TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in Executive Orders
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R/OH) announced this week that he will sue President Obama over "longstanding Republican complaints that the president’s use of executive orders and administrative tweaks to manage policy is unconstitutional."
Speaker Boehner has apparently had a psychotic break.
First we'll point out what long-time readers already know. When he took office in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession brought about by the very policies Boehner would like us to return to, President Obama tried everything he could think of to reach across the aisle. He went up to the Hill to have personal conversations with the Republican caucus. He held regular Wednesday night cocktail parties, inviting people of every political stripe to socialize at the White House. He constantly--much to the chagrin of his progressive base--tried to include Republican input in legislation.
What he didn't know then was that on the night of his inauguration, some of the most powerful Republicans in Congress had gathered in a private meeting to hatch a plan of purposeful obstruction. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R/CA), who just took over Rep Eric Cantor's (R/VA) position as House Majority Leader, described the effort plainly. "If you act like you're the minority, you're going to stay in the minority. We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign."
They did just that, battling every piece of Democratic legislation, every suggestion the president made, no matter how bad their obstruction was for the country. We would have climbed out of recession sooner, saved more people from unemployment and foreclosure, if we'd had a bigger stimulus. But the Democrats tried to bring some Republicans on board, and negotiated the size of the stimulus down to meet Republican desires--after which all the Republicans voted against it anyway. Republicans were involved in every stage of negotiations over the Affordable Care Act, quickly shooting down a public option and demanding that it be free market-oriented; once those provisions were in the law, they opposed it almost universally.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R/KY) described their goal in October 2010: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Not to help spur economic growth, not to create jobs, not to push a policy agenda of any kind, but to battle the president at every turn.
The Republicans in Congress have managed to make this one of the least productive eras in American history, legislatively. After some important successes in his first term, Obama has been faced wtih an opposition House that refuses to even bring bills to a vote that its members are in favor of, like immigration reform, because passing them could look like an Obama victory.
As a response to historically unprecedented congressional obstruction, President Obama has taken to using executive orders, where he can, to move forward his vision for America--the vision for which he was twice overwhelmingly elected. And Speaker Boehner, the man who is largely responsible for that obstruction, thinks he's using them too often, so is taking him to court.
One wonders how long it will take for an attorney to point out that the president has issued fewer executive orders than any president since Grover Cleveland. Cleveland's second term ended in 1897, so that's more than a century.
If President Obama has sometimes overreached--and he has; he has kept the expanded executive powers his predecessor claimed after 9/11, and even grabbed some new ones--then he should be reined in. The tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches has gone on for a couple of centuries now. But this effort doesn't look like a genuine attempt to address that issue. It looks like a PR stunt designed to mollify the far right, so Boehner's speakership won't be challenged from that quarter.
The president can't be faulted for wanting to do the job he was twice elected to do. And without cooperation from congressional Republicans, he has to act in whatever limited ways he can. Executive orders are one tool he can use. We only wish he could issue an executive order disbanding the current House of Representatives unless they start making some effort toward helping the nation deal with its problems, instead of making those problems worse through inaction and deliberate obstruction.
Side Note: While Republicans pretend to care about deficits and saving the taxpayers money, if Boehner goes ahead with this nonsensical lawsuit, we're all going to be paying the lawyers, congressional staffers, and court costs through our tax dollars. How many millions do you think it'll add up to?
This Week in So Wrong
Detailing the occasions on which TWiA's home-state senior senator John "We have had long experience and haven’t been wrong [on foreign policy--TWiA]" McCain (R/AZ) is wrong on foreign policy could be a fulltime job. Unfortunately, we already have two fulltime jobs, so we'll have to let somebody else have that one.
But we feel compelled to mention the example that journalist Steve Clemons described in The Atlantic this week. HIs piece begins with this:
“'Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar,' John McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley in January 2014. 'Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar, and for our Qatari friends,' the senator said once again a month later, at the Munich Security Conference. McCain was praising Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States, for supporting forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham had previously met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm Syrian rebel forces."
McCain is, of course, notorious for wanting to arm somebody in every conflict across the globe. Not incidentally, we believe, he's the senator who enjoys the most contributions from the NRA and other pro-gun death organizations, which exist primarily to increase the profits of the weapons industry.
But that reflexive response--"throw some guns into the mix!" is not always the wise one. In this case, Clemons reports, not long after McCain spoke in Munich, Saudi King Abdullah removed Prince Bandar from his covert-action role in Syria, as well as firing him as head of Saudi intelligence. Why? Because, in part, Clemons reports, "Qatar’s military and economic largesse has made its way to Jabhat al-Nusra, to the point that a senior Qatari official told me he can identify al-Nusra commanders by the blocks they control in various Syrian cities. But ISIS is another matter. As one senior Qatari official stated, 'ISIS has been a Saudi project.' ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria."
ISIS, you may recall, is currently taking over large chunks of a disintegrating Iraq, including border crossings into Jordan and Syria. They're doing so, in part, thanks to weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia (to great cheerleading from Sen. McCain). They're not doing it with weapons provided by the US--but that's no thanks to Sen. McCain.
It's a wonder that anyone still listens to that man on foreign policy issues. When he's so wrong, people die. And he is virtually always wrong.
Side Note 1: Speaking of Syria, last September President Obama worked with Russia and Syria to negotiate the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. McCain, who would rather have handed guns to terrorists, called the agreement "a loser." This week, Syria gave up the last of its declared chemical weapons, and they're on their way to being destroyed. There may still be undeclared weapons, but inspectors remain in the country looking for more. In the meantime, one of the two largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world is gone (North Korea has the other one). ISIS won't get their hands on those weapons. Assad hasn't used them since he agreed to give them up. Those chemical weapons could have killed hundreds of thousands of people; now they won't. McCain's "loser" seems like a definite foreign policy win for the president, and yet another example of how much McCain doesn't understand about the subject.
This Week in Polls
The New York Times released the results of a major poll this week on the topic of foreign policy in general and the Iraq situation in particular. The poll found that while most Americans agree with the steps President Obama has been taking in response to foreign crises, at they same time they say they disapprove of the president's handling of foreign policy. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll reaches the same conclusion. We believe that a large part of the disconnect comes from the discouraging news from Iraq, Ukraine, and other places. Parts of the world are suffering great turmoil. We can't fix it all. Most Americans seem to understand that--but at the same time, they blame the president for not fixing it all.
Another interesting finding from the NYT poll: "Also, three-fourths of those surveyed said the war was not worth the American lives lost and other costs of attacking Iraq, a record level of regret about a conflict that lasted nearly nine years."
We here at TWiA are not surprised by this result. The people who took us into that war never explained why they were doing it--or they did, but they tossed off a new explanation every time the previous one was shown to be untrue. It's still not clear what the goal was or what we achieved there. But it's obvious now what we didn't achieve--a functional post-Saddam Iraq. The cost in lives and treasure was far too high, and the war will go down in history as one of our biggest foreign policy blunders ever.
This Week in Opportunity
Most liberals aren't communists. We don't advocate for equality of outcome, but we do believe there should be equality of opportunity--that any American child should be able to access the tools necessary to achieve success in life. The children of privilege have those tools--the best education, adequate nutrition, the right technology, the contacts that smooth the way. The children of poverty don't, though some of the things they lack can be made up for through government and private sector programs.
But opportunity isn't just measured in the here and now. Yes, a rich child growing up right now will probably have more opportunity than a poor one. We can also measure opportunity across the years, though, to see if we're moving forward or back. And while a massive new study shows that oportunity overall is up since 1970 (though not by a lot), economic opportunity is actually moving the other direction. Americans as a whole have less economic opportunity than we did 40 years ago, due in large part to the Great Recession and the economic trends that preceded it and led to it.
Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has an important piece about the topic, too. We'll summarize in his words, with quotes from different sections. It's all necessary reading, though, so take a look.
"Most disturbing is the realization that the American dream—the notion that we are living in the land of opportunity—is a myth. The life chances of a young American today are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in many other advanced countries, including 'old Europe.'”
"But the evidence of the last third of a century suggests this period [the wartime/postwar boom--TWiA] was an aberration. It was a time of war-induced solidarity when the government kept the playing field level, and the GI Bill of Rights and subsequent civil rights advances meant that there was something to the American dream. Today, inequality is growing dramatically again, and the past three decades or so have proved conclusively that one of the major culprits is trickle-down economics—the idea that the government can just step back and if the rich get richer and use their talents and resources to create jobs, everyone will benefit. It just doesn’t work; the historical data now prove that."
"This approach also exacerbated one of the country’s most pressing problems: its growing inequality. Only with a vibrant middle class can the economy fully recover and grow faster. The more inequality, the slower the growth—a conclusion now endorsed even by the IMF. Because the less wealthy consume a greater share of their income than do the rich, they expand demand when they have more income. When demand is expanded, jobs are created: In this sense, it is ordinary Americans who are the real job creators. So inequality commands a high price: a weaker economy, marked by lower growth and more instability. It is not very complicated.
"None of this is the outcome of inexorable economic forces, either; it’s the result of policies and politics—what we did and didn’t do. If our politics leads to preferential taxation of those who earn income from capital; to an education system in which the children of the rich have access to the best schools, but the children of the poor go to mediocre ones; to exclusive access by the wealthy to talented tax lawyers and offshore banking centers to avoid paying a fair share of taxes—then it is not surprising that there will be a high level of inequality and a low level of opportunity. And that these conditions will grow even worse."
If we want to live in an America that is growing and vital and remains a global economic superpower, we need to start paying attention to this. As Stiglitz says--and as we've said here for years--this inequality is not the natural order of things. It's the result of specific policy decisions made in Washington and in state legislatures around the country. That means it can be reversed by making different policy decisions, which means voting people into office who understand the problem and how to fix it.
This Week in Poverty
In related news, two out of every three Americans will live in poverty at some point in their lives. Even for those who don't, poverty costs us by dragging down the economy as a whole and leading to increases in crime and spending on public health care and other dependency programs. The Brookings Institution has put together fourteen anti-poverty proposals, encompassing aspects from expanding apprenticeship opportunities to reducing unintended pregnancies for low-income women to a thoughtful approach to minimum-wage policy. Take a look and see what makes sense to you.
Side Note: According to the Pew Research Center's massive study of American politics, more than three quarters of conservatives believe "the poor have it easy." Well over half believe that anybody living in poverty is there because he or she just isn't trying. That helps explain why conservatives don't believe in doing anything to help the poor--they have no idea what the reality of poverty is, or how the deck is stacked against anybody trying to break the cycle.
This Week in Sore Losers
Sen. Thad Cochran (R/MS) beat tea party challenger, secessionist, and neo-Confederate Chris McDaniel in a primary runoff this week. Instead of graciously conceding, McDaniel flipped out, accusing the Republican party of "abandoning the conservative movement."
No, Mr. McDaniel. You were outmaneuvered by an old pro who knows how the game is played. It's possible that Mississipians decided they didn't want to be represented in the Senate by a guy who considers "compromise" an epithet, not a necessity, a guy who hangs out with people who advocate armed rebellion against the government of the United States, a guy whose supporters think it's okay to break into nursing homes to photograph ailing women or who find themselves locked inside a courthouse, with the ballots, on primary night. The Republican Party hasn't abandoned the movement--it's more right-wing than at any time in its history, which is proving to be an electoral problem nationally but is, so far, working in a number of states. The issue wasn't that Republicans aren't conservative, it's that Republicans don't like you enough to trade you for the seniority and experience that Sen. Cochran brings to the job.
Cochran's victory was largely (according to the numbers wonks at FiveThirtyEight.com) due to outreach he made to African-American voters, typically the largest Democratic (We use the term loosely--there is no party registration in Mississippi, so "Democrats" and "Republicans" are so identified based on past voting records, not on any officlal declaration) voting block in the state. Those who didn't vote in the Democratic primary a few weeks ago were eligible to vote in this week's runoff--Mississippi has an open primary system, so you don't need to be a registered member of a party to vote in that party's primaries. Cochran spoke in an openly progressive fashion, describing, for example, the necessity of federal spending on infrastructure and education (and he drew a marked contrast between his response to Hurricane Katrina and McDaniel's--the latter said he didn't know if he would vote for federal disaster relief funds, even though his state was hit hard by the storm). And it's not, in the end, surprising that black voters might turn out to keep a man who longs for the good old days of the Confederacy out of office.
Don't get us wrong--we'd have loved it if McDaniel won the runoff. Then there would have been a chance, however slight, of a Democrat winning a Senate seat in Mississippi, helping to keep the Senate in Democratic hands. Democrats are in the minority in the state by a wide margin. But Americans aren't a minority there, and when you argue for secession and nullification, you're arguing against America. McDaniel wasn't going to win that seat, but Cochran almost certainly will. Unless, of course, all those people who turned out to keep McDaniel out of the Senate decide to really exercise their voting rights--the rights that, 50 years ago this week, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered trying to protect (and that a year ago this week, the Supreme Court gutted the protection of)--and show Sen. Cochran that it really is time to retire. Or unless McDaniel decides to run a write-in campaign, which could split the conservative vote enough to let the Democrat win.
But if Cochran wins, we can only hope he remembers those who helped him keep his job, and that he represents all of the state, not just the far-right fringe. We'd like to see him become a strong advocate of a modernized Voting Rights Act. We have a feeling McDaniel would not have felt the same sense of obligation, had their positions been reversed.
Side Note 1: Greg Sargent of the Washington Post points out that Cochran's victory doesn't mean the tea party isn't still pushing the Republican Party to the extreme right, at the direct expense of the business community that has traditionally supported Republicans--and at the expense of the American economy. If we want to get back to the general neighborhood of full employment, we have to return the Republican Party to a state of partial sanity, and eliminate the power of the far-right activists who don't understand, or don't care about, the ramifications of their narrow. ideological agenda.
Side Note 2: One of the three McDaniel supporters arrested in connection with breaking into a nursing home to photograph Sen. Cochran's wife, bedridden with dementia, has reportedly committed suicide.
This Week in Voter Fraud
It really does exist, occasionally. Only the real thing couldn't have been prevented by demanding ID, and it wasn't any of the minority populations usually targeted by so-called voter fraud prevention efforts. It was a middle-aged white Republican, and he used his own name to cast all of his many votes in two different states.
This Week in Climate
A certain segment of the population is opposed to even trying to do anything to address climate change. Despite all the evidence and the overwhelming scientific consensus, they say it's a hoax, or it's too expensive to deal with (conservatives who identify with the tea party are considerably more likely to discount the problem of climate change than mainstream Republicans are).
If it's a hoax, it's a good one, since something like 97% of the world's climate scientists are in on it. As for "too expensive," we've long made the case that refusing to address it will, in the long run, be far more expensive than taking serious measures now. A new study bears that out. "Annual property losses from hurricanes and other coastal storms of $35 billion; a decline in crop yields of 14 percent, costing corn and wheat farmers tens of billions of dollars; heat wave-driven demand for electricity costing utility customers up to $12 billion per year."
Those predictions are just for the next 25 years. After that, things get really expensive. And we're not talking about problems that will start years from now. GDP for the first quarter of 2014 was just revised downward, into negative territory, making it the worst quarter for the country in that regard since early 2009, when the stimulus package was just beginning to counteract the effects of the recession. According to MarketWatch: "The economy previously was estimated to have shrunk 1% in the first three months of the year, a period marked by unusually harsh winter weather that clogged roads, closed workplaces and kept many employees and shoppers home." So one hard winter stalled our recovery to an extent not seen since WWII. And hard winters, like dry summers, are becoming the new norm for much of the country.
The only people really fighting hard against taking steps to fight climate change are the ones--like the K-Bros--who own carbon-intensive energy companies. Not coincidentally, the K-Bros also fund a lot of the big tea party organizations, like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, that push their favored talking points out to the rank and file. All those tea partiers may or may not realize it, but they're carrying water for billionaires who wouldn't let them in the back doors of their mansions. And if they succeed in slowing down the efforts to address climate change, they're cutting all our throats, including their own.
This Week in Gun Safety
In the year after the Newtorn massacre, at least 100 children were killed in accidental shootings. Most of the shootings happened in the home, and most of the guns involved were legally owned, but not appropriately stored. Here's a powerful video that makes the point about safe gun storage without showing a single gun (caution: it does show sex toys). The pro-gun death NRA wants anybody to be able to own any gun, regardless of how irresponsible a person might be.
We guess as long as it isn't their kids dying, the NRA brass doesn't care.
Any NRA members who get that in their email and don't know the NRA's leadership is flat-out lying to them are living proof of the adage that P.T. Barnum didn't actually say.
This Week in the IRS "Scandal"
There was yet another flurry of interest in the IRS non-scandal this week, at least by headline writers. They stirred up the right-wing scandal-mongers with the story of the IRS's Lois Lerner "targeting" Senator Chuck Grassley (R/IA). Slate's conservative columnist Dave Weigel provides the emails in question, and adds, "Let me be clear: I am as much against Lerner's "audit of Chuck Grassley" as I am Lerner's decision to set a school bus on fire and cut the brakes, watching it careen off a bridge and into a canyon. As she appears to have done neither of these horrible things, I'd argue that the vanishing of the IRS's and EPA's tranches of emails, for reasons that confound techies, are much more scandalous than the hour Lerner apparently spent wondering if she had to refer a senatorial speaking invitation to the exam department."
Side Note: Senator Ted Cruz (R/TX), as if desperate to demonstrate that he's just as ignorant as the next guy, has called for the impeachment of Attorney General Eric Holder if Holder refuses to investigate the IRS "scandal." We hate to break it to Sen. Cruz, but the "scandal" has been investigated exhaustively. There is no scandal. The real scandal is that people like Ted Cruz want to keep lighting taxpayer money on fire for no reason.
This Week in Facts
Sen. Cruz and other conservatives keep hammering away at non-issues like the IRS and Benghazi, while ignoring genuinely pressing matters like climate change and wealth inequality. They seem to really believe that the former are real problems, while the latter are hoaxes made up by the liberal media.
We've long contended in this space that differences of opinion are fine. People have different backgrounds, different life experiences, and different viewpoints, and those things play into their perceptions of social, political, and economic issues. But we also contend that there are true, knowable facts in the world. Climate change is real and is already having an impact on our economy. Inequality is real, and ditto. The Affordable Care Act, as economist Paul Krugman points out, is working at every level, but people who get their "information" from Fox "News" and the right-wing media bubble don't know that, so they still believe it's a disaster.
Opinions are opinions and facts are facts. When people who refuse to believe in facts are elected to important offices, where they can make decisions that affect us all, we're all in trouble.
This Week in Conspiracy
Some members of the Arizona state legislature are a little . . . for the sake of politeness, we'll say "goofier," than others. State Senator Kelli Ward (R) is one of those. This week she's holding a public meeting about "chemtrails" and the various effects they have on people.
To be fair, it's not just Ward who's confused about airplane contrails. They're really frozen water vapor, not chemicals sprayed behind commercial jets to affect the weather or damage public health. But some of Ward's constituents also seem to be easily fooled. “I’ve read that chemtrails can change weather patterns,” one said. “I do believe that there’s global warming because of nuclear testing, space shuttles, etc. So I think there is some kind of combat happening to keep temperatures normal.”
Of course, instead of holding a meeting that will only reinforce the idea that there's something to this wacky theory, Ms. Ward could tell her constituents that there's nothing to worry about. She could, in other words, fall back on science. But since she's one of those elected officials who'santi-science and anti-government , instead of doing that she's going to give a forum to people who want to blame the government for hiding the "truth" about those pesky chemtrails.
This Week in Follow-up
Last week we wrote this about Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who had just been exposed as a blog troll with some very extreme positions: "We wonder if this display of ignorance and viciousness will be enough to get him reelected, or if he'll have to press more attacks against some unpopular-with-conservatives group on some other occasion."
Turns out we didn't have to wait long for more examples (although, to be fair, these are more newly revealed older blog comments, not new ones). "'We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers,' he wrote roughly a month after he was elected. 'This is America, speak English.' About an hour later, Huppenthal responded to another commenter who mockingly suggested that all ethnic restaurants should be closed. 'I don't mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English,' Huppenthal wrote. 'And, I'm not being humorous or racist. A lot is at stake here.'"
And this guy's in charge of our schools. No wonder so many of them are so bad.
Side Note: Huppenthal apologized for his "hurtful" posts in "an emotional press conference that ended with him walking out of the room in tears." He claimed he didn't mean all the nasty things he said, but he also refused to resign.
This Week in Possibly the Greatest Political Story of All Time
This Week in How You Can Help
Actually, this week is a special edition of how you can't help--at least, we recommend a little hesitancy in donating to the American Red Cross until they agree to be a little more transparent about how they spend their money.
This Week in Bears
The sad tale of a young bear killed for eating cupcakes. And walking on skylights.
You, too, can swim like a polar bear. Well, almost.
[Both of this week's bear stories (and the body double story) are thanks to tips from TWiA special ursine correspondent Marcy Rockwell.]