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November 5, 2012 / Joshua

Half a Peace Sign to Bipartisanship

A couple weeks ago Andrew Sullivan had this reaction to the Republicans’ late attempt to now play the bipartisan card:

The cynicism of the GOP can sometimes make you laugh or cry. In 2009, a newly elected president was eager to reach out to Republicans, a Democrat who adopted tax cuts as a third of the stimulus, incorporated Republican ideas on the individual mandate and healthcare exchanges, increased domestic oil and gas production, decimated al Qaeda and killed bin Laden etc etc. He got zero House votes for a desperately needed stimulus in his first month as president. And yet that GOP now blames Obama for being obstructionist and portrays Romney as the great healer.

The cynicism turns my stomach. And what turns it even more is that it might just possibly work.

Several of the official endorsements for Romney I’ve read are notable for how they fully succumb to the reckless GOP cynicism Sullivan decries. The Des Moines Register, for example, broke their streak of nine consecutive democratic candidate endorsements, in part because they believe Romney will be able to break “the partisan gridlock.”

Moderate conservatives, David Brooks and David Frum, who have been critical of the GOP, nonetheless express similar hopes for a Romney win to forge “bipartisanship” or, at least, as Frum gloomily puts it,

discourage the congressional GOP from deliberately pushing the US into recession in 2013.

Gee, sounds kind of like Republican extortion when you put it that way. But all of these endorsements share a common theme of merely hoping that Romney would govern as the moderate Brooks, Frum and others think he really must be, rather than the Republican champion he has campaigned as.

But to pretend Romney will usher in bipartisan pragmatism not only ignores the party to which he has committed himself, it ignores some of his major partisan campaign promises, like refusing to raise taxes even in exchange for greater spending cuts, defunding Planned Parenthood, and repealing Obamacare entirely (on day one).

More than that, endorsing the Republican candidate in this way means legitimizing a potentially cynical fraud, a candidate who will adopt whatever mask he needs to win the game, leaving us with little idea of how he’d actually govern. In other words, these endorsements not only give Romney’s opportunism a pass, they are counting on it, because the endorsers find a good chunk of his stated agenda (and the party’s as a whole) undesirable.

Therefore, I say, rather than hope for theoretical moderation after the election, consider foremost the party Romney has vigorously courted for a chance at the White House. The Republican party is a bigger problem than the mysterious Romney, or whomever else the candidate might have been. It is the national party that incentivizes Romney’s hard right tack on many issues. I don’t necessarily buy the notion that there’s a truly moderate Mitt underneath it all, but whatever independent and moderate ideas he once had on the issues, he has largely sacrificed on the altar of his long 6 year sales pitch to the Republican base.

This is a guy who once bragged about how much money he got from the federal government for the Winter Olympics. But he’s now spent most of the last year talking about how immoral deficit spending is, even in the context of student aid and disaster relief. Much of his stated agenda is largely identical to George W. Bush’s, and he has surrounded himself with many people from the Bush years. Why shouldn’t we expect Republican party leaders to have Mitt’s favor and to successfully push him to advance the party agenda, much of which he has appeased and rhetorically committed himself to?

That leads me to the biggest problem with these endorsements: they ignore that a victory for the Republican candidate would, in effect, amount to rewarding the GOP for their ideological intransigence, confirming for them that the last four years of saying no to a democratic president (and congressional majority for the first two) at every turn is a winning strategy, at least for their party. In short, it encourages more of the same gridlock in the future.

David Frum is the most confounding on this subject. He admits to seeing little evidence that Romney will abandon the Tea Party right upon being elected. And he acknowledges the Republicans’ bad behavior, writing:

The congressional Republicans have shown themselves [to be] a destructive and irrational force in American politics.

And yet, he goes on to claim that those Republicans would be more empowered by an Obama victory! He’s probably right, at least, that an Obama win will “aggravate the extremism of the congressional GOP.” But if so, I say, so be it. If it is, in fact, extremism we are dealing with, as it seems, then for the gods’ sake, let’s not give that extremism a powerful friend in the White House nor legitimize it at the polls.

These members of the press/punditocracy explicitly acknowledging that Republicans have made the work of government (under a Democratic president) nearly impossible and then saying that’s the reason to elect a Republican president demonstrates why we can’t have nice things.

Yes, Washington is as polarized and partisan as ever. Yes, it will continue to be a struggle for President Obama and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and the Democratic-dominated Senate to work together. Perhaps Obama and the Democrats have made legislative negotiation missteps throughout all of this, and Democrats have engaged in some obstruction as the minority before. But not to anywhere near the extent of the current GOP.

Further, there is evidence that congressional Republicans resolved even before Obama was inaugurated that they would obstruct him on every bill as part of a cynical strategy to refuse to play, then later blame the president alone for failing his promises of bipartisanship, and use that as an argument to win back power in the next elections. Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, was a part of that effort and is one of the most extreme conservatives of the party. But how many times during this campaign have we heard both Romney and Ryan blame Obama for his failure to bring Washington together?

Romney may talk up bipartisanship now, but he has embraced some of the most inflexible positions of his party on issues such as taxes, spending, and health care (all issues that President Obama has consistently been willing to find middle ground on). Romney’s party never gave compromise nor actual bipartisanship a real chance, even when faced with a new popular president elected in the midst of an economic crisis.

In my view then, the GOP is more interested in its own partisan aims and power than in pragmatic problem solving and cooperation. They have driven the gridlocked partisan mess they now claim they want to solve. A mercurial, opportunistic man wishes to lead an opportunistic self-centered party. Neither deserve to be trusted with greater power.

November 2, 2012 / Joshua

It Took Romney To Go To China

A perfect example of the kind of blatant and undeterred deception the Romney campaign has regularly engaged in is their recent attempt to mislead people about Chrysler making Jeeps in China.

The good news: for this falsehood, the campaign is actually getting a ton of pushback from the news media, on top of pushback from Chrysler and GM, from all over really. But, true to form, none of that has stopped them from running deliberately misleading ads about Jeep.

The whole thing started when Romney said this at a campaign rally in Ohio last week:

“I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state Jeep — now owned by the Italians — is thinking of moving all production to China”

What immediately jumps out to you about that statement? For me, it’s the “I saw a story” beginning. Really? You saw a story, did you? Did you carefully read that story? Was it from a reliable source? Did you look into it any further before spouting off about the possibility of people losing their jobs? Or were you just deliberately trying to scare up some last minute votes?

I’ve heard Romney do this before – in the first debate, in fact, when he said, “I saw a study”, followed by something that the study in question didn’t actually say. When Romney starts a sentence in that way, it should set off bullshit detectors everywhere, in the same way someone saying “According to this email forward I read” should.

Turns out, in the Jeep statement, Romney was referring to a Bloomberg article, or a misreporting of that article, which announced that Fiat, majority owner of Chrysler, has plans “to return Jeep output to China,” but by adding new production there, not moving existing production out of the U.S., as some concluded and Romney suggested.

Chrysler quickly set the record straight. Did the Romney campaign drop it? No. They went ahead and turned the falsehood into a deceptive television ad, and then expanded it with an even more deceptive radio ad. The TV ad says:

Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.

Well, the “build Jeeps in China” part is possibly accurate. But the rest, not so much, and the clearly intended and upsetting implication is that Americans will lose jobs to China. Still false, plain and simple, and opposite to reality. And they know it.

It’s a fitting way to wind down this campaign. It’s almost like the Romney team has been attempting some ill-conceived Dr. Evil-style scheme to see just how far a presidential candidate can go in terms of denying standard calls for disclosure and acting totally unrestrained by fact-checks and subsequent negative coverage. It’s seems like a big gamble, and a terribly unwise one in my view, particularly with this transparently desperate and damaging move in Ohio.

Still, that Romney’s campaign has gotten this far and this close without being consistently held accountable by the press doesn’t reflect well on the current state of our news media. It’s an odd time, with the proliferation of a wide variety of questionable “news sources” and the proliferation of fact-check organizations that don’t really seem to matter much. Clearly, Romney is attempting to exploit this disaggregated system, further encouraging the tribal tendency to simply reject / ignore reporting one doesn’t like. And he certainly knows that the sizable right wing media system will be there to back him up, whatever he says.

Or perhaps, the Romney team has cynically calculated that enough people will either believe them, or will just not know whom to believe, or will just shrug all this off as “typical politics.” Either way, it demonstrates a particularly unhealthy kind of politics, and it’s one of the many reasons why Romney deserves to be defeated next week.

October 31, 2012 / Joshua

Media Hacky Sack

The aftermath of the first presidential debate prompted Mother Jones blogger, Kevin Drum to lament what he calls “the hack gap.” This gap, as he has it, is

…a liberal problem of long standing. Put simply, we liberals don’t have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.

Drum points to the wide public freak out, and distinct lack of positive spin, from liberal bloggers and pundits over President Obama’s performance in the first debate as a clear example of this hack gap. And I think he has a point, particularly considering the contrast in the reactions to the other debates.

All across the media, the first debate was perceived as an unquestionable victory for Romney. Yet, for my money, Romney scored no substantial takedowns in that debate. Obama, on the other hand, certainly did in the following two. Yet, conservatives never accepted defeat and many even claimed a solid victory for Romney in the final debate, even though he chose a safe and somewhat agreeable approach.

Thus, with the right’s faithful hacks in action, we end up with more balanced coverage like this:

There was far from a consensus view on who won the debate in the hours after it ended… Given that both sides think they won, it could be a wash that won’t change the trajectory of the race.

This is an example of what many decry as the “He said, She said” equivalence problem in the media. And it happens all the time. Now, let me say, if Drum is right about liberals lacking hacks, then that’s really a point in their favor in terms of reliability, intellectual honesty, et cetera. But I think what conservatives better understand, and are better at shamelessly exploiting, is the simple right/left dichotomy of our news, because of which, as Paul Krugman has joked, if they said “the earth was flat, headlines would read Views Differ on Shape of Planet.”

In this way, the Romney campaign has floated in its own preferred reality for months and months, but the media mostly fails to seriously challenge this. I’m guessing that’s largely due to the desire to not only be “balanced” but to also play up the more exciting narrative of a close horse race, prompted by a debate “game change” that has supposedly provided a comeback and “momemtum” for the challenger. At this point in the game, too much is viewed through a lens focused on political tactics, optics, and perception. Thus, we get too many pundits pretending that the important questions to ask are, “Did the candidate do what he needed to do?” “Did he appear presidential?” “Does he appear confident?” “Has he been able to make himself attractive to independents?”

My favorite along those lines, was the low bar that Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith set for Romney in the first debate:

Mitt Romney, trailing in the polls, needed to prove tonight that he could stand on stage with President Barack Obama as an equal and a plausible president of the United States.

Right. That’s all. Just stand there and appear equal. Look the part of a plausible president even. If mere superficial plausibility this late in the day is “winning”, then we are all losing.

Or then there’s the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley’s take on the final debate:

[Romney] looked like a Commander in Chief; Obama looked like a lawyer. Who would you rather vote for?

How about the one who can not just look like the Commander in Chief he is, but can also demonstrate some level of trustworthiness and realism – Or offer legitimately plausible plans with actual numbers – Or show some modicum of consistent principles? If these questions that go beyond TV optics aren’t front and center at the very end of the race, then what is the point of closely covering the race at all?

Think about how we got here. Have we already forgotten the long “Anyone-But-Mitt” parade that was the extended GOP primary season? Romney was long derided, even by Republicans, as phony, uninspiring, and lacking an honest core. And for good reason.

All the way back in November, the Romney campaign itself gave us a taste of the shameless propaganda to come with an ad doing terrible injustice to the context of an Obama statement (an ad which is still on their website by the way). But when called on it, a Romney operative took political cynicism to its highest highs (or lowest lows):

“…ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

That quote foreshadowed the “post-truth campaign” that was to follow – a campaign which has consistently proven that, in the words of one its pollsters, it wouldn’t be “dictated by fact-checkers,” – a campaign that has doggedly refused to provide substance and disclosure – a campaign that somehow doesn’t “have the time” to show us the math.

In short, while nearly all political campaigns spin and weave and, yes, tell lies, Romney’s campaign is an operation that has shown an exceptional amount of callous and lazy disregard for the truth and disrespect for its audience. They’ve essentially dared the media to call out their lies time and time again and then have simply marched on unchanged and unconcerned when fact-checkers and some reporters actually do. Romney himself has shown reckless opportunism and deceit during a crisis and voiced disdain for 47% of the country when he thought only big donors were listening.

But, OH! Never mind all that now! Romney managed to look presidential, confident, and concerned for everyone in the theater of the debates! The Etch A Sketch has been shaken clean! The slate made new! The media finally have themselves a close, exciting race, so this guy Mitt Romney will just have to do!

October 22, 2012 / Joshua

Debaters Gonna Debate

President Obama seemed to have peeked at my blog prior to the second Presidential Debate last week (because that’s totally within the realm of likely possibility, right?). To wit, in the previous post, I called Mitt Romney a “sketchy salesman.” In the debate, the president rejected Romney’s tax plan as a “sketchy deal.” I wrote about Romney’s contradiction in calling the debt/deficit a moral issue for the next generation while failing to consider any tax increases today. And the president made just such a moral case for a combination of spending cuts and tax increases:

But what I’ve also said is if we’re serious about reducing the deficit, if this is genuinely a moral obligation to the next generation, then in addition to some tough spending cuts, we’ve also got to make sure that the wealthy do a little bit more.

As for Romney, in both debates, but particularly in the second one, he has come off as remarkably childish over “the rules” as he sees them. He can’t let little things go and just has to get the last word if Obama got the first answer, to the point that he often tries to stop the moderator and tell him/her how the debate should go. In this debate, he even momentarily turned away from an audience questioner to rebut one of Obama’s answers to the previous question. And a bit later on, he shifted gears in a question about immigration to randomly go way back to the topic of Chinese investments.

The point of that shift in topic was to do the other perplexing thing Romney was fond of doing that night: getting in Obama’s face over petty matters, like his pension, or cherry-picked numbers on oil drilling permits, or pointless word games on the Libya consulate attack, e.g., did the president call it “terror” or not?

None of these confrontations went over well for Romney, it seemed to me, and the back and forth over Libya blew up in his face completely, when moderator Candy Crowley fact-checked him on the spot. But let’s move on to once again talk Romney’s tax plan.

President Obama pressed Romney even harder this time on the missing math of his plan. The only tax cut offsetting idea Romney offered, by way of “pick a number,” was a $25,000 cap on deductions. That might be a fine idea in and of itself for tax reform, but alone wouldn’t quite do enough to cut the revenue hole Romney would create.

Candy Crowley gave Romney some wiggle room by asking if he’d reconsider the 20% tax rate cut if the numbers proved to really not add up. And this is how Romney responded:

Well, of course they add up. I was — I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. I ran the — the state of Massachusetts as a governor, to the extent any governor does, and balanced the budget all four years.

[…]

I know what it takes to balance budgets. I’ve done it my entire life.

And so it went for much of the debate: Romney repeatedly asserting he could do most anything simply because “I know what it takes” or “I know how to make that happen” or “I know why.” These are all apparently unique trade secrets for Romney, since he doesn’t bother to tell us exactly what or how or why in any satisfying way.

The tax plan discussion especially irritates me. The way the Romney team has played it has given us a very low bar discussion of theoretically possible math. And, to this day, the Romney campaign hasn’t sufficiently cleared that low bar. The “studies” they cite in support of their plan don’t conclusively solve the problem, and, in order to even come close, depend on dubious assumptions about tax cut-driven economic growth, or assume things could be on the table that contradict Romney’s promises; e.g, an increase in taxes on incomes of $100,000 or more, though Romney insists he wouldn’t support such a plan.

What’s more, nowhere does this discussion leave the world of perfect assumptions and enter the world of political plausibility. Even if you come close to making the math work by putting all kinds of popular deductions and exemptions on the table, how likely is it that those deductions will truly get the axe, particularly those for high incomes? And, assuming there’s something to the “tax cuts bring economic growth” argument, how much growth can really arise from a non-tax cut tax cut. That is, wouldn’t revenue neutrality just offset the supposed stimulative effects of tax rate cuts? Or what about the potential negative or otherwise distortive economic effects of closing or limiting certain deductions? Why is no one talking about that?

It’s all so shady. For years, Republicans have been telling us that we can’t increase taxes in any way on upper incomes, even those at $200,000 or more, because they are “job creators,” and the economy will suffer as a result. Yet, now Mitt Romney wants us to believe he’s going to eliminate/limit tax deductions mainly for upper incomes and still get all those supposed growth benefits?

Romney’s simply not being truthful with us about how much his plan will benefit the richest (or about much of anything for that matter), and, ergo, who will actually pay more to make the math work. Consider the sleight of hand: he’s careful to say the wealthy will pay the same share of taxes that they do now. He wants us to conclude that the wealthiest won’t pay a lower dollar amount, but the word “share” is key and different than amount of taxes. Here he is in the second debate:

The top 5 percent of taxpayers will continue to pay 60 percent of the income tax the nation collects. So that’ll stay the same. Middle-income people are going to get a tax break. …I’m not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people. I am looking to cut taxes for middle-income people.

But, see, that is a tax cut for the wealthy, right? If the middle are to pay less in taxes, and the wealthy were to actually still pay the same amount that they do currently, they would then be paying a higher percent of the total tax take, or a larger share, if you like. Romney’s phrasing, however, suggests that the taxes of the top 5% will in fact come down with everyone else’s (thus keeping the share of income taxes the same).

Not only does this suggest that Mitt Romney thinks we are all too stupid to figure that out, it suggests he doesn’t even intend to make his plan revenue neutral on the tax side after all, at least not by making sure the wealthy are not getting a tax cut. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the other upper income favoring tax cuts Romney has in mind (eliminating the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, for example). I guess this means he is in fact hoping for the mythic tax cut-fueled economic growth to close the gap. But we’ve been fooled by that illusion before. Let’s not fall for it again.

October 16, 2012 / Joshua

This Postmodern World

So, two debates down (presidential & vice presidential). Two presidential debates to go. Commentary on the first two debates has been a surreal spectacle. I guess it is always thus.

There is far more credit given for style than for substance. News coverage is filled with instant obsession over who looked happiest to be there, who didn’t; who was most confident, who wasn’t; who smiled the most, who smirked; who looked down more, who looked more presidential; who drank the most water; and, ultimately, who “won.”

But that last question doesn’t really seem to depend on substance. The near universal consensus is that Romney won the first debate handily. I won’t deny that Obama had a lackluster night or that Romney had a stronger looking and sounding performance. But what did Romney actually say? Was it meaningful? Or was it bullshit?

I’ve read numerous reactions to his performance noting his confidence, his apparent eagerness to lead, his assumed command of the facts. But, on the whole, I saw a sketchy salesman throwing out a lot of false or questionable numbers, making bad comparisons, implying unfounded correlations, and vaguely dancing around the implications of his own ideas, while making a host of contradictory or otherwise implausible promises.

Consider: Romney said he wishes to lower spending and balance the budget. Yet he: absolutely rejected new revenue, defended tax breaks to oil companies, claimed he doesn’t want to cut education funding, doesn’t believe in cutting defense spending and will likely grow it, and wants to take away the cost reductions in Medicare President Obama has implemented. To show he’s super serious, though, he said he’d cut the meager subsidy to PBS.

Or how about this: Romney said he wants to repeal Obamacare, (while claiming he’ll somehow keep some of its popular provisions) and he wants to replace it with… something. Same thing for Dodd-Frank financial reform: he said he wants to repeal it because it goes too far, or, um, because it doesn’t do enough, or something, and he wants to again replace with… yep, you guessed it, something.

As an added incongruous bonus, when it came to the federal deficit and debt, Romney said:

[Tackling the deficit and debt is] a critical issue. I think it’s not just an economic issue. I think it’s a moral issue. I think it’s, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation.

But I guess it’s not enough of a moral issue to get him to consider increasing taxes on the current generation, or to keep him from shielding current retirees from the Medicare reform he’d foist on the next generation, or to prevent him from seeking a dodgy tax plan that could potentially make the deficit / debt worse.

Speaking of, things got really hazy when the debate turned on Romney’s tax plan. President Obama spun Romney’s plan as a $5 trillion tax cut, which is the projected cost (over ten years) of all of his proposed cuts in tax rates. Romney rejected this point, because he claims he’ll offset his tax cuts by eliminating loopholes, exemptions, and deductions.

The problem is, while Romney has been very specific about the taxes he’d cut, he hasn’t given any examples of tax expenditures he’d eliminate. Moreover, Romney has made several overlapping promises: he will cut tax rates across the board by 20% (and eliminate other taxes); but he’ll do so without increasing the deficit, without reducing the burden being paid by high income individuals, and without increasing taxes on the middle class.

The Tax Policy Center went out of their way to make favorable assumptions for this proposal and ran the numbers. Simply put, they found that, even accounting for the elimination of loopholes, it is not mathematically possible for Romney to enact this plan while keeping all of his promises. Something would have to give somewhere –  either an increase in the deficit, or a tax increase on middle incomes. After Obama referred to this conclusion of the Tax Policy Center, this part of Romney’s response jumped out at me:

Romney: …What I’ve said is I won’t put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. …So there’s no economist can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds 5 trillion (dollars) if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.

[…]

…Now, you cite a study. There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong. I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by 3(,000 dollars) to $4,000 on — on middle-income families. There are all these studies out there.

(See Josh Barro’s detailed post about why the “six other studies” don’t do what Romney says they do.) Romney, here, seemed to embody the sort of postmodern, epistemological problem we’re stuck within now; it’s a “you have your truth, I have mine” world now on virtually any political issue. As Romney said later at a campaign rally:

We have some members of the media that are more inclined towards my way of thinking – some others that are more inclined the other way. The good news in my opinion about the political environment today is that you could choose those sources you find to be most reliable.

I.e., to avoid being challenged or experiencing any cognitive dissonance, you can exclusively rely on those sources that you agree with, or that line up with your pre-established views. This is not a new revelation I guess, nor surprising for a Republican candidate, but in the debate Romney took it even a step further to seemingly suggest that there can be no objective analysis of his plan that contradicts his stated principle(s). That’s nonsense.

Romney is conflating principle with policy. If he were simply stating a principle to lower tax rates by a conditional amount that would fit his other goals, he might have a point. But he hasn’t done that. He started with and has stuck by his tax cut details, while wanting to get credit for possible offsets he hasn’t actually put on the table. The Tax Policy Center generously assumed possible offsets for him, and still found that the math simply doesn’t add up. So this has nothing to do with what Romney says he wants to achieve so long as he continues to deny arithmetic.

[Update: Just for fun, watch this clip of Chris Wallace calling out Romney adviser Ed Gillespie, on Fox News of all places, over the tax plan issues I’ve mentioned. That must’ve really pissed off the campaign]

October 9, 2012 / Joshua

Scenes From a Talk Radio-Style Presidential Campaign

On 9/11/12, Mitt Romney was not impressed with the President.

In his speech on foreign policy yesterday, Mitt Romney told at least one whopper of a lie by claiming that President Obama hasn’t signed any trade agreements (he’s signed 3). Romney also blasted the President’s Afghanistan withdrawal timeline just two sentences after he said he’d follow the same timeline. In honor of these silly, easily spotted lies / contradictions, I’d like to jump in the Way-back Machine and travel back a month to September 11, 2012.

On that day, a day in which the Romney campaign had ostensibly agreed to suspend campaigning in remembrance of 9/11:

  • Protestors breached an outer wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt
  • Hours later, armed attackers assaulted a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya
  • Later that night, Mitt Romney released a huffy statement about some tweets

Well, sort of. Throughout the Middle East, tensions were rising over a low quality, provocative anti-Islam film, mysteriously made in California and uploaded on YouTube for the world to see. Seeking to quell these tensions, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo released the following statement around midday (local time), and linked to it through twitter:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

Hours later in the day, protesters surrounded the embassy grounds, breached the outer wall, and tore down and replaced the flag. Several hours after that, a riot broke out near the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, culminating in an armed attack on the facility, leaving 4 Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Meanwhile, around 10:30 pm EST, while the events in Benghazi were still unfolding and the full details were not yet known, Mitt Romney suddenly lifted the campaign embargo to release this statement:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

On 9/12/12, Mitt Romney was impressed with himself.

Emphasis mine. Romney here was referring to the embassy statement, which was not approved by the white house or state department and was released well before any violence had occurred. The next day, even when these points and the full timeline were clear, Romney held a press conference and doubled down, saying the embassy statement amounted to “an apology for American principles”… (see this timeline of the two day’s events and statements for more).

Many have already criticized Romney for his poor timing, his false framing, and his shameless opportunism in the middle of an unfolding crisis. And rightly so. But I want to highlight just how petty, small, and distracting it was.

It was a classic talk radio-style fallacious line of argument; in this case, begging the question. Romney clearly started with the conclusions he was trying to argue for, both that the embassy statement was an “apology”, and that such supposed “apology” is wrong. And this of course he tied into the false narrative that the Obama administration, by nature, apologizes for this country and its values (see the debunked “apology tour” myth). Romney then squeezed reality to fit his conclusions, without ever proving said conclusions, and fully ignoring the facts that contradicted him.

At the time, I thought to myself, we might as well have Rush Limbaugh running this campaign. And indeed, while most everyone else agreed Romney had acted unpresidential, Limbaugh, in his usual down is up way, claimed that Romney was the only one acting presidential.

Moving on to Romney’s criticism of the embassy statement itself, I find his freak out over diplomacy and nuance, calling such an “apology for American values”, just a little bizarre. As Noah Millman writes,

[Romney’s] criticism was that in Obama’s Administration, every event is not used as an opportunity to assert its awesome Americanness, and throw that awesomeness in the teeth of the world. There is no theory of public relations or diplomacy according to which the wise thing to do when an angry mob approaches is to recite the text of the First Amendment.

The remarkably ridiculous thing about this is a couple days later, in an interview with George Stephanopoulus, Romney himself “apologized for American values”, according to his own standards. After Romney again stood by his no apology position, Stephanopoulus asked him about the controversial film in question. Here’s Romney’s response:

…The idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong.  And I wish people wouldn’t do it.  Of course, we have a First Amendment.  And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do.  They have the right to do that, but it’s not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film.

I think the whole film is a terrible idea.  I think him making it, promoting it showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths.  I don’t think that should happen.  I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment– the good judgment– not to be– not to offend other peoples’ faiths.  It’s a very bad thing, I think, this guy’s doing.

Well, holy fucking shit, Mitt. That’s pretty much exactly what the embassy was trying to say! Thank you for wasting the entire nation’s time in the name of your shallow political ambition.

March 20, 2012 / Joshua

The Satire of The Union – Reproductive Rights vs. Religious Power

Protip for Rush Limbaugh; this is what satire actually looks like:

Before getting a prescription for Viagra or other erectile dysfunction drugs, men would have to see a sex therapist, receive a cardiac stress test and get a notarized affidavit signed by a sexual partner affirming impotency, if state Sen. Nina Turner has her way. The Cleveland Democrat introduced Senate Bill 307 this week.

A critic of efforts to restrict abortion and contraception for women, Turner says she is concerned about men’s reproductive health. Turner’s bill joins a trend of female lawmakers submitting bills regulating men’s health. …

Other bills in this trend include a proposed ban on vasectomies in Georgia and an “every sperm is sacred” masturbation amendment to an Oklahoma personhood bill. Note that these could be considered actual illustrations “of the absurd with absurdity”, in part because, unlike Limbaugh, they are lampooning the truth.

The truth in this case is a sustained legislative agenda led by Republicans and conservatives across the country, state by state, targeting women’s reproductive health and rights. First, it was attempts at regulating and limiting access to abortion. Now it’s also attempts at limited access to birth control. The Right has tried to make the contraception issue one of religious freedom. I noticed that even when Limbaugh acknowledged this framing, he lied about that too. Here he was discussing it the other day:

Obama mandating the churches provide these things violates the First Amendment, the so-called separation of church and state. But it’s religious freedom that we’re talking about here.  That’s the whole point. …

Funny how Limbaugh juggles the religious right’s new religious freedom talking point here with the old religious right rejection of  “the so-called separation of church and state”. But no. This doesn’t have to do with churches. What’s at issue is a new federal requirement for all employers, including religiously affiliated institutions (universities, hospitals, and the like) that serve and employ the general public, to cover contraceptives in their health insurance plans. Churches, however, are exempt. As such, I find the religious freedom argument here to be suspect.

Still, this would be one matter of complicated debate if it were only over religiously affiliated institutions. What’s more troubling, though, is many Republicans and religious figures are trying to now extend religious exemptions to any kind of employer. First, there was the failed Blunt amendment at the federal level which would have allowed any employer to opt out of the contraception mandate, or conceivably any other form of coverage, over religious / moral objections. Now, Republicans are putting this trick into play at the state level. A bill in Arizona, for example, would not only grant any employer the religious exemption; it would also allow for employers to ask that female employees provide medical proof if they claim a non-reproductive need for contraception.

New Hampshire provides another interesting battle front. Since the year 2000, New Hampshire has been one of many states to have its own contraceptive coverage requirement for insurance plans that provide prescription drug benefits and one of the few without any exemption for religious employers, unless those employers self-insure. A Republican legislature passed the law, and a Democratic governor signed it twelve years ago without controversy. Now however, Republicans in the state legislature, some of whom were until now unaware of the state law, want it overturned.

While reading an NPR article about the New Hampshire issue, I was taken aback by this little portion:

[The Catholic Diocese of Manchester] isn’t itself directly affected by the contraception mandate because it, like the state’s largest Catholic hospital, has chosen to self-insure. But if the church gets its way, contraceptive-free insurance may soon be widely available on the open market.

“I ask that all of our people of good will support that which is in the best interest of that which gives life, that which sustains life,” Bishop Peter Libasci said during a recent news conference. The diocese helped draft the bill, which would free any employer, be it an auto repair shop or a metaphysical bookstore, with a religious objection to birth control. (emphasis mine)

Whoa now. Does that bit in bold actually sound problematic for religious freedom to anyone else? – members of a specific religious group helping draft legislation that could very well extend the free imposition of their beliefs onto employees of different faiths and/or no faith at all.

This is all the more remarkable when you consider that just over 50 years ago, our first and still only Catholic president had to assure Protestants and Evangelicals that as president he would not serve as an agent of the Vatican. But since then, Evangelicals and conservative Catholics have selectively joined forces with Republicans over social issues, attempting to march the church right into the halls of the State in a power struggle against what they see as a common secular enemy. More on that with respect to the birth control controversy in the next post.

March 20, 2012 / Joshua

Blazing Sensationalism

Earlier today, I followed a link via Twitter to Glenn Beck’s news and opinion site, The Blaze. There I found “news” of Rick Santorum weighing in on the “OMG! Why is Malia Obama going to Mexico?!?” controversy. Hey, I didn’t know she was taking a trip to Mexico for spring break. That’s cool. I hope she has a good time.

But if there’s one consistent trait among right wing critics of President Obama, it’s that they always find a problem with his family going on vacation. So here comes Santorum, in response to a question from Glenn Beck, suggesting the president has failed in his apparently all-important role of setting an example:

“What I would say is that the president’s actions should reflect what his administration is saying,” Santorum told Beck. “If the administration is saying that it’s not safe to have people down there, then just because you can send 25 Secret Service agents doesn’t mean you should do it. You should set an example. I think that‘s what president’s do. They set an example. And when the government is saying this is not safe, then you don’t set the example by sending your kids down there.”

Santorum was referring to the State Department’s travel warning “to inform U.S. citizens about the security situation in Mexico”. The same travel warning which fails to say “Americans shouldn’t go” there, as Beck suggests, but assures us that “Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day.”

I guess it didn’t occur to Santorum, and more importantly Glenn Beck who set up the question, that Mexico is a pretty big place with many states, and possibly, just maybe, some of those states don’t have a travel warning. And maybe Malia Obama went to such a state. It seems clear neither Santorum nor Beck bothered to actually read the State Department’s travel warning.

For their part, it appears that The Blaze staff did read the warning but reported on it like this:

Luckily, no specific warning was issued for the exact area (Oaxaca) Malia is said to be visiting. However, there have been concerns about that area in the past.

Whew! Lucky break there Obamas. Aren’t you glad Glenn Beck’s team is there to cast doubt and judgment on your parenting decisions and nosily feign concern for your daughter’s safety?

No. Just no. There’s not just “no specific warning”. The State Department unequivocally says “no warning is in effect” for Oaxaca. Period. But you can see above how The Blaze purposefully portrayed this to leave a suspicious air of doubt and concern. There is not an issue with this trip. But oh, Beck’s people want it to be an issue so badly. What a waste web space all of this is.

March 11, 2012 / Joshua

A Bitter Pill

Winston Churchill is supposed to have said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Thanks to Rush Limbaugh’s recent verbal assault on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke over her defense of mandated insurance coverage of contraception, it’s now that much harder for the truth to even get its pants on at all.

When I heard about this whole controversy the Friday before last, I figured when Limbaugh returned to the airwaves he would lamely excuse his awful behavior as an attempt at satire – simply “illustrating absurdity by being absurd” – as he so often has over the years. But lo! We didn’t even have to wait until Monday for him to say this! For Limbaugh graced his website last weekend with what is dubiously being called an “apology“; The statement begins:

For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.

No, I think he must have meant at least a couple dozen personal attacks on Ms. Fluke, actually. From that problematic opening, Limbaugh went into a short flurry of self-justification, briefly apologizing at the very end “for the insulting word choices”. He continued his non-apology on Monday’s radio show, demonstrating his fondness for pointing the finger at the other side – aka: psychological projection – aka: not owning one’s shit. He said “his error” was that “in fighting [the left], I became like them …I descended to their level”. Democrats, Limbaugh went on to explain, used Sandra Fluke “to create a controversy”, and Fluke “used them to advance her agenda”.

So, you see, clearly the left started all of this. How could Limbaugh not make irrelevant, slanderous, sexual accusations about Sandra Fluke three days in a row after they started it? This you may well recognize as the well-worn, yet not very effective, deflect-in-an-effort-to-minimize-responsibility-for-the-shit-you-just-pulled tactic of children the world over.

A further problem with Limbaugh’s “apology” is it was merely for his use of “those two words” (slut and prostitute) to describe Sandra Fluke. While his use of those words was shameful, what’s worse are the foundational lies he used to prop those words up and link them with birth control. Limbaugh pretended that Sandra Fluke’s testimony before members of Congress about the importance of female contraceptive coverage involved her own, supposedly hyperactive sex life. It didn’t. At all. She mostly provided anecdotes of friends who need contraceptive pills for medical purposes beyond preventing pregnancy.

Yet, Limbaugh either didn’t read / listen to her testimony, or he simply lied about it in order to make baseless and cruel accusations (feigning total ignorance of the workings of female contraception in the process) about how much non-stop sex Ms. Fluke and her friends are having and want “us” to pay for (yet another lie that misrepresents both Fluke’s statements and insurance coverage).

For those who can stomach it, I’ll embed a compilation of his three-day verbal abuse at the end of the post. The video makes clear that even if he hadn’t used “those two words”, this would’ve been every bit as harmful and perverse. Yet, in his apology for “insulting word choices”, Limbaugh still stood by his overall false premise that this was about “discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress”, “activities” he does “not agree that American citizens should pay for”.

Sure, Limbaugh stirring up controversy and saying awful things is nothing new. But this time just feels somehow different, somehow the crossing of a line, and not just because dozens of advertisers are removing their ads from his program in response to the uproar. What seems clear to me is this was a new low in our tribal, culture war politics that Limbaugh has done so much to encourage. Unless the consequences for this last, it seems now nothing is safe. No issue or person can be spared sudden ginned up controversy. No would-be consensus and social progress can be left in tact in the war that Limbaugh wages. No rational argument or reasonable policy debate can be allowed to cut through the fog of this culture war.

You kind of have to marvel really at the trench that’s been dug over this issue. Catholic bishops and their new-found Republican culture warrior allies suddenly decided to take on birth control coverage and frame withholding it as a critical matter of religious freedom. As if that weren’t quite a bold enough women-alienating strategy for his taste, Limbaugh, with no such shred of pretense, went whole hog to flat out attack women over simply wanting equal access to birth control. And he did this in such a shockingly obtuse way (“she’s having so much sex she’s going broke”) that now many have felt the need to stop and explain that birth control pills are not like Viagra or condoms. It’s just stupefying, and we’re probably all a little dumber for it.

Putting Limbaugh’s likely issues with women aside for a moment, I think he does this general sort of stuff purposefully in order to drown us all in sound and fury, entrench tribal division, and make sure both sides see each other in that much more of a dehumanized light. In this case, for his listeners, he didn’t just call Ms. Fluke bad names. He called her bad names in order to destroy her message, change the subject, and transform her into an enemy of the tribe, an “immoral”, unreasonable, out-of-control moocher who wants everyone else to pay for her “irresponsibility”. In the process his attack provided his opponents with more ammo to claim that this really is a war on women just as they already assumed.

So to recap, Limbaugh said inappropriate words, but more importantly, destroyed the facts, attempted total character assassination, outrageously insulted and demeaned women, intentionally sought societal division, derailed and defiled the already dubious public discourse, and entrenched another culture war battle line, and probably much more. But hey, I’m sure the left did all of that first and never gets in any trouble.

November 16, 2011 / Joshua

This is Torture

If there’s still any sense left on the American political right, Herman Cain is done and was never actually a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. But it’s hard to tell just how much sense there is these days. Andrew Sullivan might have described the rise of Cain best with this:

I regard Cain’s dominance as just the latest sign of the degeneracy on the American right. He’s the ultimate candidate for a Palinized party: based on talk radio, uninterested in government, ruled by unreason, propelled by resentment, fixated on power.

I’d merely elaborate on the part about unreason to say that Cain seems to represent the worst tendencies on the right toward a proud anti-intellectualism and unseriousness. Cain seems so intent on portraying himself as an authentic, outsider, non-politician, regular Joe businessman that he apparently hasn’t found it necessary to familiarize himself with some basic knowledge about governance, policy and world affairs. He’s demonstrated notable and willful ignorance particularly in response to foreign policy-related questions. Here’s a pretty unbelievable example of what I’m talking about:

As seen above, Cain tends to play off these questions by either changing the subject with folksy business-management talk or giving non-answers that basically amount to, “I’ll get all of that information when I need to” or “that’s what I’ll have expert advisors for”. He’s essentially like a procrastinating student who tries to get around the need to study but (unlike many other candidates) is remarkably bad at BSing (I guess that last part is something that makes him appealing to some).

Cain is getting a lot of flak now for a painful recent interview in which he seems to completely draw a long blank on what has gone on in Libya and how he feels about President Obama’s handling of the situation. He then gives a long, fairly meaningless answer to scrub over the fact that he just hasn’t really bothered to look into it at all.

That’s pretty bad. But what really got to me recently were his answers to questions regarding torture in the last Republican debate. Responding to an email question about his general stance on torture, Cain said:

I believe in following the procedures that have been established by our military. I do not agree with torture, period. However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration.

Then the moderator followed up by asking Cain his position on whether waterboarding constituted torture or “an enhanced interrogation technique”. Cain simply responds:

I agree that it was an enhanced interrogation technique. …Yes. I would return to that policy. I don’t see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.

So here we see a little glimpse of Cain’s odd decision-making methodology in action. He doesn’t agree with torture, but he will let the field experts decide for him what is or isn’t torture. But wait, when it comes to waterboarding, something that pretty much everyone outside of Republican hawks believes is torture, and the Obama administration has made unlawful, Cain conveniently clings to the orwellian term that the Bush administration invented to get away with torture.

I’m sure Cain made that determination after gathering up all the relevant information and hearing all informed opinions and didn’t just say that because he thinks it probably scores points with the Republican base. Right?

Anyway, here’s a video clip of the debate. It’s worth watching in full from the 6:36 mark (where the questioning about torture begins), in part to see that Michele Bachmann is really far more frightening than Cain; She’s seriously hawkish and just makes things up out of the thin air in her own alternate reality with relative ease. But also note the response from Ron Paul; I have my severe disagreements with Paul, but when it comes to this subject at least, I’m always thankful he is up there, demonstrating some semblance of moral clarity and reason. Jon Huntsman, too, has a fine response against torture to wrap up the segment; but of course those two latter candidates have far less of a chance at the nomination than even Cain or Bachmann…

Oh, and for what it’s worth, here is President Obama’s unequivocal response to Cain’s and Bachmann’s support of waterboarding:

They’re wrong. Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we operate. We don’t need it in order to prosecute the war on terrorism. And we did the right thing by ending that practice.

If we want to lead around the world, part of our leadership is setting a good example. And anybody who has actually read about and understands the practice of waterboarding would say that that is torture. And that’s not something we do — period.

November 6, 2011 / Joshua

The (Un)Sanitization of the Death Penalty

Last month, I reflected a bit on the death penalty in light of the controversial Troy Davis execution. In that post, I mentioned the crowd at the Republican debate that applauded Texas’s high number of executions and how I was struck by the lack of doubt the crowd and Gov. Rick Perry seemed to have about the subject.

I’d forgotten to mention this, but I remember thinking at the time that I could only really make sense of the responses from Perry and the crowd by imagining that these responses resulted from a very black and white view of the world. A view that says, we are the good guys, and there are very bad, bad people out there who do very bad, bad things. And merely if the good criminal justice system says so and so is one of those bad, bad people, we must unapologetically punish them accordingly without question or hesitation.

That, it seems, is the attitude of Florida state representative, Brad Drake. Last month, Drake filed a bill that would allow executions to be carried out only by electrocution or firing squad, rather than by lethal injection. Here’s Drake’s thinking on the matter:

“There shouldn’t be anything controversial about a .45-caliber bullet. If it were up to me we would just throw them off the Sunshine Skyway bridge and be done with it.” (link)

“I am sick and tired of this sensitivity movement for criminals,” Drake said. “Every time there is a warranted execution that is about to take place, some man or woman is standing on a corner holding a sign, yelling and screaming for humane treatment.

“I have no desire to humanely respect those that are inhumane.”(link)

Yikes. OK. Well, let’s look beyond the general cruelty and brutality in that sentiment for a minute. Drake’s attitude reminds me a lot of the attitudes of defenders of torture – or, ahem, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – over the last few years. The two disturbing components I would always catch listening to such talkers on the radio and whatnot were, 1), no concern over how the detained person in question is treated, because, “Hey, they’re a terrorist. This is what they deserve, if not worse.”, and 2), no question or concern over whether said person is in fact a guilty person in the first place.

The lingering presence of that attitude in our culture, whether it pertains to the justice system here at home, or conduct in wars abroad, seriously troubles me. In no small part, because, beyond the regardless ethical problems and inhumanity of executions and torture therein, neither area is anywhere near as black and white as people who support such methods seem to want to think they are. Evidence has shown that we get the wrong people all the time.

You’d think all the false convictions that have been overturned would have undermined support for the death penalty in this country more than they have. Radley Balko had an interesting article recently about why Americans still support the death penalty. Making this topic even more complex, Balko concludes the article with discussion of evidence that lethal injections might not actually be the most humane and painless form of execution. Instead, he suggests, we’ve opted for lethal injection because it simply appears humane and painless to us – because it comfortably “sanitizes” the death penalty.

Balko suggests that if we did do the kind of executions again which Rep. Drake wants, that would probably turn a lot more people off to the death penalty; I kind of liken that to the idea of asking supporters of the death penalty if they could actually pull the switch themselves. But if it’s true that most people would recoil at harsher appearing executions and rethink their support, then what does that say about the people out there like Brad Drake who not only have no qualms about executions at all, but really want them to not only be harsh and brutal, but really appear harsh and brutal too?

October 25, 2011 / Joshua

Cain-Cain-Cain

I don’t know why I sometimes torture myself by watching Meet The Press. And I really don’t why I’m about to devote an entire blog post to GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. But I do. And I am.

Last week, host David Gregory interviewed Cain at the top of the show (transcript/video), a reflection of Cain’s sudden rise to top of the Republican primary polls. Cain’s popularity is something that I kind of get and don’t get at the same time. He has this sort of folksy, no-nonsense persona, whereby he equates supposed simplicity with self-evident quality and cites his own political inexperience as some great qualification that will lead him to succeed in politics. Makes a lot of sense, I know.

Gregory began the interview with a discussion of the superficially simple cornerstone of Cain’s campaign: the gimmicky 9-9-9 tax plan. This plan would replace all current federal taxes with three flat rates: 9% national sales tax; 9% business tax; and 9% individual income tax.

I didn’t have the will to make it much further than the 9-9-9 portion of the interview, frustrated as I was by Cain’s flippant answers and Gregory’s apparent inability / lack of will to conjure up smart follow-up questions / stronger challenges to Cain’s dubious points. But the part that really got me reeling was when Gregory asked Cain how he could get such a big tax reform passed. Here’s Cain’s initial response:

…here’s how we get it passed.  First, throw out the current tax code.  Secondly, because the American people understand it, the American people are embracing it.  See, this is the problem that some people inside Washington have with 9-9-9.  The American people understand it. The American people are embracing it such that when I have this legislation–ask Congress to introduce this legislation, the American people will understand it, and they are going to demand it.  That’s how we get it passed.

Gee, who knew politics could be so neat and simple? Bear in mind what Cain is talking about here. He wants to not only throw out the current tax code, but then overhaul the tax system not once, but twice. First with the 9-9-9 plan and then later replace that with the Fair Tax. No big deal, right?

What gets me even more is the nice sounding throwaway line, “The American people understand it…are embracing it.” Really? Do they really understand it? A lot of clever people have been digging into what little details there are of this plan, and are still coming up with question marks and wait-and-sees over exactly how it would work.

Consider the business tax, for example. Do “the American people” know that several analysts, left, right, and in-between, have concluded that the business tax is less like the current corporate income tax and more like a modified value-added tax (VAT)? Do the people know exactly what a VAT is and how it functions? This is a kind of consumption tax, by the way, that Cain himself denounced as “the cowardly tax” just six months ago.

Do the American people know that many analysts, after concluding that the 9% business tax is a consumption tax not very unlike the national sales tax, now simply combine the two as an 18% consumption tax that will ultimately hit the end user and/or wage earner?

Do the American people know that this is what Cain wrote regarding a VAT back in April?

[A VAT] taxes each phase in the development of a product or service until it is ultimately sold to the end user, and you also pay any applicable retail sales taxes. These intermediate taxes are passed along to the consumer and are reflected as a net increase in the price of the goods or service.

The doubly outrageous aspect of the VAT is that it is on top of all the other state and federal taxes we pay.

Yet, when David Gregory pointed out to Cain that his national sales tax, combined with state and local sales taxes (where applicable) would have people paying as much as 17% tax or more on goods (19% where I live), Cain just waved away the concern; “That is muddying the water”, he said.

Do the American people know that all of this is just a transitional step to the Fair Tax, something I don’t think I’ve heard Cain directly say? Do they understand and support the Fair Tax, a national retail sales tax at a rate of 30% (or 23%, depending on whom you ask)? Cain doesn’t seem to take that for granted. The page for his plan on his website, under “Phase 2 – The Fair Tax”, reads:

Amidst a backdrop of the economic renewal created by the 9-9-9 Plan, I will begin the process of educating the American people on the benefits of continuing the next step to the Fair Tax.

I don’t mean to sound condescending. I only have a very loose grasp on all this stuff myself, even after digging into it over the last couple days. And that’s kind of the point. This supposedly simple, easy to understand 9-9-9 plan really isn’t so simple and clear at all. It kind of feels like Cain is making a lot of this up as he goes along too.

But hey, it is catchy and easy to remember. If this whole presidential gig doesn’t pan out, Cain could probably make some pretty mean infomercials. Just think of all the great little gadgets one might want to buy in quantities of 9 for 9 easy payments of $9.99.

October 14, 2011 / Joshua

Friday Film and Music – Spies of the Accidental Sea

I finally got around to watching this short film (via Ransom Riggs over at Mental Floss) on the Salton Sea. Fittingly, the web page had been lost in a sea of browser tabs for months; have I mentioned that I have a never-ending tabbed browsing problem? Anyway, I first heard about the Salton Sea in a song back in the ’90s (I’ll come back to that), but, before watching this film, I knew nothing of the fascinating story behind this ‘accidental sea’ in the California desert. I’ll let the brief, compelling film tell the story (there’s also a photo essay here if you’re interested).

The Salton Sea ©trryan 2009

Watching the film, I was promptly reminding of the aforementioned song by the band The Prayer Chain, from their 1995 album Mercury. The song is ‘Sky High’, a 9 minute sprawling anthem, reminiscent of The Verve or Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins. The direct lyrical references to the Salton Sea (‘take a breath by the Salton Sea’) and mention of ‘Salton Spies’ speaking of ‘rolling skies’ always put in my mind a majestic and spiritual place – an actual oasis in the desert of sorts.

Here comes the rust indeed

But I never would’ve guessed that would-be oasis has long been a toxic sea surrounded by ghost towns and abandoned tourist attractions. But of course, the repeated line in the song, ‘here comes the rust’, might have served as a little clue.

October 11, 2011 / Joshua

Doubt and the Death Penalty

I’m not sure what I can add to the Troy Davis story that hasn’t already been written these last couple weeks. I actually wasn’t aware of Davis’s case until the day before his execution (when twitter blew up with the story). So I don’t want to put too fine a point on anything, not having all the facts or even a very clear view of such a difficult topic. Rather, let me just take a moment to reflect on the death penalty itself.

Naturally, there were a lot of emotional appeals and moralizing wrapped up in the Davis story. But not all of the protesting came from committed opponents of the death penalty. It seemed to me that most of the push-back came simply because there was “too much doubt” about Davis’s guilt; the idea being that if we are going to execute people, we, at the very least, better damn sure have done everything we can to prove their guilt beyond all reasonable doubt first.

But there’s the rub, right? If you start to recognize the doubt in the Davis case (a case which doesn’t seem to be any sort of anomaly), and then if the system can’t turn around and assuage that doubt, then does this not inevitably wind up calling the entire process into question, personal views of the death penalty notwithstanding?

I’m reminded of the former Illinois governor, George Ryan, who, on his way out of office in 2003, commuted to life the sentences of all death row inmates in the state in response to clear flaws in the state’s system. In contrast, I can’t help but also think of that Republican debate crowd which erupted into applause at the mere mention of Texas’s record number of executions under Gov. Rick Perry’s tenure. The applause immediately preceded Brian Williams’ question about whether Perry has ever “struggled to sleep at night” at the thought that one of those convicts may have been innocent.

I think what struck me the most about the crowd’s applause, and Perry’s “No sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all” response, was the evident lack of any room for doubt. Even if you believe that murderers deserve what Perry calls “the ultimate justice” of execution, I would think you should have at least a pinch of curiosity and concern about whether the system is, and is actually capable of, dishing out such punishment fairly and accurately (not to mention handle the discussion of death by anyone’s hand with a touch more sobriety).

But this question of fair administration of the death penalty is separate from the moral question of whether we should even have the death penalty or not. Though many see it as a cruel and barbaric punishment, it appears that the majority of Americans still support the death penalty. And so, for those in the minority, a dubious conviction like Davis’s tends to become a bridge in the conversation from simple fairness questions to the broader ethical questions (Are we really so committed to the death penalty that we’re willing to take the risk of executing innocent people in the process? And if so, why? Whom or what does the punishment really serve? Etc.).

It’s generally a tough topic, though, with lots of angles to consider I guess. But I just wonder if we really even have much of a grasp on why we’re still hanging on to the death penalty so tightly. Is it to set a firm example of what society will not tolerate? Is it out of a hope of deterrence to make society safer? Or is it just for retribution’s sake (a sense that “justice has been done”), to satisfy the general desire for vengeance? Is it ostensibly some of all of the above to some degree or another?

Whatever it is, I’m concerned that with our apparent need for dealing out death in return for death, we’ve laid in our path one giant obstacle to finding redemption and forgiveness in this life, as well as genuinely seeking the truth.

While reading news reports shortly after Davis was executed, I came across the following quotes from the mother of the police officer Davis was accused of killing:

“I’m kind of numb. I can’t believe that it’s really happened,” MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail, said in a telephone interview from her home in Columbus, Ga. “All the feelings of relief and peace I’ve been waiting for all these years, they will come later. I certainly do want some peace.”

I certainly don’t want to judge anyone for the way in which they grieve. And a common challenge from death penalty advocates is “What if it were your child that was killed?” I don’t know. But I do know that the thought of this woman waiting around for twenty years for this execution, thinking this act of presumed retribution would be the thing to bring her peace, just makes me terribly sad. I do hope she finds peace and relief. But I can’t help feeling that she, and our society generally, has been looking for those things in the wrong place.

September 18, 2011 / Joshua

The ‘Dark Side’ Response to 9/11

While scanning the radio dial during the non-stop 9/11 memorializing last Sunday, I stumbled upon a rebroadcast of Dick Cheney’s Meet the Press interview (full transcript), which aired 5 days after the attacks in 2001. This was when Cheney made this infamous ‘dark side’ statement:

We also have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We’re going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.

I remember that making the blog rounds years ago as a particularly damning quote, but as I heard it again, I thought to myself, “ah, maybe this was just a poor choice of words used to discuss standard covert operations.” But, no. He went on to make it clear that he was talking about a new, dark(er) mode of operations for the U.S. Here’s more of the exchange in context:

CHENEY: I’m going to be careful here, Tim, because clearly it would be inappropriate for me to talk about operation matters, specific options or the kinds of activities we might undertake going forward.

We do, indeed, though have obviously the world’s finest military. They’ve got a broad range of capabilities, and they may well be given missions in connection with this overall task and strategy.

We also have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We’re going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussions, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in.

And so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

RUSSERT: There have been restrictions placed on the United States intelligence gathering, a reluctance to use unsavory characters, those who violate human rights, to assist in intelligence gathering. Will we lift some of those restrictions?

CHENEY: Well, I think so. I think one of the byproducts, if you will, of this tragic set of circumstances is that we’ll see a very thorough sort of reassessment of how we operate and the kinds of people we deal with. If you want to deal only with sort of officially approved, certified good guys, you’re not going to find out what the bad guys are doing. You need to be able to penetrate these organizations. You need to have on the payroll some very unsavory characters, if, in fact, you’re going to be able to learn all that needs to be learned in order to forestall these kinds of activities.

It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena. I’m convinced we can do it. We can do it successfully. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.

RUSSERT: These terrorists play by a whole set of different rules. It’s going to force us, in your words, to get mean, dirty and nasty in order to take them on. And they should realize there will be more than simply a pinprick bombing. (all emphasis mine)

Cheney’s words here should’ve been a bit troubling at the time. But hearing them now, when we can look back across ten years of our waging the “War on Terror”, these words are terribly poignant and prophetic. Here we had the Vice President unequivocally saying that we shouldn’t let whatever prior commitments to morals and human rights we had in this area get in the way of pursuing total victory.

If there’s worth in reflecting on what 9/11 has actually meant for us as a nation over the last ten years, that interview I think is a great place to start. Knowing what we now know and seeing what we have seen of course, it completely foreshadows all that was to come: torture, indefinite secret detentions, preemptive war, a hyper-security state, etc.

Ironically, Cheney and others simultaneously wanted us to believe that we were merely attacked because of the good things about our society: i.e., our freedom, our democracy, our commitment to human rights. Earlier in the interview, in fact, regarding foreign policy and our relationship with Israel, Cheney said, “We’re not about to change our policies or change our basic fundamental beliefs.”

One might question just what Cheney meant by “fundamental beliefs” there, but the inherent paradox should’ve then be very clear: We had to defeat the terrorists, we were told, because they hated our democratic values and our way of life; yet, they supposedly posed such a unique and terrifying threat that we now had to compromise major aspects of those values and way of life in order to defeat them.

And just who is it, if anyone, that really “wins” that fight in the end?

June 27, 2011 / Joshua

Monday Late Night Music – Sigur Rós

Placed at around the halfway mark of Sigur Rós’s 2008 album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, is this epic, slow-burn, symphonic beauty of a song called Ára Bátur. I’ve always particularly loved not just the grandeur of it, but also the rawness – how there are untouched little natural imperfections, as in the moments when singer Jónsi’s voice lightly cracks and drops as the song begins its final climb.

The track has such a raw quality, because every element (the band, vocals, symphony, boys choir) was recorded live, in one take at Abbey Road Studios. I hadn’t realized there was video of that recording until just the other day. It’s a joyous thing to behold. Watch via youtube below:

[Youtube link]

June 20, 2011 / Joshua

Monday Late Night Music – Bon Iver

Well, I guess I’m gonna jump on the cool train this week and plug the new, eponymous Bon Iver record before its release tomorrow, 6/21. NPR’s Stephen Thompson calls it a “grand, chance-taking record”. And if this glowing pitchfork review is any cultural indicator, it looks like the ‘chance-taking’ new direction will generally be very positively received.

For my part, after giving the album one full sitting, via NPR’s First Listen, I found myself quite taken with most of it. This was amplified for me by the fact that I’ve never really been that taken with Bon Iver before and had no particular expectations going in.

What quickly grabbed me about this record is how much fuller, richer, and varied it is in the instrumentation, arrangement, sounds, and dynamics department. Founder / Frontman Justin Vernon’s unmistakable voice is still very much present here, providing pleasantly floating and generally engaging melodies. But, on first impression, it seems that primarily the warmth of the fuller and more diverse instrumentation and arrangements has successfully pulled me in in a way that previous, more sparse Bon Iver releases have not.

Anyway, they’ve got quite a lock down on the album prior to release, it seems, so the only streaming / embeddable thing I could find to share is the video for the first single, ‘Calgary’. It’s not my favorite on the record, but it’s easily the most up-tempo, pop-ish track of the lot, for whatever that’s worth. Of course, at least until the album’s release tomorrow, you can also listen to the full record and/or individual songs at the NPR site. Highly recommended tracks: ‘Perth'; ‘Holocene'; and ‘Beth/Rest’. Go Listen here.

June 16, 2011 / Joshua

Property Wrongs

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul got some attention last month for equating universal health care with slavery. Really:

With regard to the idea of whether or not you have a right to health care, you have to realize what that implies; it’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services – Do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have a right to food? … You’re basically saying that you believe in slavery… that you believe in taking and extracting from another person. Our founding documents were very clear about this. You have a right to pursue happiness, but there’s no guarantee of physical comfort [or] concrete items. In order to give something concrete or someone’s service, you gotta take it from someone. So there’s an implied threat of force. …

Before I get to my remarks, I believe the good Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable has something he would like to briefly add in response:

While it’s tempting to merely scoff and laugh Paul’s statement off, I point to it, because I think it helps clue us in to something significant about the absolute property rights-minded libertarian / tea party-ish folks that occupy a large corner of the right wing.

When it comes to things like taxes, health care, and this-or-that government regulation, we hear so much bellowing from this crowd about theft, forced labor, and imagined slavery and oppression. Yet, if you press people like Paul, you’ll find that their preoccupation with absolute property rights causes them severe discomfort with moments in our history when government stepped in to curtail actual slavery and oppression, and/or some discriminatory injustice and expand human rights.

For example, last year Rand Paul got even more attention for expressing his disapproval of the section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination in privately-owned public accomodations. Paul was basically saying that, while racial discrimination is bad and government shouldn’t engage in it, private business owners nevertheless should be left free to engage in such discrimination if they so choose.

A lot of people seemed shocked by this, and I wondered why. This is, after all, the son of Ron Paul whose similar rigid dogma surrounding property rights we should be familiar with by now. And sure enough, Ron Paul recently told Chris Matthews pretty much the same thing as his son regarding the ’64 Civil Rights Bill.

I think this is pretty important stuff to realize. There are quite a few things I don’t like about the Pauls’ brand of libertarianism. But I think the line was really first drawn for me when I looked a little closer at Ron Paul, and especially some of his more doctrinaire friends like Lew Rockwell. It was then I discovered that many in this cohort tend to essentially be apologists for the South’s ‘massive resistance’ to desegregation and even the Confederacy, so deep is their unwavering commitment to absolute property rights and ‘states’ rights’, and their hatred of the federal government.

What all this boils down to is a position that stubbornly and cruelly holds property rights above people, and most other related concerns, regardless of the negative social consequences or imbalance of economic power. Now, that’s not to say such libertarians necessarily agree with or like any such negative consequences. It is merely to say that their worldview demands that they shrug and allow for those consequences, while refusing to accept any direct government / legal action to address such problems.

Of course, the irony, as Brad DeLong points out, is that these “get the government out” types implicitly want, nay, need, the government to protect and enforce the preferences of the propertied, even if those preferences severely disadvantage and limit the liberty (or shall we say limit ‘the pursuit of happiness’) of others. But then they apparently can’t abide the notion that the same government that gives their property claims teeth should also be able to temper those claims in the name of protecting the rights and equality of other members of the public and/or other elements of the public good.

So whenever you hear the Pauls, et al, going on about more freedom and liberty, you’d do good to first ask yourself, “more freedom and liberty for whom and at whose expense?”

June 13, 2011 / Joshua

Monday Late Night Music – Radiohead Extras

If you follow Radiohead, you’ve probably already heard the two new tracks the band released in April. Radiohead first put these two songs, ‘Supercollider’ and ‘The Butcher’, recorded during the sessions for their latest album, The King of Limbs, on a limited edition 12″ vinyl single, I think made available only for Record Store Day. Then, they made the tracks available as a free download for those who had already ordered the full-length album.

I was satisfied by the download, but now I’m happy to see that the band is apparently officially releasing the vinyl single tomorrow, June 14. In the meantime, you can hear the two songs below. They’re quite nice and feel a bit reminiscent of the band’s 2003 album, Hail to the Thief. 

And in other good news, I learned today that Radiohead is going to be releasing a series of 12-inch singles of remixes from The King of Limbs. The first will come out July 4 and feature remixes from Caribou and Jacques Green. Sounds fun.

June 6, 2011 / Joshua

Monday Late Night Music – Ólafur Arnalds

I’d thought I pretty much knew what needed to be known about the great musical wonders Iceland has to offer, á la Sigur Rós. But until this year, I’d somehow completely missed the marvelous work of modern classical composer /multi-instrumentalist, Ólafur Arnalds. A couple months ago, I stumbled upon Arnalds’ latest album, …and they have escaped the weight of darkness, and found it to be completely gorgeous and heart-aching in a wonderful way.

He’s got quite a few good videos scattered across the youtube. I’d like to share 3 of those with you now. The first is the uniquely animated video for the track, ‘Ljósið’, from his Found Songs project in 2009 (which can be downloaded for free or purchased in physical form here): The second video is a live, in-apartment performance of the same piece. And the third is another beautifully animated video for the track, ‘Hægt, kemur ljósið’, from his latest album (notice that the last minute or so of this last piece nicely echoes the previous one). Enjoy!

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