Monday, February 27, 2006

Education Pays--Just Not as Much as Hoped
One of the truisms of the policy field I work in is that post-secondary education is the best investment any individual can make in his or her economic future. And in a comparative sense, this is all but irrefutable: over the course of a working lifetime, the average college graduate makes as much as $1 million more than someone who boasts only a high school diploma. Even those who end their schooling with an associate's degree, or no college credential at all, earn dramatically more than high school grads who never set foot in a college classroom. The argument that education pays has been such a mainstay in Center for an Urban Future reports that we had a shorthand name for the chart used to illustrate the earnings premium for college grads: "More Ed, More Bread." Here's the same info with a bit more color to it.

A corollary to the Education Pays case is that as the United States and global economies become ever more responsive to "knowledge workers" and the specialized training one can only get after high school, the earnings differential would only continue to grow. Adding in the coming demographic crunch that's been a particular focus for me--in brief, what happens as Baby Boomers start to retire or cut back their hours in large numbers over the next 10 years or so--one can predict that the rate of earnings increase for college grads will spike as employers grapple with a shortage of high value workers that some analysts project will run close to 10 million by 2020.

All this might indeed turn out to be the case. But in his New York Times column today (subscription only; I finally swallowed hard and ponied up for TimesSelect), Paul Krugman points out that it isn't happening just yet.

What we're seeing isn't the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we're seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.

I think of Mr. Bernanke's position, which one hears all the time, as the 80-20 fallacy. It's the notion that the winners in our increasingly unequal society are a fairly large group — that the 20 percent or so of American workers who have the skills to take advantage of new technology and globalization are pulling away from the 80 percent who don't have these skills.

The truth is quite different. Highly educated workers have done better than those with less education, but a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains. The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004. Over the longer stretch from 1975 to 2004 the average earnings of college graduates rose, but by less than 1 percent per year.

Krugman goes on to note just how skewed the earnings increase has been: between 1972 and 2001, Americans at the 90th percentile of earnings saw their real wages increase by about 1 percent a year--not bad, but far from spectacular. (What I wish he'd included was how this compared to the change for those further down the distribution.) At the 99th percentile, however, income nearly doubled, rising 87 percent over the period. Those in the top 1000th of earnings did twice as well again, as their income increased by 181 percent. And the highest-earning 10,000th of Americans hit the jackpot, as their take-home pay exploded by 497 percent.

On Josh Marshall's site, Max Sawicky comments more strongly on what he deems the "meritocratic fallacy." In his take, the argument does seem to more closely resemble what's sometimes called Social Spenserism: the notion that the wealthy somehow inherently deserve their wealth, and the destitute their suffering.

What bothers me as a policy researcher is that I've been as guilty as Ben Bernanke and most others (on a comparatively miniscule scale, but still) in advancing this notion of a semi-meritocratic elite moving forward. Again, Krugman sums up nicely why this is such a common view:

Why would someone as smart and well informed as Mr. Bernanke get the nature of growing inequality wrong? Because the fallacy he fell into tends to dominate polite discussion about income trends, not because it's true, but because it's comforting. The notion that it's all about returns to education suggests that nobody is to blame for rising inequality, that it's just a case of supply and demand at work. And it also suggests that the way to mitigate inequality is to improve our educational system — and better education is a value to which just about every politician in America pays at least lip service.

The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story.

While it's always helpful to have the facts at hand and to puncture even semi-benevolent myths like this one (I'm not particularly sorry to see an argument that pushes more people toward higher education, even if it's inaccurate on specifics), the solution is not as clear-cut. Krugman is historically correct in asserting, as he does in the close of the article, that at some point wealth inequity undermines democratic society, and it's probably a political winner for Democrats and maybe moderate Republicans to point out the widening gap between aggregate GDP growth and real-wage stagnation for almost everybody. But how do you push a more equitable distribution of profits from our more productive economy without too strongly disincentivizing entrepreneurship? I suppose it's a question that has to be answered through governmental art, rather than economic science.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Do Blacks Still Have The Right to Vote?: The Future of The Voting Rights Act

There's a hoax going around which isn't really a hoax. It's an email which is both amusing and alarmingly inaccurate, but which has a kernel of truth that's quite important.

I found it at work recently: a claim that African Americans are about to lose the right to vote. It's evidently being passed around on the Internet, predominantly among African Americans I presume, as I don't recall seeing coverage in the wider media. That might be a sign of racism and bias in the mainstream media, except that in this case, the claims being made are, on the face of it, laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

The email purports to be excerpts from a speech given by Bill Cosby's wife Camille, and it is a farrago of fractured and confused claims that bear only tangential relationships to reality. Some choice excerpts:
Did you know that our right to VOTE will expire in the year 2007? Seriously! The Voters Rights Act signed in 1965 by Lyndon B. Johnson was just an ACT. It was not made a law. In 1982, Ronald Reagan amended the Voters Rights Act for another 25 years. Which means that in the year 2007 we could lose the Right to vote! Does anyone realize that African Americans are the only group of people who require PERMISSION under the United States Constitution to vote! In the year 2007, Congress will once again convene to decide whether or not Blacks should retain the rights to vote (crazy but true). In order for this to be passed, 38 states will have to approve an extension.
This reads like a classic example of the end state of a game of Telephone, or Chinese Whispers as it's known in England (which, off-topic, will clear up one item of confusion among Beth Orton's stateside listeners). First of all, an "Act" of Congress is not different from [different than? grammarians, help me out in the comments please] a law - it is a type of law. All sorts of enactments by the U.S. Congress are given popular, short titles which typically includes the term "Act," but this does not make them any less a law. Some laws are written so that they will sunset and expire after a certain time if they are not renewed, and the Voting Rights Act is such a law.

Secondly, there is no chance that African Americans, as a class, will be legally denied the right to vote after 2007. There's a little thing called the 15th Amendment, which reads in its entirety:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The right to vote without regard to race could not be overturned unless the Constitution were amended and the 15th Amendment repealed. That is not about to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. Blacks do not require "permission" to vote under the Constitution - to the contrary, the Constitution guarantees that they do not need to seek special permission on account of their skin color or race. (And that bit about blacks being the "only people"? Who knows where that came from - paranoia, confusion, you name it. True, the 15th Amendment was written with black ex-slaves in mind, but it applies to all people of all races, including whites, should there ever come to be a situation where they would need its protection.) Congress will not decide whether blacks "retain the right to vote" in 2007, and it will not require 38 states. In fact, it would require 38 states, or 75% of the total, to pass an amendment taking away that right.

Rather, Congress will decide whether to extend the Voting Rights Act, or let it expire. The Voting Rights Act is simply an example of Congress using the power granted by Section 2 of the 15th Amendment, and taking action to see to it that the right to vote is not, in fact, infringed on unconstitutional grounds.

Some of the debunkers, though, have been far too dismissive, high-handedly declaring that "Forwarding this email does nothing but spread false information. It not only disseminates false beliefs, it also raises unnecessary alarms, wastes time and clogs email inboxes." The kernel of truth in the email is actually extremely important and raises a very necessary alarm. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act remains a very important tool for protecting minorities' right to vote, against all manner of attempts to subvert it. Letting the Act expire would not formally affect blacks' right to vote, but it would remove legal oversight of sneaky maneuvers that have deliberately disproportionate impact on poor and minority voters, and that are obviously intended to disenfranchise such voters.

In the 2004 election, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell allegedly announced that he would strictly enforce highly technical state regulations about the weight of paper required for voter registration forms. The obvious point was to throw out the registrations of people - mostly younger, poorer, less connected voters - who had not always been invested enough in the system to register, and who had only recently signed up on photocopied forms that didn't meet the paperweight rule. (Blackwell's office subsequently claimed that this was only a recommendation, to ensure that thin forms were not damaged in the mail, and that they did not direct election boards to refuse any thinner forms.) Fortunately, supporters of the right to vote were able to point out that the Voting Rights Act, which trumps state law, provides that "No person acting under color of law shall . . . deny the right of any individual to vote in any election because of an error or omission on any record or paper relating to any application, registration, or other act requisite to voting, if such error or omission is not material in determining whether such individual is qualified under State law to vote in such election." Blackwell's rule was not enforced to disqualify voters.

More recently, several states passed voter ID and voter registration laws which will will deliberately make it difficult for poor, rural, minority voters to vote. Georgia's new law would make it one of only two states to require government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Many poor, rural blacks don't have photo ID, and many, especially those born outside of hospital settings under Jim Crow's reign, don't have the birth certificates or other documents that would be required in order to have an official photo ID issued. Georgia has announced that people will be able to get ID issued without a fee, but it hasn't said that it will provide free help for people who don't have the time, money, transportation, or other means to dig up birth certificates, if they even exist, in order to get ID in the first place.

Fortunately, Georgia's voting laws still require preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice, thanks to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is part of the reason that many in the South are glad the VRA is still around:

...Adegbile of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund said the value of the preclearance requirement lies partly in what it prevents."That procedure deters many jurisdictions from proposing voting changes that are discriminatory in the first place," he said. "When policy-makers know their work is going to be reviewed, he said, they are "less likely to do something that is intentionally discriminatory or has retrogressive effects."
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, said Georgia's recent General Assembly session provided evidence that preclearance is still essential. The state Legislature passed a law requiring voters to bring a photo ID to the polls. Republican supporters said it's aimed at stemming voter fraud. But Democrats and civil rights leaders protested that it will unduly hamper poor, black, elderly and rural voters. Under Section 5, the law won't go into effect until the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court approves it."It proves the point that the Voting Rights Act is critical, particularly to Southern states as far as these states moving the clock back," Brooks said.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, fought for the Voting Rights Act with his own blood. He was among the marchers who were clubbed in Selma in 1965. He still bears the scars. "I think there's a need to renew Section 5," he said. "We've made a lot of progress, there have been a lot of changes. But there is still progress to be made. It's been 40 years, but I think we still need preclearance and the sections that will expire in 2007 so we will not be tempted to go back."
There are still potential problems, of course - for all of the protections it offers on paper, we might have Texas Republicans in Washington in charge of enforcement of the Act. And, sure enough, right after the nonpartisan career experts at DOJ found that Georgia's law would dilute minority voters, they were overridden by the political appointees under Alberto Gonzales. (This link to the Washington Post probably won't last.) The Georgia law has been suspended by a federal court for the time being, but the episode reminds us that along with renewing the VRA, we also need to depoliticize the decisionmaking at DOJ. Mark Posner, who served as an attorney in the DOJ Civil Rights Division from 1980 to 2003, argues in a recent American Constitution Society white paper that there is significant grounds for concern that "Justice Department enforcement of Section 5 has been corrupted by decisionmaking based not on a good faith application of the law to the facts of individual preclearance requests, but instead on partisan political interests." Posner argues that Congress needs to enact a statutory underpinning for the procedures historically used by the Justice Department to guard against political decisionmaking, since, as he ever-so-politely puts it, "there is concern that the Bush Justice Department may now be manipulating or undermining" those procedures. He also suggests a limited expansion of the circumstances in which DOJ Section 5 decisions could be appealed in federal court. Of course, neither of those remedies is going to be enacted by a GOP-controlled Congress, and even if they were, it would be of severely limited value to grant further discretion to a GOP-stocked DOJ, and to allow more appeals to a judiciary brimming with Scalitos. The ultimate answer has to be electing progressives to office.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Politics of Port Security
If there's one thing the Bush administration does well, it's the symbolic politics of national security. They might not be able to capture bin Laden, run a tribunal system for detainees, or even secure nuclear power plants, but when it comes to getting in front of the cameras and looking like they're doing a good job, it really has been "Mission Accomplished."

So I am absolutely baffled as to why they're pushing this takeover of major East Coast ports by a company based in the United Arab Emirates, a country that has harbored and funded terrorists. In doing so, they've handed the Democrats an unscrewupable--even for Democrats--issue on which to run to the president's right, and prompted criticism from every embattled Republican governor and Congress member. As Bull Moose wrote this morning, "[T]he left and right are united against the port deal. This is a debacle that can bring together Ann Coulter and Arianna Huffington." Beyond symbolic squawkers, I can't imagine even the leftiest lefty on Daily Kos speaking up for the Dubai interests, nor even the most reflexive Bush-worshipping Frei Republik apologist backing the administration on this one.

So who's going to defend this thing? The Times notes that Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary and a New Yorker, has been on TV citing unspecified "assurances in place" that everything is going to be fine. But this is the guy who was just slammed for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, and is well known for his managerial deficiencies, now saying "trust us!" Against him, we've got everyone from Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican who's surely thinking this will help him in what looks like an uphill re-election campaign this fall, to New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who even more certainly is thinking that some national security cred will help him win a very tough race against the son of 9/11 Commission chair Tom Kean in their November contest. Menendez and Hillary Clinton are likely to propose legislation that would ban future transactions of this type; will any Senator up for re-election this fall vote against that bill?

This looks like a huge self-inflicted wound for the Bush administration, energizing Democrats and dividing Republicans. Even if there's airtight justification in the details for this transaction, the reason these guys generally win political fights is that they take positions that don't need to be explained. John Kerry's infamous "I voted for the legislation before I voted against it" was explainable; it was just that few bothered to go past a statement that was idiotic on its face. Turning over port security to a company based in a country that harbors terrorist killers seems similarly dense, and it's very unlikely that many people will press for the specifics--even if the secrecy-obsessed Bushies were to offer them.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Randy and Ralph
Looking at Josh Marshall's site last night, I found this sordid exposition on the sins of former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Republican of California. Duke's deeds are pretty stomach-turning, from soliciting bribes to browbeating aides with overactive consciences. As a former war hero turned crooked pol, his is a pretty compelling fall-from-grace story, and a potential bonanza for Democratic candidates who will look to pin that story to the self-serving and shameless Republican House majority this fall.

But none of this jumped out at me immediately upon reading the TPM entry. No, what I saw was this:

"Having admitted unparalleled corruption, defendant Randall H. Cunningham now comes before the Court to be sentenced..."

Emphasis mine. Yes, the new poster boy for right-wing wrongdoing is a namesake of the man who was perhaps my last great sports hero. (And by the way, God bless the wikipedia author/s for noting the unmatched, indeed unmatchable greatness of "QB Eagles.") No idea how this had never previously struck me.

At the other end of the spectrum of right-wing vileness is Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition leader, Republican consultant, and bosom chum of Jack Abramoff. Reed is currently running for the office of Georgia Lieutenant Governor, a position he seems to consider a steppingstone to a future presidential run. Reed's close and extended Abramoff ties already have done damage to his bid, and what might sink him altogether is The Book of Ralph--a short graphic biography highlighting various episodes in Reed's checkered career.

Reading "The Book of Ralph," it seems almost impossible that a lawsuit won't be forthcoming, but considering that all its quotes are taken directly from previously published media stories, from Reed's tearful denunciations after being exposed as a plagiarist in college more than 20 years ago, to his spokeswoman's statement two months back that she referred to her own vagina as "my big cavernous pit of love," I'm not sure there's grounds.

More broadly, if this gets big enough, I wonder if we're seeing the next stage in the evolution of political attacks. In 1999 or so, I had this idea for a satirical comic book titled "The Adventures of George W. Bush at Harvard Business School," but having neither art skills nor abundant free time back then, I did nothing with this notion. Could we have changed history? Guess we'll never know.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Dead-Eye Dick's Lips Are Moving Again

Is it just me or does Dick Cheney, who remains the BTK Vice President until he begs forgiveness for his defense of the right to torture, have the highest lie-to-public-statement ratio in the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C. area? Sure, there are others who lie more frequently, probably - I'm sure Patton, Boggs and Hill & Knowlton are still getting paid to mislead the public about some ruthless regime somewhere- but Cheney says so little, and lies so frequently and with such impunity when he does, that he probably takes the crown.

If it wasn't Valerie Plame name not having been leaked, it was never having met John Edwards. If it isn't "us[ing] estimates for the cost of Social Security privatization based on ten years starting [in 2005], even though the program won't start up until 2009 at the earliest," it's citing an al-Qaeda official, who had previously been identified as a likely fabricator, as a "credible source" for claims that Iraq trained al-Qaeda members.

You may have heard about the latest. No, I don't mean 'I only had one beer, four or five hours before.' That might be true, for all I know and for all the world will ever know, since Cheney didn't discuss his shooting a man in the face with the local authorities until the next day - even though at least one law enforcement official showed up that same night at the ranch where Cheney was staying but was turned away. Nor am I referring to the lies about how close Cheney was to Harry Whittington - when Brit Hume asked if Whittington was a "close friend," Cheney replied "No, an acquaintance," yet Mary Matalin, Cheney's former communications adviser, told the New York Times that "This was a very close friend this happened to. " No, I'm referring to his claim on Fox News that he had authority to declassify documents.

Of course, this is simply another tug at the curtain that's partly hidden Cheney's self-aggrandizement behind the scenes since Bush v. Gore installed his mouthpiece on the throne. Michael O'Hare at the Reality-Based Community notes the odd reserval of the normal order of things that has transpired when a U.S. Vice President is arrogating all sorts of power to himself. In my view, the standard assessment of the office was set, not by John Nance Garner and his buckets of warm something-or-other, but by Dwight Eisenhower, who when asked during the 1960 Presidential campaign to think of a significant decision to which his VP Tricky Dick had contributed, gave the immortal answer, "If you give me a week, I might think of one." While Garner's remark could perhaps be written off as self-deprecation, Eisenhower's remark did real damage to Nixon's campaign, and has all the hallmarks of blunt honesty. (Eisenhower, by the way, gave us his warning about the creeping influence of the military-industrial complex less than a year later - what ever happened to such candor?)

In the latest demonstration of the end of that tradition of Presidential supremacy within the executive branch, Big Time Dick asserted that an executive order explicitly gives him the authority, acting unilaterally as Vice President, to declassify documents. The reason this issue came up, of course, is that his former aide Scooter Libby had claimed that he was acting on Cheney's orders when he declassified information from an intelligence estimate on Iraq to reporters. Libby is presently charged with perjury, not with leaking classified information, so despite what some bloggers are saying, Cheney's remark does not appear to be directly tailored to set up a defense to the charges Libby currently faces. Still, Libby was responding to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's questions before a grand jury, and Fitzgerald may yet announce more charges, so Cheney may after all be preparing Libby's defense.

For the moment, then, it looks less like a tag-team legal stonewall and more like an illegal powergrab (notwithstanding the fact that it may turn out to be both). Why illegal? Because, as Steve Clemons reports, no such executive order exists. Cheney can, it turns out, order information to be classified, in a case of powers being newly delegated to the Vice President by his hand puppet.... er, I mean, by the President, who amped up Big Swinging Dick's formal powers in this area back in March 2003. Neither that order, however, nor any other appears to give Cheney the right to declassify documents on his own. Declassification directives must go through a regular, careful process. Liberal Oasis explains that the authority to classify documents does not automatically entail the authority to declassify equally secret documents, and that while the VP may well have the authority unilaterally to declassify documents that he himself has previously ordered classified, that would not apply to other classified documents, and not to the national intelligence estimate which is at issue in the Libby investigation and which prompted the question on Fox.

So, just a quick little reminder: don't believe a G--damn word the man says.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bad News From Ohio
Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, a Democrat who captured national attention last year for his near-victorious congressional race in an Ohio district where President Bush had won 64 percent of the vote in 2004, announced last night that he was ending his bid for the Senate this fall. Hackett's departure from the race ends the prospect of a competitive primary and all but ensures that Congressman Sherrod Brown will challenge embattled incumbent Republican Mike DeWine this fall, in a race Democrats desperately need if they are to have any hope of recapturing a majority.

I don't know much about Brown. From what I've read, he's a good man and a good progressive, and I hope he wins. Party leaders had been pushing Hackett to drop out for weeks, largely because of Brown's perceived advantages in fundraising, organization, and experience. Hackett had been criticized for his high "burn rate," a political term of art that refers to how quickly a candidate spends the money he or she has raised. His well-publicized comment of a few weeks back comparing intolerant religious leaders in the U.S. to Islamic radicals probably made people like Chuck Schumer very nervous, and he's reputedly prone to a lot of swearing (a Marine trademark, some say). Finally, Hackett did not endorse Brown in his withdrawal announcement--a step that I'm sure confirms for some his bad judgment and unreliable temperament.

All that said, it strikes me that there's something very wrong with a Democratic Party that steps on the aspirations of citizens who enter politics out of conviction, rather than careerism, and that fears rather than embraces honesty and resistance to scripted, consultant-driven politics... particularly considering how badly Democrats have fared using those scripts.

Worse, the push against Hackett could threaten what I think is by far the Democrats' best storyline in 2006: the more than 50 military veterans the party has recruited to run for Congress. The message seems to be: "We want to use you as window dressing, but if we can't control you, don't bother." It will be interesting to see how many of the "Band of Brothers" will follow Hackett out of politics.

The party leaders wanted, and presumably still want, Hackett to repeat his 2005 run in Ohio's 2nd congressional district, where Jean Schmidt, the Republican who narrowly beat him last year has disgraced herself by slandering another Marine, Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman John Murtha, and will face a strong primary challenge. If Schmidt survives that, she'd likely be at a disadvantage in a rematch against Hackett; if she lost, Hackett likely would enjoy greater name recognition and a higher profile than the Republican.

But Hackett's not interested.

I will not be running in the Second Congressional District nor for any other elective office. This decision is final, and not subject to reconsideration.

I told the voters from the beginning that I am not a career politician and never aspired to be--that I was about leadership, service and commitment.

Similarly, I told party officials that I had given my word to other good Democrats, who will take the fight to the Second District, that I would not run. In reliance on my word they entered the race. I said it. I meant it. I stand by it. At the end of the day, my word is my bond and I will take it to my grave.

Compare that code of conduct to the reports that Democratic bigwigs, including Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, contacted donors to dissuade them from giving to Hackett.

Party leaders felt that Brown had a much better chance of victory in November. Given the facts of money and organization, and the congressman's presumed greater ability to avoid controversy, this might well be the case. But I will say this: if DeWine beats Brown, everyone who was involved in this decision should find another line of work. Because this will be the ultimate case of the tone-deafness of professional Democrats hurting the country as well as the party.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Cheney Shoots Fellow Hunter; Late-Nite Comic Writers Rejoice
The press and blogosphere are starting to get into a froth over the story out of Texas that our Vice-President, Citizen Dick Cheney, accidentally shot and wounded a companion while hunting for quail at a Texas ranch on Saturday. I'm really trying not to wallow in all the tasteless jokes one could make here (though if Cheney wanted to shoot someone in the wilderness, he passed up five opportunities to do so 40 years back). I do have to point out, however, that on one of the Sunday talk shows this weekend, Howard Dean referred to Aaron Burr while talking about Cheney's possible involvement in the Valerie Plame leak. Did he already somehow know that Cheney had just become the second Vice-President to shoot a man while in that office?

I think it's likely the left blogosphere will gin up a lot of wacky conspiracy theories around this incident. (In fact, I wrote one myself on DailyKos--in part to see if people would take it seriously given how over the top it was, and in part because, as I wrote in the post, so much of the Bush administration really has unfolded like a fourth-rate political potboiler novel that I can't totally rule out the possibility of shenanigans.) Much of the speculation already is around the guy who got shot, a 78 year-old lawyer whom Bush appointed to a Texas regulatory body in 1999 under somewhat controversial conditions, and around the family who owned the property, who are evidently six-figure givers in Texas Republican circles. With that cast of characters, and the fact that this incident wasn't publicly reported until about 24 hours after it happened, they speculate that something is being covered up.

As I said, I wouldn't put much past Cheney: he's shown bad judgment and cretinous disregard for people over his career, and his health issues and the medications he's presumably on all could factor into an accident or whatever. But the people involved--well, ask yourself this: what type of people would you expect Cheney to hang out with on weekends? Buddhists on meditative retreat? Ravers? Of course he's spending time with former/current political givers and fellow "big-time" Republicans. Given that the sheriff of the town (in the above-linked NYT piece) says there was nothing amiss, and that the guy seems to be recovering, it seems that at worst the "cover-up" is of Cheney doing something stupid or having an accident of some kind. In that sense he's probably no different than any other rich guy who's able to keep something embarassing but ultimately harmless out of the public spotlight.

(That said, imagine the reaction from certain quarters if it had been Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, or John Kerry who'd accidentally shot someone while hunting.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

From Bad to Worse?
I've believed for awhile that though things are rough enough right now in terms of political bitterness in America, we will really see a crackup if/when Democrats retake power, particularly if a perceived liberal with a polarizing personality wins the presidency. The rage on the right now lacks a focus and just manifests as general loathing for an internal enemy that's contained, though not yet destroyed. (If only we had the power in the press and other areas they constantly ascribe to us.) But even two years ago, in the Swift Boating of a relatively inoffensive Democrat like John Kerry, we saw the depths of right-wing fury. If he'd won, it would have been much worse; if a certain former First Lady runs (as this piece seems to suggest she will)--and, for many reasons including this one, I pray she does not--and wins, it's hard to imagine how bad it will get.

Maybe I'm wrong about this; I hope so. One could argue (and many do) that today's liberals are as or more het up about Bush, as irrationally loathing of him, as right-wingers were toward Bill Clinton. The differences as I see it are twofold: one, Republicans controlled Congress, so Clinton's power to force us all into gay marriage and compel pregnancies just so we could abort them was presumably limited, and two, public opinion polling consistently found him with majority approval. Most people thought the guy was doing a pretty decent job. By contrast, Democrats are totally shut out of power at the national level and thus can't check presidential excesses, and something like 60 percent of the public--including, presumably, a lot of people who voted for him last time--thinks Bush is doing a lousy job. In that respect, you could argue that liberals have more to be upset about, and that doesn't even get into the substantive differences between extramarital shenanigans and the policy failures and falsehoods around Iraq, New Orleans, claiming of virtually unlimited executive powers, the politically motivated outing of intelligence agents, government-approved torture, and the rest of it. Did the hardcore people on the right really take that much issue with Clinton's official activities? I don't think so.

Either way, though, the great divide is getting wider and wider. Last night I read this upsetting item on DailyKos; worse were the dozens of comment responses telling similar stories. There are few places where one can even engage someone on "the other side" in a conversation about public affairs, and many fewer where that conversation doesn't devolve into heated insults and rhetorical excess. I've thought of it for a couple years now as a "cold civil war" (though a Google search I did earlier tonight showed that I'm far from the only one who's come up with that term), in that politics are dividing families and sundering friendships. Happily, we haven't started shooting yet, though in my more pessimistic moments I wonder if that's just a matter of time.

As this blog often shows, I'm certainly prone to the overheated phrase and gratuitous political insult too. It's an outgrowth of frustration and deep sadness at what I think is happening in our country, but that doesn't justify it--particularly as I believe neither in the infallability, in any sense, of the Democrats nor in the thoroughgoing evil of the Republicans. No faction has a monopoly on either good ideas or ethical virtue.

What I think I'm finding, though, is a difference in my own approach between those who are willing to engage on the level of ideas, and those who seem to view public life as nothing more than a zero-sum contest of political factions, with "our side" and "their side." The first bunch have my respect and appreciation as Americans who simply see things differently than I do. Once in a while, they might convince me of something, or I them; even when that doesn't happen, I try to see value in the exchange itself. The country is a community and we need to try and share it; when we stop communicating with those of other viewpoints, we start dehumanizing them, and that opens the door to dark things.

The second group, though, seems to want to tear that door off its hinges. I wonder how many of them are even able to articulate a belief system when it comes to government and community; all they seem to know is hating liberals, with no critical thinking capacity, no desire or ability to look at things as they are rather than as they want them to be.

(As the above-noted Daily Kos--though not that particular link, for the most part--and so many other websites show, there is a corresponding group on the left that starts from the premise "Republicans are wrong and evil," and pretty much stops there too. I won't call them liberals, as I don't think they're deserving of the name. Since they're marginalized, they don't yet scare me, but they're obviously symptomatic of the larger problem I'm talking about here.)

I don't know what it will take to heal the deep rift in our society. But removing those in power who gain by it strikes me as a good place to start.
"If you've got nothing to hide, why should you care?"

...asked a commentor responding to the Navigator's post below this one.

Why indeed?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

...And This Just Feels Like Spinning Plates

One of the memes going around on the right side of the Internet just now is that Bush's flagrant violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was not unconstitutional, because the President has inherent authority under the Constitution to order warrantless wiretapping, and Congress cannot legally limit that authority. One fellow claiming to be a lawyer tried to tell me on this thread (about 3/4 of the way down) that this argument was clearly correct, an "easy case," and dispositive of the entire issue.

This is a serious argument. It's wrong, but it's plausible, which distinguishes it from a couple of other arguments going around: that this is a "terrorist surveillance act" and so by definition we must not question it and must do it to save our lives, and that Congress authorized this spying when it passed the Authorization to Use Military Force against al Qaeda in September 2001. The former is the moronic spin that was being pushed by a former Rumsfeld aide on the Daily Show the other night. She was promoting her new book, in which she argues that we live in a no-spin era because whenever the government tries to spin or cover up, the 24-hour party people in the electronic media catch them and spread the word. In this case, her own example proves her right, since the New York Times had already shot down her spin, reporting that the vast majority of people whose communications were intercepted were completely unconnected to terrorism:

According to a senior prosecutor: "It affected the F.B.I. in the sense that they
had to devote so many resources to tracking every single one of these leads,
and, in my experience, they were all dry leads." Long after 9/11, “the N.S.A.
material continued to be viewed as unproductive, prompting agents to joke that a
new bunch of tips meant more calls to Pizza Hut.” The Pizza Hut joke suggests a
bleak reality for the program – many ordinary Americans have been tracked by
this program, in violation of the law, for little apparent good.


The latter argument, which was the main defense asserted by Alberto Gonzales in front of the Senate the other day, is so weak that even Lindsay Graham admonished Gonzales that he had no idea he was voting to authorize warrantless domestic wiretaps when he supported legislation allowing military force to be used against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The "inherent authority" argument gets into some murky areas of constitutional theory. Obviously the Founding Fathers weren't envisioning wiretaps on cell phones when they drafted the Constitution's section on the powers of Congress (Article I) and of the President (Article II). People have pointed out, correctly, that Congress could not, for example, pass a statute that took away the President's veto - the Constitution explicitly gives veto power to the President, and any attempt by the legislature to take it away would be null and void.

The arugment here is that the President has implicit authority under Article II to engage in warrantless intelligence gathering, and that Congress has no more power to limit that authority than they do to limit his veto power. A few courts have suggested that the President may have such inherent authority, but no court has suggested that inherent authority is complete authority, carte blanche, that Congress cannot regulate or limit. In fact, as fourteen legal experts, including Republicans, recently wrote in an open letter, Congress can limit and regulate the ways in which the President oversees military and defense matters - indeed, Congress has done so in several areas, and these limits and regulations have always been upheld by the courts. FISA itself limits the President's ability to gather intelligence, and FISA has been found constitutional every time it has been challenged.

The one case that every in-the-know member of the vast right-wing conspiracy can be relied upon to cite, as a recent Justice Department white paper led them to, is In re Sealed Case. All you need to know, as Stephen Colbert would say? That case did not deal with whether FISA could limit the President's inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information. The judge who wrote the opinion nevertheless stuck in a comment that “[w]e take for granted that the President does have that [inherent] authority and, assuming that is so, FISA could not encroach on the President’s constitutional power.” This what is known as dicta: language in a judicial opinion that is not directly germane to the case under discussion, was probably not briefed or argued by the parties, and is therefore not binding authority. Notice how the court does not bother to explain why Congress, through FISA, could not encroach on an unstated, implied executive power (even assuming the executive did have such power), despite the many instances in which Congress has done just that, and been upheld by the courts.

Why would the judge have tossed in that irrelevant aside? Because the judge was Laurence Silberman, a long-time Republican partisan, mentor to Clarence Thomas and the judge for whom John Yoo clerked, and a witness who testified against enactment of FISA way back in 1978. Of course, the Act passed anyway and was signed into law, but Silberman has simply never accepted his defeat. Silberman evinced some skepticism of executive power when it was wielded by a Democrat: he egged on David Brock to go public with lurid, sensationalist reports about Bill Clinton. Now that power's back in GOP hands, though, Silberman wants it maximalized and untethered. Yes, other judges joined Silberman in a "per curiam" opinion in In re Sealed Case, but that simply means that they agreed with the decision in the case and the reasoning that led to it, not that they endorsed every little aside in the opinion.

Setting Silberman aside, the bottom line is that, even if the Bushies had a plausible, good-faith argument that FISA's restrictions on intelligence gathering were an unconstitutional limitation on inherent executive authority, they could have taken one of two appropriate routes: they could have asked Congress to amend FISA, or they could have presented the argument to the courts for resolution. It is, after all, not the job of the executive to interpret the laws- that's why the Constitution creates a judiciary in Article III. But here, the Administration refused to try to win either a judicial ruling or a legislative amendment, for one reason only: because they knew they'd lose. Instead, they tried to keep their illegal actions secret, and when the program was revealed, they announced that we should all trust them, assume they were conducting the surveillance competently and respectfully, and accede to their interpretations of their own executive authority. Should we trust the Bush administration to get it right? I don't think I need to answer that.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Boehner: Ix-Nay on That Eform-Ray!
Strictly from a political standpoint, I'm disappointed that the House Republican majority chose Ohio Rep. John Boehner to succeed Tom DeLay as majority leader, rather than Missouri's Roy Blunt. A man who left his wife of 30 years to dally with a tobacco lobbyist, whom he later married, Blunt's standing as a Republican literally in bed with Big Tobacco would have been a Democratic admaker's shimmery dream brought to life.

From a policy standpoint, though, I guess Boehner's about as good as we could hope from this collection of miscreants, troglodytes and fanatics. He's generally been a solid vote for greater resources and more flexible programming on federal workforce development and job training policy, my area of professional focus, and the (otherwise despicable) Rep. Peter King of Long Island pointed out last week that as an Ohioan, Boehner might generally be better disposed toward urban and economic issues than DeLay was or Blunt would have been.

But the reason the caucus chose him rather than Blunt pretty clearly was their fear of Abramoff-related voter rage this November, and their wish to present a different face to the country. In that sense, while Boehner might come across as less blatantly evil than dead-eyed DeLay or the baleful Blunt, he's sending signals that on the meat, he won't be very much different:

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has begun shifting his party toward an alternative lobbying reform package that stresses disclosure of lobbying contacts rather than the virtual ban on gifts and privately funded trips proposed last month by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

In an interview yesterday, Boehner emphasized that he has no plan to change lobbying rules and will not draft one until he can reach a broad consensus with House Republicans, possibly at a retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore next week. But he was quick to say the proposals that Hastert and House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) put forward are not the Republican Conference's plan.
...
...Boehner will emphasize the immediate disclosure of contacts between lobbyists and lawmakers, allowing the voting public to decide whether those contacts are proper. And he will tackle what many Republicans see as the root of the lobbying problem -- the ease with which lawmakers can dole out millions of dollars in favors through pet provisions in spending bills.

Boehner said he endorsed only "in concept" a bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would make every such provision -- or "earmark" -- subject to challenge on the House or Senate floor.
...
[H]e added, "members need to understand what's happening in the world. They need to understand what's happening with industry. That won't happen if they're locked up in a cubbyhole here in the Capitol."

Boehner called for the disclosure of any meal or gift from a lobbyist within 24 hours, both by the lawmaker and the lobbyist.

"If you can't go out and justify a $60 meal and see it in the press, then maybe you shouldn't go," he said. "But if you can, go ahead and do it, and let the world see what that relationship was. I think that's a far smarter way to go about this."

Maybe it's me, but this sounds like Boehner wants to incorporate the principle of "Don't ask permission; beg forgiveness" into law. No congressman is going to be deterred from shady doings by the prospect of disclosure; public shame doesn't work in the Age of Rove.

Consider: someone like Josh Marshall could rail all day about how Congressman Mephisto (R-TX) disclosed on a government website that OmniMegaCorp, where his wife works as a $400,000-a-year press flack, has paid for every bite of food he's eaten since 1983, and link to a Common Cause study that found that the distinguished gentleman has slipped clauses into legislation that have fatted Omni's bottom line by tens of millions. But will Mephisto's constituents even hear about it? Not likely; local media may or may not seize upon the story, and will make that decision--which you need to actuate the whole "shame" concept--based on factors beyond anyone's control. Perhaps if his opponent has sufficient resources, s/he will run a few campaign ads. But given that he's probably in a gerrymandered district, it won't be easy to raise the money to start with; donors like to support candidates with a legit shot to win.

And even if the word does get out, it's still far from assured that consequences will ensue. Inevitably, Mephisto's critics will be smeared as partisans, and a Scaife-funded think tank will produce another study proving the Congressman's direct lineage from Charlemagne.

If we believe the behavior in question--in this case, over-fraternization of public servants with lobbyists--either materially worsens public policy or erodes the public's trust in their elected officials, we should ban it. A cynical call for mere "disclosure," knowing that such information very likely will no more register than the proverbial fart in a windstorm, does nothing to reform the system.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Internecine Abortion Battles and Bad Progressive Habits

How to safeguard abortion rights in an era of Republican majorities? The looming 30-year reign of Roberts and Alito makes it look all the less promising, but there's a great deal of truth in the adage that the Supreme Court follows th' election returns. Convincing a majority of the people has been and remains the best way to make sure a woman's right to choose remains alive.

So how to do that? Over at Slate.com, William Saletan and Katha Pollitt are having a polite discussion about that topic this week. Saletan is arguing that the pro-choice movement needs to accommodate itself to what he sees as the mainstream American view, antipathy towards abortion but sympathy towards the right to choose, and to gain those folks' support by acknowledging that abortion is deeply problematic and starting a drive to reduce abortions as much as possible with easily available contraception. Pollitt counters that the pro-choice movement can't concede the anti-abortionists' moral arguments about the evils of abortion and have any hope of retaining support for the right to abortion itself.

The debate's been very interesting so far, but rather than summarize it further (instead of letting you read it for yourself), I'd like to note how the initial exchanges have repeated certain habits of thought that have hobbled progressives for ages:

1. Taking poll results too seriously. Saletan reels off some poll results to show that Americans really abhor abortion as a moral evil, and draws the lesson that the pro-choice movement will lose unless it demonstrates that it shares and respects that feeling. Saletan may be right about that - but it's not a coincidence that he, himself, feels strongly that abortion is a moral evil. Naturally, he's happy to cite poll results showing a majority apparently sharing his views. The thing is, polling is a very suspect tool - Americans will say all kinds of things that they don't really mean in response to pollsters. As Pollitt notes, the mushy middle of Americans probably don't feel all that strongly about it; it's just that, when a pollster is focusing your attention on one issue, you tend to voice greater concern about that issue than you normally feel. Add that problem to the other obvious limitations of slanted poll wording, cherrypicked numbers, snapshot results of a constantly moving target such as media-influenced public opinions, and you get some untrustworthy numbers. Progressives love to cite polling data suggesting that the American majority is on their side, but as Garance Franke-Ruta recently noted, a deeper look at Americans' full, complicated, sometimes contradictory views shows much less enthusiasm for the liberal project, unfortunately.

2. Fearing slippery slopes too much. Pollitt doesn't want to cede any more moral ground to the anti-choicers: 'anti-abortion moralism,' she says, will ultimately hurt women and women's rights; take one step down that path, and you start sliding to the bottom. People of all stripes put far, far too much weight on slippery slopes. Here the thing to keep in mind: we're (nearly always) already on the slippery slope, and it's (nearly always) much less slippery than we think. Permitting gay marriage doesn't mean government has to let people marry box turtles; legalizing medical marijuana doesn't mean we'll soon have street corner heroin stands; conceding that abortion is bad doesn't have to mean that abortion will be banned.

We're already on a slope: we already allow some marriages that Rick Santorum frowns on - like people who aren't heterosexual, fertile couples intending to have children and rear them according to church laws; we already allow the sale of addictive drugs, like nicotine and alcohol; we already concede that post-birth fetuses can't be killed, and that some third-trimester abortion restrictions are permissable so long as there's a robust life-and-health exception. We haven't slid all the way to the bottom of any of those slopes, and we're not about to. We can, and we do, choose where to stop on the slope. [There are some interesting exceptions, like employee benefit contract negotiations and 4th Amendment reasonable-expectation-of-privacy jurisprudence, where the powers-that-be look explicitly at how far other people have gone down the slope as a guide to how far they should push the rest of us.]

3. Fighting the culture war instead of winning concrete battles. Pollitt doesn't exactly do this, but she flirts with falling into this trap. She really dislikes abortion opponents because of what they stand for - they're motivated by traditional, conservative values, they dislike women's independence and sexual indulgence, and she's offended by that. Almost as much as she wants to preserve abortion rights, she wants to make the point that such people are just wrong. Even at the risk of possibly losing some mushy moderates who might be amenable to a pro-choice movement that echoes their qualms about abortion, Pollitt would prefer to give no quarter to her antagonists, and make a strident, uncompromising defense of the cultural values that underlie the policies she supports. (To be sure, Pollitt has a thoughtful argument that giving ground on cultural arguments will hurt pro-choice efforts in the policy arena.)

The worst recent offenders in this area were the Free Mumia people, who were transparently uninterested in doing what it would take to get Mumia's death sentence lifted. They were far more interested in using him as a martyr to left-wing radicalism, and marching in the street to display their fantasy-world insistence that the conservative governor of Pennsylvania cave in to their demands and set Mumia free instantly, than they were in making the kind of case that might actually have convinced Tom Ridge and the mainstream, pro-death penalty Pennsylvania electorate to give Mumia's case another look. What Mumia (who almost certainly did shoot Daniel Faulkner, without justification) really deserved was a new trial and a non-racist judge, which is what every criminal suspect deserves no matter how likely their guilt, and what Mumia never got. But the Free Mumia types weren't interested in making that argument, or in trying to avert his death sentence; they were only concerned that the world understand that they viewed the entire judicial system as irredeemably racist and corrupt.