's race. But institutionalized forms of racism still exist. If you have any doubts about that, just go check out the array of evidence complied by Tim Wise here. Proving intent to discriminate in any of these cases would likely be difficult. But the evidence of disparate impact is overwhelming.

That's why the discussion about this hearing is so important. Those claiming that we are now living in a color-blind post-racial society because students can get served at a lunch counter want to stop any further progress towards equality. And Thomas Perez is putting himself on the line to keep us moving forward on that front.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Gabby calls out the cowards

On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms — a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count... 
This defeat is only the latest chapter of what I’ve always known would be a long, hard haul. Our democracy’s history is littered with names we neither remember nor celebrate — people who stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful. On Wednesday, a number of senators voted to join that list. 
Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s. To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way. 
Gabrielle Giffords, April 17, 2013

Back to the long game

If Senator Manchin is right, the vote on gun background checks later today won't pass. That means that a proposal with the support of 90% of the American public and a majority of Senators won't pass because of Republican obstructionism.

I must admit that this one has me a bit discouraged on an even bigger scale. Just the other day I wrote about the possibility that the fever was breaking. The idea was that with just a few Republicans breaking ranks, there could be momentum in passing gun reform and immigration reform leading up to a possible deal on the budget to avoid catastrophes like another showdown on raising the debt ceiling.

If the vote this afternoon on gun background checks goes down in defeat, it means the first leg of that stool will have failed. Its hard to avoid being discouraged at this point.

So its time - once again - to listen to our First Lady Michelle Obama.
Here's the thing about my husband: even in the toughest moments, when it seems like all is lost, Barack Obama never loses sight of the end goal. He never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise, even if it comes from some of his best supporters. He just keeps moving forward.

And in those moments when we're all sweating it, when we're worried that the bill won't pass or the negotiation will fall through, Barack always reminds me that we're playing a long game here. He reminds me that change is slow — it doesn't happen overnight.

If we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight and doing what we know is right, then eventually we will get there.

We always have.
I find that the long game comes into view when I look at these events through the eyes of Republicans.

On gun reform, they may win the vote later today - but they lost the argument on December 14, 2012 when 20 babies were so ruthlessly lost. What they have to sell to the public is either the idea that we can live with that kind of carnage, or that the answer is more guns.  How would you like to be the one running on that platform?

When it comes to immigration reform, all we have to do is look at the quandary Senator Rubio is in right now to understand how this one is playing out. He obviously wants to run for president and knows he doesn't have a prayer of winning unless he can get a bill passed that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. And yet the tea party darling is now getting HUGE push-back from the tea partiers for proposing it (warning: wingnut link). And so once again - winning the vote (against immigration reform) is a sure fire way to lose the argument.

Finally on the budget. This is where President Obama putting chained CPI on the table - and the outcry from the left about that - comes into play.  If Republicans refuse to work with him, it will be impossible to ignore that he was willing to go petty far out on the limb to meet them more than half way and they wouldn't budge.

The only thing the Republicans have ever had to work with is disgust from the public directed at all politicians resulting in "a pox on both their houses." We've always known that's their plan. By refusing to work with President Obama and Democrats, they have painted themselves into such an extreme corner that they can't sell any policy alternatives to the public.

On the other hand, President Obama has done everything possible from his end to move the ball down the field. He has:
  • Used the bully pulpit to effectively rally voters behind solutions
  • Gone on a "charm offensive" to win over Republican legislators
  • Been willing to take tremendous heat from his supporters to meet Republicans more than half way
This is how a pragmatic president who believes in the democratic process sets the table for the long game. If Republicans cooperate, we have achieved some common-sense solutions to the challenges that face us. But if we lose the Congressional battles, we win the argument.  And then its up to the voters to decide.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Silence

Above all, be alone with it all,
a hiving off, a corner of silence
amidst the noise, refuse to talk
even to yourself, and stay in this place
until the current of the story
is strong enough to float you out.

- David Whyte

Support for universal pre-K from unexpected places (updated)

When Steve Benen, Greg Sargent, Kevin Drum, and Ed Kilgore all go out of their way to recommend that you read an article - its probably something you want to pay attention to. So I read Jonathan Cohn's article titled The Hell of American Day Care - and so should you. I can't imagine a more powerful case that could be made for President Obama's proposal funding universal pre-K. Here's the money quote:
Since the 1930s, with the introduction of Social Security, the United States has constructed—slowly, haphazardly, often painfully—a welfare state. Pensions, public housing, health care—piece by piece, the government created protections for citizens that the market doesn’t always provide. Child care is the major unfinished part of that project. The lack of quality, affordable day care is arguably the most significant barrier to full equality for women in the workplace. It makes it more likely that children born in poverty will remain there. That’s why other developed countries made child care a collective responsibility long ago.
He also notes something I've been saying for a while now.
This situation is especially disturbing because, over the past two decades, researchers have developed an entirely new understanding of the first few years of life. This period affects the architecture of a child’s brain in ways that indelibly shape intellectual abilities and behavior. Kids who grow up in nurturing, interactive environments tend to develop the skills they need to thrive as adults—like learning how to calm down after a setback or how to focus on a problem long enough to solve it. Kids who grow up without that kind of attention tend to lack impulse control and have more emotional outbursts. Later on, they are more likely to struggle in school or with the law. They also have more physical health problems. Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care. The key ingredients are quite simple—starting with plenty of caregivers, who ideally have some expertise in child development.
But there was something he included that particularly caught my eye. When you hear people dismiss the possibility of universal pre-K ever being funded, they are likely not aware of some pretty influential people who support it.
A growing number of economists have become convinced that a comprehensive child care system is not only a worthwhile investment, but also an essential one. James Heckman, the Nobel-winning economist, has calculated that, in the best early childhood programs, every dollar that society invests yields between $7 and $12 in benefits. When children grow up to become productive members of the workforce, they feed more money into the economy and pay more taxes. They also cost the state less—for trips to the E.R., special education, incarceration, unemployment benefits, and other expenses that have been linked to inadequate nurturing in the earliest years of life. Two Fed economists concluded in a report that “the most efficient means to boost the productivity of the workforce 15 to 20 years down the road is to invest in today’s youngest children” and that such spending would yield “a much higher return than most government-funded economic development initiatives.”

In a July 2012 speech, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made the case that significant investment in early childhood would deliver even broader gains to the U.S. economy. “Notably, a portion of these economic returns accrues to the children themselves and their families,” he said, “but studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits.”
The two Fed economists he's referring to are Art Rolnick and and Rob Grunewald who work for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. Back in 2003 they published the paper Cohn refers to suggesting that quality early childhood education is the most cost-effective investment we could make in economic development.  That report changed the conversation here locally. Since then both state government and private funders have prioritized early childhood education. What we found is that it wasn't just us "bleeding heart liberals" advocating for children and mothers anymore. All of the sudden economists and business leaders joined the conversation - so it was a total package of support. And things changed.

That is the conversation that President Obama has sparked nationally with his proposal for the federal government to partner with states to fund universal pre-K. So don't count that one out just yet.

UPDATE: If you're interested in reading more, Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog published an interview with Jonathan Cohn.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How the Obama administration is taking on the achievement gap

Someone in a meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago called it "the civil rights issue of our time." What he was referring to is the fact that less than 50% of African American boys in this country graduate from high school on time (pdf).

In circles where this problem is actually talked about (too many are content to ignore it), there are a lot of theories thrown around about why. But for many, its hard to ignore the impact of another statistic...the fact that 1 in 3 black boys will spend time in jail during their lifetimes. The Children's Defense Fund calls this the Cradle to Prison Pipeline that exists at the intersection of poverty and race.

I've mentioned several times the impact that deep poverty has on children.
Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child’s development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions...

When you cluster lots of children with impulse-control issues together in a single classroom, it becomes harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn. And when these same children reach adolescence...they are more likely to become a danger to themselves, to each other and to their community.
What that author fails to mention is that when you cluster lots of black and brown children with impulse-control issues together in a single classroom, you tend to get a criminalization of their behavior. That starts with harsh discipline (ie suspensions and expulsions) and ends in arrests.

Last year I wrote about the fact that Obama's Department of Education had begun to collect information on civil rights and education - something that had stopped during the Bush administration. We now see that experts are studying that data and highlighting remedies. What they have found is that one in four black students have been suspended from school. And here are the consequences:
These findings are of serious concern given that research shows being suspended even once in ninth grade is associated with a 32% risk for dropping out, double that for those receiving no suspensions.
But the Obama administration isn't just collecting data. You might have heard that the Department of Justice investigated the school district and law enforcement systems in Meridian, Mississippi for their gross violations of student's civil rights in disciplinary practices.

In addition, the Department of Education is investigating the disparities in discipline of school districts in Seattle, Oakland and Wilmington.

I know these efforts are impacting schools all across the country because the two large districts here in the Twin Cities have recently undertaken major initiatives to deal with the disparities.

Finally, in his budget President Obama has included funding to provide alternatives to these practices.
President Obama’s budget proposal will include $235 million in funding for new mental health programs, focused initiatives to help schools detect early warning signs and train thousands of new mental health professionals...

Another $25 million would be put towards helping schools, where violence is pervasive, to address the trauma experienced by children and test violence prevention strategies.
To me, this is another example of the on-the-ground work the Obama administration is doing to address issues that often do not rise to the level of awareness with the general public. In this case, he's taking on "the civil rights issue of our time."

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The fever is breaking (updated)

Tell me if you've heard this one:
The Republicans are extremists who are incapable of acting in good faith. President Obama is naive to believe in bipartisanship and his efforts to negotiate with them will always fail.
I'd be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time I've read something like that.

I have to wonder if those folks are paying attention to the news lately.

For example, have they noticed that Republican Senator Pat Toomey has sponsored a bill with blue dog Democrat Joe Manchin on background checks for gun purchases? Or that 16 Republican Senators voted to forego the filibuster that McConnell and Paul had planned for the bill? Or that we're now seeing some Republicans (other than Toomey) say they'll vote for it this week?

And then there's immigration reform. The bill being negotiated in the Senate - which includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers - is not only supported by McCain and Graham. Tea party darling Marco Rubio is on every Sunday news show today trying to sell it.

President Obama early on laid out his priorities for his second term. They include immigration reform, gun violence reform, dealing with climate change and addressing the federal budget in a way that strengthens the economy.

What we see right now - at least in the Senate - is that a few Republicans are willing to negotiate on the first two of those priorities. In other words, a common sense caucus is beginning to develop.

I believe that the President's offer to include chained CPI in a budget deal was meant to see if he can build on that momentum to develop a common sense caucus on a budget deal. It was a pre-emptive strike to reach out to some of them before the lunatics start working on blowing up the economy with yet another debt ceiling crisis next month.

Yes, we're a long way from all of this working out. But since the 2012 election, the dynamics have changed. President Obama is no longer dealing with a party united behind their leaders - McConnell and Boehner. When instead, he and other Democrats can work with individual members to form coalitions on issues, the possibilities open up. In other words, the fever is breaking.

UPDATE: I want to make sure that everyone sees this comment from Bill.
A few not-so-random Sun Tzu lines, cribbed from Wikiquote:

"Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him."

"Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them."

"if double [the enemy's strength], be able to divide them; if equal, engage them."

The most important STRATEGIC goal at this point is to divide the GOP. Divide the Senate caucus, and more importantly, divide the House GOP. In the House, notice that what the President is doing is putting division between sovereign (Boehner) and subject (his caucus). The situation was ripe, but the President is exploiting it more effectively now, after the election, than before.

The most important thing we can do is sow division in the GOP. That will pay strategic dividends that far outweigh the cost of the tactical retreat which is compromise on chained CPI.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The coalition of the ascendant

In his remarks at the Newtown memorial, President Obama said this:
It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
Of course at the time, he was referring to the need to protect our children against gun violence. But I've also thought of these words as I hear people talk about his budget proposal - especially in light of Ron Brownstein's article about the coalition of the ascendant.
Much of this year’s Washington story is about Obama aligning the Democratic agenda with the priorities of the “coalition of the ascendant”—minorities, the millennial generation, and college-educated whites, especially women—that powered his 2008 and 2012 victories...

The Obama fiscal blueprint released this week cautiously dips into this same current by seeking to restrain entitlement spending while invigorating public investment (through initiatives such as expanded preschool, an infrastructure bank, and more college aid). That combination would challenge the federal budget’s hardening tendency to favor the old over the young...

In 1969, according to Office of Management and Budget figures released this week, payments to individuals (primarily entitlements) and investments in the future (defined as education and training, scientific research, and infrastructure) each constituted about one-third of the federal budget. By 2012, payments to individuals had reached 65 percent of the budget—and investments had plummeted to just 14 percent.

The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, calculates that Washington now spends seven times as much per senior citizen as it does per child.
It would be a tragedy of epic proportions if this country devolved into polarization over an argument of the young vs the old. Ron Brownstein has been one of the few journalists who's been warning us about that possibility for a while now - particularly when you take into consideration that the young are increasingly black, Latino and Asian while the elderly are overwhelmingly white.

I'd suggest that one way to avoid that kind of polarization is to take some small steps now to rectify the imbalance that has built up over the last 40 years. By beginning to align our federal budget a bit more closely to "our first job" as a society, I think that's exactly what President Obama is doing.

Courageous conversation or comforting lecture?

Jonah Goldberg wants us to feel sorry for country singer Brad Paisley and Senator Rand Paul. Towards that end, he's even willing to (almost) give Attorney General Eric Holder some props.
Are Brad Paisley and Rand Paul the bravest men in America?

Er, no. At least not by my lights. But the country singer and the senator are contenders for that title according to Attorney General Eric Holder, who in 2009 famously declared that America is a “nation of cowards” because it refuses to talk about race “enough.”

Holder was hardly the first, nor will he be the last, liberal to call for a national conversation on race. It’s one of the mossiest locutions in modern America.

Though often ridiculous and hackneyed, this isn’t necessarily a sinister or mercenary thing...

Less defensible is when calls for a national conversation amount to a trap. It’s a predictable pattern. Some poor dupe thinks people are serious about all this frank-dialogue talk. He sticks his head up to say something frank and quickly finds it separated from his shoulders.
What's fascinating to me is that anyone would think that a white person lecturing black people about race is a conversation. It's not. It's just another demonstration of white privilege.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been cynical about the ability of Americans to actually have a conversation about race for a long time now. And he's been on a roll lately about the Paisley song "Accidental Racist."
One of the problems with the idea that America needs a "Conversation On Race" is that it presumes that "America" has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.

I have had conversations with very well-educated people who, with a straight face, have told me that there are Black Confederates. If you ask a very well educated person how the GI Bill exacerbated the wealth gap, or how New Deal housing policy helped create the ghetto they very likely will not know. And they do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that "not knowing" is in its interest. There's no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible...

So we retreat to mushy, moist talk about "feelings," "intentions," "good people" and "loving fathers."

Paisley could have reached out and had a conversation with an artist who might actually challenge his worldview...

But acts would require a mind interested in something more than being told what it already knows. It would require an artist doing his job and exploring. It would require truly engaging a community, instead of haughtily lecturing it on how, precisely, it should react to great pain. It would require something more than mere reification. It would require something more than absolution. It would require talking to people who may not like you. It would require the rarest of things in this space where everyone wants to write, but no one wants to read--a truly curious mind.
The truth is that Paisley and Paul are trying to pull off the same thing most white people do when we talk about racism...ensure that we can do so without feeling any discomfort. Coates addressed this in a subsequent article.
I can't really remember the last time I saw a public figure do something racist and say, "Yes. I am racist. I am sorry and I intend to do something about it." Indeed virtually any "conversation" on race that would take place in this country must -- necessarily -- be premised on there not being any actual living racists, or any actual effects of racism.
This isn't about needing to feel guilty. Its about the fact that dealing with white privilege ultimately means challenging our world view. And we don't like to do that. It means accepting the reality that there are some things we've been wrong about. While we're struggling with that - its pretty damn uncomfortable.

I get why Coates is so pessimistic about that happening. But I'm an optimist by nature (something I know is fueled by my own privilege). The key is - as he said himself -  developing "a truly curious mind."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Daily Kos: A case study in epistemic closure

Like many pragmatic progressives who blog, I used to spend most of my time online at Daily Kos. Many of us quit writing there at about the same time. I know that for me the final straw was getting attacked - even by those I generally agreed with - for poking some questions at what had become conventional wisdom there.

Ever since Barack Obama's rise in national politics, Daily Kos has had mixed reactions to him. But there are times it has gotten ugly. Lately its the worst I've seen it. Since the day it was announced that President Obama would include chained CPI in his budget, the place has become a case study in what Julian Sanchez calls epistemic closure. Sanchez used the term to talk about modern-day conservatives. But listen to his description and then we'll see how it applies at Daily Kos these days.
Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted...Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely...And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
One of my routines is to read the news summary posted every morning on Daily Kos titled Abbreviated Pundit Roundup (just as I check out the roundup at Real Clear politics). This morning's edition was telling. It covered the first full day of punditry since President Obama released his budget. The roundup included 5 commentaries on that topic - all focused on critiquing the inclusion of chained CPI. They were from Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Andrew Fieldhouse, Stephen Henderson and Derek Thompson.

The choices were interesting in that there certainly wasn't a vacuum of commentary from progressives on the rest of the budget. For example, how about linking to:

Melissa Lazarín and Sasha Post at the Center for American Progress on President Obama's Budget Makes Historic Investments in Young Children

Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones on Obama Wants Mitt Romney's Favorite Tax Break to Die

Annie Lowrey at the New York Times on A Budget Focus on Inequality

Matthew Yglesias at Slate on The Class War Has Begun: Obama is waging it against the rich. The Republicans are waging it against the poor.

And another one by Derek Thompson at the Atlantic titled The Obama Budget: Tax the Rich, Spare the Poor, Remember the Young

That kind of analysis has gotten zero attention on the front page at Daily Kos over the last few days. And the community diaries haven't been much better. Its a steady stream of hair-on-fire about chained CPI.

To demonstrate what this means to people who spend most of their time there, one of the diaries that was part of their anti-grand bargain blogathon today was titled Chained CPI cuts Head Start, CHIPS, WIC, SNAP. Not much in the diary is true in light of the protections the Obama administration is insisting on. But when it was pointed out that almost all of the programs identified had been exempted from the effects of chained CPI, the authors first response was to suggest that the Obama administration had back-tracked.
WH is walking back C-CPI. Now saying it wont effect all these programs.
Then, when it was pointed out that they had been excluded all along, this was the reaction:
These protections create another quandary, if C-CPI is not applied to Fed Poverty guidelines, where does that put Seniors on SS, do they fall below the Poverty guidelines in ever increasing numbers? Where does that put retired seniors?
When it was pointed out that the President's budget also included benefit enhancements for Social Security recipients to protect those most vulnerable to poverty, we got this:
Right. But why the mish mash? Its like a 2nd year LA wrote this up, the WH got push back prior to budget release and frankly this looks like a walk back from blanket adoption .
So we're back to square one. You can almost hear the grinding of a mind in search of an escape from the cognitive dissonance.

And finally there was this from another commenter:
What part of the whole touching and cutting any part of the social security contract and arguing over the semantic minutiae orwellian language within the proposal that has absolutely no majority public support, is absolute political suicide, does not contribute to the deficit, is bad public policy , and does absolutely nothing to address the more immediate and pressing issues of our day do you not understand.

The mere fact you are even explaining and defending the detailed douchebaggery within the chained superlative enhanced CPI or whatever the Luntz/PetePetersen focus grouped language of the day emanating from the WH these days is ridiculous.
Since there had not been one iota of an attempt to defend chained CPI in the comments (the entire discussion was about correcting inaccurate information) this is the classic "My mind is made up - don't confuse me with facts!"

That is what epistemic closure does to you. It is the opposite of curiosity. It is the opposite of an open mind. It is the opposite of empathy. And it should be something that ANY liberal would do everything in their power to avoid.

My question would be...in promoting this kind of thing, how is Markos Moulitsas any different from Roger Ailes?

Sneetches on the beaches

Over the last couple of days, I've written about how the inclusion of chained CPI in President Obama's budget has dislodged the dangerous homeostasis that had developed in federal budget negotiations as well as reminded us that part of Obama's soft power involves maintaining your own balance while disrupting your opponent's.

And now Jared Bernstein weighs in with a much more fun way of saying the same thing.
The President’s offer to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security is confusing some conservatives. In the past, they’ve of course labeled such cuts a sign of Seriousness but his budget caught them off balance...

Anyway, initial responses ranged from the incoherent—”I don’t see this as fundamental entitlement reform as much as clarifying a statistic which does happen to save money” (Paul Ryan)—to the opportunistic “Let’s set aside our differences and come together on things we can agree on” (Eric Cantor saying let’s do CPI but not the higher tax revenues in the budget)—to the faux-outraged House GOP campaign chair Greg Walden who labeled the President’s budget a “shocking attack on seniors.”
Bernstein then goes on to point out how Rep. Walden earned himself a primary challenge from the Club for Growth for his remarks and ends with this.
Here Walden’s just engaging in standard guerilla tactics and he gets thrown under the bus for taking a position that is suspiciously close to Bernie Sanders. It’s starting to look like Sneetches on the beaches around here, folks!
If you don't get the Dr. Seuss reference to "Sneetches," check out the link. Its hilarious.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Music to my ears

Just a couple of headlines:

For the fifth time in just two months, Democrats hope to win a showdown procedural vote in the Senate Thursday morning — a burst of momentum which is beginning to raise fragile hopes of a bipartisan revival.

Gun control legislation is the immediate issue, but the math since mid-February has been consistent: more Republicans crossing over to vote for cloture despite continued opposition from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
House conservatives are growing restless.

With bipartisan deals emerging on guns and immigration, Tea Party lawmakers in the lower chamber are warning their leaders to slow down.
It's too soon to celebrate. But you'd have to be blind to not notice that the game is changing.

President Obama's budget and his priorities

In his last weekly address, President Obama talked about his North Star.
Our top priority as a nation, and my top priority as President, must be doing everything we can to reignite the engine of America’s growth: a rising, thriving middle class. That’s our North Star. That must drive every decision we make.
Matt Yglesias noticed how the President's budget addressed the inequality that is plaguing the middle class.
Obama expands Medicaid, increases EITC and Child Tax Credits, makes the Opportunity Tax Credit permanent, and spares the poor from the cuts involved in adoping the chained CPI. How does he do it? Well, he does it in several ways, but one big part of the story is reducing tax deductions for rich people.
Annie Lowrey noticed the same thing.
The Obama budget proposal released Wednesday, like other White House budgets before it, also emphasizes the problem of inequality and the failure of the American economy to promote a thriving middle class...

The budget includes several proposals to tackle inequality and wage stagnation.
  • Increasing the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour from its current rate of $7.25, and indexing it to inflation. The White House asserts that this would lift the wages of about 15 million low-wage workers.
  • Creating a “Preschool for All” initiative to provide early childhood education to 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families. The big idea is that this might improve economic mobility in the future.
  • Increased taxes on wealthy Americans, including taxing carried interest as ordinary income. Hedge-fund managers and the like use the carried interest loophole to pay preferential rates on their earnings.
  • Increased support for manufacturing, which the White House argues might be an important source of middle-class jobs.
  • Making permanent the expansion of the earned income tax credit and child credit, which were due to expire in 2017. The proposal also makes permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which helps families with students pay for college.
We all know that Congress is currently making some progress on a couple of President Obama's other priorities - immigration reform and reducing gun violence. His budget addresses those items both directly and indirectly. Here's an important bit about the latter from Ezra Klein.
But the budget — and the way it’s been rolled out — is playing a more subtle purpose, too. It’s meant to help pass gun control and immigration reform.

As Karen Tumulty writes, “For the first time in a while, members of the two parties — at least some of them — appear to be talking about getting things done.” Immigration and gun control really are grinding forward. But as everyone in those negotiations will admit, it’s touch-and-go. The key is to keep members of the two parties talking about getting things done.

The budget could have interrupted that. For the last three years, at least, the annual budget has heralded a period of angry polarization as Republicans mass to assail the president and Democrats counterattack. It’s been a moment for the two parties to recall why they can’t stand each other.

This budget was built to be different.
As I suggested yesterday, the inclusion of chained CPI upset the dysfunctional status quo that had emerged in recent battles over the budget. That opens the door for change.