Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Following the will of the people ... into stupidity

ACA wouldn't have passed Congress and become law if the will of the people had been followed. That's probably the most important example in the last 10 years of the will of the people being thwarted.

How terrible was it--that the will of the people didn't reign? It's actually part of the design of most governments. Representative government is intended to do something other than govern by just majority sentiment. Instead, representatives are chosen who are, hopefully, more thoughtful, wise, and informed than the average voter. Though voters aren't required to vote for someone better than average, the competition makes it likely that the winners will be better.

So we entrust the power into the hands of our chosen representatives, and sometimes they don't do what we want them to. That may happen because what the people want is foolish or impractical or downright impossible. For example, Americans want very good government services in the form of healthcare, a strong military, good schools, good roads, etc. But we also want low taxes.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist or Nobel prizewinner to realize that those goals are in direct conflict. So our representatives have to sort out the conflict within what We the People want. The results may be disappointing, but they may also the best possible outcome given all the constraints. More likely, the results are somewhat less than optimal due to compromises/bribes made to get enough votes, but better than a solution straight out of a Gallup poll.

So next time I see some internet jerk complaining about how Congress isn't doing the will of the people, I'll remind the jerk about how stupid the will of the people can be.

Image: buzzle.com

Extra. This column was inspired by this post, which was a reminder of how Americans love the benefits and deride the costs, whether it's Medicare or ACA. It's not a new observation, but timely.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The coming GOP civil war

Nothing I write in this post should be a surprise to anyone. The Tea Party, despite losing many of its challenges against establishment candidates, still thinks it should run the GOP. They are unbowed by reality, and it's tremendously difficult to talk sense into a person (or group) that isn't in touch with reality.

Stan Collender, a writer for Forbes (and presumably conservative), ably describes the messy, insoluble conflict in the GOP congressional delegation. We have Mitch McConnell, who promises that the GOP will deliver legislation and competence, not shutdowns and drama. The Tea Party contingent isn't on board with that, though. If they don't get the bills they want, at very least they will get the drama.

This problem is demonstrated well by one particular issue--whether the House and Senate can agree on a budget proposal. If they can agree, then later in the year they'll be able to pass legislation in the Senate with only 51 votes using the reconciliation maneuver. That's attractive to Tea Partyers, who imagine all sorts of things they can do. However, reconciliation doesn't actually provide a big advantage to the GOP generally or the Tea Party, since Obama will simply veto anything he finds objectionable. Oh, snap! Well, disappointment is inevitable when you don't bother to think even one step ahead.

Please read Collender's post. I think I agree with every point. There is going to be a lot of hostility -check. The same complaint about cowardice is going to come up again and again - check. Collender foresaw this just after the 2014 elections, probably while the GOP were still crowing. I'm pretty sure I wondered whether the GOP establishment would be able to keep a lid on the Tea Party throughout 2015-6 in order to increase its presidential chances (but I can't find a post where I said so). It would be astounding if the establishment can curb the Tea Party, because the partyers aren't planning to be collared and curbed.

Nice doggie... be good now.
Image: thecreativeactionnetwork.com

Extras. Heritage Action is short on specifics, but is clear on the threat of "holding risk-adverse conservatives responsible for squandering opportunities for productive interparty conflict." I guess they demand gladiator fights. Tea Partyers here beg the establishment to provide them (the Tea Party) with a strategy. Yeah, right. If you really want something, don't do it for yourself. Beg someone else to do it for you.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Round-up of opinions on the Iran letter

My opinion on the open letter from 47 senators to Iran is that it's an immature poke-in-the-eye to the president, like inviting Netanyahu to speak at a joint session of Congress. It's yet another sign that the GOP puts bombastic rhetoric above careful policy decisions, which is an incredibly bad choice for people who aspire to be leaders. Luckily, it probably won't affect the negotiations (for reasons stated below).

Here are some other opinions:
  • Kathleen Parker, a mild conservative columnist, writes that the letter was a "bad but not apocalyptic idea and illustrates one of the more dangerous aspects of Washington’s indigenous narcissistic disorder."
  • Another WaPo columnist writes that Tom Cotton just projected his name to great heights among the Tea Party types. That certainly is a good point. He came up with a way to punk Obama that isn't likely to be topped anytime soon.
  • Quotes from GOP senators and aides who didn't support this letter, including Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Not... going to be constructive" and "cheeky."
  • A somewhat whiny criticism that nonetheless contains insight about the tone and tactical cluelessness of the letter. 
  • Finally, Jonathan Chait shows how neocon thinking, tactics, and fingerprints are all over this letter. 
I sincerely hope that this letter has no effect on the negotiations. It might not because it doesn't convey any information we didn't already know. Anyone who thought about it knew that a treaty wouldn't be approved by the Senate. Anyone with eyes, ears, brain, and access to American news knows that the GOP disrespects the president. So nothing new here.
It is terribly sad that American politics has sunk quite this low. This is a critically important issue, so it deserves critical thinking, not partisan foolery.

Tom Cotton undeterred by unintended consequences
Image: cnn.com

The Iran negotiations shouldn't be a partisan football

The worst part of our hyper-partisan environment is how too many issues get sucked into the partisan vortex. Also, policy issues end up having a preset Democratic side and Republican side, instead of having good policy thrashed out through passionate discussion.

Trust issues

The Iranian negotiations are definitely a terribly important issue since it involves an aggressive country that has been moving toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran may not be as aggressive as Iraq or North Korea, but they are supporting armies in other middle eastern countries, so we should worry about them more than we would about, say, Sweden.

According to the Dems, we can trust Obama to make a reasonable deal with the Iranians. According to the GOPers, Obama is either purposely or foolishly walking into a terrible deal that will allow the Iranians to build a bomb and become a truly frightening bully in the Mideast.

I actually agree somewhat with the GOPers. We shouldn't simply 'trust' the president to deliver a good deal. Leaders sometimes get taken for a ride because they want to deliver some sort of deal. We should have a healthy skepticism about the deal. If one is reached, we should look at it carefully before supporting it (though lack of public support won't necessarily derail it). Does Iran show clearly enough that it won't be pursuing nuclear arms? If it holds on to enrichment capability, is it too much, or is it a token for national pride? I want to know this about any potential agreement.


A good thing about the Netanyahu speech is that serious people are talking about the real risks of this agreement. What if Iran decides to build a nuclear weapon, and now has the chance to do it more easily because it bargained in bad faith and got away with it? How much enrichment capability is too much?

That last one is a fascinating question when you unpack it. It now seems that we might have some tolerance for Iranian enrichment capability--it's no longer a zero-tolerance policy. Netanyahu talked about a 'ten year breakout' situation, where Iran would have to run its centrifuges for 10 years in order to make enough enriched uranium to make one bomb. Other news leaks suggest a 1-year breakout period.

I wish Iran would consider giving up enrichment capability altogether. However, there is a good reason why it won't. It's not an easy deal for a country that doesn't want to be dependent on others for energy resources. Also, there is national pride--as a proud nation, we should understand that too. However, since Iran has ruled out giving up all enrichment capabilities, how do we know if they are negotiating in good faith, or if their intentions are to renege as soon as sanctions have eased enough?

I certainly don't know how we can tell, and I'm not sure the negotiators can tell either. This is where partisan assumptions can jump in. Dems tend to assume that the Iranians are planning to honor their word, and Republicans tend to assume that Iran is lying and negotiating in bad faith. Dems assume we can come to a satisfactory agreement, and Republicans assume Obama is stupid or treasonous for even talking with the Iranians. Neither of these assumptions is helpful in these negotiations, where we do have to be very wary.

The only way to be sure

I hope for a deal. Our experience with decades-long sanctions on Iraq and our eventual invasion isn't one I'd like to repeat with Iran. I see a deal as the best way to encourage Iran to engage with the rest of the world rather than fight with it. But there isn't certainly it will work. Continued sanctions wouldn't bring certainty either.

Only an extremely bloody, expensive invasion and occupation would bring utter assurance that Iran won't build nuclear bombs. No country is willing to pay that price, so absolute assurance isn't not going to be available to us. Anyone demanding absolute assurance is demanding extreme measures, whether they admit it or not.

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Extras. Longish articles on breakout: from Foreign Policy (simpler), an Israeli news service, and a left-of-center American think tank. Iran's buildup of uranium.

Postponed update April 2015: What are the alternatives to negotiations and could they work?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Short: Conservative knife fight

I'm catching up on the combo-blog Political Animal. This one is worth a look. Glenn Beck and Grover Norquist are fighting over who will have more influence on the NRA. Norquist is suspect because he's a closet Mooslim married to a middle eastern woman.

Glenn Beck was able to mobilize hundreds of people to call the NRA. That's a scary thought, though not exactly surprising considering the demonstrations that the Tea Party mounted in its first year. Glenn Beck followers are nothing if not sheep-like. He's even had to ask conservative PACs to please stop fundraising because his mother won't stop giving. Multiply that by enough brainless, comfortably retired, conservative couch potatoes, and it's easy to imagine the NRA swamped with phone calls.

It is scary how many people Beck can mobilize, but then I remembered that Election Day is a whole different ballgame. It doesn't matter if Beck can mobilize hundreds or thousands if we're expecting over 100 million to vote. When it comes to Election Day, Beck doesn't have a disproportionate say.

Some of the sheep have time for Photoshop too. More scary or less scary?
Image: fitzinfo.wordpress.com

Historic moment: Hannity believes Eric Holder

Sean Hannity doesn't usually tout anything associated with Eric Holder. A quick search shows that Holder doing something with 'the return of the race card,' Holder is 'trying to survive another major scandal,' a Hannity guest call Holder 'the chief activist,' etc. etc.

So how can Hannity being saying anything good about Holder? Only to slam someone else--in this case a low-information protester from Ferguson, Missouri.

It's no surprise that Hannity can find a black protester who blames the police for the shooting of two officers at a protest this week. Most news programs are actually carefully stage-managed events. The protester being interviewed had almost certainly been pre-interviewed, so Hannity and his producers knew that he was going to deny the existence of the evidence. Hannity knew he would get to tell this black protester that another black man, Eric Holder, found that  testimony Michael Brown had his hands raised wasn't supported by the physical evidence (video starting at the 2:18 mark).

So Hannity gets to punk the protester using evidence. How frequently does Fox News use evidence instead of ignoring it, I have to wonder. Oh, the irony.

Sadly, there is no shortage of people who will claim all sorts of things, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. I could detail lies from Hannity or other sorts of manipulations, but there is no need. Anyone can search "hannity lies" for themselves easily enough.

Too bad Hannity brings on an unprepared protester instead of Ta-Nehishi Coates. Now that would be worth seeing.

Thank God Holder survived when we needed him.
Image: wn.com

Extras. Many black commenters not accepting the evidence here. Bad job, good pay--being the 'liberal balance' on Hannity. It contains a more typical Holder moment--where he's compared to the lawyer for the Corleone family.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Letter to the Iranians

Dear Ayatollahs,

We really hate this president. We also understand that you don't like any Americans. So maybe you're willing to help us punk him.

Even though you're currently negotiating with this punk-ass president, you can help us and make him really angry by ending these negotiations with no deal at all. That would be great if you'd do that for us, and it would really embarrass the president badly. As Iranians, you have an illustrious history of punking American presidents, just like you punked President Carter, another piece of scum.

Of course, we have to disclose that we don't personally like you guys or approve of you, but we hate the president even more, which is why we ask you to punk him.

Thank you for taking this request under consideration, and thank you in advance for spiking these negotiations. We're pretty sure you're not missing anything by passing up a deal, so there's no cost to you for playing this great trick on punk-ass president Nobama.


47 Republican Senators (all the real conservatives in the Senate)

Another proud moment in American letters
Image: wikipedia.org

Sunday, March 8, 2015

When is executive fiat OK?

Liberals loathed Bush's executive actions. Perhaps the most criticized action was the torture and long-term detention of terrorist prisoners. These were magically rendered 'legal' by the torture memos of John Yoo, Nonetheless, torture and detention with no due process in sight didn't magically become moral.

Now liberals have a version of executive overreach with the temporary amnesty for 5 million illegal immigrants. So, bluntly, here's the question: Is Obama's overreach OK while Bush's was wrong?

It seems like Dems/liberals are lining up to defend Obama, whereas the critics among the Dems are close to mute. A few, such as senators from swing or conservative states, publicly disagreed with Obama for five minutes, and then the issue subsided.

A good enough reason?

I'm very uncomfortable with this approach. On one hand, I want to be compassionate to people who have been in this country for years, working hard and building their lives. On the other hand, when is it OK for the president to make such a big decision unilaterally without the Congress? Aren't we supposed to go through a well-mapped process for such decisions? You know, the process with the bills starting in Congress, getting passed, and landing on the president's desk for a signature or a veto. Without that process, changing the legal status of 5 million people seems to be an arbitrary decision by an impatient president who doesn't respect our governmental system.

Of course I know the argument that Obama gives: All Congress has to do is pick up the mantle (its mantle) and make an immigration reform law. Congress didn't do its duty, so the president decided to go ahead and act.

But here's an important question: what are the limits on presidential action if he doesn't need the Congress to pass laws anymore? If the prez has to wait two years, is that too long, so it's OK for him to do what he wants? Can the prez set the tax rates? Can he change established tax policies, closing loopholes, and maybe opening others?

Obama has carefully addressed these questions. His immigration policy is based on the well-established principle of prosecutorial discretion--the ability of the person enforcing the laws to decide that a case is too weak or too minor to bring to court. Obama has decided that no case against an illegal immigrant with American child warrants prosecution. Beyond that, he's going to give each of these parents a work card.

Do the work

This definitely seems like overreach to me. However, when Obama did the same for illegal immigrants who came here as children, it didn't bother me. This is part of the problem of deciding what is right based on gut feelings. It conveniently bypasses all the hard logic I'd otherwise have to thrash out.

So maybe following my gut feelings are somewhat similar to taking executive actions. Neither follows a good process or well-tested logic. I should not follow my gut feelings on issues of policy, and the president (whoever it is) shouldn't push executive action into new areas. Sometimes, you have to wait, even if it means waiting forever.

So, should Obama simply wait, and not act? Should it be the same for the next president? When has the wait been too long? Maybe there are times when the wait is too long, and immigration reform has certainly been a long time coming.

However, we still haven't exercised the grand old option of chartering a bipartisan committee to thrash this out. We definitely should have one--a recent committee (Simpson-Bowles) was pretty good. Maybe this committee would be good too, but only if it's not led by current politicians (as the Supercommittee was), but by serious, intelligent people who want to figure out what's best for the country as a whole instead of what benefits their party.

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Extras. A libertarian blogger agrees with the legal justifications. Is it his steel-trap mind, or is it convenient reasoning? A law professor on different kinds of rules. I understand this--our legislatures are too large and bogged down to make all the rules we need, or to write all the guidance in how to implement them. However, I still think it's overreach to change immigration all for 5 million people.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A new conservative tax plan

In a week where the big news was Netanyahu applauded (must click!) as the most popular person in Congress, it's important to notice a new tax plan from Marco Rubio and Mike Lee. This plan (already in version 2.0) is supposed to represent new thinking among Republicans, specifically the group called 'reformicons.'

Reformicons like conservative principles, but they also realize that the working class has gotten a raw deal in our economy in the last 15+ years and struggle so much more than the upper classes. This reform-minded minority within the GOP also see some social spending as a worthy safety net that really is needed.

So what do these compassionate reformicons put into their spanking new tax proposal? I got an interesting lesson in media bias when I looked into this. According to Jonathan Chait (a liberal), the plan is a give-away to the wealthy, who'll get an extra $40K on average from the plan, or maybe more if their income is mostly capital gains and dividends, which wouldn't be taxed at all. In Chait's description, this doesn't sound like a tax plan with any reform elements at all.

What do some conservatives say? Chait helpfully links to reformicon pundits. Yuval Levin at the National Review hails the plan as "pro-growth," a must-have descriptor among Republicans. They use that moniker without irony, as though they forgot how Bush's 'pro-growth' tax cuts worked out.

I didn't notice, until James Pethokoukis pointed it out, that the top tax rate in the Lee-Rubio proposal is 35%, down a moderate amount from the current 40%. It's not the usual 28% or 25%. That is significant. However, it's less of a change in conservative tax policy than it looks. That rate will affect the poor millionaires who earn their money as paychecks from even wealthier folks and corporations. The wealthiest will still receive some major bonuses from this proposal--not least the end of capital gains taxes and inheritance taxes.

Oh, and the decline in revenues, it's only $2.4 trillion over the next ten years. No, maybe $4 trillion, according to Pethokoukis. Well, just add that on to the national debt, like all our governments (conservative or liberal) do. Excuse me if I don't stand up and cheer, but a less-bad GOP tax proposal is not enough to cheer about.

Image: paxonbothhouses.blogspot.com

Major black writer absolves the killer of Mike Brown

Ta-Nehishi Coates, perhaps the pre-eminent black columnist in the US, writes very clearly that Darren Wilson, who shot Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was innocent of a wanton crime:
"The investigation concluded that physical evidence and witness statements corroborated Wilson's claim that Michael Brown reached into the car and struck the officer... The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to contradict Wilson's claim that Brown reached for his gun... That he did not shoot Brown as he was running away. That Brown did stop and turn toward Wilson. That in those next moments 'several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson.' "
Coates doesn't shy away from declaring this as fact, which is good because honest people should deal honestly with facts. They need to draw their opinions based on fact, not on presupposition and bias. Coates seems to have no trouble accepting these facts now that they have been thoroughly investigated. I don't know how late Coates was in coming to accept these facts, which I discerned back in November, or perhaps earlier. Amid all the "Hands up" protests, there was a steady drip of evidence pointing toward the conclusion that Mike Brown had attacked the officer, and not the other way around.

I'm not going to look back at Coates' columns to see if he turned a corner and when. This isn't a game of gotcha to me. Instead, this was a heart-breaking incident where all the players had feet of clay. This police officer was innocent of willfully mistreating this young black man, but that wasn't true for a significant portion of the police force. The police were oppressive to the black citizens, and the anger that erupted was in proportion to that oppression.

I can easily understand the growing anger if I was being targeted for traffic stops, searches on flimsy grounds, and multiple fines for tiny infractions. If I thought I'd have to worry about being shot and killed, that's too much to bear. So I have sympathy for the protesters--the ones who actually lived in the area and were subject to the oppression. I hope this can and will change now.

To the hypesters, race-baiters, knee-jerk partisans, arsonists, and hooligans, I hope you have no incident to flock around for a very long time. You turn misery into your sport, which is just sickening. Please, go hide in some holes while the good people of this country work to heal and make this better.

Image: henrypayne.com

Extra. Predictably, some don't face facts.