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 We're Number One
Last week, we discussed how the American economy historically responds better to more liberal economic policies than to more conservative ones. This week, an Associated Press piece provides five of the reasons why. The American economy is outperforming the rest of the world's, and the AP wanted to understand what's behind that. The answers include economic policies that conservatives--particularly the libertarian breed, like the father and son Pauls--hate.
First up in the AP piece is "An aggressive central bank." The Federal Reserve Bank is the great boogeyman to the Pauls, but without it our Great Recession would certainly have become a Great Depression. The fourth item on the list is also anathema to conservatives: "Less budget-cutting." The piece explains, "Weighed down by debt, many European countries took an ax to swelling budget deficits. They slashed pension benefits, raised taxes and cut civil servants' wages. The cuts devastated several European economies. They led to 27 percent unemployment in Greece, 14 percent in Portugal and 25 percent in Spain. The United States has done some budget cutting, too, and raised taxes. But U.S. austerity hasn't been anywhere near as harsh."
The fact is that our economy would have recovered much faster, and we'd be in a far stronger position now, without the emphasis on deficit reduction that Republicans demand every time there's a Democrat in the White House. Much of last week's good jobs news was based on the fact that instead of cutting government jobs, we added some. A bigger stimulus would have done more to spur the recovery, too, as would infrastructure investments and extending long-term unemployment benefits. Economists understand how these things work, but elected Republicans refuse to embrace economic reality.
If we care about the financial well being of Americans, then accepting reality is necessary. And reality tells us that the simplistic economic principals conservatives advocate--cut taxes, cut regulations, cut spending--don't work. In fact, they cost us all money--a lot of it--that we would have had without them, and they do quantifiable damage to our economy (note: if you're only going to read one link this week, make it that one--it says so much about where our priorities lie, and where they should lie).
Side Note 1: Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post offers 21 maps and charts that show more ways America is number one--not always in categories that reflect well on us. Our economy is the world's largest, by far. Our wealthiest 1% take home more of their pre-tax income. We have the most bald eagles, the most Super Bowl victories (48 for us, 0 for the rest of the world combined), and the most (okay, the only) Bill Murray.
But we're also number one in paying lots of money for health care, incarcerating our citizens, number of guns (and gun deaths), tornadoes, wasting time on the internet, watching TV, killing people with drones, going to work sick, and denying paid parental leave.
Side Note 2: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R/OH) loves to claim that the House has passed more than 40 "jobs bills." In fact, the House might well have blocked 40 bills that would actually create jobs, but what passes for a "jobs bill" in Boehner's world is something entirely different in the real world.
This Week in One-Eighty
Speaking of Senator Rand Paul (R/KY), he's trying hard to be number one in reversing his previously held positions as he attempts to improve his standing with the Republican base ahead of a 2016 presidential run. Paul's father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R/TX), was famously opposed to almost any interaction with the rest of the countries in the world, including our ally Israel. Back in 2011, Rand Paul seemed to share some of his dad's isolationist views, saying of Israel, "I think they're an important ally, but I also think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world. Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don't think so."
In 2013 he shifted that position ever so slightly. "Well, I'm a big supporter of our alliance with Israel and nothing should come between that but I would say that we are also big allies with Britain and we don't send them any money. So ultimately the best thing that is—what is in the best interests of every country is self-sufficiency."
Just a year later, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the pro-Israel hawks in the Republican party (and specifically with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who's one of the biggest single donors on the right and who is aggressively pro-Israel), Paul has made a complete reversal. Now, he advocates cutting off all US aid to the Palestinian Authority, and he's dropped his calls to end aid to Israel. Even the conservative pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) opposes his idea, since increasing poverty in Palestine would only worsen the situation there and create more anti-Israel (and anti-US) terrorists. According to Paul's recent op-ed on the subject, he thinks Israel's military could "decisively end" that conflict, which we can only assume means bombing Palestine out of existence.
Not only is his position completely out of line with his original one, but it displays his lack of understanding of what's going on in the Middle East. The Israel/Palestine situation is currently very tense. Ill-considered talk ("mindless jingoism," according to Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, and "increasingly typical opportunism," according to Ed Kilgore in Washington Monthly) by an American politician is the last thing they need over there at the moment. Fanning the flames of that conflict from afar is irresponsible and dangerous.
There was a time when the popular refrain went something like, "Even if you don't agree with Paul's views, you have to admire the way he stands up for his principles." If that was ever true--which we would dispute--it's increasingly less so as the 2016 election season grows closer. He remains a politician who could, for a while, trade on a famous name, but his intellectual capacity is slight, his accomplishments in office scant. If he's going to run, he'll need something to run on, and by the looks of things, that something will be sacrificing his principles to suck up to the big donors and the mainstream Republican voters.
Side Note: Proving the "stopped clock is right twice a day" theory, Sen. Paul is on the right side of one issue mentioned above--the extreme and unnecessary degree to which we as a nation throw people in prison. He's joined with Sen. Cory Booker (D/NJ) to introduce sentencing reform legislation. Whether it will go anywhere in this Congress is anybody's guess, but they should be applauded for trying.
This Week in One-Eighty (Continued)
This happened last week, but the end of the week was a holiday, so we're discussing it this week. On Monday of last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby's desire not to obey laws it feels are contrary to its religious beliefs, specifically laws related to contraception. As part of the majority ruling, Justice Alito cited the "accommodation" that the Obama administration has granted to actual religious institutions (as opposed to private, for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby). Because the administration offered those accommodations, Alito wrote, it had other ways to get needed birth control to women who were covered by the insurance plans of those institutions. The administration, he wrote, had to use the "least restrictive alternative" to reach its goal, and those accommodations proved that there was an approach acceptable to religious institutions. Any religious institution wanting to get out of letting their insurance provide contraception had only to fill out a short, simple form asking for that relief, and they would get it; therefore, Alito wrote, that approach was less restrictive than that applied to other types of insurance-providing institutions.
That was on Monday. On Thursday, the court ruled on an "emergency" injunction requested by the evangelical Wheaton College. Wheaton's emergency? They didn't want to fill out the short, simple form described by Justice Alito on Monday. Filling out the form, Wheaton said, would be tantamount to paying for abortions. The majority of the court went along with their argument and issued the injunction in a brief, unsigned statement.
Unsigned, but now we know--because of their fiery, 16-page dissent--that the three justices who didn't agree with that ruling were the three women on the court. Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissent, which includes this: "Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today. After expressly relying on the availability of the religious-nonprofit accommodation to hold that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] as applied to closely held for-profit corporations, the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position.”
Yes, on Thursday, the court ruled that the very argument it had used on Monday to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby was itself unconstitutional. Then it recessed for the summer.
How much more proof do we need that this court is less interested in impartial justice than in active advocacy of the conservative majority's ideological goals?
Side Note: A federal judge appointed by President George H.W. Bush points out how blatantly ideological the Hobby Lobby ruling looks, since all five of the concurring justices were male Catholics appointed by Republicans. He gently suggests that instead of making partisan decisions about controversial topics, the court should "stfu." We couldn't agree more.
This Week in The Crazy
Okay, again, last week. See above. But you really should take a look at what the Texas Republican Party has put into its official platform. It's crazy, plainly unconstitutional, in some places criminal. It derives its theory of law enforcement from the same place as deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy. It is not, of course, binding on anyone, which is a good thing. But it's worth taking a look at what the radical right would institute, if they ever got the kind of power that would allow them to do it.
And as long as we're on the subject of lunacy, let's skip over to Tennessee, where State Senator Brandon Smith (R/Hazard County--familiar to anyone who watches Justified) holds forth on his theory of climate change: "As you [Energy & Environment Cabinet official] sit there in your chair with your data, we sit up here in ours with our data and our constituents and stuff behind us. I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There are no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.”
Presumably, there's not much that he is aware of. We wonder if he's heard of NASA, which tells us: "The temperature on Mars may reach a high of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) at noon, at the equator in the summer, or a low of about -225 degrees Fahrenheit (-153 degrees Celsius) at the poles. Obviously this is very inhospitable for humans, but it is also of some concern for the electronics and mechanical parts of a Mars airplane and its instrumentation. In the mid-latitudes, the average temperature would be about -50 degrees Celsius with a nighttime minimum of -60 degrees Celsius and a summer midday maximum of about 0 degrees Celsius." NASA's quick-reference Earth vs. Mars guide is here.
No, Senator Smith, this is not what Mars is really like.
This Week in Executive Orders
There's an email going around in conservative circles saying that President Obama has signed 1000 executive orders. That's wrong by around 800 executive orders, maybe more. Not only that, but the email goes into incredible detail as to what those orders entail. For example, executive order No. 10997 allows the government to take over all electrical power, gas, petroleum, fuels, and minerals. That's an outrage!
Except what No. 10997 really does is assigns some emergency preparedness functions to the Secretary of the Interior. And it was signed by President Kennedy, not President Obama, which makes it more than 50 years old.
The truth is that unless he really steps up his game, President Obama will sign fewer executive orders than any two-term president in this century or the last one.
An associated bit of nonsense making the rounds is something that Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said over the weekend. "In the last three years alone, 13 times, the Supreme Court, unanimously, 9-0, including all of the president's liberal picks, have struck down the president's executive orders." How far off is Mr. Spicer? He's off by 13. We think that makes him eligible to become a conservative economist, or perhaps a conservative climate scientist.
This Week in Veterans
Members of Congress are happy to complain when it looks like veterans are receiving substandard care from the VA. What they aren't so happy about, however, is doing anything about it. "But members serving on a joint House and Senate conference committee, tasked with hashing out veterans reform legislation, made little headway before recess. The 28 committee members agreed they are committed to a bipartisan solution that will make it easier for veterans to receive the care they deserve. But several—particularly Republicans—remain hung up over concerns about estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that the reforms could cost as much as $50 billion a year."
War is about more than just bullets and body armor. It's about real human lives. If we don't factor into the price of a war what we'll need to take care of the troops when their war is over, then we're not correctly calculating the costs. And if we can't get that right, then we have no business going to war.
This Week on the Border
While we're on the subject of things politicians want to complain about but refuse to fix, we've been avoiding discussion of the current crisis over undocumented children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala crossing our southern border. It's a complicated situation that's evolving rapidly and deserves more than a paragraph or two in this space. It's worth remembering that the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that strengthens border security and addresses the matter of the 11 or 12 million undocumented people currently in the country, but Republicans in the House have refused to bring it to a vote. It's also worth noting that under the Obama administration, the Border Patrol has been beefed up to historic proportions, deportations have reached historic highs, and apprehensions have reached historic lows. For a variety of reasons, adults are not slipping in from Mexico at anywhere near the rate they used to. Every campaign ad we've seen for a Republican running for Arizona governor blames Obama for "not securing" our borders. That's as dishonest an argument as could be made, and any candidate who makes it should be immediately disqualified by serious people.
On the specific topic of the Central American children, here's a good, brief explainer of what's going on, and here's why President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, established in 2013, has nothing to do with the current influx, which began in 2008 and started getting serious in 2011. It's actually an important, humanitarian law signed by President Bush in 2008 that spurred the flood.
This Week in the Affordable Care Act
Yes, it's working the way it was supposed to, in part because all those anti-Obamacare ads actually increased enrollment in some places. In the process, it's driving down the cost of Medicare. Sadly, millions of low-income people living in red states that refused the law's Medicaid expansion are still suffering, still without good health care options, even as those states go without the financial benefits the expansion offers. Way to go, Republican governors and legislatures.
This Week in the Benghazi Non-scandal
We'll probably continue to hear Republican members of Congress lie about the supposed "stand-down" order that has them all excited. The most absurd version of the lie is probably this one: "Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight panel, has suggested Hillary Rodham Clinton gave the order, though as secretary of state at the time, she was not in the military chain of command." Issa has been in Congress a long time; if he doesn't yet know that the Secretary of State doesn't give orders to the troops, he's a hopeless case.
At any rate, there never was a stand-down order. There was a remain-in-place order, because the people those Republicans claim were ready to go could not possibly have made it in time, and they were needed where they were. All the military personnel involved in that order agree.
This certain knowledge doesn't mean we won't keep hearing lies, and it certainly doesn't mean congressional Republicans won't keep throwing millions of taxpayer dollars at the story in order to keep the name "Benghazi" in front of the voters. But because you're a loyal TWiA reader, you'll know they're lying to you and wasting your money--and you'll remember that come election time.
This Week in the Constitution
National treasure E.J. Dionne writes in the Washington Post about the need for progressives to reclaim their rightful place as champions of the Constitution as the progressive, living document the Founders designed it to be. He says, "The idea of a Constitution of Opportunity is both refreshing and relevant. For too long, progressives have allowed conservatives to monopolize claims of fealty to our unifying national document. In fact, those who would battle rising economic inequalities to create a robust middle class should insist that it’s they who are most loyal to the Constitution’s core purpose. Broadly shared well-being is essential to the framers’ promise that 'We the people' will be the stewards of our government."
We confess, we've always wondered how some conservatives can reconcile their hatred and distrust of our government with their alleged love of the Constitution, the document that set up the very system of self-government they can't stand.
This Week in Voting
Republicans, in their efforts to pass restrictive voting laws that they hope will disenfranchise enough Democratic voters to allow them to win elections even though their policies are broadly unpopular, keep claiming that those laws are meant to combat voter fraud. Which raises the question: Does voter fraud really exist?
This Week in How You Can Help
Worldbuilders is author Patrick Rothfuss's effort to raise money for the great charity Heifer International. Its motto is Geeks Doing Good, and if you contribute through Pat's IndieGoGo campaign, you're in line for some terrific rewards. Help a good cause and get something cool back.
(Thanks to TWiA special geek correspondent Jason Zibart for the tip.)
This Week in Bears