It's Independence Day. You're an American. Be proud.
This Week in Freedom
This week, the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation can hold religious views that dictate how it treats its employees. As if looking for a job weren't hard enough, now jobseekers should remember to investigate the religious bent of any company interested in hiring them, because the benefits that company provides might be limited by the religious beliefs of the company.
Throughout American history, companies have been required to obey the law (though some, using their armies of lawyers, manage to skate around it from time to time). And one of the prime reasons people incorporate is to create a legal distinction between the owners of a corporation and the corporation itself. Without that protection, instead of a corporation being sued when one of its products harms somebody, the owners of the corporation could be found personally liable. That distinction is long-established legal precedent.
But this ruling (full text here) allows closely held companies claiming "sincerely held religious beliefs" to ignore laws they choose not to obey. Mischaracterized as a blow for religious liberty, it in fact gives all the freedom to the company's owners and none to the tens, hundreds,or thousands of people working for that company, who up to now were allowed to have religious beliefs of their own. They still can, of course--but the company can decide whether to follow the laws of the land, which means that employees whose religious beliefs differ from the company's might find their employment untenable at best.
We'd like to restate our sincere belief that people--as was declared in the Bill of Rights upon which this country was founded--are entitled to believe or not believe as they choose. Until the Roberts Court, corporations were never considered people. But the activist right-wing justices on the court have decided that corporations have the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion--rights understood for more than 200 years to be human rights, not corporate rights. (In its ruling, the Court specifically said that it was not declaring that companies have First Amendment rights, which was the argument that Hobby Lobby was making, but was basing its decision entirely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.)
We also feel obliged to point out that until the Affordable Care Act came into being, Hobby Lobby's insurance provided the emergency contraceptives, Plan B and Ella, that were part of their claim that their religious freedom was being abridged. Before the ACA, providing those things wasn't a problem for them. After it, those drugs became a problem. And of course, the company's retirement portfolio invests in companies that make them. So the idea that they were "harmed" by the ACA seems a little arbitrary, their outrage manufactured.
Since Republicans in the House refuse to consider the Employee Nondiscrimination Act, or ENDA, which would prevent companies from making employment decisions on the basis of sexual orientation--in 29 states, a company can fire someone for being gay--we imagine it won't be long before companies use this week's decision to justify firing gays, Muslims, atheists, and anyone else it perceives as less than human. The ruling specifically states that the decision doesn't allow companies to racially discriminate, leaving open the "freedom" to discriminate on other grounds, including gender, religion, and sexual orientation.
The ruling is poorly written in other ways as well. It says that this ruling doesn't apply to transfusions or vaccinations, but it doesn't provide any legal reasoning for that, or specifically rule out other applications (and there's at least one long-established religion we could name that forbids transfusions and vaccinations--the court here is declaring a preference for Christianity [their brand of Christianity] over other religions. That's not the job of the Supreme Court--in fact, it is antithetical to that job). There are lots of things an employer can object to on "religious" grounds that aren't transfusions or vaccinations. An employer with a religious objection to unmarried sex could refuse to let insurance cover STD testing. An employer who can make a religious argument that God will take care of the planet could refuse to obey carbon-reducing regulations. The court says this ruling is only about contraception, but without legal reasoning, that assurance is meaningless. There's no particular logic to it, and no legal grounding behind it.
The ruling also says that it applies only to "closely held" companies, but again, provides no legal underpinnings for that; therefore, that can be thrown over at any time, and we can decide that giant publicly held corporations also have religious beliefs--and therefore can dodge laws they find onerous.
The court has many times, over the decades, had the opportunity to hear cases in which someone felt that discrimination was required by their religious beliefs. Every time, they have chosen to protect those whose rights were being abridged in the name of religion, but never have they held that religion allows the powerful to discriminate against the less so. Now, though, they've decided that people's bosses get to elevate their religious views above those of their employees. The already powerful wind up with more power, the powerless are as usual stripped of yet more ability to determine their own fates.
Hobby Lobby's involvement in the lawsuit didn't come out of a natural conflict between the Green family, owners of HL, and the Obama administration. They were "invited" to sue by the right-wing Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that exists for the purposes of suing people and organizations on behalf of their definition of religious freedom. The Greens got involved in a major lawsuit not because they were so egregiously harmed that they had no choice, but because the Becket Fund folks wanted to attack the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby agreed to play along. As a result of that action and the conservative majority on the court wanting to take some judicial shots at the administration they despise, American law is changed in a way it has never been, and privately owned companies can go to church and worship.
Side Note 1: To rule in favor of the companies in this case meant Justice Scalia and other conservatives in the court had to completely disregard their own previous rulings and writings. In Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia wrote: "The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind—ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races." This week, he joined the conservative majority in a complete about-face.
Side Note 2: The day after the ruling was announced, the Supreme Court clarified that its ruling could apply to any and all kinds of contraception to which a company claiming a religious objection took any kind of dislike.
Side Note 3: Health insurance is not a gift from your employer, and Hobby Lobby doesn't really pay for its employees' insurance. It's a benefit, and if the employees didn't get that they would get the employer's share in salary--or they'd be getting robbed. You pay for your health insurance--you should be able to get whatever the law allows out of it.
Side Note 3: Some people who would like to support ENDA can't, because there's a religious exemption in that legislation as it's written. As Tobias Barrington Wolff writes, "If that detritus [the religious exemption--TWiA] were included in the law, then ENDA would stand for the intolerable idea that equal treatment of LGBT people is inherently incompatible with religious belief."
This Week in Inequality
Billionaire Nick Hanauer published an open letter to his "fellow zillionaires," warning of the certain effects of gross wealth inequality. Hanauer writes, "At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent.
"But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.
"And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.
"If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when."
Hanauer understands that when the middle class does well, everybody does well, including the very wealthy. But when only the wealthy are doing well, the economy is unhealthy and unsustainable in the long run.
Meanwhile, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman looks at the lessons from Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback (R) decided 2 years ago to slash income taxes without replacing the revenue, acting on the long-discredited theory that tax cuts generate enough economic activity to pay for themselves.
Trouble for Kansas is those two words: "long-discredited." Since those tax cuts took place, instead of booming, Kansas has fallen into the toilet, underperforming the nation as a whole and its surrounding states. Which shouldn't come as a surprise, Krugman reminds us. "Why, after all, should anyone believe at this late date in supply-side economics, which claims that tax cuts boost the economy so much that they largely if not entirely pay for themselves? The doctrine crashed and burned two decades ago, when just about everyone on the right — after claiming, speciously, that the economy’s performance under Ronald Reagan validated their doctrine — went on to predict that Bill Clinton’s tax hike on the wealthy would cause a recession if not an outright depression. What actually happened was a spectacular economic expansion."
Krugman goes on to explain that Brownback's disastrous decision was prompted by bad advice and faulty research from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive organization dedicated to increasing the wealth of the wealthy while raising taxes on the poor (by cutting income taxes at the top and replacing them with sales taxes, which overwhelmingly affect those on the lower rungs of the income ladder)--and slashing social services, to boot.
And those cuts are deep. According to BusinessWeek: "The most authoritative study of the effect of these measures is a January report by the Kansas Legislative Research Department, a nonpartisan arm of the legislature. It found that revenue isn’t keeping up with expenses even after cuts in spending on K-12 schools, colleges, libraries, local health departments, courts, and welfare. If nothing changed, the research department’s numbers show, the state’s general fund would have a shortfall of about $900 million by fiscal year 2019, or 14 percent of expenses that year. The state’s constitution requires a balanced budget, so either taxes will have to go back up or spending will have to come down even more. 'The tax cuts don’t pay for themselves,' says Duane Goossen, who served as state budget director under both Republican and Democratic governors. 'That just is not happening.'"
One is left to wonder why some conservatives so love the rich and so hate the poor--but then, it's the rich that provide funding for groups like ALEC, so they're acting in what they believe to be their own self-interest. They should heed Nick Hanauer's warning, and soon.
Side Note: Here's a handy visual explainer of the fight over raising the minimum wage.
This Week in Jobs
The American economy added 280,000 jobs in June, dropping the unemployment rate to 6.1% (the best since September, 2008, before the bottom dropped out of the economy). April and May jobs figures were revised upward (and June's may well be, too). We've had 52 consecutive months of private-sector job growth, which is a record run in American history (the previous 51-month record was under President Clinton). If the second half of the year follows the pattern set in the first half, we'll have the best year for job creation since 1999, during the Clinton-era boom. The stock market likes the news, setting new records of its own.
The eight years of the Bush administration saw anemic job creation, and was capped off by a massive recession. Just as a jobs recap (and we know that a president doesn't single-handedly create or destroy jobs, but the direction in which he leads the country and the policies he pursues make a difference), Ronald Reagan had the best performance of any Republican since WWII, at 16 million. George H.W. Bush hit a measly 2.5 million. Bill Clinton reached 23.1 million, and George W. Bush only scored 3 million. Obama, so far, is at 9.7 million, coming out of the biggest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression.
Given that record, it's astonishing that anybody still thinks Republican presidents can be trusted with America's economy.
This Week in Civil Rights
July 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that made it illegal for Americans to be denied services at public accommodations because of the color of their skin, and to practice employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender (but not sexual orientation--see above). July 2 is also the birthday of Medgar Evers, the only paid employee of the NAACP in Mississippi for the 8 years before he was murdered in his own driveway, on June 11, 1963, for daring to advocate the idea that black Americans should enjoy the same rights as white Americans.
The Act was only signed after surviving the longest filibuster in Senate history, 54 days. When it was passed by the Senate, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a white Southerner who was determined to see it through, told an aide, "The Democratic Party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime and maybe yours." Read Johnson's signing remarks here; surely the best speech of his long career.
He was right, but he underestimated the duration. The South had been solidly Democratic, although those Democrats were of the Dixiecrat breed who didn't want to see African-American citizens enfranchised. Due largely to its antagonism toward blacks, the South switched to voting Republican, and has done so ever since. Democrats became the party of civil rights and Republicans the party advocating institutionalized racism.
Of course, not every Republican is racist, and not every Democrat is free of that taint. But in the policies they pursue, the parties still adhere to those broad strokes. The job begun by Emancipation and furthered by the Civil Rights Act is not yet complete, by a long shot, and we should all work together to ensure that the rights held by any one of us are held by all of us.
This Week in Infrastructure
States construct or repair roads, bridges, and mass transit projects, mainly during the summer months, providing tens of thousands of jobs around the country. They're reimbursed for significant parts of their expenditures by the federal Highway Trust Fund, which gets most of its financing from a gas tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn't been raised since 1993. The cost of infrastructure work, meanwhile, keeps going up.
The fund's current authorization runs out at the end of September, but there's not even enough money left in it to last through August, thanks to the gap between funding and current costs. Congress needs to reauthorize the fund, or infrastructure investments will start grinding to a halt. A proposal put forward by Sens Bob Corker (R/TN) and Chris Murphy (D/CT) would raise the gas tax by 6 cents a year over two years. It's hard for a Republican to support any kind of tax increase these days, and Corker is already being hammered over the idea by the right wing. Unfortunately, their proposal uses a kind of budgetary magic to pay for itself, and budgetary magic doesn't actually work. The Obama administration has offered up a plan of its own, paid for by changes to the corporate tax structure, and it's open to other ideas.
Without a genuine plan that's acceptable to Democrats and Republicans and can clear the Senate and the House, the trust fund will run dry and the asphalt will stop being laid down and many more of our friends and neighbors will be out of work. We all need to make sure our representatives in Washington know it's important to us to keep infrastructure projects funded.
This Week in War
A fascinating new book called 935 Lies breaks down, in detail, the dishonest selling of the Iraq war by the Bush administration. In the book, investigative reporter Charles Lewis writes, "Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths about Iraq’s alleged threat to US national security from its WMDs or links to al Qaeda (also specious) galvanized public opinion and led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses. Perhaps most revealing: the number of false statements made by top Bush administration officials dramatically increased from August 2002 to the time of the critical October 2002 congressional approval of the war resolution and spiked even higher between January and March 2003, between Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address before the United Nations General Assembly and the fateful March 19, 2003, invasion."
Working with the Center for Public Integrity, Lewis put together a website with a searchable database of false statements the administration made about Iraq. It's a scary and infuriating site to visit, but worthwhile for anyone who still believes the Bush administration had any interest in honesty when it came to their war of choice.
Side Note: Former Vice President Dick Cheney throws his old boss under the bus. He's also angry because President Obama doesn't support dictators as enthusiastically as Cheney would like. Why do talk shows keep booking this troll?
This Week in Cruelty
America's best political blogger, Esquire's Charles P. Pierce, wrote a powerful piece about the cruelty running rampant in our country today. It was published last week, but TWiA saw it this week, so it counts. A brief excerpt (but read the whole thing): "But there is something different abroad in the politics now, perhaps because we are in the middle of an era of scarcity and because we have invested ourselves in a timid culture of austerity and doubt. The system seems too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully. We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. We have politicians, most of whom have gilt-edged health care plans, making the argument seriously that an insurance-friendly system of health-care reform is in some way bad for the people whom it is helping the most, and we have politicians seriously arguing that those without health-care somehow are more free than the people who have turned to their government, their self-government, for help in this area. In the wake of a horrific outbreak of violence in a Connecticut elementary school, we have enacted gun laws now that make it easier to shoot our fellow citizens and not harder to do so. Our police forces equip themselves with weapons of war and then go out and look for wars to fight. We are cheap. We are suspicious. We will shoot first, and we will do it with hearts grown cold and, yes, cruel."
This Week in the Rest of the World
Why is the world such a mess right now? Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard, says it's because we make more effort to spread liberal democracy abroad than to practice it here. Doing it here makes people in other countries want to emulate us, whereas trying to push our ideas (either through incentives or worse, at gunpoint) onto people who are not inclined to listen just makes them resent us.
In his piece (subscription possibly required, but try, because it's not long and it's worth reading), Walt provides as good a decription of liberalism as we've seen lately: "Liberalism rests on a clear set of moral and political desiderata. It places the individual at the center of political life and sees each human being as possessing certain inalienable rights. Liberals rightly emphasize individual liberty and are wary of unchecked power, and they believe that these principles apply to all human beings. Accordingly, liberals believe democracy is the best form of government and favor the rule of law, freedom of expression, and market economies. They also believe -- with some validity -- that most human beings would be better off if these practices were universal."
He goes on to explain the problem with trying to export this approach: "The central problem is that liberalism does not tell us how to translate its moral absolutes into clear, effective strategies for bringing them about. Liberalism identifies a set of moral objectives -- a blueprint that all societies are supposed to follow -- but says little about what a liberal state should do if some foreign country or leader refuses to 'do the right thing.'"
His conclusion is that it has taken the western world centuries to reach the state we're in now, and we can't expect other cultures without that history to simply accept liberal democracy because we tell them they should. The best we can do is to provide an example of how those precepts make for a just and strong society. Which means we should do what we can, here at home, to make this a better country, because only by doing so will we help to shape a better world.
This Week in Polling
The right's all in a tizzy over a new poll that proves that President Obama is, in the opinion of the country's plurality, the worst president since 1945.
Except it doesn't. What it proves is the not-particularly-surprising fact that Republicans idolize Ronald Reagan, hate Obama, and don't much like the rest of their former presidents, while Democrats like Kenndy, Clinton, and Obama, thereby splitting their vote three ways. If your conservative friends are still crowing about this, set 'em straight.
And this writer suggests that Obama is actually the best president since WWII. He makes a good case.
This Week in Self-destruction
Warning: Possibly triggery for some.
Conservative pundit and baseball fan George Will has spent years making himself ever more irrelevant. His bow ties are cute, but his opinions are based on economic theories that don't work and "insights" about sociology that don't stand up to the slightest scrutiny.
A couple of weeks ago he penned the column that should, if there's any justice in the world, bring about the end of his punditry career. He was writing about sexual assaults on college campuses--a genuine matter of concern to caring people, but apparently trivial to Will. In his column, he made reference to an interview with a survivor of sexual assault to buttress his complaint about the Obama administration's program to reduce campus sexual assaults. He wrote, "Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of 'sexual assault' victims. It vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults."
The victim was not amused, and this week, she responded, in an interview with Media Matters:
"I absolutely have not received any privileges from sexual assault. [Will] has clearly never experienced the fear of sexual assault,' she said. 'He clearly has no idea how hard it is to sleep, to walk around, thinking at any moment this person that you live down the hall from could come out.' She saw a counselor and was diagnosed with PTSD following the assault, she said, which 'is pretty common for a lot of survivors I know. It did not help my grades, it did not help my social status. I lost a lot of friends ... No one tells you, "oh you're a survivor, let me give you a free lunch." No one gives a shit about you. What benefit could we possibly get? Sometimes I feel like I can't have a real relationship because someone might touch me in the wrong way. How is that okay?'
"Will's full column, Sendrow said, made it feel 'as if women don't have a voice. Anything bad that happens to a woman, it doesn't matter, because we're the ones who are at fault. And this is already what we're told every single day,' she concluded. 'We're raised all our lives to think this isn't an issue. But this is an issue. This is why people are triggered, this is why people have PTSD. People will go through their lives thinking rape culture isn't real.'"
George Will should apologize, then retire. He's worn out his welcome.
This Week in Arizona
For the last few weeks we've been discussing the various ways in which Tom Horne, Arizona's Attorney General, is unsuited to be the state's top law enforcement official, since he can't seem to stop breaking the law. The news on that front this week is that his office has decided to investigate the latest charges--that Horne used staff and resources we taxpayers are footing the bill for on campaign duties, not AG duties. To ensure that the investigation is "impartial," the office has hired two lawyers to run it. Both lawyers are campaign contributors to Tom Horne. And it has already been announced that the results of their probe won't be released to we taxpayers who are covering the bill for it.
What could possibly go wrong?
This Week in How You Can Help
When there's a disaster of some kind, Americans respond with outpourings of generosity. We donate money to charitable organizations that then deliver it in the form of relief aid, needed supplies, food and medicine. Mostly, those donations are done using our credit cards.
And credit card companies just love that. They pass on our donations, minus their 3% transaction fees, which increase dramatically while others are suffering. Greater Good has a petition going asking the credit card companies to waive their fees on charitable donations at times of crisis. When we give ten bucks to help the survivors of some natural disaster, we'd like as much of that money as possible to help. We're not doing it to enrich the people who are doing just fine. You can sign the petition here.
This Week in Bigfoot
Still not real, says science. With bonus bear photo.
This Week in Bears
Okay, he's not Winnie the Pooh, and a cookie jar is not quite the same as a honey pot. Still, close enough.