Far too much media coverage of politics focuses on the horserace angle--who's ahead, who's behind, who's up or down. It relies on false equivalency: if Politician A says X, then the reporter goes to Politician B, who's sure to say Y. That's lazy journalism, and it doesn't actually inform the public about which position (if any) is actually true, or adheres to the facts as we know them. At TWiA, our mission is to discuss politics through the prism of policy--to look, in other words, at the real-world implications of the things that politicians say and do, to make connections others might miss, and to explain it all in language a lay person can understand. Also to offer suggestions of how you can help somebody in need, to report on what's awesome, and to keep tabs on bears. If you like TWiA, share or repost or tell a friend, and be sure to leave comments, even if they're arguments. Especially if they're arguments.
This Week in Management
There's a lot one can say about the Obama White House. Conservatives have been finding fault with it for years, even when there's no actual fault to be found (with the IRS "scandal," for instance). But one area where the criticisms might be warranted is in management. Management issues seem to be responsible not for the scandal at VA hospitals, which go back decades (the electronic waiting list, and the corresponding and documented cooking of the books, began during President Bush's administration, but overlong waits for treatment have been a known problem since at least 1995), but for the failure to root out and fix those problems (even though by other metrics, care has improved considerably).
The latest example of poor management came about during President Obama's Memorial Day weekend trip to Afghanistan. In a briefing provided to thousands of journalists about that trip, the name of the CIA's station chief in Afghanistan was accidentally revealed. Although most or all of the journalists have not printed the name, the fact that it's been distributed so widely means that secrecy can't be assured. The accident could threaten that person's safety, and presumably he'll have to be pulled out of the country and replaced. The White House has launched an investigation to find out exactly what went wrong, in order to prevent it from being repeated.
That's a bad mistake. More careful management--requiring more sets of eyes on any such document, for instance--might have prevented it. But it was a mistake; people are human, sometimes we slip up. We can only hope our lapses are on less important occasions.
Those who remember our recent history might recall the case of Valerie Plame Wilson, a covert CIA agent working on WMD issues. Her name was intentionally revealed to the press by the George W. Bush White House, in revenge for her husband's telling the truth about what he found on a mission to Africa (which the White House sent him on, but about which they wanted him to toe the party line). One of Vice President Cheney's closest aides, Scooter Libby, went to prison for his part in it, until his sentence was commuted by President Bush. The agent's career came to an end because a covert agent known around the world is no longer exactly covert.
There's a qualitative difference between an accidental release of information and the intentional, malicious outing of an agent involved in important, secret work. Neither is good, both should have been avoided. But one was done because somebody wasn't paying attention, and the other was done on purpose. We know which one we think is worse.
This Week in the VA
Speaking of the still-unfolding VA issue, one of the biggest problems is the lack of resources. The VA health system isn't automatically funded, like Social Security or Medicare. Its funding has to be appropriated each year, meaning a spending measure has to be passed by our increasingly dysfunctional Congress. Back in February, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a bill that would have provided $21 billion to expand veterans' healthcare and educational opportunities. The bill was filibustered by Republican senators, only two of whom voted to bring it to the floor for a vote.
One of the bill's co-sponsors, Sen. Chris Coons (D/DE) posted a description of the bill, which included this:
Last year’s government shutdown nearly prevented the VA from issuing disability compensation, pension, and education payments to millions of veterans. The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Pay Restoration Act would ensure veterans receive consistent access to the benefits they have earned by providing advanced appropriations for mandatory accounts at the VA. The bill would also help more than 11 million veterans not currently enrolled in VA health care participate by simplifying the enrollment process and allowing the VA to enter into 27 major medical facility leases in 18 states and Puerto Rico. Other key provisions in the bill include:
- Expansion of access to VA health care – including complementary and alternative medicine – and dental care, in a cost-effective and equitable way.
- Ending the benefits backlog by supporting the VA’s ongoing efforts and making needed improvements to the claims system.
Sounds like just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, the combined Republican aversion to both spending and public healthcare has been standing in the way of funding for veterans' benefits for years and years. This bill was an attempt to address that problem, but it was blocked by many of the same people who are now screaming the loudest over problems they helped to create.
Next week, Sen. Sanders will bring his bill to the floor again. Will the Republicans allow it to be voted on? Will they pass it? Hard to tell--but this time, the eyes of America will be paying attention. It's safe to say that Congress not providing the VA with adequate resources to meet the perfect storm of aging Vietnam vets swamping the system at the same time that America's two longest wars are winding down has much more to do with the problem than Gen. Eric Shinseki, an honorable man who was one of the only people in official Washington to foresee and tell the truth about the Iraq catastrophe, who on Friday was forced to resign.
This Week in False Equivalence
As noted above, Congress is dysfunctional. There's an unfortunate tendency tendency for people to blame both parties for that, or else to assume that our constitutional system of government can't work, that a strong federal government is necessarily incapable of governing. The trouble with that theory is that for more than two hundred years, the system has worked. Our strong federal government has won wars, built the greatest economy in the history of the planet, and become the envy of the world.
And the "pox on both their houses" argument doesn't take current reality into account. As Thoman Mann of the Brookings Institution writes, "Republicans have become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition. The evidence of this asymmetry is overwhelming."
To buttress that evidence, he includes two charts that illustrate how far congressional Republicans have moved from the political center. They're definite eye-openers--be sure to take a look.
Compromise is baked into our system--it's not just a good idea, it's an absolute necessity. But the extreme rightward shift of the Republican party is pulling it ever farther away from the grounds where compromise can be had, while the Democrats maintain their position just left of center.
Mann doesn't offer any surefire solutions. It's a problem that has gotten significantly worse over the last few decades. Some force is needed to push the Republican party back to where it used to be--conservative, but not a denier of reality, not an ideologically pure, reactionary movement that sees compromise as treason. Until we achieve that--or scrap the Constitution and start over--we're going to have problems at the federal level.
It's not that the federal government can't be effective. It's that when the party controlling one chamber of congress chooses not to let it work, in order to prove their false argument that it can't, then the prophesy becomes self-fulfilling. And every American suffers the consequences.
This Week in Climate
Speaking of denying reality, many on the right still refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change--it's real, it's here, we need to deal with it. Next week, President Obama will unveil some new rules for existing power plants, seeking to limit our carbon emissions. Conservatives are already piling on, before the rules have even been announced. They say we can't do anything about the problem unless the rest of the world goes along. Here's what they don't get: Some parts of the world are making a lot more progress than we are. Other parts are trying to catch up. Yes, some countries still do nothing to limit their CO2, but the US is responsible for almost 20% of global emissions. Acting alone, we could have an impact. Acting as an example to others--and working with them, to bring them into the fold, could magnify that impact enormously.
The other argument, of course, is that following EPA rules is too expensive and will kill businesses and jobs. So far, that's never happened. In fact, when the coal-fired Homer City Generating Station, "one of the worst polluters in the country," was forced to reduce its sulfur dioxide pollution, it sued the federal government, saying the new rules would have "immediate and devastating" economic consequences.
It didn't. Homer City lost the lawsuit and changed its ways, and it did so without raising electricity prices for its customers. The result? "Even environmental groups that applaud each coal plant closing and protested Homer City's pollution now say the facility is setting a benchmark for air pollution control that other coal plants should follow, even if it takes decades.
As for the expense, the Chamber of Commerce estimates that it will cost $50 billion a year to cut emissions by 40%. In 2013, we spent that much on disaster relief after a series of climate-related "natural" disasters swept the country. As the planet continues to warm, those disasters will only get worse, in terms of the human component as well as the economic one. (The Natural Resources Defense Council, meanwhile, says the rules will save consumers $37 billion a year and create more than 274,000 jobs.)
Finally, the political argument is that President Obama and the EPA are overstepping their authority by proposing new rules via executive action. That's also not true:
"The Clean Air Act of 1970, first signed into law by Richard Nixon and then amended twice, requires the EPA to regulate pollution that threatens public health and welfare. As the Supreme Court affirmed in a landmark 2007 ruling, it’s basically up to the EPA to decide what kinds of pollution meet that standard.
"In 2008, Stephen Johnson, who was then the EPA Administrator, formally told President Bush that the federal government is “compelled to act” on climate change. Bush ignored the recommendation. One year later, Lisa Jackson, Johnson’s successor, issued an official “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases were trapping heat inside the earth’s atmosphere and causing temperatures to rise. Among the dangerous consequences of this warming, the EPA warned, were higher rates of disease, stronger and more frequent extreme hurricanes, increasing wildfires and droughts, as well as rising sea levels that could literally wash low-lying coastal cities like Miami off the map. These are precisely the sort of harms that, by law, require EPA action.
"To put it another way, the Obama Administration is carrying out the intent of Congress, as expressed in previously enacted legislation. This Congress is entitled to feel differently than its predecessors did. But to take away EPA's mandate to act, it would have to pass new legislation that supersedes the old. In other words, it would have to amend or repeal the Clean Air Act itself."
This Week in Wealth Inequality
Still not convinced about wealth inequality? When was the last time you got an 8.8% raise over two years? Even in the unlikely event that you did, 8.8% from a base of $9.6 million is a lot more money than you probably earned. A median corporate CEO now makes 257 times the salary of the average worker (up from 181 times in 2009).
Any corporation's profits would likely be considerably higher if the CEO made less and all those average workers made more. That was Henry Ford's philosophy, and it's still true today. You raise everybody's standard of living when you raise up the middle class. When all the wealth goes to the already wealthy, the middle class stagnates or worse and the poor get poorer, and people can't afford whatever it is the corporation makes.
Side Note: Today's conservatives don't seem to understand that they're living in...well, today. Instead, they still think that tax cuts and a balanced budget amendment are the one-size-fits-all solution to every economic ill, when in fact, in today's world, both would be disastrous. Until they develop an economic policy that makes some kind of sense, they should be kept far from power.
Side Note to the Side Note: One of the areas where conservatives love to cut, while progressives would love to spend more, is in education, particularly though not exclusively early-childhood education. Here's a study showing that spending a little more on poor students can erase the graduation gap between rich and poor.
This Week in Gun Safety
Side Note 1: Right-wing darling Dr. Ben Carson is willing to concede that the Second Amendment doesn't mean citizens are entitled to rocket launchers in their bedrooms. Or tanks. That might disqualify him from any NRA support for the rest of his career.
Side Note 2: Open-carry activists vs. USMC veteran--on Memorial Day.
Side Note 3: Italian gun manufacturer Beretta, in partnership with an American pro-gun death website we won't name here, has published a description of places where you should hide your handguns to ensure that your children find them and kill each other--no, we mean, that you'll be able to quickly access them when the "jackboots" come to your door. No, wait--hiding a gun in a cereal box is more likely to lead to the first result, after all.
Side Note 4. "Joe the Plumber" has long been one of America's worst jokes, somehow idolized during the 2008 presidential campaign for his ugly vitriol and factless assertions. Last week, he wrote this in response to a grieving parent who lost a son in the Isla Vista killings: "I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights." Now, remarkably, he's topped himself. "Guns are mostly for hunting down politicians who would actively seek to take your freedoms and liberty away from you."
Side Note 5: Although we could say plenty about the killing spree in Isla Vista, CA, we won't, because others have already said most of it, and then some. Instead, we'll defer to Charles Pierce of Esquire, who points out an obvious but rarely stated truth about gun violence in America: "This is a country at war with itself for profit. This is a country at war with itself because its ruling elite is too cowed, or too well-bribed, or too cowardly to recognize that there are people who are getting rich arming both sides, because the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, so you make sure that it's easy for the bad guys to get guns in order to make millions selling the guns to the good guys."
Side Note 6: A candidate in the Iowa Republican senatorial primary referred to the Isla Vista shootings as "an unfortunate accident," and then made a an astonishing mental leap to link it to "Obamacare."
Side Note 7: Go here for a fascinating conversation about some of the legalities surrounding the availability of firearms, and why the Isla Vista shooter was able to legally purchase his.
This Week in Ugly Vitriol
On the subject of the conservative love affair with people who don't know what they're talking about, but are happy to jeep talking as long as they get to spew hatred toward some disadvantaged minority, this week RNC chair Reince Priebus said, “We’re the party of freedom and we’re the party of opportunity and we’re the party of equality, we’re the ones with that history.” He spoke those words at an event that also featured the Duck Dynasty guy who became a hero to the right when he attacked homosexuals and claimed that blacks were happiest living in the south under Jim Crow.
Can anybody explain why the right wing embraces ignorant haters as heroes (see Joe the Plumber, Cliven Bundy--although some of his support dropped away when his racism became too overt, George Zimmerman, the former half-term governor and failed vice presidential candidate whose name will not appear in this space until she apologizes for trivializing slavery, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, even media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones)? In most cases, the more vicious their invective, the more popular they become.
This Week in America's Original Sin
This thoughtful, and in many ways staggering, piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates came out last week, but we didn't read it until after last week's TWiA had posted. It describes in vivid detail the damage done since the days of slavery--and continuing to be done, even today--to black Americans, by the systemic pummeling they get economically, educationally, and in so many other ways. If you don't know about contract houses, the stark wealth divide between white and black (the average white household's worth is more than 20% higher than the average black household's), the terrorism carried out against blacks, and much more, it's worth your careful attention.
This Week in Craven Duplicitousness
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R/KY) has been in the senate for 30 years. Unlike the junior senator from his state, he's not stupid. Which means, when he says that the Affordable Care Act could be repealed but his state could keep its resoundingly successful ACA-based health insurance exchange intact, he's lying through his teeth.
This week, one of Kentucky's most prominent newspapers called him on his dishonesty, in no uncertain terms, adding, "As a result of a law that McConnell wants to repeal, one in 10 of his constituents no longer have to worry that an illness or injury will drive them into personal bankruptcy or a premature grave." Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (D) joined in the criticism: "Senator McConnell either doesn't understand what the ACA is, or is just trying to mislead Kentucky families for his political benefit at their expense."
The ACA has performed exceptionally well in Kentucky. McConnell knows that. He should stop pretending that he his lack of understanding of public policy rivals his junior partner's, and stop treating his constituents as if they're the stupid ones.
Side Note: Said junior senator from Kentucky adds healthcare to the long list of things he doesn't understand, stumbling through a non-explanation of whether he agrees with McConnell on the prospect of repealing the ACA but still keeping the Kentucky exchange that only works because of the ACA. Junior said, "You know I'm not sure — there's going to be … how we unravel or how we change things. I would rather —I always tell people there's a fork in the road. I was in healthcare for 20 years so we had problems in healthcare but we could have gone one of two directions. One was towards more competition and more marketplace and one was toward more government control. The people who think that the government can efficiently distribute medicine need to explain why the VA's been struggling for decade after decade in a much smaller system. And they also need to explain, even though I think we all want Medicare to work better, why Medicare is $35 trillion short. There's a lot of questions that are big questions that are beyond the exchange and the Kynect and things like that. It's whether or not how we're going to fund these things."
We here at TWiA World Headquarters think Junior needs to explain why he thinks the Affordable Care Act's exchanges--which provide coverage through the private insurance markets, and which is bringing health insurance costs down because it fosters competition--are anything like the VA or Medicare.
It continues to astonish us that the good people of Kentucky once thought this guy deserved elective office, when he demonstrates almost weekly that he's unsuited to any job that doesn't involve frozen hamburger patties and a spatula.
This Week in How You Can Help
Since we've been discussing the state of our African-American brothers and sisters, take a look at the good works the National Urban League does, and see if you can help. Their mission statement is: "The mission of the Urban League movement is to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights." They get an A rating from charitywatch.org.
This Week in Bears