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My reply to jblaque's impassioned LiveJournal post "An Abdication of Responsibility," 1/20/10:

Lyndon Johnson didn't get the Civil Rights Act through Congress by leaving it to them to display leadership, and signaling that no matter what passed, he would sign it.

Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act through Congress by walking up to wavering members of his party and putting them in a grip that congressmen and senators called "the full Johnson" (look it up). If he grabbed you in a full Johnson, it was his way of signaling you: "Cross me on this at your peril. Cross me on this and people in your district will suffer, and I will make sure that they know that it's because of you. Cross me on this and the volunteers at your headquarters will all go home. Cross me on this and the party will fund a challenger in your next primary. Cross me on this and nobody from your constituent service department will have their calls answered by any executive branch office. If knowing all of that, it's worth it to you to cross me on this, because you think the voters are that much on your side that they'll sacrifice every pork barrel project in their districts, every federal favor they need, and blame me rather than you for it? Well, that's your choice. But don't think for a second that I'm bluffing."

Franklin Roosevelt had Blue Dog Democrats in his Congress when he passed Social Security. Harry Truman had Blue Dog Democrats in his Congress when he passed Medicare. Lyndon Johnson had Blue Dog Democrats in his Congress when he passed the Civil Rights Act. Richard Nixon had Country Club Republicans in his Congress when he passed the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Environmental Protection Act. None of them got stabbed in the back by their own party members, let alone stabbed in the face the way Obama has been, because Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and Nixon knew something that Barack Obama doesn't seem to know. The President of the United States is the god-damned President of the United States, and the symbolic anointed and titular head of his political party, and neither of those are powerless positions from which you wheedle and beg as if you were negotiating from a position of weakness.

Sadly, no Democrat is afraid of Barack Obama.

I would start, frankly, with Joe Lieberman. He's the safest of safe targets, since he isn't even a Democrat any more. Now that he flatly can't be the 60th vote, he should kiss his beloved Homeland Security Committee chairmanship adios. Period. It's also long past time for the President to put the word down to the military academies, to the Social Security administration, and other executive branch offices that they shouldn't exactly rush to answer calls from Senator Lieberman's office. It's also long past time to find at least one of Senator Lieberman's beloved pet projects somewhere in Connecticut and declare it a waste of federal tax dollars, something that must be cut from the budget as a matter of principle, and send talking heads out to all the talk shows saying that it's time to get serious about cutting the budget, starting with this wasted spending in Connecticut. Never say why you're doing any of these things aloud, it doesn't need to be said. If asked, change the subject to some vaguely related subject that you'd rather talk about. You're the President of the United States, Mr. Obama. You can do that.

Make an example of two or three of the Blue Dogs, and the next time you sit down to negotiate, see if they don't negotiate in better faith, and if the next time they promise to vote for your bill if they get one concession, they keep their word this time instead of breaking their word and coming back for another bite of you.


Perhaps I've mentioned this before.

If you've never actually engaged in political action, if you've never volunteered for or worked for a party, you may be under the impression that the two parties are both monolithic blocs, that all Democrats believe "what Democrats believe" and that all Republicans believe "what Republicans believe." It's not so, and it never was so. Both parties are coalitions of smaller parties, smaller interest groups, united in opposition to each other. There's enough cultural overlap, enough values overlap, between the constituencies in each party that it's hard to draw the exact borders between the constituencies, and thus count them, but even the naked eye can see the difference between a Country Club Republican and a Social Conservative and a Nativist (racist isolationist), even the naked eye can see the difference between a Progressive Democrat and a Civil Rights Activist and a Blue Dog Democrat.

After a very short time of being politically active, there's a term I came up with to describe tiny little constituencies that bring just enough volunteers or money to the table to be given lip service to, but not enough volunteers or money to the table to dominate even the smallest part of the party, either party. These are constituencies that the people who run the party consider "outside of the mainstream," as "fringe" or "extremist" constituencies; they perceive that the cost of giving their "fringe" anything that they ask for as a condition of their support for the party, a cost measured in fear of alienating "mainstream" and "swing" voters, greater than the cost of making promises to their tiniest constituencies and then breaking those promises.

The term I uses for this is a "fuck you" constituency. As in, "fuck you, Nativists, what are you going to do if we break our promises to you and grant amnesty to Mexican illegal immigrants? What are you going to do about it, vote for the Civil Rights Democrats?" As in, "fuck you, Progressives, what are you going to do if we increase corporate welfare spending instead of breaking up the giant monopolies, if we cut taxes on the rich instead of bringing back truly progressive income tax rates, if we rule out single-payer before the negotiations even begin? What are you going to do about it, vote for the Country Club Republicans?" As in, "fuck you, Social Conservatives, what are you going to do if we promise you prayer in schools and outlawed abortion and lift not a finger on it when we're in power? vote for the Lifestyle Liberal Democrats?" As in, "fuck you, Civil Rights Activists, what are you going to do if we promise to help the Black community but instead continue locking up black men at 9 times the rate we lock up other drug users, what are you going to do if we continue helping employers abandon and banks foreclose in neighborhoods with over 50% unemployment? What are you going to do about it, vote for the Nativist Republicans?"

And your average American, having been taught by the talking heads on television that the Blue Dog Democrats and Country Club Republicans are the only serious grown-ups in American politics, the only people who actually understand how the world works and that the other constituencies, like the Progressives and the Reformers and the Civil Rights Activists and the Social Conservatives and the Nativists are all immature, ignorant, and/or dangerous radicals, likes this system just fine. They nod with satisfaction as the Ivy League educated, corporate funded Blue Dogs and Country Clubbers maintain the fiction that their way of looking at the world is the only valid one, and ridicule the other candidates out of the primaries, narrowing both parties down to a solid, reliable core of pro-corporate candidates in favor of maximum military intervention. They still differ from each other as to which corporations should be taxpayer supported and funded, the liberal ones or the conservative ones, and they differ as to which wars the US should make an excuse to join in on, the wars that serve liberal causes or the wars that serve conservative causes, and those differences matter a great deal to the Blue Dogs and to the Country Clubbers.

That leaves your "fringe" constituencies with only two plausible options. They can stay in the party, donate their money, show up to volunteer, work the phone banks and the Get Out The Vote efforts, and vote on election day, while continuing to make the case, inside their parties and to the broader American electorate, that they are right, no matter what the Ivy League universities teach, no matter what the corporate media selected talking heads say. Or they can throw the race to the other side, to punish their own side for lying to them, by closing their wallets and staying home. Those are the same two choices, whether you're a TEA Partier who isn't on Dick Armey's payroll or you're a Progressive: let them keep lying to you and hope that some day they come to realize that you're right, or punish your own side for lying to you.


Why I Do Not Support Obama-Care

To be honest, I had a hard time paying attention to anything President Obama said Wednesday night after he said this, let alone taking him seriously on the subject. From near the beginning of his speech:

"There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada's -- (applause) -- where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everybody. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end employer-based systems and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.*

"I've said -- I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both these approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have. Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn't, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch."
And what I say, then, is, I believe it makes more sense once you've said that to put it off until we have an actual Democrat, or gods help us even a liberal Republican like Richard Nixon, in the White House. Someone who would actually support Medicare for All, instead of some god-awful patchwork of public-private partnerships that's going to be an even bigger handout to already malevolent and wealthy corporations than Medicare part D and TARP were.

If nothing else, I insist that this makes more sense than the President's approach because the President's approach just plain flatly will not work. Contrary to what he claims, the reason that medical expenses in the US are skyrocketing is not inefficiency and waste. Nor, contrary to what the Republicans are claiming, is it malpractice insurance; this was solved at the state level two years ago, and malpractice insurance rates are down across the board. The main reason that health care costs have skyrocketed is honest-to-gods scarcity. And that scarcity is entirely artificial. And his approach does nothing to address the artificial scarcity of doctors, or the artificial scarcity of newly (wrongly) patented drugs. And the other reason why health care costs have skyrocketed is flagrantly corrupt profiteering in both the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Come back to me, either after the President has smartened up or after we get a new, smarter President with a plan that does these things:

  1. It should flat-out ban private health insurance. Private health insurance companies, without exception, cost 17% more than government-run systems do. They try to gain lock-in of doctors, hospitals, and practices and thus competitive advantage through incompatible billing and other paperwork systems. They have more layers of bureaucracy than even the most bloated bureaucracy in Washington, and they pay their managers way more, dozens or hundreds of times more for the top layers. They rake off yet more to funnel to stock market speculators who provide no health care at all. And because they're stuck competing for the scarce resource of medical specialists, they don't negotiate prices at all well, getting into bidding wars with each other over the most profitable specialists, which ends up driving up costs. The supposed "competitive efficiency" that we have repeatedly been promised that was supposed to make up for all of these administrative and overhead costs just plain doesn't exist. That the insurance companies keep insisting that any kind of a public plan, even one like Obama has proposed which would receive no subsidies and be funded entirely by its competitively priced premiums, would put them out of business is all the proof we ought to need that they should be put out of business. There. There's 17% savings, right away.

    And unlike private insurance companies, a government that takes your premiums and then denies you the benefits you paid for is accountable in the next election. If taxpayers paid for coverage and then got cheated out of it, it'd be a national scandal. But if you pay your premiums to Aetna, Cigna, or Kaiser Permanente and they then manufacture bullcrap excuses to deny you the benefits you paid for, all you can do is cry ... and no, this bill isn't going to change that, either. It'll just make them come up with new excuses to deny coverage. And they're highly incented to do so; they're not answerable to anyone when they do, and it's the only way they can keep raking off the maximum possible amount of all of that lovely free money that President Obama proposes to require us to give them.

  2. It should at least double the number of students admitted to medical and dental school, immediately. This will, within 8 years, bring doctors' salaries in the US down to where they are in the rest of the developed world, about 30% lower. There's another 30% savings, right away. Even if this was the only thing we did, it would solve the problem. People are entirely right to worry that increasing the number of people who can afford a doctor, without increasing the number of doctors, means more people will die on waiting lists to see a doctor. And if we what we have now were all of the doctors that it's possible to have, that would provide some economic justification (if not moral justification) for rationing who can and can't see a doctor. But medical schools turn away as many qualified applicants as they accept, because the AMA and the ADA have flatly opposed letting the number of doctors and dentists who graduate each year increase at the same rate that the population has increased. Solve that problem, and Republicans' entirely slanderous hypothetical "death panels" don't have to ration health care: nobody rations something if it isn't scarce.

    At its heart, Obama-Care is about price controls. It isn't supposed to look like price control because it's supposed to increase volume and decrease costs at the same time it (entirely unsuccessfully) attempts to control prices, but it is still a price control scheme. Price controls don't bring costs down. Eliminating scarcity, not dictating prices, is how you bring down prices, and all of the scarcity in our health care system is artificial. All of it.

  3. Speaking of scarcity, patents are an entirely legal way of enforcing scarcity. And that's why the government should immediately fund comparative effectiveness research for all patented pharmaceuticals. Where the drug companies can prove that their treatments are actually more effective than the drugs that are in the public domain, they would be allowed to bill Medicare for All for them. Where they can't, those drugs should just flatly not be covered until and unless the patient has tried the public domain alternative first. To pick an especially egregious example, we could have saved an awful lot of people an awful lot of heart attacks if more arthritis sufferers had been told, as we now know, that Celebrex doesn't work any better than aspirin for 999/1000 arthritis sufferers, and we would have all saved a ton on our insurance premiums if we'd known that, too. Or leave the heart attacks out of it: the best comparative-effectiveness study out there, the gold standard, is the one that compared plain old so-cheap-they're-free diuretics to "state of the art" patented blood pressure medicines, and found out that for every single patient tested, the diuretics controlled their blood pressure better. Where the science actually shows that the patented medicines work better, we should be finding some way to make them affordable for every patient that needs them. Where the science shows that the patented medicine works worse than the public domain alternative, we should be prescribing the public domain alternative and funding it, no matter how high the patented drug's manufacturer's advertising budget is.

  4. And speaking of patents, while we're at it, reform patent law. The metabolites of a drug with an expired patent are not a new invention. Adding time-release coating to a drug with an expired patent is not a new invention. Adding an extraneous ion or two to the end of the molecule that doesn't actually interact with the targeted cells, just to change the brand name, is not a new invention. Patent law requires that an invention be non-obvious before it qualifies for a patent; on all of the above, the courts have just plain gotten the law wrong. It's long past time for Congress to clarify the law.
That? That would be health reform. It would extend life and health for all Americans, and it would do it at a cost of 25% to maybe even 60% or 70% less than we're spending now. And it would do it without forcing people to just hand the insurance companies however much they ask for, and leaving the taxpayers on the hook for the "tax credits" to cover the difference between what Washington lobbyists decide you could afford to spend and what the insurance companies conspire to charge -- something that, not incidentally, candidate Obama and Senator Obama promised to oppose, that now President Obama boneheadedly supports.

As I said to someone else this morning, Democratic primary voters turned down John Edwards because he was too combative, too uncompromising, and too liberal. So instead we ended up with Barack Obama, who won't fight for anything worth fighting for, compromised away single payer before the negotiations even began, and has consistently been, on economic and health care issues, perceptibly to the right of Richard Nixon. I'm with Howard Dean, who said weeks ago on Rachel Maddow's show:

"It‘s just about—it‘s about money. It‘s about money, because when you have 72 percent of the American people thinking that they should have the choice instead of Congress, this is about money. And the insurance industry gives out of a lot of money. And, you know, this is going to be a hell of an issue in 2010 because—you know, honestly, what‘s the point of having a 60-vote majority in the United States Senate if you can‘t produce health insurance reform out of it? I don‘t—or excuse me, health care reform. You can get health insurance reform.

"This bill is going to cost a lot of money and isn‘t going to do anything if this compromise, this so-called compromise is true. This compromise does nothing except it will reform insurance. That‘s a good thing to do, but they ought to strip the money out of it because we reformed insurance like this in Vermont 15 years ago. It‘s a fine thing to do, but it doesn‘t insure more people. It‘s not worthless because it makes it fair, but it‘s not health care reform, and nobody should pretend that it is."
But then, I'd think so, wouldn't I? I voted for Dean in the primaries. And I'd do it again. I'd trust Howard Dean with health care reform; unlike Barack Obama, Howard Dean knows what he's talking about and his heart and his head are in the right place. Give me Howard Dean in the White House, or somebody else more like him than they are like Barack Obama, and then I'll be ready to talk about health care reform.

* Footnote: Straw man argument. And not for the first time. They let you graduate from Harvard Law, arguing like that?


Frank Schaeffer, Jr., on the Rachel Maddow Show ("Nazism is Not a Metaphor," 8/7/09):

"What's really being said here is two messages. There's the message to the predominantly white middle-aged crowds of people screaming at these meetings, trying to shut them down, but there's also a coded message to what I would call the loony toons, the fruit loops on the side that's really like playing Russian Roulette. You put a cartridge in the chamber, you spin, and once in a while it goes off. And we saw that happen with Dr. Tiller. We've seen that happen numerous times in this country with the violence against political leaders, whether it's Martin Luther King or whoever it might be. We have a history of being a well-armed, violent country. And so, really, I think that these calls are incredibly irresponsible. ...

"When you start comparing a democratically elected President who is not only our first black President but a moderate progressive to Adolph Hitler, you have arrived at a point where you are literally leaving a loaded gun on the table and saying, 'The first person who wants to use this, go ahead, be our guest.'

"Now, all these people, when something bad happens, will raise their holy hands in horror and say, 'Of course we didn't mean that. We were just talking about being American. It's American to protest.' B.S. They know exactly what's out there. There is a whole public out there that went out and stocked up on ammunition and guns, thinking Obama would take away their weapons. One such person shot down three policemen in Pittsburgh. I'd like to know exactly what Glen Beck, and Fox News, will say the morning after someone takes a shot at our President, or kills a senator or congressman. And if it's one of the people who, we find a little note in their car or the literature or their television watching habits who's tied to these people who are stirring the pot, or tied to these foundations that people like Dick Armey are running and trying to use insurance company money to make these fake grass roots movements, then we'll see what happens. But at that point, we'll be in a new zone, and it'll be too late.

"So my warning to my old friends on the right, and those who read my book Crazy for God know that without the work of my father and C. Everett Koop and myself there would have been no Pro-Life Movement, no Religious Right to be fomenting these things from, it's the same cast of characters: I came to a place in my life where I realized that I'd made a big mistake. Now we've crossed a line where hate and vitriol have gone to a place that is anti-democratic and anti-American. ... We've arrived at a point where enough is enough.

"So these people are hate-mongers, and they are distributing a kind of information on two levels: one, the lies about the health care system requiring euthanasia and all this nonsense, and on another level, as I say, leaving a loaded gun on the table, they're calling our President 'Hitler,' they're spreading this rhetoric, they're spreading these lies. It isn't just a question of being bad journalists any more. These are bad Americans, and they are putting all of us at risk."

I'd embed the video of this segment, but LiveJournal doesn't seem to support embedding MSNBC clips. Please, go to rachel.msnbc.com and watch the rest of Rachel's show from last Friday night, if you didn't already (and why not?) and if you can (please!) spare the 45 minutes or so.

Increase the Supply

There's one criticism that nobody from either party is making of the Obama/Pelosi health care plan, not the Republicans, and not the Blue Dog corporate Democrats, either, and it would, ironically, be a fair complaint. You see a teensy little hint of it in the oft-heard argument about whether or not there's anything in the plan that would actually reduce costs. That's important, because if we increase the customer base by increasing eligibility, but we don't reduce the cost, then the total cost of healthcare just plain has to go up. Period. But so far, that argument has taken the form of arguing about whether or not preventative medicine saves lifetime costs (and contrary to what Obama and Pelosi would have you believe, experiments in this area have not been conclusive), arguing about just how many dollars can be saved by upgrading and standardizing billing and patient records systems. What's missing from that argument is the single most obvious question: why does it cost so much in the first place?

And, frankly, if there weren't a massive political taboo about answering that question, if the answer to that question weren't deeply Forbidden Lore and completely off-limits in polite company, the answer would be quite obvious, because it's the same answer as every other time you ask the question about why any other fill-in-the-blank is so expensive: demand is high, supply is low. Well, then, you ask whenever demand is high and supply is low, why is the supply so low? Here's what nobody, from either political party, has the guts to say to you: because the dominant cost in the health care industry is set by two of the most untouchable, politically powerful price-fixing cartels, the two most corrupt unions in the entire country: the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association. Even the similarly collusive and equally greedy price-fixing cartel that is made up of the tiny number of CEOs of pharmaceutical companies lives in awe of the clout, and the brazenness, of the AMA and the ADA.

Here is what nobody has the guts to tell you, for fear of what would happen to them if they did. Back in the 1970s, the ADA and the AMA decided that there was something morally wrong about having doctors and dentists earn a middle class salary. And, they concluded quite rightly, there was a reason why attempts to price-fix the salaries of doctors and dentists weren't working: there were just too many doctors, and far too many dentists. The barriers to entry to the field were too low. So what they did about it was adopt a political position of absolute and total opposition to any expansion of medical schools or dental schools. In 1970, the US population was 203 million. Now, the US population is 309 million, slightly more than 1.5 times as high ... but thanks to the unceasing efforts of the ADA and the AMA, we graduate the same number of doctors and dentists per year that we did back in 1970.

They say that if they didn't restrict the number of classroom openings in medical school, too many unqualified people would become doctors. But the number of medical scandals hasn't declined as admissions standards have climbed, as medical schools mobbed with 50% more applicants per seat than they had in 1970 get to be more picky. No, on the contrary, even with the tougher admissions standards we have today, you can be entirely qualified to enter medical school, you can demonstrate through your grades and your test scores in pre-med that you are entirely capable of becoming a doctor ... and get turned away, in favor of someone more qualified. But saying it that way doesn't change the fact that you were still perfectly qualified to be a doctor, and would have made a perfectly good doctor, as good as any doctor that's graduating today, and maybe even better than some, but you won't be; at best, you'll be a nurse practitioner, or a medical technician.

Confronted with this ... which they almost never are ... the medical associations would argue that we must restrict the supply of doctors per capita, of dentists per capita, because if neurosurgeons couldn't look forward to a salary of $950,000 per year or more, nobody would want to become a neurosurgeon, because if dentists couldn't look forward to a salary of $175,000 per year or more, nobody would be willing to become a dentist. (And yes, those numbers are after operating expenses, including malpractice insurance, and long after the medical school loans are paid off.) They insist, contrary to all evidence, that there is nobody who'd be perfectly willing to save lives for, say, $500,000 per year, that nobody would be willing to repair teeth for a measly $90,000 per year. Which is deranged, or else they wouldn't have to be stopping people from trying to do so, so they can support those salaries! Nor can they erase the historical evidence that, back when medical schools and dental schools were expanding as the US population expanded, there were in fact no shortage of perfectly happy, perfectly comfortable middle-class dentists and upper-middle-class surgeons; indeed, the great advances in heart repair and transplant surgery were made by surgeons who made a great deal less than today's doctors do.

Greg Mankiw, the tireless (and tiresome) supply side economist, recently blogged that all the proof he needed of how the superior American health care system is the best in the world can be found in two readily available facts. First of all, he pointed out, American doctors must be the best in the world, or else they wouldn't be getting paid twice as much! And secondly, if American doctors weren't the best in the world, we wouldn't be able to deliver the quality of health care we do with half as many doctors per capita as every other industrialized nation! This tells you all you need to know about the intellectual rigor behind supply-side economics: the man who literally wrote the standard textbook on Chicago-School economics (a) thinks that American health outcomes are as good as the rest of the industrialized world, when our actual statistical outcomes are closer to third-world levels, and (b) he isn't enough of an economist to realize that the reason doctors doubled their salaries, relative to inflation, isn't because they became twice as good, but because (as he himself knows) they became twice as scarce.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, as (arguably) one of the very last of the Baby Boomers, I was told that part of the promise of America was that no matter what color you are, what gender you are, what neighborhood you were born in, or what your parent(s) did for a living, if you did the work, if you learned the material, if you proved that you were good enough, there was nothing you couldn't do. And maybe, in the 1970s, that was almost sort of true, or at least more so if you were white and male. But in the intervening time, we allowed powerful price-fixing cartels to set quotas for just how many people, regardless of whether or not they did the work, regardless of whether or not they learned the material, no matter how good they proved they were, would be allowed to become doctors or dentists. Once those quotas are filled, ideally with privileged children of the upper-middle class, everybody else who was capable of being a doctor gets shunted back down to become a nurse practitioner, a physician's aide, a medical technician. Once those quotas are filled, ideally with the somewhat privileged children of the middle class, everybody else who was capable of becoming a dentist gets shunted back down to become a dental assistant, a dental technician, a dental hygienist. In other words, only half of our qualified people are allowed the artificially scarce privilege of being real doctors or real dentists, so that the person working on the $15,000 a year telemarketer's teeth can be guaranteed a salary ten times as high, so that the person stitching the replacement veins onto a $90,000 a year computer programmer's heart can be guaranteed a salary ten times as high. All of the missing doctors and missing dentists who might have done it for half as much (and still lived quite comfortable lives!) must, instead, serve as the barely-working-class, chronically emotionally abused servant class of the doctors and dentists.

I don't care if we import enough doctors and dentists from overseas to double their numbers. (I had the good fortune to have my dentist before-last be a Russian Cold-War refugee, and don't let anybody tell you that there are no med schools as good as ours; she was a better dentist than almost any other dentist I've ever had work on my teeth.) I don't care if we do it the more reliable, and maybe safer, and certainly less internationally politically explosive way by doubling the number of medical and dental school classrooms, even if we have to temporarily import doctors and dentists to teach in them. All I know is this: whenever anybody, any politician or spokesman or journalist or think-tank intellectual or author, from either party, either pro-reform or anti-reform, talks about health care, the question you ought to be asking them the first is: "what do you plan to do to increase the amount of health care available in the United States?" Because you can't solve even the tiniest of the problems with health care costs, let alone the main problem, if you don't increase the supply. That's just basic economics.
It's finally here! Jess Bachman over at WallStats.com has come out with this year's "Death and Taxes!" I put my order in the first day: being able to put the whole Obama administration's budget request for all discretionary spending, 2009 and 2010, up on the wall in a single, entirely readable, very informative 24" x 36" poster is worth every penny of the $24 he charges. Bachman, who does info graphics for a living, has a side business in economic infographics via his site, WallStats.com, and this one is his flagship product, from back when the site was called TheBudgetGraph.com. He takes two months every spring to take the current year's budget request, pull out all of the spending over which Congress and the President have any year-to-year say, and categorize it, then categorize it within each category again.

I love having this thing up on the wall of my living room in a poster frame. The first time anybody new realizes what it is, they do one of two things: look for some government program they depend on personally, or look for some government program they despise. Almost entirely without exception, they are stunned to the point of being slack-jawed to find out that they were nowhere near right as to that program's size relative to the rest of the federal budget. And this is a long-standing burr in my saddle: Americans have always felt entitled to complain about how much or how little the government spends on this, that, or the other thing without having even the slightest idea how much it actually does spend.

You can see the whole thing, with really easy to use Flash-based pan-and-zoom technology provided by Zoomarama, at wallstats.com/deathandtaxes. And this year, he even made it available to be embedded in blogs, like this (if it works):

It's pretty self-explanatory, if you look at the legends. Military spending is mostly on the left, civilian spending is mostly on the right -- except where civilian agencies are forced to absorb part of the military budget, where the part that's military is also marked. (See, for example, the Energy Department, which is almost entirely cleanup of radioactive waste at old nuclear weapons plants; all other energy research and development spending is a sliver of that.) A couple of the ways the Obama administration changed the budgeting rules complicated this year's chart, and I'm not entirely happy with the choices Bachman made:
  1. Remember when the Obama administration canceled the "War on Terror" and replaced it with "Overseas Contingency Operations"? Bachman went along with this, which eliminated one of the larger circles on last year's chart, the one for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, military spending line items get a percentage in gray, at the end of the line, saying how much of each number is related to those wars. The only place the old number still shows up is as a tiny little summary, buried deep in the lower-right corner under the big Department of Defense circle: Baseline DoD spending = $534B, up 4%; Overseas Contingency Operations total = $130B (on top of the $534B), down 8%; Total = $664B, up 2%. Bet you didn't realize Obama was asking for an increase in military spending? Drill down on the chart, you can see who the actual winners and losers are in the DoD. But back to my complaint, it's now left up to you to do the math, and visualize, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq total roughly 20% of all DoD spending, or 11% of all discretionary spending. The old way of showing it made that a lot clearer.

  2. This year also has a lot, and I mean a lot, of supposedly one-year changes to the budget, under the stimulus bill. Given my druthers, I would have broken that out as its own separate circle, but since it's all going to existing departments, I can sort of see why Bachman included it in each department's individual subtotals. But what makes it more confusing, though, is that he wanted badly to show that some of the huge increases are (again, supposedly) only temporary, so what he did was created an entirely hypothetical "what the 2010 budget would look like if it were exactly like this only without the stimulus" number, and shows that as the first percentage on the line, not the second, putting 2010 before 2009. Confusing. So where you see something like (to pick one at random) "Federal Railroad Administration 2.701 Billion +35% +595%" (presumably thank you to the former Senator from the state of Amtrak), what it means is that in 2009 Obama has asked for $2.701B for that department, which is up 595% what they got last year. But if you take out the stimulus spending, it would have only been up +35%. I think that's a very confusing way to display that information.
But my personal favorite part of each year's diagram, the one I start out with, turns out to also be relevant to today's political news, the Obama press conference on health care overhaul. This is Jess Bachman's inset, in the lower right corner, that includes all federal spending, not just the discretionary budget, and shows all federal income inside that chart:

If it's not obvious to you how to read that, it's basically a pie chart inside a pie chart. The outer ring of bubbles show the size of the only really big items in the federal budget: $901 billion to the military, $696 billion to Social Security retirees, $520 billion to "other" executive branch departments (which will be clearer in a minute), $477 to unemployment insurance pay-outs, $452 billion to Medicare (retiree health care), $290 billion to Medicaid (health care for the poor), $176 billion in interest on the national debt, $57 billion to the Veterans Administration, and $24 billion to the other two branches of government. The reason for that $520B "other" category is that there's nothing else in the entire federal government budget that comes anywhere near the size of those numbers, it's all a bunch of individual chump-change numbers that total up, among the hundreds of them, to that one number. The inner ring of bubbles is where the money comes from: $1.05 trillion in personal income taxes, $939 billion in money that comes in (supposedly) just for Social Security (FICA taxes) and Medicare (insurance premiums), $221 billion in corporate income tax, a bunch of tiny little chump-change taxes, and $1.405 trillion dollars in new borrowing.

Here's how this is relevant to today's political news story. I prefer to total up Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA into one larger administrative category: Health Care. What the resulting table looks like is:

Military$1,050 billion28%
Health Insurance payouts$749 billion20%
Retirement Insurance payouts$696 billion19%
Unemployment Insurance payouts$477 billion13%
Interest on National Debt$176 billion5%
Everything Else$544 billion15%

Thus confirming the old truism: we don't have a government. We have an insurance company with an army. And what President Obama has joined former presidents Clinton, Nixon, and Truman in warning us is that that $749 billion is the fastest growing, most out of control part of the federal budget, and it has been since, well, at least since the Truman administration; by comparison, even the rate of growth in the military/industrial complex (that President Eisenhower warned us against) has been tame. The same people who've been screaming and howling about out-of-control deficit spending need to be made to understand (or, in the case of some of them who know better and have just been lying): we cannot save the US dollar, we cannot cut the deficit, without getting a whole heck of a lot better price for the health care we're buying with tax dollars than $749 billion and rising. Seriously -- look at those rates of growth. Defense, +1%, even in wartime. Medicare +8%, Medicaid +22%, VA +13%, even during a recession. The status quo is just flatly unsustainable.

Looking at this chart, it should also go without saying, it's as plain as the nose on your face, that even if we zeroed out every single other government department, not just the earmarks but the whole freaking departments like the entire federal law enforcement apparatus, customs and immigration, education, agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control, national parks, all maintenance on government buildings, the entire federal courts system and every employee of Congress altogether, it would shave only about 1/3rd off of the deficit. We're not going to "trim the fat" or "eliminate waste, fraud and abuse" our way out of the deficit, not even if 100% of what every other department spends is "fat" or "waste, fraud, and abuse" in your opinion (and you're wrong), if we can't substantially cut health care industry profits and defense contractor profits. Period. It's that or raise personal income taxes and corporate income taxes, across the board, by about double.

And, specifically, every point I've made above, and every other observation you'll make poking and zooming around, and showing it off to other people when they see it on your wall, demonstrates exactly why I say that each and every one of you should make sure that you Congressman and both of your Senators have copies of this up on their walls, and why a copy should be in every classroom, and library, in America: there is no way to argue rationally about any of this with people who don't even know the basic facts.

P.S. One last tidbit for your entertainment, this one more explicitly political: Bachman also dabbles in infographics for a personal-finance website called Mint.com, and collaborated with them on this lovely little YouTube video:

Your Most-Important Liberty

Campaign for America's Future blogger, history whiz, and policy genius Sara Robinson talked me into reading David H. Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America about a month ago. It's a vaguely interesting book, if (I think) less useful than Robinson pitches it to be. Fischer's basic premise is that the pre-revolutionary United States was colonized in four distinct waves, each of which consisted almost entirely of people from one of four historically, culturally distinct regions of England, and that most of our regional and political subcultures are derived from the regional cultures of those four parts of England: not just politics and religion, but also dialect of English, marriage customs, child-rearing customs, diet, popular names for children and for landmarks, and so on. It's entertaining, but mostly fluff. But one part of it did stick with me, and I thought of it again when I read Rich Perlstein's Newsweek column for July 10th, "Beyond the Palin: Why the GOP is falling out of love with gun-toting, working-class whites." (h/t David "Orcinus" Neiwert)

You see, one of Fischer's contentions is that because of the way the various regional cultures of Great Britain clashed with each other historically, all descendants of Britain and its colonies are in love with the word "liberty" and use it as their central rallying cry, even though (and this is the important part) they don't mean the same thing by it. They recognize that there are a lot of individual liberties: liberty to do this or that, liberty from this or that, whatever. But the four different folk-cultures Fischer identifies each considered one of the many kinds of liberty to be the number-one essential liberty: no matter how free you are in any other way, you're not really free unless ...

  • To the Puritans who settled New England, you weren't really free unless you had the liberty to enforce comformity with social norms, either by shaming people into complying, or expelling those who can't be shamed. The most essential liberty is the feeling of safety you get when you're among people who are the same kind of people as you.

  • To the Cavaliers who settled the lowland coastal South, you weren't really free unless you were free to own slaves. The most essential liberty is the right of the best people, however that's defined, to own the lesser breeds and force them to do what their betters want them to do.

  • To the Radical Protestants who settled the Chesapeake Bay, you weren't really free unless you had the freedom to say, do, or believe whatever you wanted in total safety, even from people who disagree. The most essential liberty is the right to be protected, via the power of the state, from other people forcing their beliefs, their culture, their way of life on you. And here's the part that's especially relevant to what Perlstein wrote the other day ...

  • To the "Scots-Irish" Borderers (who were already being called "rednecks" back in Great Britain) who settled the Appalachians, you weren't really free if there was anybody who was allowed to snub you, to look down on you. The most essential liberty is the liberty to be just as rude to the wealthy people who own all the land in the county, and to the people you owe so much money to that they for all practical purposes own you, as you would be to the meanest, poorest drunk.
And ever since Richard Nixon invented the "Southern Strategy," and certainly ever since Ronald Reagan perfected it, that's been the Republican coalition in a nutshell: people who expect to be free to own other Americans keep the votes of most of the people they own by remembering not to talk down to them. Hence the spectacle, that used to be seen all over this country as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, of wealthy bankers and state governors and federal legislators going to agricultural county fairs, if they wanted to keep their money and their political offices and all of their power, wearing proletarian clothes and eating messy food with their hands and stomping around in animal waste and affecting to be "just common folks." Don't underestimate the power of that coalition. Or the danger it poses to those of us who have no interest in being owned. On the other hand, never under-estimate the political utility in showing rednecks just what their wealthy Republican overlords really think of them.

Thank the Gods for the Feds

Early Friday evening, a crushing weight was lifted off of my chest. The Tiller assassination hit me on a lot of levels, some of them personal, some of them political. But one in particular was weighing heavily on me: from where I was sitting, evidence of a cover-up by the Wichita police was inescapably clear, unambiguous, and 100% certain. This isn't something that I have the luxury of feeling surprised by, either. If you've read anything by any abortion provider, clinic employee, or clinic volunteer, or if you've spoken with any of them about this as I have, one thing you hear from very nearly all of them is this: cops don't care what happens to an abortion clinic or to an abortion provider. A disproportionately large number of the police chiefs in this country are, themselves, anti-abortion. But even the rest of them would quietly and secretly be delighted if the protesters and the terrorists they inspire managed to shut down their town's abortion clinic, because to a police chief, an abortion clinic is an "attractive nuisance."

So many people are willing to go to such illegal lengths to shut one down that there is no police department in this country that can afford what it would cost to fully investigate every crime against an abortion provider or an abortion facility. So even the best of them wish the problem would just go away, and the easiest way for the problem to just go away would be if the abortion providers and clinics moved out of their town, and became some other police department's problem. So while I wanted to scream with rage at the screen when I read that the Wichita police chief rushed to tell reporters that Roeder acted alone before Tiller's body had even been removed from the church, so early that even if it was true he couldn't possibly know that, I couldn't make myself feel surprised or shocked. At most, I was shocked that he was that sloppy and careless about giving away the fact that he had no intention of investigating to see if Roeder had any co-conspirators; shouldn't he at least have been ashamed to reveal that so early?

None the less, a substantial chunk of the anger that was gnawing at me and robbing me of my ability to sleep for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time was coming from my entirely justifiable fear that the rest of Roeder's terror cell were still at large, were still free to conspire against additional doctors and clinics, and once they found another willing patsy to do the last bit of dirty work and take the fall for them, they would kill again, and that none of the people whose job it is to do something about that were going to do so. So it came as an overwhelming relief when I found out, Friday evening, that the US Department of Justice had just put out a press release reading, in part:
The Department's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas have launched a federal investigation into federal crimes in connection with the murder of Dr. George Tiller. The federal probe will consist of a thorough review of the evidence and an assessment of any potential violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act) or other federal statutes. ... The FACE Act was enacted by Congress in 1994 to establish federal criminal penalties and civil remedies for violent, obstructionist or damaging conduct affecting reproductive health care providers and recipients. "The Department of Justice will work tirelessly to determine the full involvement of any and all actors in this horrible crime, and to ensure that anyone who played a role in the offense is prosecuted to the full extent of federal law," said Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division."
Thank all the holy gods, because this is something that the Wichita police department very deliberately, in the first few hours after the assassination, tried to prevent. In the first few hours after the shooting, they repeatedly told reporters that this was a crime by a Kansan with no links to anyone outside of Kansas, against a Kansan, within Kansas, with no part of the crime taking place across state lines, and therefore there was no federal jurisdiction. They didn't explicitly say "feds, back off," but they were pretty clearly unhappy that the BATF and the FBI responded to the 911 call from Dr. Tiller's church. And that left me very, very angry because if the Wichita police department was the only one that investigated this crime, I was pretty sure we were never going to get an answer to any of the following questions:
  1. Tiller was famous for never going anywhere without at least one armed bodyguard. Only a fairly small number of people knew that there was one exception, that he didn't bring his bodyguard with him to church. Given that Roeder lives in Kansas City, who did the surveillance that turned up this tidbit, and how did it get to Roeder?

  2. Furthermore, Tiller would only have been vulnerable on Sundays that he was an usher. Any time that he wasn't ushering, he would have been embedded in a crowd to big for Roeder to get through to get to him. Did Tiller usher every service? If not, how did Roeder know that Tiller would be ushering this service? Who knew that in advance? Most of the people I assume would know are pretty clearly above suspicion, like the deacons and the other ushers, but who prints the programs for Tiller's church?

  3. And here's a really ugly one. Even as an usher, there was only a very narrow window of time when Tiller and the other ushers would be alone in the lobby. Two minutes earlier, and the lobby would have been too crowded for Roeder to reach Tiller with a gun. Two minutes later, and the lobby would have been empty. And church schedules don't run on split-second accuracy; the start of a service can vary by 10 minutes or more. Judging by the photographs of the building that I've seen, there's no way for someone in the parking lot to see how full the lobby of the church is, so how did Roeder know exactly when to walk in, how did he know the exact minute that if he walked in there would be nobody between him and Tiller, unless someone in the congregation text messaged him with it or otherwise signaled him? Remember: months ago, Roeder himself suggested, on the Operation Rescue chat forums, that someone from that group infiltrate Dr. Tiller's church.

  4. When Roeder was arrested, reporters photographed his car, and visible on the top of a pile of papers on the dashboard was an envelope with the name and phone number of Operation Rescue "senior policy adviser" Cheryl Sullenger, who served a two year prison term in 1988 for the attempted bombing of an abortion clinic. Sullenger, who says that her violent days are behind her, has given at least two, maybe three conflicting stories to reporters about her contacts with Roeder. Was that phone number on the dashboard of Roeder's car after the assassination because he called her before the assassination? Or after? And what did they discuss?

  5. Within an hour of the crime, the description of Roeder and his car, with license plate number, were released to the media. Reporters found out where that car was registered and went there, and asked the neighbors if they'd seen that car. According to early press reports, the neighbors knew instantly who they meant, because the house was a local nuisance. So many people were constantly coming and going from that house, day and night, every day of the week, that the local neighbors bitterly joked that it needed a revolving door. Some, but only some, of the gatherings of people sounded like worship services. Question: Who were those people, and what did they know about Roeder's plans?

  6. Another complication: Roeder supposedly no longer lived at that address. It turns out that Roeder moved out of that house months ago, and was living across town in another part of Kansas City. So why was his car still there almost every night? Who does own that house, and what are they using it for?

  7. Roeder was arrested slightly over three and a half hours after the shooting, on the outskirts of Kansas City. According to Google Maps, it should have taken him only two and a half hours to drive that far. Where was he during the missing hour, and who was he with? Police say they fanned out and checked every hotel and motel in the area, and he wasn't there. His car was being looked for by every patrolling police car. Who hid him? Or did one or more police officers see him and let him pass?

  8. And given the relatively low number of interstate highways leaving Wichita, how did he get as far as Kansas City, especially if he didn't leave Wichita for an hour? Why didn't the cops catch him on his way out of town?

  9. Furthermore, given that Roeder saw one of the ushers photograph him, and given the likelihood that he saw the same usher photograph his car as he left the parking lot, why was Roeder driving towards his home in the Kansas City area? Did he really think he was going to get away with it? Or was he heading that direction to distract police attention from Wichita?

  10. Roeder spent a lot of time unemployed, recently, and at the time of the shooting his reported income was $1100 a month. But a third of that was being garnished to pay off a credit card he had defaulted on. And supposedly he lived alone. So how in the heck was he affording the gasoline to drive 150 miles each way from Kansas City to Wichita every day for Tiller's trial, when Tiller was accused of performing illegal late-term abortions on viable fetuses without medical necessity?

  11. Furthermore, Roeder's employer is given as Quicksilver Airport Delivery. Roeder had a past conviction for transporting a partially assembled pipe bomb, and was a known past associate of the local chapter of the Montana Freemen white-supremacist militia. Shouldn't a job at an airport have required a background check, and if so, how did he of all people pass one?

  12. Where did Roeder get a gun, if he was so broke? Who armed him? What did Roeder tell that person about why he wanted a gun?

  13. And one really, really big and ugly one: if Roeder only has $10 in the bank, why was he so fiercely determined to get a judge to set bail? Who did he think was going to put up that five million dollar bail for him?

  14. And finally, in light of all of the above, can anybody think of any non-sinister reason why the Wichita police department was in such a hurry to conclude that Roeder was a "lone nut" and in such a hurry to chase off the federal investigators?
Maybe, now that the feds are involved, we'll get some answers. But I already know this much for a fact: Scott Roeder did not act alone.

Before you comment, please read this blog's updated policy on commenting about abortion. Thank you.
Not quite five years ago, I predicted that Wikipedia would be remembered historically not as an encyclopedia, not as a news service, not as a popular Internet destination, but as the beginning of a change in the way we talk to one another that will be credited, by historians in the future, with having saved civilization. (See "Make Wiki, Not War," July 17th, 2004.) In particular, what I was lauding Wikipedia for was two interlocking principles: "Edit Boldly" and "Neutral Point of View." Since then, I'd add one other, implicit in those two, now explicit as a WikiMedia Foundation policy: "Assume Good Faith."

What that means, both to me and in practice, is this. When an issue is unsettled, each side makes their argument, with citations to neutral, generally accepted to be reliable sources wherever the facts are in dispute. (Hence the more famous and widely parodied Wikipedia policy, "[citation needed]".) But where Wikipedia differs from previous attempts to settle arguments is that if you think that the other person has made their case in a way that is dishonest, inflammatory, propagandistic, or in a way that assumes bad faith on the part of the people the author of that part of the article disagrees with, you are explicitly encouraged to delete that argument. If you have the skill, you are encouraged to try to replace it with a more honest, less inflammatory, more neutrally phrased, good faith statement of the same principles, the same theory, the same interpretation of the facts. But you don't have to. If you delete it, and don't replace it with something better, it is up to them to restate their case in a way that fits Wikipedia policy. Or, if they disagree that what they wrote wasn't neutral enough in point of view, they can revert your deletion. And you can revert their revert. Keep doing this for a little while, and maybe someone else will come in and propose a compromise that you can both agree is fair, whether or not you both agree with it. If the revert-war goes on long enough, the software will alert an editor who will lock the whole page and force both (or all) sides into a separate discussion forum, out of sight of the main page, to argue it out until they can agree on how both sides will be able to present their arguments. And I sincerely and truly and genuinely believe that if all of civilization adopted these rules of debate, it would save civilization.

I am not the WikiMedia Foundation. I haven't even bothered to edit Wikipedia in months, I think, and longer than that since I did more than fix an occasional typo. This web page is not Wikipedia. It's my personal LiveJournal. So I'm going to rule, here, in place of the Wikipedia editors, on what is and isn't Neutral Point of View on the abortion debate in America. You may not like what I'm saying here. You don't have to. It's a big Internet. Blogger, Blogspot, LiveJournal, Facebook, Yahoo Groups, they'd all love to give you your own forum for free, and on your own forum, you can discuss abortion (or not) by any set of rules you choose to impose, or without any rules at all, as long as you're within the Terms of Service of your forum provider. These are my rules:

I am ruling both the terms "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice" to be misleading and propagandistic. These terms may no longer be used as terms of debate in the comments on bradhicks.livejournal.com. If you use the term "Pro-Choice" to describe your side of the argument, I will contradict you and ask you to stop doing so here. But because the term "Pro-Life" goes even further and ascribes bad faith, and because it incites violence, I will go even further: those who describe their position as "Pro-Life" will have their comments deleted. Repeat offenders to either policy may have their LiveJournal or OpenID accounts banned from commenting; they may still comment anonymously, but those comments will remain hidden until I personally clear them.

(I'd settle for disemvoweling people who persist in using the banned terms, but LiveJournal doesn't support it.)

Let me clarify that if you are quoting a published source, or a public figure, for the intent of passing along what they said, you may quote them. For now. If this permission gets abused as a way of getting around the intent of this policy, I will revisit it. This restriction applies to arguments you are making in your own name (or under your own pseudonym) here.

What's wrong with "Pro-Life?" First of all, it's just flat-out dishonest: if a fetus is not viable outside the womb, it is not alive, any more than Terri Schiavo was still alive when they disconnected her life support. (If you only oppose abortion after fetal viability, see "what's wrong with both," below.) Secondly, it assumes bad faith: it casts anybody who disagrees with the "pro-life" side of being in favor of killing living people. Thirdly, it is inflammatory: it is exactly this kind of rhetoric, accusing abortion providers (and doctors who prescribe birth control pills, and pharmacists who fill those prescriptions, and doctors who fit their patients with IUDs) of being professional assassins and the women who buy those birth control pills, use those IUDs, and procure those abortions of being people who hire hit-men to kill other American citizens. Even if that is what you think, you may not say that here, because I do not consent to having the comment section on my blog used for you to recruit more assassins like Michael Griffin, Paul Hill, and Scott Roeder. Persuading those people to do your killing for you is something I will, from now on, be exactly zero tolerance towards. Nor is this my policy only with regards to this blog. If you say the words "pro-life" in my presence, I will respond to you exactly the way I would respond if you called someone a "nigger" or a "faggot." I will (as politely as I can manage) ask you to please not use that term in my presence, as I find it offensive.

If you oppose abortion under all or nearly all circumstances, there is an accurate term for that, and that term is "anti-abortion." If you wish to argue for the anti-abortion side and are unwilling to use that label, or some equally fair, equally unpropagandistic, equally uninflammatory label for you position, you may do so without any challenge or hindrance from me ... anywhere other than in the comments section of this blog or in my presence.

What's wrong with "Pro-Choice?" First of all, it's incoherent and misleading. Abortion-rights advocates aren't arguing that people should be allowed to make any choice they want. Not even the staunchest "pro-choice" advocate would argue that it is also a woman's choice if she wants to set a church on fire, or shoot the President of the United States, or send money to al Qaeda, or serve heroin to third graders. This is about one particular choice. But even that's misleading, and in a way that's misleading in an entirely unhelpful way, because this isn't about the "choice" of abortion. It's about the right to an abortion. And that right is, frankly, an inalienable one, even more so than Life, Liberty, or the Pursuit of Happiness, and that is because if a woman is determined not to carry a fetus to term, no force on earth can make her do so. If you believe that women should have that natural right as a legal right, you are not "pro-choice." You "support abortion rights," and I will thank you to use that terminology from now on when commenting in this blog, or any equally accurate, equally descriptive, non-inflammatory phrase that (as I'm also demanding of your opponents) grants good faith, as much as possible, on the part of people who disagree with you.

I stand by that "as much as possible," though, and it's why I'm not going to react as strongly, either in person or in the comments sections of this blog, to people who absent-mindedly or ignorantly or impolitely use the term "pro-choice" after I've asked you all not to. What this has to do with the phrase "as much as possible" is that it is undeniably true that unlike the term "pro-choice," the term "pro-life" has been used to solicit assault, arson, and murder. Therefore people who use the "pro-choice" term will get a little more benefit of the doubt from me, a few more chances to change their ways before they get put in the comment moderation queue.

What's wrong with both of them? And frankly, I have another reason to want to ban the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" from my presence and from the comments on this blog: they both assume a false dichotomy. By way of introducing my point, here, let me excerpt a Gallup Poll, taken regularly ever since Roe v Wade, quoted from PollingReport.com's abortion page:

"Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?" (Margin of error: ±3%)
Under Any
Legal Only
Under Certain
In All
Apr 197521%54%22%3%
Jul 198025%53%18%4%
Apr 199031%53%12%4%
Apr 200028%51%19%2%
Jun 200524%55%20%1%
May 200922%53%23%2%

36 years of hard-core propaganda from both the abortion rights side, and the anti-abortion side, and they haven't moved the public debate in that whole 36 years. Within the margin of error of the polling, we remain exactly where we were when the Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade: 20% who think that Roe v Wade doesn't go far enough in granting abortion rights, 20% who think that abortion should be illegal under all or nearly all circumstances, and (and this is the important part) a clear and unambiguous and unshakable majority who support Roe v Wade.

And, ironically, most of them don't know that. Because both sides' extremists, both sides' radicals (and I use both terms not as perjoratives but as descriptives, in this case, in the literal sense of "people whose views are outside of the mainstream"), as a propaganda tool, keep trying to persuade the vast majority who don't want to be dragged into this argument that there is no middle ground, that they must either support abortion rights unambiguously and in all or nearly all cases, or they must oppose abortion in all or nearly all cases. Nobody has coined a term for them. What's more, because nobody on either side of the propaganda war over abortion has any incentive to do so, nobody is telling them that what they want, really, is already settled US law. Pollsters have long known what a solid majority, not a plurality but an actual majority, of the American people want: they want abortion in the first 12 or 13 weeks of pregnancy, when the fetus more closely resembles a transparent soccer ball the size of a pinhead than it does a person, to be a private matter between a woman and her doctor. They want abortion after about 24 to 26 weeks, when the fetus could survive on its own if delivered via emergency c-section, to be illegal unless the baby is already doomed to die or the woman's health is in grave risk. And the vast majority of the American public have not made up their minds, even within themselves, let alone as a body politic, about the time period in between. They would like to hear an unimpassioned, reasoned, practical, legal, sane discussion about where to draw the line, and what exceptions to allow, in between. If you describe the compromise that Roe put in place, which allows abortion from week 14 to 26 in general but allows a wide variety of restrictions on the procedure, like waiting periods and mandatory counseling and restrictions on where and how the procedure can be performed, a pretty solid plurality, maybe even a majority, are okay with that. If the American people weren't being lied to every day about what Roe v Wade actually says, Roe v Wade wouldn't even be controversial.

And if you're one of those people? If that's what you support? Then when someone tries to make you choose between anti-abortion and abortion rights and doesn't allow you a middle ground, when somebody tries to tell you must choose sides between "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice?" Don't take the bait. Stand up against the extremists on both sides and clearly and unambiguously and directly state: "I support Roe v Wade."

One-Time Limited Exception to the Rules: Because I know that this is a controversial change, I know that some people will be even angrier and even more likely to take their traffic somewhere else if I don't at least allow them to make their case for why I'm wrong to impose this restriction. So I will swallow my bile and for a limited time, let's say the next week at most, I will allow you to violate the rules against describing yourself as "pro-life" or "pro-choice" in the comments to this one last journal entry. Still, you may only do so subject to the following restrictions: you may do so only for the purpose of defending why that and only that label is acceptable. You may do so if it is so that you can explain why you think that your preferred label of "pro-choice" or "pro-life" is neither dishonest nor propagandistic nor inflammatory; if you can't do those three things, don't bother. And you absolutely will discuss this in a polite way and without insulting each other, or I will delete your comments and whole comment threads if necessary. If there is any part of that that is unclear, you can contact me off-list and ask, or you can take your chances; nobody will be comment-deleted for first offense, let alone comment-banned, for this post only, and only from now until next Saturday.

And, I will say it once last time, you may disregard these rules as much as you like, as long as you do it anywhere other than here.



Holy cats. I'm prone to losing track of time, so I didn't realize that it's been over a year since I wrote, "The Stimulus Bill is a Crock. Don't Worry, Though. Much." (1/25/08) George Bush's plan (if you choose to dignify it as a "plan") to fix the whole national economy by giving everybody $300 to $1200, borrowed against the national debt, to go out and spend did not, in fact, solve the whole national economic problem that we were already in last January. Which surprised nobody who was actually involved in the plan, as I wrote at the time, because it wasn't meant to solve the problem. It was meant to reduce the heat and pressure on the people who were negotiating the actual solution to the problem. What I predicted at the time was that once voters were in "wait and see" mode and thinking about something other than the imminent collapse of the banking system, financial industry negotiators and government negotiators would quietly go back to the bargaining table and close the gap between what the government said it could afford and what the banks said they needed (and were entitled to). So I wasn't terribly worried. Until along about fall of last year, when not only had the negotiations not moved an inch, but banks and brokerages and investment funds were starting to collapse world-wide.

Barack Obama was elected President on a promise to do something about this, something that would actually work. But watching him and his people these last couple of weeks has got me asking, plaintively, "wait, did we elect the smart guy, or the senile one?" Obama did serve in the US Senate, right? For more than one year? Then how in the expletive-deleted did he not learn what an extraordinarily bad idea it is to label any piece of legislation "must pass"? There's a word for "must pass" bills in the the political lexicon, and the term is "Christmas tree bill." See, you and I, if we were told that the whole country's in danger if a certain bill doesn't pass and pass soon, and we believed it, we'd remove every obstacle we could, because it's that important, right? Sadly, that's not how US Representatives and US Senators (from either party) think. When they hear that a bill "must pass," their reflex is to say, "well, then, since the country will collapse if this bill doesn't pass, and you need my vote to pass it, you have to give me and my constituents whatever else we ask for in exchange for my vote." So all "must pass" bills get loaded up with every home-district pork barrel project and every bit of ideological baggage that every single legislator brought with them at the beginning of the session, like ornaments on a Christmas tree, until you can't even see the original bill through the cruft. Only this was even worse, we find out. Barack Obama didn't even send over a "must pass" bill. He sent over a one-sentence guideline that could be stretched to cover anything in the world, and then told Senate Democratic leaders that whatever they came up with, that'd be a "must pass" bill. The stupidity, it burns.

And the resulting bill is, as all Christmas tree bills are, a total nuclear whale abortion, a mutant abomination of a bill that deserves to die a sudden, ugly, and ignoble death. But having been larded up with enough pork, and enough partisan BS, from both parties to scrape together a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, it won't, and there goes $800 billion out the window. Not one single dollar in the entire bill is addressed at our immediate short-term problems. Not one. Which means that once we drain this pool of toxic waste off of the legislative calendar, either by death or by Presidential signature, then we start all over again on solving the problem. Gods help us all if we turn out to actually need that $800 billion to do so. The US Treasury Department said the other day that we can blow that $0.8 trillion and still borrow as much additional money as we could possibly want. But to paraphrase something that solarbird said the other day, that's the sort of thing that you only say if people are openly doubting it, the kind of assurance you only give when even you know you might be lying.

I'm still not panicked. Quite. Because there is one good sign, off to one side of the whole bullcrap "stimulus" debate. You have to put together two clues to spot it, but it does mean that serious negotiations are, finally, after a year and a half of the US financial services industry just flatly refusing to negotiate in good faith, starting to happen. But before I explain how I know that, let me review the problem, not least of which because it'll give me a perfectly good excuse to use a metaphor for the crisis that I've been itching to use. I originally heard this as an ethnic joke, as a kid, but it works just fine without the ethnic markers, so let me tell it my way:

Back during the Great Depression, a certain farmer noticed that the unemployed people who lived around him were stealing melons out of his field because they were starving. The problem he had with that was that he had loans due, too; he needed all of those melons, come harvest time, or he was going to be just as broke and unemployed as them. But asking the neighbors didn't help. Putting up signs asking people not to steal didn't help. Putting up fences didn't help. And he had to sleep, some time. So finally he hit upon a solution. One evening, he put a sign in the field that said, "Attention: ONE of the watermelons in this field has been poisoned." Now, since only he knew which watermelons were safe to eat, nobody could steal any watermelons. And this lasted for a day or two. And then, when he woke up in the morning and went out to his field, the sign had been vandalized. Now it read, "Attention: TWO of the watermelons in this field have been poisoned."

If nobody knows which watermelons are actually safe to eat? If nobody can come forward and admit to having poisoned watermelons? If nobody can trust each other, after threatening to kill each other? That whole field of watermelons just dropped in value to zero. And that, my friends, is exactly what happened to everybody's mortgage loans. We now know that some of the mortgage loans that were pooled in with perfectly ordinary mortgage loans were "poisoned" -- issued to people that the lender knew flat-out wouldn't be able make the payments once the teaser interest rate reset, hoping that either people would be able to refinance to fixed rate off of the appreciation, or failing that that they would be somebody else's problem by then. But nobody knows yet which "watermelons" have been "poisoned." Nobody even knows how many "watermelons" have been "poisoned." And so the banks, brokerage firms, pension funds, and other investors who own those "watermelons" are stuck, having spent all the money they had on these things that they now can't sell, because nobody in their right mind would buy one without first testing it to see if it's poisonous. And the testing will take longer than the banks have; by law, they have to have enough assets on the books, and the loans they've issued against assets have to be backed up by assets that are worth enough, that the bank is technically solvent. And almost none of them are, way more of them aren't than the FDIC can afford to pay off. And this isn't the first time in history this has happened.

When this happens, there are only two possible solutions. One is nationalization, or what a Chinese economist called in an interview the other day, "socialism with American characteristics." The government just flat-out gives the insolvent banks and pension funds and so forth however much money it takes to get them solvent by buying preferred stock in the company, up to 79.9% ownership, making them nominally solvent (hopefully) in exchange for getting to dictate their corporate policies and, if the Treasury secretary or the President so desires, replacing up to 4/5ths of their board of directors with government appointees. We've done it before, during national crises, but never to banks until this crisis; the idea freaked people out. In fact, nobody actually likes the idea. But the only alternative is for the government to buy all of the "poisoned watermelons," all of the assets that can't be accurately valued in time to save the banks' balance sheets, and then assign a government agency to go through and sort out the whole mess. Forensic accountants look for evidence of criminal conduct, and refer it to the Justice Department. Any just blatantly stupid investments get written off. The remainder get repackaged and auctioned off for what they were actually worth (but nobody knew it) at the time, and every time the government has done this, it's come within a hair's breadth of breaking even. And what has bogged down the negotiations for a year and a half now is one question: "for how much?"

The financial services industry, unsurprisingly, started from a negotiating position of "100%." They wanted the taxpayers to buy those assets at face value. Their arguments aren't even all that hard to understand. The fundamental math behind these securities was (supposedly) sound, so they really should be worth that much, which means that the government can pay 100% and barely lose money, if at all. And the last time the banking industry needed to be bailed out, after the junk bond fiasco, the government paid 100% and broke even, more or less, so why isn't it fair to pay that much this time? And, frankly, if the government pays less than 100%, then the stock value of those companies will drop like a meteor and stay down, and half the pension funds and 401Ks in America are invested in those stocks. And a year and a half ago, the government's counter-offer was "20%," 1/5th of face value. Why? Because that's how much we can afford, so it had better be enough. Because there was a lot of bad faith in the valuation of those securities, and that shouldn't be rewarded. And because it's not the government's responsibility to manage the stock market, not the government's responsibility to guard those companies' profit margins, only to keep them from collapsing altogether and not one penny more.

And for a year and a half, there was nothing, but that was okay with me, as long as negotiations were still going on. But the longer it took (I really, really expected a deal by last September) the more worried I got that something had gone deranged in the financial industry's CEO's minds, that they were bound together in a suicide pact to hold out for 100% or else all go down into the darkness together and drag us down with them. It wasn't the most likely outcome, but it was getting harder and harder to rule it out. And then, in the last week or two, two separate news stories came out. One was just a throwaway line in an opinion piece, I'm sure you missed it. I'm sure you saw the other piece, but I'm equally sure that you misunderstood it, because as best as I can tell, everybody misunderstood the significance of it. The first was in an AP opinion summary, a backgrounder on the financial industry meltdown. And when it got to this point in the summary, it quoted an anonymous source close to the negotiations as saying that the assets could be bought by the government for a price "between 22% and 50%." Do you get the significance, now? The government's position moved by 2%. The financial services industry gave in by 50%. We know now who needs the deal more. Just from that one factoid, you can see the probable end-game: negotiators for the Treasury department and the financial industry will announce a settlement, sooner or later, in the 25% to 30% range, and we're probably fine. Banks can go back to lending then, businesses can stop laying people off, the Treasury will own all of those fraudulent teaser-rate loans and can stop the foreclosures, people thinking of buying houses can stop worrying about another wave of foreclosed houses being dumped on the market and hurting the value of a house they just bought, the people fighting to avoid foreclosure can go back to something like normal consumption patterns, and the whole bloody economy can start to recover. If the remaining gap gets closed. And that brings us to the second story, the one I'm sure you did see.

The other day, Barack Obama announced that if the US government nationalizes any more banks or funds, the CEO salaries at those funds will be capped at $500,000 per year. If any bonuses at all are given, they can only be given in options that cannot be exercised until the taxpayers get every single dime they put into those companies back first. And there was much rejoicing, because there is a lot of (in my opinion, entirely reasonable) anger in this country about CEO salaries.

I hope you didn't think that any CEO salaries were actually going to be cut. If so, I apologize for being the one to break it to you: no actual CEO salaries or bonuses will be impaired by that announcement in any way. If you were cynical enough to guess that, you were probably still wrong, because you were probably wrong about why not. That wasn't a serious proposal. That was a "poison pill," a negotiating tactic. No CEO is going to let his company's negotiators accept that deal. Which is presumably what President Obama wanted. My informed guess is that having given 50%, the industry was feeling a mite weak in their bargaining position, so they tried their own poison pill: if you don't give us at least 50%, we might as well give in and let you nationalize us. With an undercurrent of, "go ahead, we dare you to nationalize us. We have enough lobbyists to make sure that the government overseers will be toothless." I think President Obama announced that CEO salary and bonus cap so that they'd see just how popular it was with the voters, so they'd see just how powerless their army of lobbyists would be at preserving their autonomy and their perqs. I think it was done to take nationalization off of the table. And if I'm right, expect an announcement very soon as to the final price the taxpayers will pay when the Troubled Asset Recovery Program gets resuscitated. Maybe we did elect the smart guy, after all.

We still have short-term problems, but they're almost entirely related to unemployment. A truly honest stimulus bill would have just extended unemployment benefits, moved people whose COBRA had run out into Medicare, frozen foreclosures, and maybe given Fanny and Freddie enough money to refinance everybody in America with a toxic teaser-rate loan at 1/3rd of their current take-home pay for 30 years; if somebody thought that a loan with payments of that much was a good idea, maybe we should just have to hope that it is. In any case, it would have been a much cheaper bill than the Christmas tree that's about to pass, and a lot simpler, and a lot easier to defend to the voters, and a lot harder for legislators from either side to vote against without making themselves look like total putzes. I'm disgusted that the administration chose this stupid Christmas tree bill as their diversion, as yet another way to buy time for TARP negotiators. But I'm still not panicked. There may still be enough money the Treasury can borrow to buy those assets, when the price gets agreed to, and the signs are promising that a deal might finally be near.

On the other hand, I thought that a year ago, too, and I was wrong. I better not be wrong this time, or we're all going to get hungry sooner rather than later.
Let me get something out of the way before I write the next journal entry. You should go over my next journal entry with a fine toothed comb. Not looking for typos, not looking for trivial errors, but you should doubt my sincerity, and my honesty, and you should above all doubt that what I'm going to suggest would work. I will be telling the truth as best I know it. I do sincerely mean what I'm going to say, public policy wise, about why I think the President and Congress should do what I'm going to suggest, I'm not just saying it because of some hidden agenda. And I think the historical evidence that what I'm going to suggest is the right thing to do is ample, clear, unambiguous, and right ... but then, I'd think so, since I've been making this suggestion during every economic downturn I've lived through since the Carter years. But if you're smart, you'll start from the assumption that I'm wrong and dishonest, because what I'm about to do is something that is mostly only done by idiots and the politically or morally corrupt:

I'm going to say that we're in a crisis, and that the best way, maybe the only way, out of the crisis we're in is to do something ... specifically, to do something that I've wanted us to do for the last several decades, whether we were in crisis or not.

And whether it's John Ashcroft and the career attorneys at the Justice Department responding to 9/11 with a laundry list of completely non-terror-related over-reaches of prosecutorial and investigative power that the Justice Department had been asking for ever since the Supreme Court started restricting their power back in the 1970s, and relabeling that tired old laundry list "the PATRIOT Act"? Or George Bush responding to 9/11 by saying the only way to be safe from al Qaeda was to do what he'd wanted to do since before he was even elected, namely overthrow Saddam Hussein? Or Bill Clinton saying that the way to fix the recession he inherited from George H.W. Bush was to cut capital gains taxes and cut taxes on businesses in general, something that had been a signature issue for the Clintons going back to Hillary's first days on the Wal-Mart board of directors, both when times were good and times were bad? Or even Barack Obama saying that we need to free up money to rescue our economy with by ending the War in Iraq, when he was all about ending the War in Iraq long before the economy collapsed? Distrust that person's motives, and distrust their "facts" as well.

When someone is oh-so-quick to rush forward in a moment of crisis with a plan to save us all, and it just happens to be the same thing they wanted before the crisis, it almost never means that they really think that their plan will save us from the crisis. It's almost always naked political opportunism combined with cynical emotional blackmail. It means that they've got something to "sell" that they know you wouldn't "buy" if there weren't a crisis to blackmail you with.

That being said? I think the odds are about 4:1 that Barack Obama is about to screw up one of the single most important things he was elected to do, namely save the economy from the wreckage of our global financial services industry, by listening to the wrong people, the same kinds of people who got him in big political (and almost legal) trouble back in Chicago when they were giving the same wrong advice. He's a Harvard graduate, he graduated from Harvard at a time when both political parties were drinking the same poisoned Flavor-Aid, he's a creature of his time and a member of the ruling elite, so he believes the same thing that all of our political elites believe -- and he, and they, are wrong. Something I was just reading on one of the big political analysis websites backs me up on this, and I want to comment on it, because what he should be doing instead of what he looks like he's going to do relates to a subject very near and dear to my heart, something that a previous government did that changed my family's history for the better permanently so I have my own very personal connection to this issue, something that I've thought was the right thing for the government to do back when I was a naive young technocrat, then when I got brainwashed by John Stormer into a Christian fundamentalist hard-right Republican, and still thought was the right thing to do when I matured into the cranky old left-libertarian political progressive that I am now. Which ought to mean that I'm selling snake oil. There is no one thing that's the right thing to do no matter which party is in charge and no matter whether the economy is going up or going down.

But I think I'm right on the facts, right on the history, right on the economics, right on the morality, and right for the country on what I'm going to talk about in the next journal entry. Still, you should keep in mind: someone who thinks what I do would say that whether it was true or not.

My Pre-Inauguration Thoughts

I hope you had a good Martin Luther King Day Sale.

Does that sound insulting? We didn't used to say that Washington's Birthday sales diminished the memory of George Washington or of white people in general. We don't even suspect that Columbus Day sales are insulting to Italians. (First nations survivors, maybe, Italians, no.) But the subject of white versus black is still a sensitive spot, like a tooth that's just been pulled; it makes us nervous to even talk about it. I've said for years, though, that I'll know that we're truly over the race thing when we celebrate MLK Day the way we celebrate St. Patrick's Day: young people of all colors will go out over the weekend and get trashed on malt liquor wearing buttons that say, "Kiss Me, I'm Black!" Everybody will brag of being at least some tiny percent black. (Which, in America, we virtually all are; it's at least as true as it is when Americans on St. Patrick's Day all claim to be some tiny percent Irish.) And on MLK Day, we'll all rush out to the stores to take advantage of the MLK Day sales, which a few cranky sarcastic comics will note used to be called "January White Sales." And then we'll all go home to each family's own version of the Traditional Martin Luther King Junior Day Meal. Does your family eat ham hocks or fried chicken on MLK Day? Do you have your own traditional chitlins recipe to share? Who brings the collard greens? And kids will ask how did we get talked into having to eat watermelon when it's so not seasonal in January?

That's when we'll know that it's no big deal: when we simultaneously celebrate race and mock it, when we all claim to have always been on the right side, and when we demonstrate that we've so thoroughly forgotten what all the hate was about that even the most ridiculous and traditionally offensive symbols have been defanged of their ability to hurt by the weight of time and habit, when the sharp rough edges of pain have been smoothed down by the inexorable flowing stream of "it's been so long nobody cares."

We sure as heck don't know that it's no big deal now. If you think that having elected this particular black man President and swearing him in as the proverbial "leader of the free world" proves that we're so thoroughly over "the race thing," think about it this way. Here's what we just proved: a black man who graduates near the top of his class from Harvard, who wins award after award, and writes multiple best-selling books while passing up a high-salary career for an almost Mother Theresa-like devotion to public service, can prove himself just barely qualified to hold ... the same job that George W. Bush was considered qualified for. Wouldn't it really be a lot more reasonable to say it will be proof that we're "over the race thing" when a black man can be as big a screwup with a history of alcoholism, drug abuse, and going AWOL from military service as we knew George W. Bush was, as famously "incurious" (read: stupid) as we knew George W. Bush was, a guy who only qualified to get into college at all because his dad was a big donor and who only graduated by taking the easiest possible classes and only barely passed those? When a black guy doesn't have to prove that he's a brain surgeon, rocket scientist, fashion model, action hero, and popular saint just to get one of the best jobs? Then we'll know that we're done.

Don't get me wrong: progress has been made, more progress than I was willing to confront when I wrote my bitter blog entry after Obama's one big speech on race during the campaign. And even I, for whom Obama was my third or fourth choice for the Presidency this year, can't bring myself to be so cynical as to even consider the possibility that an Obama administration will treat natural disasters in white neighborhoods with compassion while sending in the military to "pacify" black neighborhoods after natural disasters, unlike a certain recent president I could name, and that's racial progress right there (sad to say). But after all the feel-good, "look how far we've come," "Dr. King's dream is alive" symbolism tomorrow is over, we're still going to wake up on Wednesday in an America where cops are far more likely to shoot black men than they are to shoot anyone else, out of mistaken fear that the black men are somehow more dangerous. Those same police departments also make up even the shallowest excuses to search cars driven by black men, in the equally mistaken belief that black men are statistically more likely to sell illegal drugs than anybody else.

When President Obama's appointees rush to work on the wreckage that was caused to our entire global banking system by a speculative investment bubble in collateralized debt obligations backed by fraudulently issued subprime mortgages on properties that weren't anywhere near the value of the loan by any objective standard, they will find it inescapable to notice (if they haven't already) that black families were four times more likely than white families with the same income and background to have been robbed by their mortgage brokers, because so many mortgage brokers thought they could get away with it if they only robbed black families. And with unemployment rates approaching double their normal level, black families are facing their traditional every-two-decade reality: "last hired, first fired," and out of fear that black employees will be less useful or more trouble-making, nearly all companies only get around to hiring black people when there's nobody else left to hire. As the old saying goes, when the white economy gets the sniffles, the black economy dies of pneumonia. And we've now had three elections in a row where white election officials, most of them Republican, have worked harder to keep black people from being able to vote than at any time since Jim Crow, but I don't see anybody in jail for that, or even under indictment yet. Those are all forms of bigotry that are already currently illegal, but they're also all very, very common, and how often do you see the perpetrators brought to justice for any of them?

Will an Obama administration Justice Department aggressively target cops who shoot black men, or will he reject that as "too divisive"? Will an Obama administration DEA, Office of National Drug Control Policy, and National Institute of Mental Health assertively educate the police, the news media, and the public about the truth that blacks and whites use and sell drugs at roughly identical rates, so anybody who singles out black drug dealers as the whole problem is being racist, or will they reject that as "dwelling on old wounds"? Will an Obama administration Treasury Department prioritize home loan workouts for black families and will an Obama administration Justice Department aggressively prosecute criminal loan officers, appraisers, and mortgage brokers who selectively preyed on black people (and other vulnerable groups like Hispanics, immigrants, and the elderly), or will that idea be derided as "not forward looking"? If an Obama administration Labor Department considers putting employers on notice that they'll be watching the lay-off patterns to see if they result in defacto resegregation of their workplaces as "whites only" shops, will that be seen as a prudent warning to spread the pain around evenly, or will it be seen as "tearing the country apart over quotas" or "reverse racism"? Will Ohio governor Ken Blackwell ever be brought to justice for denying voting machines to black neighborhoods in Cincinnati, will Karl Rove ever go to jail for "caging" black voters in Florida, or will those criminal investigations continue to be starved of resources for fear of being accused of "partisan finger-pointing"?

I don't know. I'm not just saying that. I honestly don't know, because, however dubious I sound here, I do hold out some hope that the first black President of the United States could mean actual progress on the most important issues that stoke white fear and black anger. That's not the sense I get of him. The sense I get of him is that when it comes to race and racial justice, he considers the job of the first black President of the United States to merely be to increase white Americans' comfort with him as one particular black man, for them to see that a black man can be the President of all Americans, just the way JFK prioritized (in his short career) convincing people that a Catholic wouldn't use the Presidency to rob, diminish, or attack Protestant Americans. But I do retain a sliver of hope for more, because as this very President reminded us all (to my tearful shame at having to be reminded), "hope is never false." Maybe all this intentional conflation of Martin Luther King Junior Day symbolism with Presidential Inauguration symbolism doesn't have to taste like ashes in my mouth. But at the risk of offending the generation that was raised on "self esteem," this cranky old guy would feel a lot better if we waited until after we'd done the hard work and gotten the job done before we congratulated ourselves on what hard workers we are and what great work we're doing.
I've been asked by several friends, and at least one other reader, why I haven't said anything about President-Elect Obama's choice of Saddleback Church megapastor Rick Warren to give the benedictory prayer at his swearing-in ceremony, his inauguration, on January 20th. What I had to explain to them was that I was, originally, merely disappointed. Then the indispensible solarbird (who you should be reading if you want to stay up-to-date on the economic crisis, by the way) posted a link to something anonymously guest-blogged at Andrew Sullivan's blog: "Rick Warren and the Ex-Gay Movement" (12/18/08) ... and I became incoherent with rage. Literally incoherent, with literal rage; no rhetorical exaggeration this time. And I knew instantly why: this one hits me in a very, very personal spot, an unhealed wound. I alluded to this hurt back on March 29th, very intentionally withholding details. Well, the other night a friend put me on the spot as to why, exactly, I didn't trust myself to be coherent about Rick Warren right now, and I gave him some of the details, explained my hurt and my rage. Having heard them, he argued that it was even more important for me to say this, even if I'm not entirely coherent, because my hurt about this is important, people need to hear it, so here it is.

Almost all of my long-time readers came here by way of what is (now) the second-most-linked thing I ever wrote, my 2004 five-part series "Christians in the Hand of an Angry God." In that series, I argued that the alliance between supposedly Biblical literalist fundamentalist Christianity and the far-right wing of the Republican Party in America is the result of an overt, explicit conspiracy by members of the Republican anti-communist caucus of the 1960s to enlist the country's fastest-growing Christian denominations into the Republican Party, and that the seminary leaders and professors who joined this caucus in this cause knowingly and intentionally distorted the explicit teachings of the Bible on poverty and wealth, homosexuality, abortion, and feminism in order to better conform "Christian" doctrine, as it was taught from America's pulpits, with the reactionary politics of the Republican Party. At the time, people asked me what could be done about it, and I said that anything that could be done about it was going to have to be done by actual Biblical literalist Christians who, through their own study of the Bible, learned that what they'd been taught by their seminaries and their pastors was a pack of lies, who worked up the nerve to publicly confront those lies.

At the time I wrote that, and increasingly since, people have held up California mega-church pastor Rick Warren as an example of a guy who was doing just that, and in one regard it has been true. He hasn't come to terms with or confronted all of those lies about what the Bible teaches, but he has been quite vocal about what the Bible actually has to say about poverty and wealth, and that's put him at odds with quite a few of his fellow fundamentalists, most of them older men and women still personally loyal to the oaths they swore to the Republican Party decades ago. So when Barack Obama needed to burnish his Christian credentials among white racists who consider the African Methodist Episcopal Church, of which he's a member, to be little more than a faux-respectable pseudo-Christian front for the Islamist black nationalist movement, it was a natural that he'd accept several invitations to be interviewed by Rick Warren, including accepting Rick Warren's invitation to bypass the traditional Commission on Presidential Debates and hold the real first televised presidential debate of 2008 at Warren's Saddleback Church. (You may recall that I had a colorful thing or two to say about that at the time, too.) And since then, people have gotten a reminder that while Warren's willingness to confront the Republican Party on issues of economic justice does not make him a true Bible-believing Christian: he was a major campaigner in favor of California's Proposition 8. And not on the semi-legitimate, or at least debatable, grounds that I brought up (it's a radical change in long-standing marriage customs that people aren't ready for yet), but on the grounds that (as he continues to falsely claim) God Hates Fags. To a fair number of Democratic Party activists, the God Hates Fags rhetoric is something so hateful (even if they don't know, as I've shown, that it's also false) that spouting it in public should render a public figure radioactive to decent people, down there with overt white racists and neo-Nazis and other people any sane politician is embarrassed to be seen in public with.

And, frankly, I agree. But as disappointed as I was, I couldn't bring myself to be surprised that Barack Obama disagrees. Anybody who knows anything about black culture in America, even if they didn't know the rhetoric and history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, ought to know to assume that a black man, however urbane and educated, is an anti-gay bigot until proof to the contrary shows up, and I don't mean evidence to the contrary, I mean proof. Barack Obama is a smart man, and knows what he has to say to get elected as a Democrat, but I take it for granted that he has no problem with Rick Warren's position on homosexuality. I assume that like most black men, he fears it from the bottom of his gut and hates it with a fiery passion, if nothing else than from a very real fear of being seen by other black men as a possible sissy if he doesn't at least occasionally bash gay men. So I was disappointed to hear that he was going to have the first person to pray over him at his Inauguration be a gay-bashing preacher, but I couldn't bring myself to be even vaguely surprised. If you're surprised, if you thought the election of a Democrat to the White House was a good thing for gay men, you are dangerously ignorant of what it means that the Democrat in question is black. And that's where I was content to leave it, what I was inclined to write when I got around to it ... until I saw the Andrew Sullivan piece, and lost my shit, just completely lost it.

Let me put it concisely and bluntly first, and then defend my case, instead of working my way up to my conclusion as I ususally do: this "sex addiction ministry" fad in America's Christian churches, both liberal and conservative, both Protestant and Catholic, is a sick, twisted, manipulative, coercive, and overtly dangerous cult. And I knew that even before I lost someone to it. So when I found out that Saddleback Church has an "ex-gay" ministry, I was merely disgusted, but when I found out that its "ex-gay" ministry is run along the "sex addiction ministry" model, I went completely fucking ape-shit crazy with rage.

Oh, and before I go on? I miss my long-lost copy of Camden Benares' ZEN without Zen Masters. So I was surprised and delighted to find that the exact quote I wanted from it was something I was able to find via the "excerpt" link on Amazon.com's "Look Inside" feature, and I include it at the right. That being said, let's talk about the "sex addiction ministry" fad, and then I'll leave it as read what it says about Rick Warren (as Susie Bright has said, perhaps even personally) that he sponsors it.

First, let's start with a fact that nobody likes to talk about. The biggest crock of shit that anybody has ever tried to sell you, an even bigger crock of shit than the lie that tax cuts increase government revenue, is the lie that people "become perverts" by choice. The plain fact of the matter is that when anybody, anywhere in the world, begins to suspect that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual, transgendered, kinky, or polyamorous, they realize even before they're out of childhood what this means if it turns out to be true and if anybody finds out: it means they will be hated by, and will be the overt victim of discrimination from, 80% to 90% of the human race. They look at how much violence they've already seen against "queers" in their life, and cannot fail to notice that no authority, not teachers nor administrators nor employers nor cops nor judges, considers it a crime when a "queer" is beaten or mugged, and that the authorities will try to get away with looking the other way even when one is raped or murdered. They know that they're going to have a much harder and more dangerous time trying to find a life partner to love them if it's true because the vast majority of the human race will find them disgusting, they know that they'll always be in danger of homelessness if it's true because most landlords won't knowingly rent to them, they know that their odds of being unemployed better than double if it's true because employers and co-workers "aren't comfortable with people like that around." They may have even noticed, even that early, that they'll never get competent medical advice either, because almost every doctor in America will tell them that it's even more important that they cure their queerness first before they get treated for whatever else, from a toothache to cancer. And so, contrary to the dishonest stereotype you've been fed, almost no gay man, lesbian woman, or transgendered or transexual or bisexual or kinky or polyamorous person, finds this out about themself and thinks, "oh, hurray, I'm a queer, think of all the fun I'll have!" No, they all go through a phase, usually more than once in their life, of praying to whatever God they worship: "Dear God, please make it not so; please, God, make me normal."

And that angst makes them perfect victims for the "sex addiction ministry" cult and its sick, twisted and power-mad leaders. When one of these sicko cult ministers comes to a town and finds some usually clueless church to host his victimization of others, any place where he can set up shop, he offers a lifeline of hope to those victims of horrible discrimination: you, too, can be straight. No, you weren't born "that way." No, it's not natural for you to be "that way." What's more, any time in your past life that you thought you were happy, that you thought you loved someone, that wasn't proof that you're "that way" -- it was a trick that Satan was playing on you, a demon possessing you temporarily and blinding you to the fact that really, the "real you" was disgusted by the person you loved, and by the things that you mistakenly thought were bringing you pleasure. But you can be cured, and here's how: Quit your job. Quit all volunteer work that you do, including at your children's schools; don't even take time out to help your kids with their homework. Quit having sex with anyone, even "vanilla" heterosexual sex with your spouse; in fact, it's safer if you don't even touch anyone at all in any way, however non-sexual, because you can never be too safe. At least some of these leaders will add that you should keep yourself on a Nazi-death-camp level starvation diet, too, even if (or, let's be frank, especially if) it renders you unable to think clearly, lest you find any "demonic" or "fake" pleasure from food, either.

You must do all of these things because the only way you can rescue yourself from being a victim of discrimination for the rest of your life is to spend every waking hour of your day doing one of two things, and they must be your only source of pleasure. If the local cult leader is holding a meeting, you must be at that meeting, so that he can tell you what to do, so that you can be forced to denounce yourself repeatedly and humiliate yourself repeatedly in front of others, and so that you can be constantly reminded that your only hope of happiness in this world is to obey his every whim. And any time that he's not available for these group brainwashing sessions, then you are to spend every remaining hour of your life reading books or (out of context) Bible passages that the cult leader has prescribed to you, and then kneeling and praying to God, "Dear God, please make me obedient to this man. Don't ever let me disobey him or doubt him. Please, dear God, make me believe that every word he says is true." This will, of course, destroy your life. It will alienate you from everyone not in the cult. It will destroy your marriage, and wreck your children. It will make you poor, if you weren't already poor. And it will make you desperately, desperately lonely, a loneliness that the cult leader is counting on to make you even more dependent on him and your fellow cult members, that thin gruel being the only human contact, the only human connection, that you, a member of a highly social species, are allowed. And the more miserable it makes you, the more he will tell you: this, not the feelings you had before, is pleasure. This, not the feelings you had before, is happiness.

I lost a very close long-time personal friend and former lover to this cult, which has moved into her home church and from there recruited her into it. Over the course of the first several months after she fell victim to this monster, I watched the transformation of her personality in her LiveJournal without knowing what was causing it, until she finally announced her membership in the cult, and described most of the process I've just described, including the struggle by which she's managed to convince herself that the pain she's feeling now is called happiness. It showed me what I had begun to fear already was true: a truly lovely, and loving, and incredibly productive person is now dead. I spent days talking myself out of driving down there and fire-bombing the church, and that's something I'd never do; I know what the Gods think of people who desecrate any sacred space. But I was so angry at what this group had done to kill this woman's mind and soul that I was briefly willing to accept eternal damnation in Tartarus to hurt them back, even knowing it wouldn't do any good, even knowing it wouldn't save one single person from that cult. And even now, months later, I'm still angry about it. So when I found out that Rick Warren is among the pastors who've fallen for one of these manipulative, brainwashing hucksters and sponsors one through his church, my rage was black and implacable, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with politics, gay marriage, or Barack Obama, and everything to do with the powerless rage I feel while watching this cult grow and destroy more and more lives.

A Crisis of Faith

I have a long-standing rant that goes more or less like this. Theocracy, specifically the variant on theocracy that is based on direct rule by clerics and holy men, is one of those great dumb ideas that keeps occurring to people over and over again. And nobody's more likely to jump to this answer than someone who's living in a total kleptocracy. They think to themselves, and then tell each other, that whatever else goes wrong, pious men and religious leaders won't abuse power for personal privilege, won't steal everything that isn't nailed down. There are a number of reasons why this never works, but near the top of the list is this one: it's easier to fake piety than competence. That kind of a theocracy, as people are grudgingly coming to admit in Iran, attracts the worst kinds of crooks in the world specifically to the clergy once they realize that all they have to do to get unlimited access to power and unlimited access to the public treasury is to learn to mouth specific religious clichés with the maximum possible apparent sincerity. And revolutionaries, and even voters for quite some time after that kind of a revolution, keep falling for it for a long time because they're blinded by their notion that nobody could possibly say those things, and sound so sincere saying them, and not be a holy man.

This Rob Blagojevich thing kicked me in the stomach.

No, I didn't just change the subject.

As I mentioned back before the election, I'm something of a "goo goo." I'm not a single issue voter on it, but I do believe that it's more important to have Good Government, government made up of smart and honest people judged on their competence and hemmed in by anti-corruption and anti-incompetence procedures, than it is to elect people who agree with me on any particular issue, agenda, or proposal. So as I think I've said before, there are few stories in all of history more interesting to me, more inspiring to me, than the story of how returning World War II G.I.s and their wives risked their lives to organize an anti-mafia caucus within the Democratic Party, the Reform Democrats, and how they struggled in major cities all over America to unseat corrupt pro-mafia Machine Democrats in the Democratic primary elections.

So, yeah, I was a sucker for Rob Blagojevich. I knew of no reason to think he was terribly bright. I knew of no reason to think that he was terribly competent, and he's proven to be horrifically incompetent as a governor. I did get the sense, from the issues he chose to campaign on, that his heart was in the right place, and I have been a big fan of several of his legislative proposals since he got in. But even more than that, when he said over and over again on TV that what was motivating him to run for governor in Illinois was his disgust over the fact that the then-outgoing Illinois governor was going to prison for his part in a scheme to sell bogus commercial drivers licenses to truck drivers who didn't legally qualify to drive big rigs, that his number one issue when he got to Springfield was going to be to clean up the culture of corruption there. People tell me I shouldn't be surprised because so many of his aided and underlings have already been indicted themselves in other corruption scandals, but I was still holding on to hope that it was because he'd hired experienced people ... experienced in Springfield's culture of corruption as well as in their jobs ... and was too naive to recognize how corrupt the people on his own staff were until the prosecutors moved in. I really wanted to believe that someone who spoke so movingly about Good Government was a goo-goo like me, someone I could trust. It certainly didn't seem far-fetched that someone who got started in politics as a criminal prosecutor was still interested in putting criminals in jail and reducing crime.

So, specifically when I saw the parallels between my naivety and the naivety of 1979 Hezbollah revolutionaries, I wasn't just angry that he turned out to think that he was personally entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars, not even of campaign contributions but in direct benefits to himself and his wife, because he lucked into getting to appoint Barack Obama's replacement in the US Senate. Anger was the second thing I felt; the first thing I felt was disbelief warring with betrayal.

I would have written this last night, but Charter Communications' incompetence (specifically, a 6+ hour outage) conspired to give me more time to think about it, specifically about what the friend I called to vent about this asked me: what are we supposed to do about this? Not about this particular crime, but about the apparent fact that there are still places in America, a handful of state capitals and at least as many major cities, where it doesn't matter how good or pious or honest the politician you elect is, doesn't matter how reform-minded he is or how much he hates corruption, he ends up as corrupt as the rest. I also specifically remember, only now, that the Reform Democrats did less to achieve the demafiazation of their cities than J. Edgar Hoover did by finally dying and getting out of federal prosecutors' way; that until he died, all the elections of Reform Democrats to that date hadn't done more than inconvenience the mafia a tiny bit. I don't know why that wasn't obvious to me before.

All I have to contribute is one hypothesis, and it not a terribly useful one: situationism. I don't mean the artistic movement called Situationism that grew out of Surrealism, I mean the branch of social psychology that studies that impact that someone's situation has on their ability to make good (or bad) decisions. It was reading writings of the current generation of research social psychologists that made me think to treat problems that seem intractable not as criminal matters or as conspiracy theories, not by trying to find someone or some small group to blame, but epidemiologically. What is it about Chicago and Springfield, Illinois (and Los Angeles and Sacramento, and Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and East St. Louis, and Hazard, Kentucky, and other places like them) that not just created, but still sustains, what we all too accurately describe as a culture of corruption; not just corrupt individuals, but a culture that corrupts individuals who may or may not have been corrupt when they got there? As the social psychology situationists remind us, when the number of people who know that something is wrong and know that it's stupid but who do it anyway gets high enough, it's long past time to stop asking what's wrong with them and start asking what's wrong with their situation.

But I don't have a lot to contribute to an analysis of the situation of culturally corrupt cities and culturally corrupt state governments. I've been raised to believe that it's single-party rule, that when elections are more competitive it keeps people more honest by making them afraid of giving their opponents ammunition with which to remove them from power. But neither George Ryan, the Republican, nor Rob Blagojevich, the Democrat, won their gubernatorial jobs in Illinois by blow-out margins as part of a permanent majority, so we can't blame single-party monopoly this time. Blagojevich in the transcripts seems absolutely convinced that a guy operating at his level of society is worth far more salary than the job pays, sounds like his desperation to get the kind of money he thinks the job should pay for his family before a campaign finance reform law that takes effect in January kicks in, was what drove him to take such stupid risks in his corruption. Do we need to pay governors what CEOs of companies with similar budgets earn to keep them from feeling like they need to steal in order to not feel unfairly compensated when compared to the people they think of as their social equals? You'll never sell that idea to voters, and it doesn't explain why equally reasonably compensated politicians in other states don't steal. Is it proximity to the Chicago Board of Trade, the corrupting influence of the most famously opaque and corrupt trading pit in this hemisphere; could we clean up state government in Illinois somewhat by subjecting commodities brokers to the same laws and regulations we put on stock brokers? I don't know. I'm just thrashing around here in the dark, trying to generate possible hypotheses for further research.

Because I guess I've learned the hard way what I'm sure so many of you already knew: to my embarrassment, electing people who (have learned to really "sincerely" pretend that they mean it when they) say that they're Good-Government reformers whose number one agenda is ending corruption isn't a reliable way of doing it.

Brad Hicks on Gay Marriage

WARNING: Read This Before Proceeding. The author has been a grumpy, cynical old man since he was 4, and that was 44 years ago. The author is also suffering from knee injuries not yet corrected by surgery that are making him qualitatively grumpier and nastier. The author of this piece also significantly resents being emotionally blackmailed by several of his friends into writing about a subject after he has already warned them that if he does so, they won't like it, and is really, really not looking forward to being made a social pariah for stating what seem to him to be demonstrable historical facts after he has been repeatedly asked and then warned the people asking that they didn't want to hear it. These fears, pains, and aggravations will likely be reflected in the article below, no matter how much the author tries to keep them out. The author therefore suggests that you just plain not read this article that he is writing only to appease those placing emotional pressure on him, and go read something you'd agree with instead today. You have been warned. Read more...Collapse )

Where McCain Won Missouri

Even those of you who aren't local saw it in your newspapers today or on whatever news website you use: for the first time since 1956, Missouri's electoral votes didn't go to the winner in the general election. Right up to about midnight last night, I was still cautiously optimistic that Missouri might surprise the pollsters and go for Obama ... but I wouldn't have bet even one dollar on it. When I went to bed this morning, I thought I knew why, too. But I'm glad I didn't say so in writing. I'm glad I waited until this afternoon, and spent some more time on the Missouri Secretary of State's wonderful, amazingly state-of-the-art website for election results.

See, here's the thing that I thought it was going to be all about in Missouri. St. Louis and St. Louis County are to Missouri what Atlanta famously is to Dixie. Just as everybody else in the old Confederacy says that Atlanta isn't "really Southern," pretty much the entire rest of the state of Missouri agrees that St. Louis isn't "really" anything like the rest of the state. Aside from the economic differences brilliantly documented by political geographer Joel Garreau in his old best-seller The Nine Nations of North America, St. Louis has one huge important cultural difference with the southwestern corner of the state: a bizarre kind of apathy about what other people are doing that borders on tolerance. There really is no such thing as an extremist for any political cause here in St. Louis. The local descendants of the Ku Klux Klan, the Mystic Knights of the Veiled Prophet, are a charitable organization. The local chapter of ACT-UP changed the national group's motto to, "We're here, we're queer ... and we'd like to get to know you better." The local chapter of Earth First!'s biggest act of defiance was hanging banners over the highway.

I'd love to hear from local Obama organizers, and even more from Obama organizers who were parachuted into the state with Axelrod & Plouffe's brilliant book on political organizing to check one of my guesses: my bet is that they got roughly 1/3rd the turnout of other organizers anywhere else in the country using the same system, and got roughly half the volunteer hours out of the people they did get that volunteers gave in every other city that used the same system. What makes me say that? Because that's what every volunteer organization that comes to St. Louis reports. Even when a volunteer-run movement starts in St. Louis, like Neopagan Wicca did, the locals put in a third of the numbers and half the volunteer hours per person of anywhere else in the country. It's just how we are. Do you know about the biggest "battle" anywhere near St. Louis during the American Civil War? Pro-slavery and anti-slavery militias both stormed the US Army arsenal in St. Louis, on a rumor that the other side was about to seize it. The side that got there first waited for the other side to show up. Other than a few warning shots and some shoving, they then settled down on opposite sides of the nearest street and just waited patiently, maintaining watch for several days; it was enough for them to make sure that the other side wasn't going to grab all those weapons and do something with them. For just about as long as there's been a St. Louis, our natural defense against violent political extremists has been apathy, usually polite apathy with a hint of disdain, but occasionally shading into enforced apathy.

Southwestern Missouri is another story. Not only was it huge Ku Klux Klan territory back during the Klan's famous second wave era, the area down around Springfield, Missouri produced three of America's most famous racist white terrorist groups: the Baldknobbers, Quantrill's Raiders, and the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. Don't ask me why that is. I'm not from down there. I don't understand those people, and they have scared the living daylights out of me my whole adult life. When the state Highway Patrol and the state National Guard finally moved on that latter group, the CSA, back in the early 1980s, do you know what they found their plan was? They'd infiltrated the local army base, Fort Leonard Wood, and stolen an entire arsenal of military weaponry, which they were stockpiling against the (seemed to them) inevitable day when the US economy collapsed, when police would be too busy dealing with starvation and riots to stop them. They were then planning a military invasion of St. Louis specifically to murder every black citizen of St. Louis. And it took Highway Patrol and National Guardsmen from elsewhere in the state to encircle and search the camp and seize those weapons back, because no local cop or sheriff would touch them; they were mostly quietly in cahoots.

So I made a prediction, last night, to my friends: if Greene County, the county that Springfield is the county seat of, gets higher voter turnout than St. Louis County, I said, John McCain will carry Missouri. If not, I said, I think Barack Obama will. And technically, I was right. Greene County had 78.20% turnout, St. Louis County had 77.59% turnout, and John McCain carried Missouri by only a smidgen over 1 vote per precinct, state-wide. And if I'd written this before I went to bed last night, still three stiff drinks drunk in celebration of Obama's national victory, I probably would have left it there. Fortunately, I didn't: because my numbers wouldn't have added up. Because while yeah, McCain carried rural southern Missouri at roughly the same rate he carried every rural county in Dixie, by roughly a 2 to 1 margin everywhere by carrying virtually all of the rural white vote, the fact remains about Missouri that was also true about rural Dixie and the vast empty plains of the mountain west: nobody lives there any more. John McCain's vast numbers in those almost entirely empty counties hardly mattered, since most of those counties have fewer registered voters than your average suburban school district has students. Even Springfield, for all that it's big enough to scare St. Louisans with, only turned in 135,140 votes total. Sure Springfield gave McCain a 21,465 vote margin, wider than his statewide margin of 5,868. On the other hand, Springfield's entire voting population was only barely more than Obama's margin in St. Louis County, which he won by 330,157 to 219,787, a margin just in St. Louis County of 110,370. Even though they had slightly higher percentage turnout, our superior numbers swamped their tiny, but famously vicious, racist contingent.

So where in the heck did the McCain campaign come up with enough votes to overcome that? Take a look, via the link above, at Secretary Carnahan's map of turnout percentages by county. What county in Missouri had the highest turnout of all? St. Charles County, with an unprecedented 85.52%. It's not a huge county, only 188,497 votes cast, but it gave McCain a substantial margin, in numbers if not percentage: 102,538 to 84,163, or a a net of 18,375 votes. St. Charles County, for those of you who don't know the local area, is one of the original, and most virulent, white flight stories in the country. Until mandatory desegregation of St. Louis area schools, St. Charles County wasn't considered part of the St. Louis metropolitan area, by mutual consent. Not only is it far away, it's across a nearly impassible river, the Missouri, from the rest of the metro area. But after mandatory desegregation, St. Louisans lobbied the federal government hard for enough highway money to build the first of several giant highway bridges across the Missouri, specifically so they could live where they could send their kids to "good" schools, defined as "no more than one black kid per classroom," while still working jobs in the St. Louis area. So there's nothing terribly surprising about the fact that St. Charles County, like the more viciously racist but not actually more racist rural south including southwestern Missouri, voted against the black guy; I could tell you stories about black people who've tried to move to St. Charles County as recently as ten years ago.

But even then, remember what I said about St. Louisans and extremism? For all that it was the fastest growing county in the entire United States in the 1970s and 1980s, and still high up the list in the 1990s (with all growth halting as soon as forced integration of the neighborhoods got it to 5% black, making it unattractive to white flight families, who are now infiltrating rural Jefferson County in large enough numbers to give it a building boom), all the white flight panicked suburbanites of the St. Louis area who were actively motivated to do something as radical as move across the river from their jobs ... still didn't amount to a hill of beans, really, in raw numbers. St. Louis County is still roughly three times its size, population-wise. So even with the highest turnout in the state, St. Charles County would still not quite have been enough to put John McCain over the top, if it weren't for one thing I really am kicking myself for failing to anticipate: extraordinarily low turnout in the City of St. Louis. I'm sure the Obama campaigners in St. Louis, if they don't look at other people's numbers, are smugly satisfied by their 70.90% turnout of registered voters. For St. Louis City, that's a lot. Heck, for US general elections in general, compared to long-time averages, that's a lot, easily 5% to 10% above normal. But for a city that's roughly 50% African-American and so Democratic that the Republicans literally don't even bother running candidates any more, with a black Democrat running for the White House? Where was the excitement? Why weren't the City's polling places as massively overrun as most of the County's polling places were yesterday morning? Why were St. Louis registered voters so paralyzed and apathetic, even by St. Louis standards, that they couldn't put Missouri in the Obama column?

I don't know.

No, really, I don't know. I'd love to know. I'd love to hear stories from Obama organizers in the city of St. Louis, telling me what obstacles they ran into, telling me why it was so hard for them to do what we did out in the county, which still has a lot more pockets of residual racism, why so many tens of thousands of voters who could have easily swamped those nasty neo-Klansmen down in Springfield and those polite "we're not racists, we're just looking for 'good' schools" bigots out in St. Charles County decided to stay home instead, why so many of them declined to register even this year? If you figure it out, let me know, will you? Because as I read the numbers, that's where John McCain won Missouri: in St. Charles County, where tens of thousands of people who lie to themselves about their racism found themselves mysteriously driven to get to the polls to vote against the black guy, and in St. Louis City, where tens of thousands of people found themselves inexplicably disinclined to get to the polls to vote for him.

I just hope it's not for the reason that jumps out at me. My knee-jerk reaction is that Barack Obama's main product, the main thing he was selling, was hope. And, sad to say, for a very long time, for almost a century even before city St. Louisans turned their city government over to an entire generation of both black and white grifters and grafters, as far back as 140 years ago when the Trans-Continental Railroad bypassed St. Louis in favor of Chicago, St. Louis City has been where hope goes to die.

We're Making Each Other Crazy

As best as I can remember, there's a story they tell about the Sufi Muslim saint, Mullah Nasrudin, that goes something like this. One night he was coming home after dark, and when he came around the corner, he saw what looked to him like a group of suspicious-looking people lurking by the door to his house. Not knowing they were his students wanting to ask him something, he assumed they were robbers, so he turned around and tried to sneak away. His students saw the master head back out into the night, and followed him. Seeing the "robbers" following him, Nasrudin took off running. His students, used to the master delivering odd parables to them by putting them through physical challenges, took off running after him. Desperate to escape the "robbers," the mullah lead his students on a night-time chase through the city, down alleys and over fences and across back yards. But they were younger than him, and gaining on him steadily, so eventually he resorted to jumping into a trash heap and hiding in the corner, hoping they wouldn't notice him and would run on by. It didn't work. And so Nasrudin looked up and recognized, to his chagrin, the puzzled faces of his own students, just as one of them asked him, "Master, why have you brought us to this trash heap in the middle of the night?" And the Mullah Nasrudin answered, "Well, it's quite complicated. You see, you are here because of me, and I am here because of you."

It's the best parable I know for the subject of election fraud in the United States, especially this year. The Democrats, in the interest of preventing Republican election fraud, are doing their flat level best to convince the Republicans that they themselves are engaged in massive election fraud. The Republicans, in their equally fierce determination to stop that fraud, are doing their flat level best imitation of massive election fraud themselves. This prompts the Democrats, in increasing desperation, to step up the activities that look like voter fraud to the Republicans, and that prompts the Republicans, desperate not to have an election stolen from them, to step up the activities that look like voter fraud to the Democrats. Tempers are high, and fears are even higher, and they've bled out beyond the usual confines of political insider debates into the general public. The net result is a national hysteria, umpteen-hour lines at the early voting sites by people who are terrified of being cheated if they wait until the actual election day, the Obama campaign threatening to spend the money to put a lawyer on duty not just in every election board office but also in every single precinct in at least some swing states, serious sober calls by journalists for international election monitoring committees, and a level of confidence in the American electoral process rivaling the cynicism over Zimbabwean or Turkmenistani elections, both here among Americans and abroad in the foreign press.

How did we get here? It's a long, and to me deeply fascinating, story, but let me summarize as briefly as I can. Possibly the second most fascinating story to be left out of Americans' history textbooks is the process by which organized crime families and mafiosi took over almost all of America's major cities during Prohibition, and the roughly forty year grueling and inspiringly heroic struggle by crusading prosecutors and journalists and politicians to get our country back from the racketeers. But even without it being in the textbooks, even with it being an under-studied part of our history, Americans know from folklore that the hardest part of the process was the campaign from the late 1940s to the mid 1970s to clean up our local Election Boards. Once they got control of the police and could run extortion rackets without fear of prosecution, mafiosi in almost every major city terrified election board officials into looking the other way as they padded the election rolls with fraudulently registered dead or completely non-existent voters. That way, if an anti-mafia mayor, prosecutor, or judge ever actually won an election, mobsters working in total impunity (and only the thinest veneer of secrecy) in the election board's back room offices would make up out of whole cloth a giant stack of ballots for their guy and stuff them in. Once Kennedy appointed a whole host of anti-mafia federal prosecutors and muck-raking journalists turned their files over to them, some minor headway got made in federal prosecutions. But real progress only happened, quite literally, over the dead body of the mafia-allied extortionist FBI director Hoover; once the FBI stopped covering up for the mafia and started helping the career prosecutors at the Justice Department investigate and make cases, the mafia control over our election boards collapsed like a cardboard shack in a hurricane.

But once you prove that a shadowy conspiracy has been stealing elections and getting away with it, how do you prove that you caught the last of them? I mentioned this to a friend of mine in the grocery store the other day, and he snarked that he couldn't prove that there wasn't an invisible elephant out in the parking lot, either, but that didn't make it likely. "Sure," I said to him, "but suppose I proved to you that just the other night somebody's car was stomped flat by an invisible elephant, in front of witnesses -- would you still feel safe parking out there?" Still, that leaves those of who believe that freeing both party's election judges from the fear of mafiosi assassination of themselves or their families left them free to stop ballot-box stuffing in the awkward position of trying to prove a negative, to prove that something doesn't exist. In fact, we can't do it; I know from first-hand account that it does still exist, or did at least as late as 2000 when a friend of mine saw a union member from a union I'm still a bit nervous about mentioning in public make the mistake of trying to vote with one particular fraudulently obtained voter registration card. How did my friend know this? The election judge said to the guy in front of him in the line, "hey, that's my address you're registered at." And when the Democrats say that there's no proof that anything like this ever gets tried any more, or at most once or twice per year, let me tell you that what happened next was that the guy who was trying to double-vote ran out the door, and got away clean. Thanks to entirely legitimate fear by Democrats that if poor voters saw police officers at the polls they would assume that people were at risk of being arrested on outstanding bench warrants if they tried to vote, something the law doesn't allow, there were no police there to chase him. Can you prove that he didn't try again at a different polling place the same day? Not knowing for sure how he got that fraudulent voter registration card, can you prove that there weren't a dozen more like him? A hundred? A thousand? Just in north St. Louis county?

The Republicans, not entirely illegitimately terrified of ballot box stuffing, have devised what seems to them like the only way to make sure that everybody only votes once. Ironically, it's not the simple solution that the Iraqis used, and that many other countries have used: you must dip your finger in indelible ink at the polling place to vote. That'd be cheap, and to the extent ballot boxes are being stuffed by in-person double-voters, it would catch them. Granted, that's the most unlikely, most expensive, most labor-intensive, and most likely to get caught form of election fraud anybody's ever invented. Outside of party primaries where the number of voters is so small, the number of people it would take to even semi-safely stuff a ballot box one vote at a time by hand could almost certainly, with those numbers, make more a difference if they used those same people for perfectly legal campaign activities, and most political insiders I know consider there to be a lot safer and more borderline legal ways to manipulate a primary than to cheat at it. (If that formerly entirely mobbed-up union of leg-breakers, extortioners, and assassins is still trying to stuff ballot boxes in north county, it almost has to just be out of habit.) Neither the third world solution, nor the Republican solution, addresses the far scarier possibility of corrupted vote tallying inside the election board offices, but never mind that. This particular form of fraud is the one that terrifies the Republicans, and they have what seems to them like an entirely fair solution to it: create a nationally regulated form of identification that clearly and unambiguously ties one person to one ID, using photos and biometrics and computerized matching to catch anybody who tries to obtain two of those IDs and requiring formal legal documents that put the burden of proof on the person asking for the ID to prove that they're entitled to vote in American elections, and then require people to show that ID (and, ultimately, have their biometrics checked at the polling place) in order to vote.

Your average Republican voter doesn't know anybody who doesn't own a car, and assumes that all American voters have driver's licenses. (Here in Missouri, the last study on the subject I saw estimated that one in three rural Missouri drivers has no valid driver's license. We created a physical economy that requires driving, and then disqualified hundreds of thousands of people from getting licenses, and then expected those people to do what? Just lie down and die, instead of trying to get away with it?) Your average Republican voter doesn't know (or doesn't realize that they know) anyone who would have a hard time obtaining a certified original copy of their birth certificate. (A friend of mine was born on an overseas military base, and the only records of her birth were lost in a fire at the Army Records Center decades ago. A lawyer estimated that it would cost her $800 to $3000, depending on whether or not the lawyer had to travel to that country to search hospital records, to actually prove her citizenship.)

Democrats, especially black Democrats, see costs ranging from dozens to thousands of dollars to obtain a voting-qualified form of ID as morally and legally equivalent to the hated "poll tax" that racist white election officials used to keep poor blacks from voting in the Jim Crow era. So to make sure that even if Republicans find ways to cheat tens of thousands of black voters out of their ability to vote, they've gone to phenomenal effort and expense to register so many poor voters, and especially poor black voters, that even if the poll tax cheats tens of thousands of them out of their votes, enough will get through to undo the Republicans' voter suppression efforts. The Republicans, seeing these thousands of almost impossible to verify voter registrations coming in from homeless people, from people whose poverty forces them to move around a lot, and so on, "recognize" this as the traditional first step in mafia-style ballot box stuffing: invent thousands of fake voters, so if you have to invent fake ballots inside the election board office you have names to use.

They've responded with lawsuits and private investigators and database searches attempting to use, well, more or less the same software techniques that the major credit-reporting firms use to identify individuals and assemble their credit histories. They'd like to use better techniques, but the Democrats keep suing to stop them and winning, so they use what they have. The result is as famously inaccurate as credit reports are. If your credit report confuses you with someone else, if two or more people's loans and repayments ever showed up on your credit report (which happens to an estimated one in three people, if I recall correctly from my years working in the credit card industry), then according to the Republicans' software models, the two of you probably are one person and if you both try to vote, that's probably ballot-box stuffing. So, to prevent it, they pushed through legislation during the years they controlled both the Congress and the White House and the Supreme Court, requiring all records that flag as "possible fraud" in a Republican's computerized analysis as requiring that voter registration be discarded, to force those people to re-register so we can more carefully check if they really exist, really are entitled to vote, and really are voting once. Democrats then obtain a list of literally tens of thousands of entirely legal voters who've been flatly denied their legal right to vote, and scream bloody murder. Which only "proves" to the Republicans that the Democrats will try to stop any effort, however well intentioned, to prevent ballot box stuffing, so they "must" be covering up ballot box stuffing.

Enough already. This has already gone way, way too far. For the love of all holy gods, once this election is over? Let's not wait to find out what new ways of convincing each other that they're engaged in election fraud the two parties come up with after this year.

Look, here's my suggestion. The other night on the Rachel Maddow show, she got a chance to ask Senator Obama if he would agree with her recent (and surprisingly vicious and strident for her, a serious change from her usually sunny demeanor) insistence that if local election boards don't provide enough judges and voting booths to get people in and out in at most a couple of hours no matter what the turnout, that's a form of poll tax, a way to keep people from voting unless they're able to afford to go a day without pay and sure that they can do so without losing their job. He stopped short of going along with her; he's more famously conciliatory to both sides than that. But he did say this: one of the things he'd like to do if elected (no promise made, just "like to do" or at most "we have to do") is do a second iteration of the Help America Vote Act that will, in part, addresses obstacles to voting. He's not the only one calling for more federal funding for a second round of HAVA; the first round of HAVA lead a lot of counties to buy totally unreliable electronic voting machines that are now filling up landfills because nobody in his right mind would use one, and they need more money to buy new and more reliable voting technologies. There is a very good chance that some small number of billions of dollars will be borrowed in the next year or two, yet another (and in this case, an entirely legitimate) federal intervention to protect federal elections.

When that bill comes up, here's what I'm going to write to the sponsors, and to my own congressman and senators, to suggest. Let's give both parties one billion dollars each specifically for criminal investigations of possible election fraud. If the Republicans want to subpoena everybody under the sun looking for ballot box stuffing, want to hire a ton of computer analysts and private investigators to go over the election records to catch duplicate voters, I say "go to it." If the Democrats use their billion dollars to subpoena every Republican campaign operative and elected official for possible evidence of intent to knowingly disenfranchise legal voters and hire the private investigators to search those emails and records, I say "go to it." Let's spend the money, take the time, create the media circus of investigations that it would take this one last time to find out just how serious a problem election fraud is, by either or both parties, and put as many people as we can in jail. And then? Once everybody from ACORN to Karl Rove has been investigated all to hell and gone and then either convicted or acquitted? Let's all shut the hell up about it, before we turn this country into even more of a laughable third-world banana republic than it's already becoming.

Because we can not go on with both parties taking measures to fight the other side's actual or hypothetical voting fraud that look exactly like what the other side is looking for as evidence of actual or hypothetical vote fraud. We're making each other crazy.

Update: And scant hours after I posted that, one of Wired.com's "Threat Level" columnists, Kim Zetter, posted this: "Republican Politico Admits No Proof of Voter Fraud from Fraudulent Registrations." Of course, as I'm sure some Republican paranoid will point out, "absence of proof is not proof of absence."
Tonight, and in every speech I've heard him give in the last couple of months, Senator Barack Obama called Tuesday's election a referendum on 8 years of failed policies. I think that it's been more than 8 years. I think that next Tuesday's election is a stark choice, the clearest choice we as American people have been asked to make, not in 8 years, but in 28 years. Twenty eight years ago, the second weakest, second stupidest American president of my entire lifetime, someone whose legacy of failure in every way rivals George W. Bush's, Jimmy Carter, was left to be the one to make the case for one of two competing ideas. In the hands of one of the most gifted orators of my time was the other competing idea. And in troubled times, in the aftermath of four years of horrific incompetence that themselves followed over a decade of general incompetence at the hands of Presidents Johnson and Nixon and the do-nothing caretaker presidency of Gerald Ford, the American people chose, not entirely irrationally, to turn their back on the economic policies and social policies that had once saved the United States from the Great Depression and saved the world from fascism. They concluded that however good or necessary those ideas may have been for their times, they were costing us too much, they were leading to their own problems that had the potential to cripple the United States. They voted to turn America to a new course.

Much of what passed for "new" was, of course, no such thing. We call the economics of low to no taxation, of little or no government regulation of work or business, of little or no protection for the poor and the powerless after its French name, laissez-faire, because it got its first serious hearing as a proposed governmental policy after a meeting between French businessmen and the French monarchy in 1680, and had its first wide-scale trial when it was adopted by the French monarchy in 1750. In less than thirty years, the original laissez-faire resulted in mass starvation, lead to the rise of the largest-scale anarchist and communist movements in western European history, and eventually brought about the rioting, terrorism, and wholesale brutal revolutionary slaughter of the French Revolution followed by Napoleonic military dictatorship. Nevertheless, less than a hundred years later, we chose to try it again in the United States, believing that the "new economy" productivity innovations of steam technology and the assembly line, global instantaneous communications via telegraph, and a nation-wide open market through the deployment of the railroads, combined with our Puritan cultural ancestry, would lead to a different outcome. It didn't, and perhaps only the assassin's bullet that took out Huey Long saved the country from anarcho-communist revolution long enough for President Franklin Roosevelt to save us all, to save freedom, to save democracy, and yes, to save the capitalist free market. But that's hindsight talking. 1979 and 1980 were very dark days in America; people wanted change. And they got it. Vox populi, vox Dei, or as H.L. Mencken famously put it, "the common people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard."

In 1980 "change" went by a name, and that name was Supply-Side Economics. The argument for supply-side economics goes something like this: salaries come from jobs, and jobs come from companies, and therefore no job or salary can be secure, or prosperous, unless we have secure and prosperous companies. And there is nothing in the democratic process, nothing about getting elected or appointed to political office, that demonstrates that you understand what it takes to make a prosperous company; the only people in America who've demonstrated that they know what the needs of prosperous companies are are, obviously, the people who run currently-prosperous companies. And those leaders of prosperous businesses told us, and told the government, that they needed three things. They said they needed total repeal of all taxes on big, successful businesses, or as close to zero as could be achieved. They said they needed total repeal of all taxes on high salaries, and especially on the profits from stock market investments, while taxing everything else, so there would be huge tax incentives for people who had any money to make that money available, via the stock market, to successful businesses in order to invest that money in growing their operations and hiring more and better people. And finally, they also said that they needed an end to all government interference in business operations: no more worker safety or product safety or environmental safety regulation, no more anti-fraud consumer protection laws, no minimum wage or collective bargaining protection laws, nothing. They said that if we gave them those three things, American businesses would naturally, automatically, as a result of inescapable economic and natural law, be better able to hire more Americans and pay them better wages, and naturally inclined to do so.

And they, and the people they persuaded of these things, and especially the few people who profited handsomely from these changes, still believe this, and you can hear the proof on every radio station and on every TV station in America these last two weeks. Almost every single local or statewide Republican campaign has warned that electing even one single Democrat to even the lowest-level local or statewide office means one thing: "job-killing taxes." "Job-killing taxes." "Job-killing taxes" over and over again is almost their only mantra, the only case they have to offer to explain why we should continue to support right-wing Democrats in our Democratic Party primaries, and even if we do that we should then go on to vote for the further-right Republican Party candidate anyway, to protect us from "job-killing taxes." But where are all the jobs that were killed by taxes? Which jobs are those? Yes, American jobs have gone overseas. But we've lost almost as many jobs to countries that charge much, much higher taxes to their corporations and to their wealthy than Americans would ever tolerate, software jobs to Ireland and India, electronics jobs to Finland and Germany, aerospace jobs to England and France. The fact of the matter is that jobs go overseas for lots of reasons. Sometimes it's to be closer to raw materials. Sometimes it's because other nation's governments are far, far more corrupt than ours, allowing companies to use slave labor, adulterate products, and poison the countryside for hundreds of miles in every direction. Not infrequently, it's the money from the huge tax breaks we gave those corporations that paid the moving expenses of those jobs; giving companies "more money to invest" gave us no guarantee whatsoever they would invest that money here at home. And quite frequently, companies moved overseas in order to be nearer to customers; if the Chinese need, numerically, a lot more refrigerators and automobiles than we do, then it makes a certain amount of economic sense for refrigerator makers and auto makers to be building factories in China. On the other hand, not since the Beatles left England has anybody shown me even one single job that left America or any other country just to get lower tax rates.

But the economic collapse of a few weeks ago wasn't sparked by any rise in taxes. Nor was it solely, or even largely, caused by spiking prices of raw materials or energy; the huge spike in oil and fuel prices preceded the widespread failures of our economic system by months. We cannot tax-cut our way out of this. We cannot oil-drill our way out of this. So what was it that happened all at once, about a month ago, that threatens us with the possibility of cascading bank failures wiping out our checking accounts and our savings accounts, that threatens us with businesses having to close their doors and mass unemployment, that threatens us with runaway inflation if the government has to run the printing presses cranking out worthless pseudo-dollars to try to fix these things in a terrifying hurry? The American consumers closed their wallets. Mostly it was because the foreclosure crisis, when Americans stuck with "teaser-rate" loans found that they'd been lied to when they were promised they could refinance out of them when the rate reset, got so bad that even Americans who hadn't been personally affected by it began to panic. We also had a brief spike in the price of gasoline, and that scared even more Americans into closing their wallets. Why was it a crisis when, for as brief a time period as a month and a half or two months, American people became suddenly thrifty? I'll tell you why.

It doesn't matter how much investment money is available. It doesn't matter how low you make the taxes on businesses or on wealthy investors. It doesn't even matter how many overt government subsidies you give to big businesses. It doesn't make any sense for any business, anywhere in the world, to pay someone to make products unless there's someone out there who can afford to buy them. And over the twenty eight years since the election of Ronald Reagan, American businesses have cut wages, relative to inflation, in good times and in bad times, almost every single year. And with every increase in productivity due to better technology, they've laid off more of the workers who might have bought their products, instead of using that productivity to make more affordable products and more products and hiring more future customers with the profits. Americans tried to do their "patriotic duty" to the world economy, they succumbed to the lie (that they should never have been allowed to be told) that it was safe and smart to draw down their home equity to increase the debt limit on their credit cards, by paying them down with home equity and then maxing them out again "because house prices can only go up." Been in a restaurant lately, or a clothing store, or on a car lot? Now there's no one left to buy anything. So who will hire them to make it? Not just here in America, either; since that tap of easy (but, truly, unaffordable and unsustainable and fraudulent) credit has dried up, there've been mass layoffs in all the places those jobs went to, too, including China.

And so, next Tuesday, the choice really is clear. One candidate, whatever his other disagreements with his own Republican Party, had made it unambiguously clear for months now that whatever else he does or doesn't believe, he, John McCain, still believes in supply-side economics. In a world where even Alan Greenspan is having a crisis of conscience, questioning the wisdom he learned at his famous cult leader's knee back when he was one of Ayn Rand's personal hand-picked inner-circle disciples, after imposing her cult of Objectivism on us as a world-wide economic dogma, John McCain is one of a dying breed for still drinking the supply-side Flavor-Aid, and that's why he's almost certainly going to lose. But if you still agree with him that what the American economy needs, and the economy of the whole world needs, is more deregulation, less worker protection, less environmental protection, less anti-fraud and product safety regulation, and above all more tax cuts for big businesses and wealthy investors? If you still believe those things, then you absolutely need to go out next Tuesday, if you haven't done so already via early voting, and vote for John McCain. Even if you live in a state that John McCain can't possibly win, run up the losing vote as much as you can, because both parties will be looking at those vote tallies when they pick candidates in later election cycles. They want to know what you really believe, they're judging by the final election numbers county by county, and if you still believe in supply-side economics in a world where it sure looks like your belief is going out of style, this is the only way for you and the people who still agree with you to prove that you're still out there.

If, on the other hand, you're willing to consider some "demand-side economics"? Not even a whole-hog remake of the US economic system but at least a few measures aimed at improving the ability of the American worker, of the American college student, of the American retiree, to afford the necessities of life? If you're at least questioning the claim that was made to us, back in the 1970s and ever since, that paying American workers enough money to actually pay their bills on time without maxing out their credit cards "must" result in lost jobs and runaway inflation, if you're willing to consider trying some experiments to find out if it's possible to save the American Dream, possible to pay people enough that they can save up some money for their retirement and for their kids' education without destroying the economy? If you're coming around to the possibility that maybe the way to protect those people's wages from runaway inflation is for the government to raise some of those wildly cut taxes on the wealthy back up to where they were so that the government doesn't have to borrow so much, since we didn't get any benefit out of those tax cuts anyway? Then you need to go out next Tuesday, even if you live in a state that Barack Obama can not possible carry, and vote for the man who is willing to consider both supply-side and demand-side measures, the man with the deepest commitment in an entire generation to looking at evidence to see what works, so that even if in your home state you lose, the whole world sees how many Americans are no longer blindly and dogmatically bound to the ideas of laissez-faire and supply-side tax-cut economics. And if they try to stop you from voting or trick you into taking a likely-to-be-thrown-away provisional ballot, you need to keep trying to actually vote, go down to the election board office and fight for your right to vote even if it takes you all day, because the stakes in this argument really are that high.

Either way, if you are an American citizen and legally allowed to vote, vote next Tuesday, and do so knowing, as no American has known since 28 years ago, that there is a clear and important difference between the two candidates, that you are being asked which of two competing ideas of what is right for America you prefer, and that if you clearly prefer one of those two ideas to the other, you absolutely can know which candidate you prefer.

Missouri: NO on Proposition A and M

It would probably surprise some of you how many things there are on my ballot, next Tuesday, that I really don't care about. But there is one state-wide ballot issues, and one St. Louis metro-area-wide ballot issue, that I feel very, very strongly about.

Missouri Proposition A: NO WAY, NO HOW. ABSOLUTELY NOT. Missouri Proposition A would eliminate Missouri's fairly unique "loss limit" law. Missouri alone limits gamblers' losses to $500 every 2 hours per casino. To enforce this, Missouri casinos have to keep track of customer IDs; they want to get rid of the ID limit on people who are clearly over age 21. Which would also, they conveniently don't mention, completely eliminate Missouri's voluntary self-ban system, which allows people who know that they're gambling addicts to voluntarily ban themselves from Missouri casinos. It also guarantees Missouri's existing casinos that they will never face any new competition. What they're offering in exchange is a 1% hike in the state tax on casino profits, and a "special fund" to receive all "gambling tax proceeds generated as a result of this measure" that ("no, this time we really mean it") will go to education. Really? And without ID checks, how will they track what percentage of their profits come from gamblers who lose more than $250/hour? They won't. They can't. So, yet again, they're lying to us. And even if there weren't a better reason to vote against proposition A, this would be enough: the casino industry has lied to the voters of Missouri over, and over, and over again. They must sooner or later stop getting away with it.

But would to the gods that this were the only way that they were being what economics calls "a bad actor," someone who does business in bad faith. They're also lying about who it is that they plan on skimming that >$250/hr from. They claim, in their ads and in interviews, that the reason the loss limit is so bad is that it drives away out-of-state tourists. That's a total load of crap, because they have never shown any evidence whatsoever that any tourist, ever, came to Missouri specifically to gamble. News flash: there are "gambling boats" everywhere, now, and a lot of them in places both closer to the country's major population centers and in places that have other tourist attractions than the boats. This isn't about fleecing tourists. This is about fleecing your neighbors. It has always been about fleecing your neighbors. Your family members. Your co-workers. This is about the fact that for several decades now, it has been flatly unacceptable to the casino industry if there is anything other than "customer choice" standing between them and the people who would, under the kind of psychological manipulation (and distribution of free alcohol) that the casino industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on, gamble away their entire bank account, and every single paycheck from now until foreclosure. And then, as so many of them do, murder their families and commit suicide out of shame when the foreclosure hits. You know what the casino industry calls that? Pure, sweet profit, baby: that is a customer that they can be 100% confident they "reached."

I got nothing against gambling. But the modern casino industry must be stopped; a simple "no" on a ballot issue that they designed to increase the murder/suicide rate in Missouri doesn't even go far enough, and is the least I'd ask for.

ST LOUIS CITY/COUNT PROPOSITION M: NO. A 0.5% sales tax hike, area-wide. Ostensibly, half of that is for Metrolink expansion and the other half is to make up the operating deficit; I don't really believe them. Here's what it's really about: Metrobus buses started getting worse gas mileage (because they're fuller) at the same rate that gasoline went up, a double-whammy to Metro's budget, and they're going bankrupt in a hurry. They have made it clear that there really are only three options on the table: a sales tax hike just for them, or else slashing all bus service outside I-270 altogether and steeply slashing service after 6pm or so, or else fare hikes of about 50%. And this, I believe them on. But even though I depend very heavily on Metrolink and Metrobus, including those evening hours that they're threatening to slash, I'm voting against this one, and I ask you to do so, too, if you live in the area, for two reasons.

First of all, we have yet to see proof that gasoline prices (including diesel) are going up permanently. If you check the graphs at places like StLouisGasPrices.com, you can see that year over year for the last year, gas prices are now actually lower than they were a year ago, about 30¢/gallon lower. Going to stay there, wrecking the trend away from SUVs and towards mass transit? Who knows? But why commit to a 20-year tax hike until we know? But secondly, and even more importantly, it's a sales tax hike. And Missouri, like most US states, doesn't exempt necessities like food or medicine from the sales tax, which means that in Missouri, the sales tax falls disproportionately on the poor, including an awful lot of working poor who don't use Metrobus or Metrolink, because they spend a higher percentage of their income on food and medicine than people with higher incomes do. The sales tax is a tax where, the less you can afford to pay, the more you pay, and that's exactly backwards of what we need in America, it's exactly what we don't need more of.

If Metrobus and Metrolink are going bankrupt, service cuts really aren't an option. Way too many of their customers, and way too many business who've (so far) supported the transit taxes they're paying, are dependent on Metrolink and Metrobus to get people to and from 2nd-shift jobs. And the sales tax is not acceptable. That leaves the third option, and even though it would fall on me, I'm in favor of it: fare hikes. Fare hikes are the best option because those who benefit, pay. Fare hikes are the best because there's no reason why transit costs should go up less for one form of transit than for others when the base cost to both goes up the same. And best of all, fare hikes are the better option because if it turns out that Metro's fuel costs do go back down, they can lower their fares with just a couple of executive signatures, they wouldn't have to go to the legislature or the ballot box to do it.

So, please: vote no on St. Louis city/county Proposition M, and vote not just no, but hell no; not just hell no, but fuck no; not just fuck no, but holy fuck no what the hell were you thinking? on Missouri Proposition A. Thank you.

The Last Sprint to the Finish

The last face-to-face event between the two candidates was last night, and two weeks from Tuesday, the US Presidential Election will be over. How will both campaigns spend those last 19 days? Well, the TV ads will still run. The candidates will still dash all over the map. But at this point, those two steps are basically pro forma, for show. Neither of those things is likely to achieve anything, now, that it hasn't already done. There aren't a lot of people left in America who haven't made up their minds. Of the ones who haven't made up their minds, there isn't much of anything left that they could learn that they're going to learn in the next 19 days that would make up their minds for them. Nor, frankly, are very many of those people going to show up to vote.

So what do both campaigns care about now, what's getting the bulk of their time an attention? Four letters: GOTV. It's the standard abbreviation for the last, and arguably most important, phase of any campaign for anything in any democracy: Get Out The Vote. By now, both campaigns have long computerized lists that tell them, with remarkable precision, how almost every voter in America would vote if they actually showed up at the polls. They also know that roughly half of the people from both sides won't bother. So for the next nineteen days, the vast majority of the time, money, and energy in both campaigns is going to be spent on contacting everybody who's made up their mind who they'd vote for, but who hasn't made up their mind that it's worth walking or driving up to the polling place, spending time in line, verifying their identity with slow-moving volunteers, and then wrestling with a computerized paper form or an obnoxiously awkward voting machine just to make a point.

And let me tell you something: GOTV matters. From roughly 1930 to 1980, for fifty years, the main reason that Democrats were the "permanent majority" party was that in the pre-computer age, GOTV was largely a matter of benefiting from the power of neighborhood volunteer organizations. Fraternal clubs. Churches. Farm co-ops. Charities. Amateur sports leagues. But especially, over and above all of that, labor unions. And except for a handful of churches, those volunteer organizations leaned heavily Democratic. Your average Republican has never really believed in volunteer anything; to your average Republican, anything that isn't worth getting paid to do isn't worth doing. But by 1980, the GOTV game had changed completely, and a substantial chunk of the Republican's "Reagan coalition" of voters' success came from two facts. One is that volunteer organizations that lean Democratic have all, without exception, shrunk heavily in membership; they were a generational phenomenon. (See Putnam, Bowling Alone.) But all that did was shrink the Democratic pool of volunteers down to "only" slightly larger than the Republican pool of volunteers. No, what really made the final difference was one thing: vastly superior computerization.

From the earliest days of the "trust era" corporate monopolies back in the age of steam, the Republican Party has been the party of big business, specifically of big business owners and senior management. And there is nothing that an American corporation knows better than marketing. No, the tremendous insight of the 1980 class of Republican political organizers was that GOTV doesn't have to be a race to build up the biggest collection of volunteers with the biggest collection of personal friends among them. What they designed, developed, and implemented was the world's greatest direct mail plus telemarketing direct-to-consumer advertising campaign in history. The Republican Party pioneered the automation of GOTV. Databases designed by the best advertising people in the world, with the help of savvy political organizers, identify the voters who can reliably counted on to vote Republican who can most cost-effectively be persuaded to show up on election day, identify which techniques of (mostly legal) persuasion are statistically most likely to persuade each individual one of those voters to get down to the polls on the first Tuesday in November, and then spit out computerized work sheets for the few volunteers and few paid staffers they have.

I campaigned hard for Al Gore in 2000 (despite my personal distaste for the man). 20 years after the Republicans showed us how it was done, our GOTV software, which was developed by one guy who was a personal friend of the national party chairman as a hobby, stank on ice. I talked to an Obama campaign volunteer about this a couple of weeks ago, and some of the glaring problems of 28 years ago are still not fixed. The Democrats will probably never be anywhere near as good at precision-tuned computer-calculated mass-customized individual marketing as the Republicans already are, let alone as good as the Republicans may some day be. The people who are really, really good at this kind of thing won't work for us; they vote Republican.

So what are Howard Dean and Barack Obama doing about this that's working so well? Let me refer you to one particular subset of the articles over at my current favorite national political website, FiveThirtyEight.com, specifically their blog post series "On the Road." These bloggers raised the money from their readers to travel all over the country to examine the volunteer offices of both candidates in each of a long list of cities. And the thing that's been blowing them away is just how vast the contrast is. For the first time in a generation, Democratic offices are packed to the gunwales with people who are working their guts out for free, or even paying their own money out of pocket to be allowed to work. About half the Republican offices are closed and locked up, even during peak volunteer working hours, for lack of anybody showing up. The ones that are open? Well, as 538's Sean Quinn said after the truth sunk in, back on October 3rd after a visit to St. Louis, Missouri:
"We walk into McCain offices to find them closed, empty, one person, two people, sometimes three people making calls. Many times one person is calling while the other small clutch of volunteers are chatting amongst themselves. In one state, McCain’s state field director sat in one of these offices and, sotto voce, complained to us that only one man was making calls while the others were talking to each other about how much they didn't like Obama, which was true. But the field director made no effort to change this. This was the state field director. ... Up to this point, we’ve been giving McCain's ground campaign a lot of benefit of the doubt. We can’t stop convincing ourselves that there must – must – be a warehouse full of 1,000 McCain volunteers somewhere in a national, central location just dialing away. This can’t be all they’re doing. Because even in a place like Colorado Springs, McCain’s ground campaign is getting blown away by the Obama efforts. ... You could take every McCain volunteer we’ve seen doing actual work in the entire trip, over six states, and it would add up to the same as Obama’s single Thornton, CO office. Or his single Durango, CO office. These ground campaigns bear no relationship to each other."
A whole story could be written on why the Republican volunteers are staying home. That story would probably have more to do with the fact that there is nobody in this generation of Republican leaders who can speak with once voice for all four of the major factions of the Republican Party (the country-club Republicans, the Religious Right, the pseudo-libertarians, and the anti-immigrant/isolationist "Nativist" faction). Without the specter of "global communism" to unite them, those four factions have discovered that they just don't like each other very much, and so far the War on Terror hasn't been quite the common bond that the Cold War was for them. Or maybe it's just a personality thing; maybe someone who can speak for, and unite, such disparate factions and convince them all that he's one of them is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

But whatever the reasons are for the mass Republican refusal to show up and make the calls, fill out the postcards, drop off the campaign fliers, and knock on the doors that the computers identify as the ones that need volunteer workers to get them to show up, it doesn't answer what has been all along for me, ever since the Iowa caucuses, the vastly more interesting question: where in the heck did Barack Obama get all of these volunteers? And how in the heck are he and Howard Dean getting all this work out of them? Once again, more recently, FiveThirtyEight.com provided me with the first genuinely valuable insight I've seen into this, in today's post from Marietta, Ohio:
"When local field organizer Christian Lund took the stage just prior to Joe Biden's appearance on Tuesday night in Marietta, he asked those in the attendant crowd of about 4,000 to look at the sheets in their hands. Each sheet held four names, and each name had a phone number and a bar code for later data scanning. Lund asked the people in the crowd to make four phone calls to this targeted group, and then he demonstrated. ... This is routine practice at every single event the campaign holds, even at Denver's Invesco Field acceptance night speech. The largely Democratic crowd is given concrete, practical and manageable field tasks to accomplish. ¶ The goal is gathering a larger and larger volunteer base. A whole night's shift of phone calls may seem intimidating to a lot of people, particularly introverts, but it's pretty hard to say no to four calls. Cleverly, Obama's campaign reasons that the most difficult part of volunteering is the first four calls or knocks. The first part is always the hardest, particularly for volunteers who've never worked for a campaign before. Once over the comfort threshold, a potential shift volunteer now feels invested in the work."
Brilliant. Read the rest of FiveThirtyEight's "On the Road" series (linked above) if you have the time, see how politics in America is actually done.

Two Sides of My Head at War

Back when I had more reliable transportation, I spent a skootch under two years as an unpaid volunteer for the local Democratic Party. One of the biggest advantages of doing your volunteer work, your hobby work, for a political party club is that you get to meet a fair number of politicians when they're "off the clock," in their free time, in a friendly environment. You get to know them, a little bit. And pretty soon, if you're paying even minimal attention, you notice something about them. There are a few pestilential hell-hole city halls in America, places that were corrupted by organized crime back during Prohibition and are still in the habit of being corrupt, where the voters are reasonable to assume that anybody who even runs for office in those places, no matter what they claim their issues are, is really only running for office for one reason: to shift the distribution of the stolen spoils. It's so easy to falsely claim to be a reformer that people who live in those cities learn the hard way, as part of growing up, that they'll be disappointed by thief after thief who declare themselves to be "reformers." And yeah, we all know that. But if you spend time around enough politicians in your time off (and theirs), you learn that these horribly corrupt city halls are almost the only places you find politicians like that. A few big cities, like St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans. A few small cities like East St. Louis, or Hazard. But for at least thirty years now, what Dashiell Hammett called "Nightmare Towns," what Frank Miller calls "Sin City," are scarce. And anywhere above the local City Hall level, there are so many "goo goo" reporters desperately chasing Pulitzers that on the rare occasion that some grafter gets promoted above alderman or city councilman or maybe mayor, they don't last long or end well.

No, really: the American people have been lied to about how dishonest their politicians are. The overwhelming majority of them are people who are in politics because they have what seem to them to be well thought out, deeply felt, honestly believed ideas about what they want to change about America to make it even better. When they go into politics, many of them have the same low opinion of the opposition politicians that most of you have about all politicians. They start out thinking that our people all agree on what's wrong with America and how to fix it, and since the other side must know the same facts that we do, and think the same way we do, they must only be fighting us so they can rob the taxpayers and funnel the money to their friends. But if they make it very far in politics -- no, that's understating it. If they last very long at all in politics, long enough to get to know their opponents professionally (let alone personally), they eventually learn the same way I did that no, the other side's people aren't evil, either. They just think differently, and have had different experiences of the world that lead them to trust certain facts (or "facts") more than the facts (or "facts") that we learned from our experiences to trust. Or so the ones I've known have told me, and I believe them.

From the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, I made a systematic study of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. This stood me in good stead when I, and a lot of my friends and co-religionists, ended up the target of a nationwide conspiracy theory fad, the Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic. But in hindsight, I don't recommend it to you. There is a reason why your teachers, and journalists, and just about every responsible adult in your life tried to steer you away from this particular branch of what I call "secret history and forbidden lore." It teaches you habits of thinking that are false to fact and actively bad for you. Even perfectly healthy people who go into conspiracy theory on a lark, for laughs, frequently come out the other side stone cold paranoid, or even (like poor Kerry Thornley) fully blown paranoid psychotics and/or schizophrenics. Actual criminal conspiracies do exist, and sometimes last for years, and that lends conspiracy theory a gloss of undeserved respectability. I say "undeserved" because in truth, conspiracy theory is based on a very flawed set of assumptions about how human beings behave, especially in groups, ignoring such long-proven truths about the human condition as Franklin's famous maxim about the difficulty of keeping secrets, and Robert Anton Wilson's equally important but under-appreciated maxim about how impossible it is for people in hierarchical relationships to tell each other the truth. They also tend to fall prey to logical fallacies as old as ancient Rome, Lucius Cassius's famous claim (as quoted by Cicero) about how all that's necessary to prove that someone is guilty of a crime is to prove that they benefited from the outcome.

So if you study conspiracy theory long enough? And especially, if you study one particular conspiracy theory and all of its branches and permutations in extraordinary depth, to the exclusion of all others? You end up internalizing the rules of the conspiracy theory "game" as if they were the rules of life itself. Even if you study enough conspiracy theories to see the common fallacies and logical traps they fall for, and manage to keep your distance, you still end up internalizing those rules. And for the rest of your life, you'll have this obnoxious little voice in the back of your head that's learned to think like a conspiracy theorist, a little Imp of the Paranoid sitting on your proverbial shoulder, that sees two facts that fit together (if you're a paranoid) and "prove" some conspiracy theory. For the rest of your life, you will have a part of your brain that wants to break free and take over the rest of your brain, so you can relax into the comfort of your own delusions about how evil everybody who disagrees with you is, and how they're all out to get you. For the rest of your life, you'll have to stand in eternal vigilance against the temptation of paranoid psychosis. I don't recommend the experience.

Those two things being said? You can imagine my reaction when, two items apart in Rachel Maddow's absolutely amazingly good top-notch really, really don't miss this any more news show on MSNBC weeknights (called, simply, "The Rachel Maddow Show"), I had the following two facts brought to my attention:
  1. The current White House proposal for the bailout of the financial services is industry is one that they've been sitting on for months, only waiting until this last weekend to reveal it. And ...
  2. Today, Senator (and probable future President) Barack Obama admitted, while campaigning, that if the $0.7 trillion bailout of the financial services industry happens (as it pretty much has to), then he's going to have to give up on quite a few of his spending proposals.
For those of you who can't quite imagine it, let me explain. One thing I fully do understand is that Republicans govern based on the principle that all taxes on rich people are unjustified theft, and the only legitimate purpose of government spending is to find a politically palatable way to give that money back to them. (To be specific, I mean the ruling faction of the Republican Party, the "country club" Republicans, with help from the Randroid anarcho-capitalist wing of the party. The Religious Right has other priorities, but their leaders have bought off on this argument for reasons I've documented elsewhere. The racist "Nativist" wing of the party goes along because nearly all rich people are white.) And gosh, isn't it just awfully bloody convenient that right as Democrats are likely to gain full control of all three branches of government, they've found a way to make it impossible for the Democrats to revert the last several decades of "trickle-down" economics to the old Rooseveltian "expand the middle class" economics?

That's not how it happened. The financial melt-down happened because of some all-too human, all-too frequently recurring logical fallacies that drive the business cycle. If nothing else, nearly all human beings have the bad habit of having only about a three-year "window" of active memory, which means that anything that has lasted longer than three years has "always" been true and "always" will be, even if they "know better." This renders them incredibly painfully willing to believe any explanation for why the last three years have been different from all of history before them, explanations that always boil down to "because of (some recent historical innovation) the Old Rules no longer apply." Warren Buffett comes by his well-deserved reputation as a super-genius for one and only one reason: he never, ever falls for that. And the White House didn't wait for their bailout plan until this week because they were waiting for the last possible second to make it impossible for Congress to understand or amend before they had to pass it, nor were they waiting to see if Senator Obama's poll numbers were going to improve. As I said all the way back in January, these negotiations have been going on since at least last November, and there was no way to get the financial services industry to even consider taking less than face value on the bailed-out assets until at least a couple of companies had collapsed. (Nothing like a handful of deaths of loved ones to concentrate the thinking, and that's just as true of corporations as it is of individuals.) Nor is there anything about their plan that is contrary to their long-stated principles; there's no reason to think that they designed any part of this plan with possible future President Barack Obama in mind.

The wanna-be paranoid psychotic part of my brain was wrong to suggest it. Any actual or potential paranoid psychotics who suggest it are wrong. But it's a good thing I had all those months of experience with actual working politicians to clarify my thinking about them, or all those years of reading conspiracy theory tracts might have made it dangerously difficult for me to think this through and see that.

The Minitrue Party

Having nationalized two of the largest mortgage lenders in the country, the US government declared that there would be no more nationalizations. So I don't know which amuses me more about the nationalization of AIG, the largest insurance company in the US: that the Bush administration broke their word in less than 24 hours, or that the Bush administration is nationalizing big chunks of our economy at a pace that would make Hugo Chavez jealous. And the juxtaposition of those two thoughts made me realize something, gave me my own answer to the question recently debated on edge.org's "Third Culture" blog in a long, but very entertaining and readable, exchange entitled "Why Do People Vote Republican?" And my answer is closest to the one given by retired Yale professor Robert Schank at the bottom of the 2nd page: "Republicans do not try to change voter's beliefs. They go with them. Democrats appeal to reason. Big mistake." My competing, but similar, hypothesis, is this: the Republicans are the party of people who want to be lied to.

Some of you are old enough to remember the Bush (the Elder)/Dukakis debates, when they were both asked if they would be willing to raise taxes in order to cut the deficit. Governor Dukakis said, "We're both going to raise taxes, the only difference between us is that he'll lie about it." Vice President Bush famously said, "Read. My. Lips: No! New! Taxes!" And then, exactly as predicted, went on to sign into law one of the three largest packages of tax-increase legislation in American history. It may even have ended up being bigger than anything Michael Dukakis would have approved. And yes, some cranky people held it against the first President Bush that he broke his word, but the fact that remains is this. The American people are even more cynical about their politicians than the facts warrant; they had no reason to doubt that George H.W. Bush was lying to them about his intention to not raise their taxes. But that was okay with them: they wanted to be lied to.

I think that maybe the American people know for a fact that government budgets at every level of government are so out of whack that taxes are going to have to go up. But that doesn't change the fact that they want someone to promise them that it won't happen. I think that maybe the American people understand, deep down, that the fossil record shows flat-out that the Biblical account of creation just isn't true. But that doesn't change the fact that they want to be told otherwise, and even more so they react to the idea of schools telling children the Bible is wrong the way they would react if schools made it a policy to tell kids the truth about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I think that maybe the American people know that cops and financial institutions systematically screw over black American families in ways that they don't screw over white American families, but they still want to be told that there is no racism in America, that race is problem we solved a generation ago. I'm almost completely certain that vast majorities of the American public know full well that a ban on abortion won't stop abortions, and that abstinence-only education is why America has the highest out-of-wedlock birth rate and the highest teen pregnancy rate in all of western civilization, but they still want to be told that abortion can be stopped and that telling teenagers not to have sex is all we need to do. I think they know, they can't not know, that our health care system is a wreck, even if they don't know the actual ranking (19th in the world); they still want to be told that the American health care system is the #1 best in the world.

And, come to think of it, I already know why, too.

See, I long ago got my nose rubbed in the fact that there are two competing views in American society of what a code of morality means. For a while, I thought it was a crazy vs. sane thing. When I found out otherwise, I suspected it was a social-class based thing. When I found out I was wrong about that, I concluded that no, it's just a cultural thing, something that runs in families, just as some families are shouters and some are deeply afraid of open displays of anger. Anyway, the divide is this. Some people believe that when you adopt, and state, a code of morality that that code is a sacred promise that you are making to yourself, to your family, to society. They believe that if you fall short of your sworn code of morality, it may be a sin that God can forgive, but it is a sin against yourself that you should never forgive. They (we) believe that you should hold it against yourself for the rest of your life that you knew better, promised better, and did whatever it was anyway. On the other hand, there are people who believe that no matter how high or low you set your moral standards, you're going to break them some of the time. To them, a moral code is not so much a set of promises as a set of aspirations. Which means that to them, it's not really fair to judge someone by how often they fail to live up to their own moral code (or society's). Why not? Because they sincerely believe that everybody breaks their own moral code roughly equally often, that the only thing that conceals this fact is that some people are just lucky enough or sneaky enough to hide it better when they do. Believing this, they judge people, morally, by what they promise to do, by what they say that they're going to do. Why? Because they believe that the people who promise more are the ones who will try harder.

Not that I have the slightest idea what to do with this, tactically or strategically. I just find it interesting.
Let's go back and review the Keating Five scandal one more time. (By the way, this is material that I'd been working for a much, much longer piece on John McCain that just isn't coming together well as one long series. But don't worry, all the pieces will eventually get used.) Not long after John McCain's friends Barry Goldwater and Ross Perot got him his brand-new job as a US Representative (not yet Senator), one of the first people in Arizona politics John McCain made friends with was a Republican activist, and in particular a nationally famous anti-pornography crusader, named Charles Keating. Keating's "day job" was as the head of a chain of Arizona banks, Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan. This was not a great line of work to be in, in the early 1980s; for a variety of reasons that are themselves interesting, but complicated and not relevant to this article, just about every federally chartered Savings and Loan in the United States was in danger of bankruptcy at the same time.

What makes Charles Keating an interesting part of John McCain's story, though, is not how the bank got into trouble, but what Keating did to try to get his business back out of trouble: tell his bank's investment counselors and salesmen to go out and specifically scam retirees, church pension funds, anybody who'd trust Charles Keating so much (because of his sterling Christian reputation as an anti-pornography crusader) that they wouldn't read the fine print on the papers they signed, into signing over their life's savings in exchange for basically worthless paper. And Keating had a plan as to how he was going to get away with it, too. He spread about a million dollars or so worth of bribes across Arizona's entire congressional delegation, plus several other congressmen in important oversight positions, with the understanding that the congressmen would put pressure on the federal prosecutors and on the Office of Thrift Supervision to tell them to call off any investigation of Lincoln Savings and Loan. McCain's share was about $112,000. But the bribes didn't save Keating from going to jail for it, and the next several years were not good to the famous "Keating Five" who took those bribes and who, every one of them including McCain, had their staff members make the phone calls and write the letters to tell the feds to back off. Four of the five of them lost their careers over this.

McCain got away with it, and I'll tell you why. When they feds showed up in his office, offended over his "back off" orders, and showed him the evidence they had on Keating, he was aghast -- and, importantly, surprised. All five of the Keating Five swore up and down that they thought Keating's money was perfectly legal campaign contributions with no quid pro quo, and the only one who was believed was John McCain, because when prosecutors and the ethics committee looked into it, it became clear that it really never occurred to McCain that those were bribes. And coming under investigation for bribery shook John McCain to the very core of his being, because there's only one thing that's as important to John McCain as his constant need to have a super-model on his arm, gazing adoringly up at him, and that's his reputation. If you know the full history of McCain's military service, you can see clearly that he is far, far more concerned about his reputation than he is even about his country. And thus, it brought his whole world crashing down to realize that to people who didn't know him well enough to know that he really was too dumb to recognize a bribe when he was handed one, it would look like John McCain put his office up for sale.

And it's what John McCain did about that that cemented his place in history, to date. He put himself way, way out in front on every ethics issue to pass through Congress from then on: budget reform, campaign finance reform, ethics reform, lobbying reform, you name it. Ironically, he didn't change his own behavior so very much. Going all the way back to Annapolis, where his disciplinary record was so awful that he really shouldn't have graduated at all, John McCain has never believed that the rules applied to him, personally, because "everybody should know" that he's "honest," no matter how things look. John McCain's late 1980s, and all through the 1990s, campaign for ethical reform in Congress was first and foremost and always about repairing his personal reputation, and only secondarily about repairing Congress's reputation, and only distantly after that about actually cleaning up any actual or perceived scandals in Washington. But for two very large, and very important constituencies in American politics, that was enough! Three, really. For two, it was enough to make him a hero for life; for the third, an enemy for life.

See, here's the thing. Going all the way back to the first "muck-raker" journalists of the late 19th century, there has always been a solid corps among the reporters who cover politics, maybe even a majority of them, who only care about one issue, and that's government corruption. In the wake of Prohibition, the muck-rakers got their own caucus within the Democratic Party, the Reform Democrats who lead the charge to de-mafia-ize America's largest cities, and to this day, the Reform Democrats are still a substantial percent of the activists and leaders in the volunteer base of the Democratic Party. As the Republicans gained in power, they acquired their own matching caucus, the Reform Republicans, and what the Reform Democrats and the Reform Democrats agree on, and work together on, is one core belief: that it doesn't matter nearly so much what a government's principles are, what its plans are, or even what its laws are, so much as it matters that government employees are as competent as possible and the politicians who supervise them are completely honest. Ideologues in both parties, who think that yes, principles do matter, hold Reformers in absolute, total, and naked contempt. They don't even call them Reformers, they think that conveys too much legitimacy on what seems to them to be an idiotic and naïve political ideal. The rest of both parties coined their own dismissive, childish nickname for the Reform Democrats, Reform Republicans, and muck-raking journalists: they call them (us) the Goo Goos, a diminutive of "good government." And from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, everybody in Washington agreed that the biggest, loudest, and ugliest of the Goo-Goos was John McCain. Or at most, the 2nd or 3rd biggest. But still, way up there.

(That third political constituency after the Reform Democrats and the Reform Republicans? That'd be the Country-Club Republicans, who hate the Goo-Goos with the fiery passion of a thousand exploding suns. To a Country-Club Republican, bribery is the only tool that the wealthy and powerful businessmen and investors who, they think, are the only people in the country who know how things should really be run, have to outweigh the mere votes and opinions of the ignorant poor and middle class. As I assume you can guess, that constituency really, really hates John McCain, and that's why they were pushing so hard for the only ex-CEO in the race, one of their own, Mitt Romney.)

And here's the part that's really relevant to this weekend's news, and to the week to come. John McCain remembers those days fondly as the only time in his life that the Press actually loved him. Yes, Sarah Palin is a woman, and I'm sure that some idiot somewhere in the Republican Party mistakenly thinks that the PUMAs will be delighted to see a younger, prettier, blatantly unqualified girl be offered the job that they think that their comfortably middle aged dues-paying standard bearer was robbed of. (According to the early polling, uh, not so much. Unsurprisingly.) And yes, she's an ex-beauty-queen, and still young enough to be pretty to John McCain, and that makes her an acceptable choice to him. But Sarah Palin has one other qualification that must have jumped right off of the page at McCain: she's a Reform Republican, quite possibly the only Reform Republican governor. If you look over her political biography, Sarah Palin has run for office, from her very first run for hick-town city government, on one and only one platform. Yes, she's taken positions on other issues, from guns to abortion to creationism to the famous Bridge to Nowhere. (And, as has been observed elsewhere, she's already taken both sides of that issue.) But those aren't the issues that motivate her. The issue that motivates her, clearly, is anti-corruption. And just as it made John McCain a media darling in the 90s, it made her a political darling of the Alaska state media in the 2000s. (And just as with McCain, it looks like she's not as clean as she says, either. But trust me, reporters are just as hypocritical as anybody else with a religious faith; it is far more important to a muck-raking journalist that a politician denounce corruption than it is that they give it up, themselves.)

So here's my tentative prediction. John McCain is giving up the "experience" meme as a long-term loser; the last of the ads touting his "experience" and attacking Obama as "not ready" will stop as soon as the current media buy runs out. They have to; Palin's even younger, and far less experienced, than Obama, so he can't get away with that any more. And, frankly, if you look at the polling data at FiveThirtyEight.com, you can see that it hasn't exactly been working for them, anyway. No, I think what you're going to hear at the Republican Convention, and hear a lot, is a lot of talk about John McCain the Reformer. I think McCain's willing to risk hearing the name Charles Keating however often it takes, as long as it gives him and his surrogates opportunities to say "Tony Rezko" over and over again. This isn't doom for the Obama campaign; Obama's got his own ethics reform legislative chops that he can point to, especially in state government, and he has his own native constituency in land of journalism, the "reality based community" who love him for his commitment to intellectualism and evidence-based reasoning. But I think that the real reason that John McCain gambled his career on Sarah Palin is that he plausibly hopes that updating his Goo-Goo credentials will make the muck-rakers in the newsrooms all over the country fall in love with him again, will remember why they (we) loved him in the first place, before he went psycho after 9/11 and before the mental deterioration became impossible to ignore. He wants us to forget the last couple of years, especially, and come back to him.

I don't think it'll work. FiveThirtyEight.com doesn't think it will work, and I trust their methodology more than any other I've seen. But I'll say this for him: it may look stupid, but it's probably the smartest thing he's done this whole campaign.

Three Years May Not Have Been Enough

Three years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans, Louisiana. Poorly designed and poorly maintained levees failed to keep back the storm surge and the swollen waters, and half the city, mostly the poorest neighborhoods who had been left behind by an evacuation plan that was only half ready, went under water. Almost 1,000 people died in the hurricane itself, and then dozens more died because the government, out of fear that (non-existent) gangs of armed black looters would steal the supplies and sell them on the black market, held back Red Cross disaster relief crews until the 101st Airborne could be flown back from the middle east to "pacify" a drowning American city. The events of the subsequent three years have done nothing to reassure me that the gods have forgiven us, yet, for this unexpiated act of unmitigated national cowardice.

On this anniversary last year, I said that two years was not long enough to judge the reconstruction efforts a failure, and I stand by that. It's easy to underestimate how long it takes to rebuild an entire city after a disaster of this size. I predicted at the time that it could end up being a decade or more before even the majority of the reconstruction was done, no matter who the President was or what party was in power, because it just plain takes that long to get people to agree on what to build in the ruins, raise the financing for it, and then get it built. And here we are on the third anniversary, and the hardest-hit Lower Ninth Ward has barely finished clearing the rubble, with only a few scattered demonstration projects built, and that's sad, but it's still not a cause to go looking for someone to blame. Some things just take as long as they take, and there's nothing that can be done about that.

But it looks like, while two years was not enough, three years may, in fact, turn out to be as much time as we had to get two important parts of it done. Or, to be precise, three years, zero months, and five days:

As of when I'm embedding that image from the Weather Underground website, Hurricane Gustav is projected to make landfall five days after the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It is currently projected to be a category 3 hurricane at the time, that is to say, on the same order of magnitude as Katrina. And it is currently projected to be most likely to make landfall roughly the same distance from New Orleans, to the west this time. Nobody with any reasonable sense of how long rebuilding takes expected the whole city to be rebuilt by now. But now it appears that we're going to find out, the hard way, whether three years was long enough to get the two most important parts of it done: the repairs and upgrades to the levees and flood walls, and the completion and updating of that long-overdue evacuation plan. And, gods help the people of New Orleans, but it looks like only one of those two things, the evacuation plan, got finished. At least this time, it looks like there will be buses and trains available to evacuate those who can't drive out. But the levees? Not so much. Back in May, President Bush vetoed the idea of freeing up more money for the levees until next summer, which, it looks like will turn out to have been too late.

But even that, even if the construction currently slated to end in 2011 had been done by today, that may have turned out to be too little. The current plan, as inadequate as it is, would be to have the US Army Corps of Engineers, the government agency that supervised the construction of the original failed levees, supervise the same corrupt construction firms that built the original failed levees. In the aftermath of the storm, President Bush said that whoever got the contract would be audited within an inch of their life, because of Louisiana's long culture of corrupt government, but the money for the extra auditors was never allocated, either, so that part isn't getting done. A Dutch engineering firm, Arcadis, came in with a plan for a real, solid, reliable, Dutch-style levee system, and delivered a detailed, almost 3,000 page plan to build it. I'm reading conflicting accounts as to why, but they were told to go home; the resulting cheaper, sloppier design might not have even worked if they got it done. And one thing I'm being told by a lot of random sources is that nobody really thinks that it was going to get done well, or maybe even ever, by the new contractors. Why? Corruption. Why finish the levee, when the longer the contract can be stretched out, the more opportunities for graft there are?

So, all we can do now is wait, and hope that the parts that did get done will hold up, or the storm will weaken or somehow miss New Orleans, and we'll all find out come Tuesday. Well, no. We can do one other thing, and it's going to startle you hearing it out of my mouth: vote Republican. No, not in every election. And certainly not for President in November. Vote Republican for mayor of New Orleans. And Detroit. And St. Louis. And in every other corrupt, pestilential hell-hole of a city that's been under single-party rule for too, too long. What, the Republicans are running a nutbag flake in your city? Don't worry; you're not going to get him elected. That's not even the goal. The goal is to convince the Republicans that the current mayor is vulnerable, so they run a plausible, centrist candidate, someone who could conceivably get elected in your city, the next time. And then I want you to vote for that guy. Once. And then get him out of there, and the sooner the better, before he gets out of control like Rudy "the Nazi" Giuliani did in New York City. Because I'm not asking you to vote Republican, in any of these Democratic cesspits, because I think that the Republicans have good ideas on how to govern cities. On the contrary; let them run any of these cities for more than a couple of years and they'll utterly destroy them, especially the current crop of Republicans, all of whom are deeply wedded to voodoo economic theories like the Laffer Curve and who are turning out to be even more corrupt than the single-party-rule Democrats were.

No, it's because of one and only one reason: it is a bad thing when one party's primary election 100% reliably decides the final election results. That kind of single-party rule breeds corruption. It floats to the top those who do their best "work" in dark places, the ones with the most favors they can bestow or call in, the experts in graft and corruption. The ones who count on the fact that their intra-party opponents won't reveal their worst crimes, for fear of tarnishing the party itself. No party's primary is ever as clean, as open, or as thoroughly investigated by the press as a two-party general election. Because until corrupt scumbag party hacks like Francis Slay, Kwame Kilpatrick, and yes, absolutely Roy Nagin stop letting their friends and campaign contributors steal everything that's not nailed down, until guys who intend to turn a blind eye while their friends commit horrific crimes and maybe even do some looting of the city themselves become afraid of holding office in America for fear of exposure in the next election? We've got a lot of cities that will never recover, and New Orleans isn't even the worst of them. It's just the one that may be about about to physically drown, again.


I want to riff on an entirely valid question that popelizbet asked yesterday: "What can we do?" I don't think she's asking about the protests themselves, more about how do we stop the demonization of protest, but I do want to say this: I have long, long since concluded that in a democracy, there is nothing in the world more entirely pointless than a public demonstration. And I think, honestly, that most demonstrators learn that, no later than their 2nd or 3rd demonstration, learn that demonstrations do nothing other than provide people with the self-comforting illusion of having "done something," when they've done nothing of the sort. But then, an awful lot of the time when you're seeing mass demonstrations, they're not demonstrating in lieu of doing something else that would be useful. They're demonstrating because there isn't anything better that they could do. If they're going to do something frustrating and futile, at least the demonstrators get the satisfaction of doing their emasculatingly useless thing in public.

Look, I read a lot of history, but there are gaps in my knowledge. So let me ask you all this.

In all the history of democracy, whether the leaders were actually elected or "elected" in fraudulent, rigged election processes? Once the elected (or "elected") leader declares a war, whether or not the laws of his or her country gives war-making authority to that office? Once the first soldiers, in obedience to that order whether they should have obeyed or not, crosses the enemy (or "enemy") border? Has any war ever been stopped, short of being won or lost? Ever?

In 1860, there were an awful lot of Yankees who recognized all of Dixie as, well, frankly, what it still is today: a dead weight hanging around this country's neck, acre after acre of completely useless land full of mostly useless people, a net recipient of tax revenue rather than a net contributor to the country since shortly after Independence. People who said that if Dixie wanted to secede from the Union, then never mind the Constitutional niceties, let them go, and good riddance to bad garbage, certainly not worth spending one life or one dollar (let alone millions of lives and the entire federal treasury) to keep. Pro-war Unionists, once the war started, called these people Copperheads, and not a few Americans lost everything they owned to court-ordered confiscation and either went to prison or fled into exile after being convicted of sedition, for speaking out against the war once it had started. Many of them paid very nearly the ultimate sacrifice to try to stop their country from waging a murderous and unjust war. I also know that there were anti-war riots in several northern cities, most famously the anti-Draft riots in New York City. Did any of the journalists, anti-war politicians, popular authors, or rioters succeed in stopping the Civil War?

From 1913 to 1917, The War in Europe was the hot-button political issue in the United States; Woodrow Wilson only won the presidency in 1916 by promising to keep us out of it. It was the clearly and unambiguously polled opinion of the vast majority of American voters that it wasn't worth one American life or one American dollar to get involved, and to this day, I still don't claim to understand what American interest the Wilson administration thought they were pursuing when they used the passengers of the Lusitania as human shields for an illegal arms shipment to England. I do know that there were labor activists in the US who saw through this, who got the reporters for many newspapers to accurately report that the German High Command had warned the passengers of the Lusitania that they were being used as human shields before the ship sailed. Did the anti-war voters, or the labor activists, or the journalists manage to stop US involvement in World War I? (Too bad they didn't, too; had they succeeded, nobody but a handful of specialist historians would ever have heard of Adolph Hitler. Or, for that matter, Osama bin Laden.)

From when Supreme Fuhrer Hitler renounced the end of WWI peace treaty and began re-arming in 1936 and threatening aggression against his neighbors, there were many thousands of pacifists and other anti-war activists who opposed him. Once the war broke out, some of them, having forseen the disaster to come, went so far as to sabotage their own country's war efforts and even attempted to assassinate the Fuhrer. Did they manage to stop WWII?

I know that a ton of old hippies claim that their anti-war protests brought down the Vietnam War, but actual professional historians who've analyzed the war conclude that on the contrary, the anti-war demonstrators may have actually prolonged the war, by making the anti-war side look so unattractive and anti-American that they made it infeasible for both Johnson and Nixon to accept defeat. Thousands of dead later, and more than four years after the peak of the demonstrations and riots, the war ended not when the anti-war forces tried to stop it, but when the US Army was defeated.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, there were few people who questioned the war, but never was anyone more powerless and helpless than an anti-war Russian in the USSR. As the death toll began to mount, though, even in the old Soviet Union people risked their very lives to protest, to demand that the Communist Party explain what was so important about Afghanistan that so many of their friends and family members had to die there. And they kept right on protesting, quietly and loudly, and did they stop the war that way? As if. Nor did it even stop the war when the Soviet Army's returning soldiers began questioning the war themselves, in public. No, trust me, long before that war ended, there were tens of thousands of Russians, maybe even hundreds of thousands of them, trying to end the war. Did they? Fat chance; that war ground on until the CIA-backed mujahadeen forced the Soviet Army to retreat.

Show me a counter example, if you know one. Show me even one time when, clearly and unambiguously, political opponents of one of their own country's aggressive wars have ever managed to stop that war short of defeat, victory, or total collapse of their own government's claim to legitimacy for other reasons. You want to stop the Iraq War, soon? So do I. But now that I think of it, the more I realize that if I'd paid enough attention to history, maybe I would have seen that there are only two ways to end the Iraq War, soon: in victory, soon, or in defeat, soon. Or okay, maybe an even more implausible third way, in a collapse of the United States into total violent anarchy so thorough that the government can't even patrol its own streets, let alone prolong a war. If you know another way that has ever succeeded before, I'm all ears.

Don't Read Me Today

Nothing I could write this morning would be anywhere near as actually useful to you, as incisive, as clear, as historically accurate and detailed, or as instructive about what this Presidential campaign is all about as today's Sunday New York Times article "How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on Economy" by NYT economics columnist David Leonhardt. The subtitle or pseudo-title, in the web version's <title> tag, is a better, more informative, more accurate title than the official one: "Barack Obama, A Free-Market Loving, Big-Spending, Fiscally Conservative Wealth Redistributionist." A few quotes, as a teaser:
... John McCain’s economic vision, as he has laid it out during the campaign, amounts to a slightly altered version of Republican orthodoxy, with tax cuts at the core. Obama, on the other hand, has more-detailed proposals but a less obvious ideology. ¶ Well before this point on the presidential calendar, it’s usually clear where a candidate fits within the political spectrum of his party. With Obama, there is vast disagreement about just how liberal he is, especially on the economy. ...

To understand where Obama stands, you first have to know that, for 15 years, Democratic Party economics have been defined by a struggle that took place during the start of the Clinton administration. It was the battle of the Bobs. On one side was Clinton’s labor secretary and longtime friend, Bob Reich, who argued that the government should invest in roads, bridges, worker training and the like to stimulate the economy and help the middle class. On the other side was Bob Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive turned White House aide, who favored reducing the deficit to soothe the bond market, bring down interest rates and get the economy moving again. Clinton cast his lot with Rubin, and to this day the first question about any Democrat’s economic outlook is often where his heart lies, with Reich or Rubin, the left or the center, the government or the market. ...

Among the policy experts and economists who make up the Democratic government-in-waiting, there is now something of a consensus. They agree that deficit reduction did an enormous amount of good. It helped usher in the 1990s boom and the only period of strong, broad-based income growth in a generation. But that boom also depended on a technology bubble and historically low oil prices. In the current decade, the economy has continued to grow at a decent pace, yet most families have seen little benefit. Instead, the benefits have flowed mostly to a small slice of workers at the very top of the income distribution. As Rubin told me, comparing the current moment with 1993, “The distributional issues are obviously more serious now.” From today’s vantage point, inequality looks likes a bigger problem than economic growth; fiscal discipline seems necessary but not sufficient. ...

As anyone who has spent time with Obama knows, he likes experts, and his choice of advisers stems in part from his interest in empirical research. (James Heckman, a Nobel laureate who critiqued the campaign’s education plan at Goolsbee’s request, said, “I’ve never worked with a campaign that was more interested in what the research shows.”) By surrounding himself with economists, however, Obama was also making a decision with ideological consequences. Far more than many other policy advisers, economists believe in the power of markets. What tends to distinguish Democratic economists is that they set out to uncover imperfections of the market and then come up with incremental, market-based solutions to these imperfections. This helps explain the Obama campaign’s interest in behavioral economics, a relatively new field that has pointed out many ways in which people make irrational, short-term decisions. ...

For three decades now, the American economy has been in what the historian Sean Wilentz calls the Age of Reagan. The government has deregulated industries, opened the economy more to market forces and, above all, cut income taxes. Much good has come of this — the end of 1970s stagflation, infrequent and relatively mild recessions, faster growth than that of the more regulated economies of Europe. Yet laissez-faire capitalism hasn’t delivered nearly what its proponents promised. It has created big budget deficits, the most pronounced income inequality since the 1920s and the current financial crisis. As Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary and Rubin ally from the Clinton administration, says: “We’ve probably done a better job of the last 20 years on the problems the market can solve than the problems the market can’t solve. We’re doing pretty well on the size of people’s houses and televisions and the like. We’re not looking so good on infrastructure and education.” ...

The Tax Policy Center, a research group run by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, has done the most detailed analysis of the Obama and McCain tax plans, and it has published a series of fascinating tables. For the bottom 80 percent of the population — those households making $118,000 or less — McCain’s various tax cuts would mean a net savings of about $200 a year on average. Obama’s proposals would bring $900 a year in savings. So for most people, Obama is the tax cutter in this campaign. ...

I asked Obama whether he thought he had been able to tell an effective story about the economy during this campaign. Specifically, I wondered, did he think he had a message that compared with Reagan’s simple call for less government and lower taxes. ¶ He paused for a few seconds and then said this:

“I think I can tell a pretty simple story. Ronald Reagan ushered in an era that reasserted the marketplace and freedom. He made people aware of the cost involved of government regulation or at least a command-and-control-style regulation regime. Bill Clinton to some extent continued that pattern, although he may have smoothed out the edges of it. And George Bush took Ronald Reagan’s insight and ran it over a cliff. And so I think the simple way of telling the story is that when Bill Clinton said the era of big government is over, he wasn’t arguing for an era of no government. So what we need to bring about is the end of the era of unresponsive and inefficient government and short-term thinking in government, so that the government is laying the groundwork, the framework, the foundation for the market to operate effectively and for every single individual to be able to be connected with that market and to succeed in that market. And it’s now a global marketplace. ¶ “Now, that’s the story. Now, telling it elegantly — ‘low taxes, smaller government’ — the way the Republicans have, I think is more of a challenge.”
It'll take you a longish while to get through the whole piece. But it's worth it. This one long, long article here, this is the best single example I've seen lately of why so many people, both Left and Right, think the Sunday edition of the New York Times is a good investment of their time and money.

P.S. Less important, maybe, and certainly shorter, but a good read, also from today's Sunday NYT, on the subject of a recent change (for the better) in Florida's statewide curriculum standards in high school biology, and the effects they're having on teachers and classrooms: Amy Harmon, "A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash."

WHO "Blew" This Answer?

Against my better judgment, I did watch all of last weekend's "Saddleback Forum," hosted by moderate evangelical Christian author (and megachurch pastor) Rick Warren. I don't know how fair it's been that people have been saying that Obama blew it, but I will say this. There were two specific places in the questioning where, when asked, Obama gave a sensible, reasonable, nuanced answer, and the audience seemed, well, satisfied. Then McCain, asked the same question, said something either mind-numbingly terrifying or mind-numbingly stupid ... and brought down the house. The two worst things McCain said, and they were his biggest applause lines of the night.

Let's start with the scary one. Warren didn't phrase it word-for-word identical, but close enough. (In particular, this is the version of the question that Obama got.) "Let’s just talk about war. As an American, what’s worth dying for? What’s worth having sacrifice of the American lives for?"
OBAMA: "Well, obviously American freedom, American lives, America’s national interests. You know, I was just with my family on vacation in Hawaii and visited the place where my grandfather is laid to rest, the Punch Bowl National Cemetery. And then went out to Arizona, out in Pearl Harbor and you’re reminded of the sacrifices that have been made on behalf of our freedom. And I think that is a solemn obligation that we all have. I think that we also have forged alliances with countries, NATO being a prime example, where we have pledged to act militarily for the common defense, that is in our national interest and that is something that I think we have to abide by.

WARREN: What would be the criteria that you would commit troops to end the genocide, for instance, it’s like what’s going on in Darfur or could happen in Georgia or anywhere else?

OBAMA: You know - I don’t think that there is a hard and fast line at which you say, OK, we are going in. I think it is always a judgment call. I think that the basic principle has to be that we have it within our power to prevent mass killing and genocide, and we can work in concert with the international community to prevent it, then we should act.

Now, we have to do so - I think that international component is very critical. We may not get 100 percent agreement. But I think you take an example like Bosnia, when we went in and undoubtedly saved lives. We did not have U.N. approval, but there was a strong international case that had been made that ethnic cleansing was taking place, and under those circumstances, when we have it within our power, we should, you know, we should take action.
Can't criticize that, much. I still disagree about Bosnia, and any vague invocation of "America's national interests" is too broad of a blank check for me to feel comfortable writing. But what he gave is the standard bipartisan textbook answer, by the book. Half an hour or so later, McCain got the same question, more or less:
WARREN: Let’s talk about freedom and war. As an American, what is worth dying for, and what is worth committing American lives for?

MCCAIN: Freedom.
And he literally brought down the house. The single longest, loudest applause break of the whole program, I think, was for John McCain promising to send US troops to fight, and to die for (among other examples he gave, in follow-up questions):
  • Our national security. (D'uh.)
  • In any obscure place on the globe that might some day "envelop" us in their problems.
  • In "all four corners of the world in defense of other people's freedom."
  • Against Russia to protect Georgia, and every country that McCain assumes Russia will attack next: "Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Ukraine."
  • For "energy:" anywhere there's oil, or to protect oil pipelines.
  • Against any country that persecutes Christians.
And that doesn't even count his promises, in response to earlier questions, to ...
  • Continue the war in Iraq until all fighting in that country is over.
  • "Pursue [bin Laden] to the gates of hell," which means invading Pakistan and fighting hilltop to hilltop for months across their Northwest Frontier region.
  • Send the army to destroy al Qaeda or any other Islamic extremists in any other country they're in, including here in the US.
And he got loud and long applause for it. Which means that apparently there are still major sections of the US electorate who still believe that we can do all of that at once as long as no "defeatist" Copperheads are allowed to undermine the war effort. We haven't even lost the war in Iraq, and already the old Vietnam War narrative about how the only reason we lost that war, and the only reason we're going to lose this war, is because of liberal peacenik traitors to America. Great. And here I was hoping that, for the first time since I was 4 back in 1964, we might have one election in the United States that wasn't primarily about the Vietnam War. No wonder the Republicans dug an old Vietnam War veteran out of their near-retirees to lead the ticket. And no wonder he's talking about reinstating The Draft; if he intends to use American troops for all of those things at once, even he apparently knows that if he wins, he's going to need it.
How do you know that the economy is in a real recession, not just an imaginary one, one that's all in your head, a "mental" recession? When a Republican is out of work.

A particular Republican is out of work, actually: lobbyist and former US Senator Phil Gramm, the guy who said that the recession was something entirely imagined by a "nation of whiners" -- until he was laid off himself. OK, I'm aware that the newspapers say that he quit "to end this distraction." But trust me, he's out of work, and I don't think there's any doubt that this was a "quit or be fired" moment. Okay, he's really more of an involuntary retiree than the victim of a lay off, and I'm sure he has some rich Republican friends who'll front him his rent and grocery money should it come to that. Still, the fact remains that at this point, the architect of one of the pillars of Reaganomics is radioactive to any potential employers.

Most of the news media have covered this from the inevitable "Presidential horse race" angle, wanting to know what it means to the "contest" between Obama and McCain that Gramm wrote pretty much the entire McCain campaign economic plan; how much of an embarrassment is this to John McCain? And the focus is on that because the top candidates firing, dismissing, cutting themselves off from, betraying, denouncing, renouncing, and/or accepting the only-semi-voluntary resignations of their closest friends, allies, advisers, and staff has been a recurring thread this year, to the point where most news editors and many journalists are begging the rest of the commentariat to throw the phrase "throw (someone) under the bus" under the bus.

But there's a bigger news story here than the wannabe horse-race handicappers trying to juggle the odds on which "horse" will cross the "finish line" ahead of the other, and I'd like to thank the Washington Post's columnist E.J. Dione for calling it to my attention last Friday on Countdown with (No, Really, This Time) Keith Olbermann. Because Dione came very close to predicting this news story, a week in advance, pretty much by accident, with his column for July 11th, 2008: "Capitalism's Reality Check" (registration required). Because in a very real way, the 2008 election isn't about Barack Obama or John McCain. In a weird sort of a way, it's an actual national referendum about Phil Gramm. Because before he was before he was UBS lobbyist Phil Gramm, before he was Senator Phil Gramm, before he was U.S. Representative Phil Gramm, he was Texas A&M University professor of economics Dr. Phil Gramm, whose entire life's work has been about laissez faire economics. He wasn't just the a contributor to the Republicans' "Contract on with America," he was one of the main intellectual architects of Reaganomics, and for him, its founding principle was this:

In the long term, Dr. Gramm argued, it is basically impossible for a business to stay in business by harming its customers, without some unfair form of help from the government. If all government help is withdrawn from businesses, and a free market prevails, then customers will flock to the business that doesn't harm its customers, that business will earn more money than the businesses that do harm their customers, and the bad businesses will either go broke and close their doors or get bought out by the good business. This means that in a free market, any form of government regulation aimed at preventing companies from harming their customers is unnecessary. What's more, the effort that the government spends on checking up on companies that it thinks could go bad costs money, so they have to raise taxes to pay for the compliance checkers, including taxes on those companies. What's more, companies that are having to look over their shoulders at hovering, hostile government regulators have to practice business defensively, have to divert resources that could go into making better, cheaper products into dealing with regulators, have to hire and pay the people who do nothing but placate the regulators, and those costs get passed on to the customer. So according to Phil Gramm (and most other hard-core laissez faire economists) any kind of government regulation of business at all achieves no good end, gives customers no better products or more products than they would have had under a laissez faire market, and does so at a higher cost. Therefore any kind of consumer or citizen or environmental protection by government is an inherently bad thing.

When he was doing his academic work back in the 1970s, American businesses' regulatory compliance costs were at their all-time maximum; from the 1890s to the early 1970s, fed-up American voters had demanded more and more protection from companies by government. And when Phil Gramm was doing his academic work, the US economy was in horrible shape. In hindsight, we can see that this had more to do with horrible budgetary mismanagement during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and the wreckage wrought on the federal budget by the ever-escalating costs of having just lost a major land war in Asia, than it had to do with corporate regulation. But voters, eager for a fast way to repair the wreckage of the Carter-era economy, were willing to listen to the many US businesses who were claiming that there wouldn't be so much inflation if they didn't have to spend so much money hiring people to protect them from unnecessary government regulators. And, in fact, by the end of President Reagan's first term, this academic and political argument had so thoroughly won the day that it not only became a permanent bedrock principle of the Republican Party (where it was no big surprise, as hands-off-big-business had been Republican party dogma since the robber-baron days of the 1880s and '90s), but it even became the majority position on economics in the Democratic Party, as well.

So we've spent the 28 years since Ronald Reagan won his first election to the US Presidency rolling back regulation after regulation, trusting more and more in "voluntary compliance" and "market-based solutions." And even where some regulations were too popular to repeal, businesses in formerly heavily regulated industries like banking, lending, real estate, and finance found ways to shift all of their actual money, all of the actual economic activity, into what had been niches too tiny to come to regulators' attention during the heyday of government regulation. We got exactly what Phil Gramm devoted his entire career to trying to persuade us to want, an almost completely unregulated economy. So it's not terribly surprising that Phil Gramm thinks that our current economy is really, really great; he just wants his side's politicians to make whatever bare-minimum entirely-symbolic gestures are necessary to placate the American voting public long enough for the "invisible hand of the market" to weed out the bad actors and turn the economy over to the good companies, still at a lower cost than government regulation.

But here's what E.J. Dione was writing about, a week ago last Friday: Phil Gramm, and his friend John McCain, and a few equally hide-bound ideologues with no actual business experience of their own, are practically the only people left on the planet who still think so. The same companies that spent the 1970s through the 1990s begging for less and less regulation are now begging for more and more regulation, and so are ever more of the Republican politicians that are beholden to those companies. Not just the American voters, but American companies, are standing up to Phil Gramm and saying en masse, "We tried it your way, and it turns out that it doesn't work." They don't want to hear from some pointed-headed economist turned politician turned lobbyist, who not only never managed a business but who never even worked a day of actual work in his life, how the economy "ought to work." They can see with their own eyes that it didn't turn out that way.

There is, actually, a reason why it doesn't work. It would not be entirely fair to penalize Professor Gramm, Ph.D., for not having foreseen this; much of the math didn't exist during his academic tenure. There have been an awful lot of advances in economics, especially coming out of the application of the school of mathematics known as "games theory," that couldn't have been made without fast and inexpensive computer simulations. But having done the math, and seen the results, there's a perfectly logical explanation in plain English that we can now give. When I do give it, it's going to sound so obvious that you're going to ask, well, sure, why didn't they see that coming? And all I can say to that is, you weren't there, it was a much more primitive world back then. Anyway, here's the reason why it doesn't work: all too frequently, the market doesn't have time to fix itself. Suppose that even just one company cheats by finding a way to make its products more profitable in a way that harms the buyers or that downstreams costs to its non-customers, imposes costs on them involuntarily, and manages to keep this at all secret for even a matter of months, or at most a couple of years. It can then drive prices down to the point where none of its competitors are making any money. They go bankrupt; this company then buys them out or monopolizes the market.

As one company cheats, therefore, there are morally crippling pressures on other companies to find ways to match the cheating company's prices; if anybody cheats, they all know within a matter of at most a few months that they have to cheat, too. Nor can they go public with their knowledge that the other company "must be" making deadly safety compromises with their product or dumping toxics onto an unsuspecting public. They know from their own business experience that that's the only way that the other company can be making that product, in the same market they are, with the same raw materials costs and vaguely similar wages and the same broadly-known business practices ... but they can't prove it in a court of law. It could take them years to find the evidence they'd need to protect themselves if they made that accusation and got sued for libel and slander. And they don't have years; they'll be out of business long before then, probably.

Nor does it help that we had a wave of shareholders' rights lawsuits back in the 1970s and 1980s, all with the same conclusion: company boards of directors have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize shareholder return in the short run, and since it is a fiduciary duty, they can be sued for not doing it. If there are investors out there (and there are) who think that the company should take insane risks with public safety because their competitors are doing so and thereby returning more value to their shareholders, it doesn't even help if the company that would rather do the right thing and wait for the market to catch up is still somehow minimally profitable, or if it has the cash reserves to wait until the evidence comes out: they'll still get sued, there'll still be a hostile takeover of that company, and new management will be put in that has no such optimistic faith in the goodness of markets.

And all of that makes Phil Gramm what he richly deserves to be: a retiree. At age 66, he's an academic economist who, through his success in politics, actually got to experiment with an entire nation's economy. As a "scientist" who still won't admit that the experiment didn't produce the results that his hypothesis said it would, even after all the evidence is in, he deserves to never work again; he's not just a bad person, he's a poor scientist. So he belongs where he is now, laid off, unemployed and unemployable, living off of Social Security and his US Senate pension, not anywhere near the reins of power; Gods help us, if he could, he'd repeat the experiment again, rather than admit that his model was flawed, in hopes it would turn out differently a second time.

Maybe Obama Actually Means It: Faith-Based

(Editorial note: Happy American Independence Day, or Fourth of July. In honor of the holiday, I wanted to interrupt this two-part series and insert a traditional, even for me, bit of patriotic glurge, because I really am like that. Fortunately, I came to my senses. There is nothing more patriotic, during a Presidential election year, than actually discussing with my fellow Americans what principles we want to be governed under for the next four years. So screw glurge; politics is my patriotism.)

This is another journal entry, like yesterday's, where in order to verify that I understood the facts of the matter, I had to wade through a ton of absolutely garbage journalism. Yesterday, I wrote about Democratic presidential nominee-presumptive Senator Barack Obama's announcement that he intends to vote for the current version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act renewal, the one that gives legal immunity to the telecom companies that spied on American's phone calls (whether or not anybody actually listened to the calls so tapped, it's technically still spying, technically) without the niceties of even the shallow fig-leaf of a FISA warrant application. Journalists all over the world have "knowingly" (cynically) assured people that Barack Obama doesn't "really" mean it, that he can't "really" mean to eliminate the penalties whenever the NSA taps Americans' phone calls without a warrant, that he's just pandering to the crowd who are afraid the Democrats will be "soft on terrorism." I spent yesterday's journal entry documenting the reasons why that theory is almost certainly false; it is much more likely that Senator Obama really does intend for America's spies to keep violating the law, and even the Constitution, and relying on in-agency and telco whistle-blowers to protect us from actual harm, just like every US President since Lincoln.

The case against the supposed political motivation of Obama's "tack to the right" in his speech outlining his plan to expand government funding to faith-based charities (PDF) is an even easier slam dunk. It annoys me what it says about how little the almost entirely white journalism establishment understands about black Americans that they think that the first credible black Presidential candidate would only shovel money to churches for political reasons. This is one area where black history and white history are diametrically opposed. First, the relevant white history: even the most religious white colonists who first came to America, the Puritans who made up over 80% of all the non-natives in America by 1640, came here fleeing from a church. From two of them, actually: the Catholic Church, and the Church of England. They had fought a war in England against the imposition of state-sponsored Catholicism. They took one look at what state-sponsorship was doing to their own Protestant faith and its ministers, and came here opposed, at least initially, to that, too. Stamped in the DNA of white America is a deep and abiding suspicion of organized religion. Even the most pious fundamentalist assures himself (delusionally, in many cases) that he, not some clergyman, let alone some government-supported clergyman, is his own highest moral authority after God and the Bible. For crying out loud, white American Catholics believe that, and that's 100% opposed to stated Catholic doctrine.

And in fact, even the limited extent to which the Southern Baptists have gone along with the current administration's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives has startled me. When I was being trained in Christian theology and Republican politics by Independent Baptist and Southern Baptist teachers back in the 1970s, they were entirely opposed to this kind of thing, for two solid practical reasons. First of all, they explained to me as a kid, just because your church is on the approved list for government funding this year, doesn't mean that it will be next year, not if the voters get any say in it, and we do elect a new administration every 4 to 8 years. And secondly, their own limited experience with accepting even the most indirect of government funding, through grants to private schools, left them with a sour taste in their mouths. They told me that every time, the politicians and government bureaucrats had waited until the churches' organizations were dependent on that money coming in, and then made intolerable demands in order to keep it. After one particularly horrific experience nearly bankrupted St. Louis's second-largest Protestant school back in the 1970s, the Missouri Union of Christian Schools passed a resolution forbidding any of their member schools from taking any government money. The state legislature had allocated funds "to promote physical education" by making grant money available to any school that wanted to build a gym, public or private. But then didn't allocate enough money to pay for one in one year. St. Louis Christian Academy had 2/3rds of the money they needed, paid the architect, got the permits, dug the foundation for their new gym. Then their legislator came in and said, in so many words, that the legislature was thinking of cutting off the funding to any school that didn't use the state-approved textbooks, including pro-evolution science textbooks. So SLCA said, fine, and tried to drop out of the program. The next day, a building inspector came by, asked them how they were going to finish that gym, and when he found out that no construction was ongoing, he condemned the building. It took fund-raising all across the state to raise the money in time and to pay the legal bills to fight that condemnation. So tell me why, with stories like that in circulation, churches want to let legislators and bureaucrats in Washington get their hooks into the churches' budgets? Can their greed have so thoroughly overruled their own knowledge and common sense?

What's more, at least two Christian legal organizations have already spotted one potential trap-door in Barack Obama's proposal, too, that's making them nervous. Obama gives what seems to him to be the reasonable requirement that if the taxpayers are funding someone's salary, then hiring for that job can't discriminate against applicants on religious grounds, or any other protected status like race, ethnicity, or Vietnam veteran status. He's on solid constitutional ground, there, in theory; I recall working indirectly on the case of a Wiccan clerical worker for the Salvation Army who won her case on the grounds that her duties were not in any way religious, so Sally's couldn't claim that sharing their Christian faith was a bona fide occupational qualification, a BFOQ. But as both the Center for Law and Religious Freedom and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations have pointed out, this gets problematic fast given Obama's commitment to roll these grants out to smaller and smaller churches, because those churches have hardly any paid employees, maybe even only one. Commingling of funds becomes automatic, impossible to avoid. And a commenter at the Center for Religious Freedom's blog pointed out an even bigger trojan horse in this proposal: the same law that Obama refers to covering discrimination in hiring, Title VII, is one that he's already promised gay and lesbian groups that he intends to amend to protect sexual orientation. So under Obama's proposal, any church that takes dollar one of federal funding and allows one thin dime of that money to commingle with church general revenue can no longer fire the pastor, or any other employee, if they find out he or she is gay.

But Senator Obama's proposal is neither proof that he's a right-wing Democrat in disguise, nor a dishonest attempt to portray himself as more moderate than he is, nor a liberal plot to advance the homosexual agenda. How do I know this? Occam's Razor. It is far, far simpler to believe that he is just that much of a believer in the black church, like nearly every educated black man in America. Remember that different black-versus-white historical experience I mentioned earlier? Let me finish that thought. Because, you see, black Americans' ancestors didn't come here fleeing any kind of church; they were captured by enemy tribes back in Africa and sold to white plantation owners as slaves. Those plantation owners lived in constant fear of organized revolt by their slaves; the term "monomania" was originally coined by southern plantation owners, for whom this "obsession" that black slaves had with getting free, their unwillingness to accept their fate, was seen as a mental sickness. But the one organization that black slaves were allowed, the one time they were allowed to gather under their own authority without white overseers, was in church on Sunday morning. At the time of emancipation, all black leaders in America were ministers, except for a tiny handful up north. And under the Jim Crow laws that were enacted to keep "freed" slaves enslaved in practice, and in the face of substantial barriers of institutionalized racism in education and hiring, it stayed true for another hundred years. Virtually the only black college graduates were seminary graduates in the American Methodist Episcopal and American Baptist churches; until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, practically the only good-paying job for black Americans was pastor of an AME or a Baptist church. As a result, up through 1964, the pastorate was a highly coveted job, one that without almost any exceptions attracted the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest. There have even been some black intellectuals who've complained about one of the unwanted side effects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act being that the black church lost its monopoly on intellectual and moral authority, and a few of them blame that at least as much as they blame racist economics for the high rates of single parenthood in black America.

So given that difference in how white Americans and black Americans feel about their churches, if you thought that America's first black President wasn't going to funnel money any which way he can to the African Methodist Episcopal church, and probably the American Baptist Church, and conceivably even smaller black denominations like the Nation of Islam, by any means possible, whether you or I or any white person likes it or not? If you think you have to make up some implausible conspiracy theory to explain why he'd suggest he wants to do so? If you think that your conspiracy theory is more likely than that he just plain likes and respects the black churches that much and wants them to be richer whatever it takes? Then I think you just plain don't know what you're talking about.