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A simple question goes unasked

As I write, so far as I know, Kim Davis continues to rot in jail, and deservedly so.

Throughout the debate over her claim that she gets to opt out of doing her job, and in the process impose her religious views on others, one salient point, has gone largely unremarked, so far as I can see. This entire controversy has been covered as if it only involves gay marriage. The fact that it doesn't is no doubt the reason that even the present day Supreme Court, as stocked with reactionaries as it is, had no trouble turning down her appeal, without, so far as we know, a dissenting voice. Not even Scalia. Not even Thomas. Now why is that, do you suppose.

Well, the first thing that occurs to this well honed (okay, we can debate that point) legal mind is what should be a fairly obvious point. The principle for which Ms. Davis advocated cannot possibly be limited to opposition to gay marriage. At least not if we hope to preserve any vestige of rationality in our legal system. Confining ourselves to marriage licenses for the moment, what's to stop the next Kim Davis from denying a marriage license, due of course, to sincerely held religious views, because the couple have different skin colors; because one or both have been previously married; because the couple intends to solemnize their marriage before a JP instead of getting Jesus involved; or because one or both of them is a Republican and should not be allowed to breed. The latter, by the way, is my sincerely held religious belief. If you accept Davis's argument, you must allow every county clerk to impose their religious views. If you attempt to choose among them, by confining permissible bigotry to the anti-gay kind, for instance, you are violating the First Amendment in yet another way: you are establishing a religion. So you must grant clerks unfettered discretion to impose any religious doctrine they wish, or, you must do the rational thing and put people like Davis in jail. Even Scalia can see that.

Yet, the members of our press corps, so far as I've seen or heard, can't seem to grasp this simple point, or, if they can, they have yet to confront any of the Republican presidential candidates who have rushed to embrace Ms. Davis (who, is, by the way, and much to our embarrassment, a Democrat) with the logical implications of their position. Have any of them been asked if they think Ms. Davis could turn away an interracial couple, were that her sincerely held belief? Isn't that a rather obvious question? Since we can assume that even the bigots running for the Republican nomination wouldn't go that far (officially, anyway), we would surely like to hear how they would draw a line between racial bigotry and homophobia.

To stray from the point a bit, I'd certainly like to hear Jeb! try to articulate a distinction, given his recent pronouncement on the subject:

“It seems to me that there ought to be common ground, there ought to be a big enough space for her to act on her conscience, and for now that the law is the law of the land, for a gay couple to be married in whatever jurisdiction that is,” Bush told reporters after a town hall event in New Hampshire, according to Buzzfeed News. “I’m a little confused about why that can’t be done.”

via Daily Kos

I'm a little confused too. This sort of reminds me of the question posed by the Firesign Theatre: “How can you be two places at once, when you're not anywhere at all”. Jeb appears to be arguing for a two universe solution, in one of which the gay couple at issue gets married, while in the other universe Ms. Davis gets to impose her views on them. Anyway, imagine Jeb! trying to explain why discriminating against gays is religious freedom while discriminating against interracial couples is not. While we're on the subject, I'd sure like to see someone pose the question to Ben Carson.

Village to Trump: You’re not welcome here

This brings back memories:

Megyn Kelly might be getting a bit of a break from being Donald Trump’s main nemesis, because he was just kind of roasted by a bunch of foreign policy questions from conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

At one point, Hewitt asked Trump if he was familiar with “General  Soleimani” and the “Quds Forces.” (He referred to Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.) Trump said he was but then appeared to mistake the Quds for the Kurds, a Middle Eastern ethnic group.

“The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by us,” said Trump.

Hewitt corrected him: “No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces.”

And after some more Qud/Kurd back and forth, Hewitt asserted that , and got classic Trump in return:

“Well, that is a gotcha question, though,” he said. “I mean, you know, when you’re asking me about who’s running this, this this, that’s not, that is not, I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.”

And out of that entire exchange, the only thing Trump supporters will hear is that last sentence.

via Daily Kos

I humbly submit that the diarist has it wrong here. Trump’s inability to answer the question proves virtually nothing about Trump, except that he’s incapable of admitting ignorance. Granted, that Trump knows very little about foreign policy, but the same applies to his fellow clowns on the Republican side. I would give odds that not a one of them would have been able to answer a similar question, and I can guarantee that Hewett would never ask them such a question, or assert in response to their ignorance that “these were standard things you should know if you want to be president”. To me, this is classic Village behavior, in the sense of that term used by digby over at Hullabaloo. Trump is invading their turf, and they are circling the wagons. His fellow clowns will be exempt from such treatment.

So, on to the memory that this story evoked. Back in 1988 Jesse Jackson was disturbing the Village from the left, and George Will was on the case:

Take Will’s 1988 interview of presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson on ABC‘s This Week(1/17/88). In a series of questions apparently meant to expose Jackson as unqualified for office, Will asked: “As president, would you support measures such as the G-7 measures of the Louvre Accords?” (These accords were technical agreements employed the previous year to stabilize exchange rates.) As Will sneeringly recapped in a later column (Washington Post, 1/28/88), Jackson’s “answer to [that] question was, ‘Explain that.’”

via Fairness and Accuracy in Media

Yes, indeed. It was a question never posed to Michael Dukakis, who no doubt was as ignorant of such technicalities as Jackson. Jackson was honest enough to not try to bullshit his way through the question, but the basic tactic on the part of the questioner is the same in both cases. In fact, one can run for president and be qualified for the position without knowing anything about General Soleimani or the Louvre Accords. It’s far more important to articulate the principles that you would apply when dealing with the problems in the Middle East or economic policy than to demonstrate mastery of every detail. That’s what advisers are for. I’m not arguing for Trump, by the way. He would be a disaster as president, though no more a disaster than his competition. But he’s absolutely right that it was a “gotcha” question, perfectly illustrating Village behavior.

Reflections from Fantasy Island

Scott Walker, who has held elective office since he was 25, is not a “career politician”. Let Scottie explain:

“A career politician, in my mind, is somebody who’s been in Congress for 25 years,” Walker said.


Some people have laughed at Scottie about this, but I fully understand where he’s coming from.

You see, in my mind, I am a career politician. In fact, I’m president of the United States, granted extraordinary powers due to a national emergency, and I’ve solved all our nation’s problems. (If you read this blog regularly, you can see how I would do it). I’ve dealt successfully with climate change, income inequality, and annoying ATM fees, and I’ve put Jamie Dimon in jail, among scores of other accomplishments. In my mind, the United States is a virtual paradise, living at peace with all people everywhere, all because of me.

Also, in my mind, I am 25 years old (the constitutional age requirements having been waived in my case) and members of the opposite sex are falling all over themselves just to get near me. Outside of my mind, they appear to employ extraordinary self restraint, to the point where most of the time they don’t even seem to see me, but inside my mind, they let themselves loose. Also, in my mind, I’ve won an Olympic gold medal, have led the Red Sox to multiple World Series victories, and was invited to join the Beatles, but passed that up because they weren’t as musically inventive as me.

So I get it. When things outside of your mind aren’t going your way, it’s always pleasant to go inside your mind, where things can go pretty much as you’d like. Like me, Scottie must go there fairly often, because in his mind, he’s fit to be president. I’m betting that Scottie will be spending a lot of time in his mind in the near future, because outside of his mind, things aren’t going so well for him.

A Connecticut grifter gets his reward

I’ve written several times about the fact that grifters have a natural home in the Republican party. There are grifter politicians, like Rick Santorum, who is always hopelessly running for president, thereby keeping his brand alive for those lucrative red meat speaking fees, and there are grifter political operatives, who siphon money away from the causes they allegedly promote into their own pockets, thereby doing our side a favor by seriously diluting the effectiveness of every dime contributed by the rubes, and that includes the billionaires, whose money is siphoned into the pockets of high priced grifters like Karl Rove. More thoughts on the subject, here, here and here.

So, I was pleased to read today that we in Connecticut have our grifters too. (I know I should have known about this already, but truth to tell, I’m not that interested in Connecticut politics):

Former House Republican Chief of Staff George Gallo was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison Thursday in federal court in Hartford for steering Republican candidates to a direct mail company in Florida in exchange for kickbacks.

The federal government told the court that from 2008 to December 2013, Direct Mail Systems Inc. of Clearwater, Fla. paid Gallo, of East Hampton, $117,617 in exchange for steering candidates to their firm.

Federal prosecutors asked the court to sentence Gallo, a first-time offender, to 15 months. But although U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa L. Bryant did sentence Gallo to about five months less than the federal government requested, she said she imposed prison time to stem the tide of political corruption in Connecticut. She said Gallo only offered a “tepid” level of responsibility for his actions.

via CT News Junkie

That’s $117,000 that state Republicans were unable to spend trying to get themselves elected, so on behalf of all Democrats I would like to thank Mr. Gallo, and I’d really suggest that the Democratic party should send him a going away present of some sort.

A tax by any other name

For some reason, I’m fascinated by the concept of “rent-seeking”, which explains so much about the way our economy works, but is so little noted by our media or our politicians, even those we normally style progressives. Here’s the latest egregious example I’ve come across, courtesy of Atrios:

H&R Block’s entire business model is premised on taxes being confusing and hard to file. So, naturally, the tax preparation company has become — along with Intuit, the company behind TurboTax — one of the loudest voices on Capitol Hill arguing against measures that make it easier to pay taxes. For example, the Obama administration has pushed for automatic tax filing, in which the IRS uses income information it already has to fill out your tax return for you. That would save millions of Americans considerable time and energy every year, but the idea has gone nowhere. The main reason? Lobbying from H&R Block and Intuit.

But H&R Block’s latest lobbying effort is even more loathsome than its opposition to automatic filing. At the company’s instigation, the Senate Appropriations Committee has passed a funding bill covering the IRS whose accompanying report instructs the agency to at least quadruple the length of the form that taxpayers fill out to get the Earned Income Tax Credit.

via Vox

H&R Block justifies its lobbying as a public spirited effort to reduce improper payments, but apparently the actual facts, which count little in this country, show that people who prepare their own returns, or have them prepared by unpaid volunteers, make fewer errors than paid preparers like H&R Block. So, this is an extremely good example of rent seeking, getting the government to craft laws or regulations that force people to pay money to private entities in return for which they get nothing, or in return for which they get far less than they would get if the government provided the service directly or it was subject to market forces, or, in this case, it was rendered unnecessary by reasonable regulation.

Here’s the definition of the word “tax” from the unabridged American Heritage Dictionary:

a usually pecuniary charge imposed by legislative or other public authority upon persons or property for public purposes : a forced contribution of wealth to meet the public needs of a government

I’d submit that this congressional action is the functional equivalent of a tax, except rather than meeting the needs of the government or the public at large, it is designed to meet the needs of corporate interests. But from the point of view of the person making the payment, there’s not a heck of a lot of difference; the government is forcing that person to spend money in a certain way, leaving him or her with less money to spend as they would otherwise spend it. In this particular case they are not absolutely required to pay tribute to H&R Block, but they are being pushed that way rather forcefully. In any event, I call it a tax: a payment that the government forces one to make.

It is often remarked that the tax burden in this country is lower than in horrible socialist countries like Sweden, where people are cursed with universal health care and other nasty things. But those calculations don’t, I’m sure, classify payments to rent-seekers as taxes. It would be interesting to know how we compare with Sweden if payments to rent-seekers were added into the mix. It should also be noted that, if we were to properly classify actions such as this gift to H&R Block as tax increases, Republicans would be, by far, the party of “tax and spend”.

It’s a miracle!

Donald Trump has joined Jesus and the Virgin Mary and has appeared to the faithful in edible fashion, the Donald appearing as a tub of fat, which seems right.

Batman speaks

My wife passed this on to me from one of her Vermont Facebook friends.


And you thought the term “Happy Republican” was an oxymoron

Umm, there are times when it appears that our “liberal media” bends over backwards to be “fair and balanced” to our red state brethren. A good example in today’s Times, in which David Leonhardt gives a boost to what we in the legal biz would call “results oriented” research by a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. The article begins:

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist, has written two recent papers noting that children in conservative parts of the country are more likely to grow up with both parents than in liberal ones. In both articles, he challenged the view that blue states are more conducive to stable family life than red states.

Now Mr. Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia, has published an analysis of data about individual families rather than geographical areas. And he argues this data continues to support his case that the so-called blue-state family model is overrated.

Professor Wilcox bases his latest conclusions on self reports by self-identified Republicans and Democrats. Given the rather uneasy relationship between Republicans and the truth (great example here) one must question the methodology. Of course it is always possible that the high rate of divorce (which must, of necessity, translate into one parent households) in red states (see here, where researchers concluded that the rabid religiosity of the folks in the red states is to blame) and teen pregnancy in red states is confined to the minority Democratic population in said states, while the Republicans in said states live happy, contented lives characterized by two parent families with children born only in wedlock. That doesn’t explain the low rates of divorce and teen pregnancy in blue states though, since if it’s Democrats causing the high stats in the red states, we here in the blue would presumably be packed to bursting with precisely the kind of people that are producing one parent households and pregnant teens in the low IQ states.

And as for being happier, that seems improbable for another reason. You see, Republicans are different than you and me:

Peering inside the brain with MRI scans, researchers at University College London found that self-described conservative students had a larger amygdala (link is external) than liberals. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety. Liberals had more gray matter at least in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that helps people cope with complexity.

The results are not that surprising as they fit in with conclusions from other studies. Just a year ago, researchers from Harvard and UCLA San Diego reported finding a “liberal” gene. This gene had a tiny effect, however, and worked only for adolescents having many friends. The results also mesh with psychological studies on conflict monitoring.

Yes, fear and loathing certainly seems to characterize Republicans better than happy, “optimistic” or “charitable” (believe it or not, Wilcox uses the latter two words to describe Republicans). There are 16 Republicans running for president. Not a one of them is running a campaign that can be objectively characterized as “optimistic”, “charitable” or particularly designed to appeal to people who are happy. These politicians don’t know much, but they know their audience better than Wilcox.

Why the right wants to means test  Social Security

Several years ago I attended a discussion group led by a formerly radical professor at a Swarthmore reunion (my wife went to Swarthmore). During the discussion one inquisitor, probably also a former radical, asked the good professor whether it might not be a really good idea to means test Social Security, to which the professor gave an affirmative answer. I raised my hand to protest, but drew back when I realized that among my competition to dissent was Dean Baker, a Swarthmore alum, who proceeded to explain why the good professor was full of shit.

Recently, Dean has explained why Chris Christie, who has also suggested means testing social security, is also full of shit. Baker’s reasoning hasn’t changed much, it goes like this:

The key point is that, while the rich have a large share of the income, they don’t have a large share of Social Security benefits. That is what we would expect with a progressive payback structure in a program with a cap on taxable income. When we did the paper, less than 0.6 percent of benefits went to individuals with non-Social Security income over $200,000. Since incomes have risen somewhat in the last five years, it would be around 1.1 percent of benefits today.

However we’re not going to be able to zero out benefits for everyone who has non-Social Security income over $200,000, otherwise we would find lots of people with incomes of $199,900. As a practical matter, we would have to phase out benefits. A rapid phase out would be losing 20 cents of benefits for each dollar that the person’s income exceeds $200,000.

This would mean, for example, that if a person had an income of $220,000, they would see their benefits reduced by $4,000. This creates a very high marginal tax rate (people are also paying income tax), which would presumably mean some response in that people adjust their behavior since they are paying well over 50 cents of an additional dollar of income in taxes. If this was a person who was still working and paying Social Security taxes, the effective marginal tax rate would be over 70 percent.

By our calculations, this 20 percent phase out would reduce Social Security payouts by roughly 0.6 percent of payouts, the equivalent of an increase in the payroll tax of around 0.09 percentage point. That’s not zero, but it does not hugely change the finances of the program.

In other words, unless you set the income level at which means testing wipes out benefits to a very low point, you don’t save any real money, the ostensible purpose advanced by people like Christie. Baker and his colleagues are entirely correct, but I think they miss the larger point.

Now, I don’t know what Christie is thinking here; he has decided that being a brave straight talker is his schtick, and nothing says bravery more among the elites that demanding sacrifice from those less wealthy and powerful that yourself. Like the other 15 candidates he’s pretty much just spouting talking points without ever having bothered to bone up on the policy one way or another. But the Christies don’t matter, it’s the billionaires who own them who do, and they know precisely what they want and why they want it.

So I still believe that the point I was going to make at Swarthmore is one that must be made in tandem with Baker’s argument, because the call for means testing is not really about saving money. That’s merely the typical right wing smokescreen. One thing you have to say for the right, they plan for the long term. They are very well aware that Social Security is popular because it benefits everyone. Some people don’t really need it, but it’s nice to get it. If you means test it then some people won’t get it, after having paid payroll taxes all their working lives. They will resent that fact, and they’d have a point. The Republicans would play on that resentment. The could more easily categorize Social Security recipients as welfare recipients, making it even easier to destroy the program, which is the ultimate objective. That’s why they don’t really care whether means testing would or would not save money initially. They aren’t looking to save money. They are looking for levers with which they can totally destroy the program.

It is still a mystery to me why the Koch Brothers and Druckenmillers of the world feel it necessary to impoverish millions of people by destroying a program to which they themselves contribute perhaps 5 minutes of their yearly income. Wait, that’s not really true. It should be a mystery, but it’s not. As I’ve said before, their guiding philosophy is clear: It is not enough that they succeed, everyone else must fail.

Debate Wrapup

First, let me say that I didn’t watch the “debate”. Now, you may think that, given that admission, I have no right to express an opinion about the goings on in Cleveland. But this is America, a place where everyone has the right to express their opinion, regardless of their state of ignorance. In fact, there are people who are paid big bucks to express their opinions, even though they almost always turn out to be wrong. If one were to look back over my blog posts over the years, you’d find, I’m sure, that my batting average is far better than the average talking head on the Sunday morning shows, even if you add Paul Krugman into the mix.

Anyway, this morning one of our houseguests read a portion of Frank Bruni’s column in this morning’s Times to us, in which he praises the Fox folks for doing what no other television reporters can do: hold Republicans to account. If anyone else does it, you see, they are accused of bias, a situation Bruni appears to feel is the natural order of things. According to Bruni, Donald Trump was mauled by the righteous folks at Fox, starting with his refusal to rule out a third party run:

Trump alone wouldn’t make those promises, even though the moderator who asked that question, Bret Baier, pointed out that such a third-party run would likely hand the presidency to the Democratic nominee.

And thus, in the first minute of the debate, Trump was undressed and unmasked, and he stood there as the unprincipled, naked egomaniac that he is. He never quite recovered. His admission of political infidelity was the prism through which all of his subsequent bluster had to be viewed.

I do think that Trump lost: He said nothing, not one syllable, that infused his candidacy with any of the gravitas that it sorely needs, and there was something pouty and petulant about his whole performance. Some of his rivals managed, even under the Fox fire, to look grateful to be there and to enjoy themselves, at least a bit. Marco Rubio did.

Now, I’d already read Josh Marshal’s take on the debate. Josh, not being a highly paid talking head on a major network news show also happens to be right more often than he’s wrong, so I was willing to tentatively accept his conclusion that Donald Trump did just fine:

On balance, I think this debate went about as we’d expected. Donald Trump dominated the debate. Even when he wasn’t talking. Fox took it upon itself to go after him hard. But mainly they didn’t land a punch. With one key exception (when and how he became a Republican), Trump managed to parry pretty much all the questions sent his way, despite most answers totally lacking any substance, lacking any logical coherence, or in most cases not even addressing the questions. Perhaps I’ll be wrong. But I don’t think his refusal to pledge not to run as an independent will hurt him. He didn’t equivocate. He just said it. More than anything, he knows his audience.

This sounds right to me. Methinks Mr. Bruni is approaching this as if the people Trump and his opponents are trying to impress are rational people who care about things like “gravitas”. They’re not. As Krugman rightly points out today, as he has on so many occasions, the modern Republican Party is not about facts or gravitas:

For while it’s true that Mr. Trump is, fundamentally, an absurd figure, so are his rivals. If you pay attention to what any one of them is actually saying, as opposed to how he says it, you discover incoherence and extremism every bit as bad as anything Mr. Trump has to offer. And that’s not an accident: Talking nonsense is what you have to do to get anywhere in today’s Republican Party.

Oddly enough, the folks at Fox seem to fail to understand the political world they have created. For some reason, the thought of a Trump candidacy scares them. Not so the possible candidacies of the other loonies that have come forward to offer to complete the destruction of the Republic. Trump is the natural outgrowth of the Fox phenomenon. He is giving the people what they’ve been taught to want. The folks at Fox don’t want him because they see him as an ultimate loser. But do they have any reason to think any of the others are ultimate winners? In fact, I’ll stick my neck out and say that, at this point, from the Democrats point of view, Trump is no longer the dream Republican candidate. That prediction is tentative, but I’d put some money on this one: nothing that happened last night will hurt Trump with the Republican base. Sooner or later, the folks at Fox may have to swallow hard and line up behind the Donald. He’s taking advantage of the fact that his opposition is made up mainly of people who have never successfully finished their apprenticeships.