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 Civics
Early voting is underway in most places that allow it. We like the tradtion of voting at your local polling place on election day, but that's not always possible, and in precincts with long lines (often intentionally--one tactic of the vote suppressors is to keep polling places to a minimum in minority neighborhoods), people can be prevented from voting because they just can't take hours away from their jobs. So early voting is a necessary fix to those issues, and we encourage every TWiA reader to take advantage of one of our democracy's most important rights. Please vote. It really does matter.
This Week in Long Reads
The Brookings Institutions Willliam A. Galston has written a long but compelling essay explaining why a healthy, growing middle class is necessary for a functioning liberal democracy (which is not "liberal" in the sense of "leftist," but is what America and most other developed nations have, or had). Policy choices over the last few decades, combined with global economic crises, have sucked the life from our middle class, and the results could be dire.
Galston concludes, "That is why, as Friedman insists, the central question the United States now faces is whether the next generation will again achieve broadly shared prosperity or rather experience the stagnation of living standards. Broad prosperity is both the oil that lubricates the machinery of government and the glue that binds our society together. Economic stagnation means a continuation of gridlocked, zero-sum politics and a turn away from the spirit of generosity that only a people confident of its future can sustain. At long last, our leaders must turn away from peripheral squabbles and attend to the one issue that more than any other will define our country’s prospects. The stakes could not be higher, and we have waited long enough."
This Week in January
So what happens if, as predicted, Republicans take the Senate after the November elections? According to this piece, more dysfunction, gridlock, and potential shutdowns than ever, as they try to push through an extremist agenda at odds with the one that Americans elected President Obama to accomplish. Although he's personally unpopular now, polls still show that his policies, and Democratic policies in general, are more in line with mainstream American thinking than the eternal Republican prescription of tax cuts skewed toward business and the wealthy, fewer environmental and public safety regulations, and less health care.
After having spent years blocking the president's jobs proposals, which economists and history agree would have created millions more jobs and spurred the recovery faster and stronger, House Republicans are looking forward to the chance to get Senate consideration of their "jobs bills." which mostly revolve around repealing the Affordable Care Act and approving the Keystone XL pipeline, and which, experts agree, will create few if any jobs. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (R) called his right-wing economic approach in tax-cutting a "real live experiment" in how cutting taxes leads to economic growth and prosperity. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R/KY), who desperately wants to become Senate Majority Leader, said about Brownback's plan, "This is exactly the sort of thing we want to do here, in Washington, but can’t, at least for now.” But Brownback's plan was an unmitigated disaster for the state, and he might well lose his reelection race next month over it. As Josh Barro writes in the New York Times, "So far, the main result of the experiment seems to be that cutting taxes causes the government to lose revenue." Rolling Stone digs deeper into the Kansas disaster.
The reality of today's Congress is that the main reason for the gridlock, and therefore for our slow recovery, is the Republican House. And, of course, by suppressing likely Democratic votes, Republicans will have given themselves an edge. By electing more Republicans, all we'll do is reward malicious behavior and worsen the country's economic situation. We hope that in the end, a groundswell of common sense will keep the Senate in Democratic hands.
Side Note: Speaking of the struggle for the Senate, we have to hope that Arkansas voters will choose not to reward Republican candidate Tom Cotton for buying ad time on American TV to show clips from ISIS propaganda videos. ISIS wants us to see that stuff, and to be afraid. So does Tom Cotton, it seems, and he's willing to shell out cash to accommodate their wishes.
Slate's Dear Prudence righteously takes down someone who truly deserves it.
This Week in Ebola
Doug Muder at The Weekly Sift writes about why the Ebola crisis demonstrates important liberal precepts: We need a government that's staffed up and functional, we need to invest in medical research and foreign aid, we need as close to universal health care as we can get, and we need to not have conspiracy theories--like the ones we reported here last week--spreading fear and misinformation through the populace. Republican candidates are doing their best to gin up that fear--warning about ISIS terrorists coming across our southern border, or Ebola coming across our southern border, or perhaps terrorists infected with Ebola coming across our southern border (although as Muder points out, symptomatic Ebola victims don't tend to do a lot of hiking, and they're the only people who can transmit it. A bioweapon that can only be spread one person at a time, through bodily fluids, from somebody who is rapidly dehydrating and bleeding out, is just about the worst bioweapon ever).
Senator Rand Paul (R/KY) might be the most prominent fearmonger of the bunch, because he keeps making public pronouncements utterly at odds with scientific fact. There have been 23 known Ebola outbreaks since 1976. The current one is the worst, but science has learned a lot about the disease. We know how it's transmitted, and how to treat it. Paul, a self-accredited ophthalmologist, is proving once again that he's no MD. He should stop claiming that the administration and the actual medical community are trying to mislead the public, and he should stop trying to scare people into thinking the disease is more easily transmitted than it is. We here at TWiA World Headquarters are constantly amazed that anybody gives this fool any credibility at all, considering his sorry track record.
Unfortunately, the candidates spreading those nonsensical tales aren't doing so in order to educate the public, but to scare voters into voting for them. Which makes very little sense, because they're the people who deny science, who want to slash government budgets, who want the private sector to provide every conceivable service. Ebola, or any other epidemic, requires a coordinated, public response. Putting the profit motive ahead of fighting the spread of disease--which is the conservative response to every problem--is entirely the wrong approach. People who are concerned about Ebola should vote for people who respect government and want to make it function better, not people who hate it and want to "drown it in the bathtub," to quote anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.
Side Note 1: Speaking of Sen. Paul, here's a rundown of his embrace of multiple bizarre conspiracy theories. He has some interesting ideas on foreign policy, but his belief that anybody is trying to join Mexico, the US, and Canada in a North American Union should give one pause).
Side Note 2: This kind of thing should stop. Right now. Overreaction does nobody any good.
This Week in Reconsidering Obama
As we've been reporting, with two years left to go, people are beginning to sum up the presidency of Barack Obama. This piece from The American Conservative argues that far from being the raging Socialist many on the right paint him as, he's been a conservative president through and through. The author makes a lot of good points, and is one of the seemingly rare conservatives who values reality over ideology. We've always thought of President Obama as a cool, often effective technocratic centrist who pressed for some progressive policies, but understood the lesson that perfect is the enemy of good, and went for what he could do rather than what he hoped he could do.
This Week in Voting
Last week we reported that a federal judge in Texas had blocked that state's vote ID law, declaring that it intentionally discriminated against hundreds of thousands of minority voters, only to have that ruling overturned by a higher court. This week the US Supreme Court ruled that the higher court's ruling could stand--that it was too late in the election season to block the law, so therefore it has to remain in place for the 2014 election. They did not rule on the constitutionality of the law; this was just about the injunction for this year. As usual, when we want to understand this stuff, we turn to Rick Hasen of the excellent Election Law Blog, who wrote about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's fiery dissent (joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Hasen writes, "It appears to be unprecedented to let a law that was deemed racially discriminatory go into effect simply to avoid the risk of voter confusion and election administration inefficiency," adding, "Importantly, Ginsburg concluded that the effect of the law in its entirety would be to diminish voter confidence in the system. 'The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.'"
Gun rights are actually not under assault in this country, as much as pro-gun death organizations like the NRA want us to think they are. Voting rights, however, are unquestionably under attack (particularly for poor and minority voters). Which do you suppose is genuinely more important to preserving democracy?
Side Note 1: The Constitution does not guarantee Americans the right to vote, although it provides details on how the government should be elected. When it was written, only land-owning white males were supposed to vote. We've improved since then, getting rid of various restrictions and welcoming ever more people into the ranks of voters--a good thing for a progressive democractic republic to do. But with the right to vote under increasing pressure from Republicans at the state level, is it time for a constitutional amendment specifying an affirmative right to vote? Some people think it is. Seems like a good idea to us.
Side Note 2: Juvenile would-be video muckraker and convicted criminal James O'Keefe went to Colorado to try to drum up some voter fraud. Not to find existing voter fraud, mind you, but to suggest his own and hope people went along with it (a practice known as entrapment in legal circles). It didn't work.
This Week in Lunacy
Speaking of rights under assault, Sen. Ted Cruz (R/TX) believes that the government might start jailing pastors for speaking against homosexuality. "I think that is a real risk. Some in the media ridicule that threat saying there is no danger of the government coming after pastors. That is the usual response. The specter of government trying to determine if what pastors preach from the pulpit meets with the policy views or political correctness of the governing authorities, that prospect is real and happening now.”
Ted Cruz is--let's speak plainly here, unafraid of the political correctness police--a demagogue and a loon. Worse, he's a dangerous one, because there are people out there in America, ill-informed and misguided, who might not know that his every utterance is best ignored. Cruz confuses pastors being served with subpoenas as part of the routine discovery process around a potential lawsuit (a lawsuit filed not by the government, but by people on the same side of the issue as Cruz and the pastors in question) as the threat of being thrown in jail. If, in fact, any were jailed--which hasn't happened and is unlikely to--it wouldn't be because of what they preached, but because they violated court orders.
What Cruz might not understand is that the American system protects the rights of people--even pastors, and even pastors who preach hatred of their fellow Americans--to espouse their opinions. It even protects the free speech rights of US Senators who went to Harvard and yet come across in public as ignorant morons unfamiliar with even the most basic precepts of American jurisprudence. The First Amendment tells us that Congress shall make no laws abridging freedom of speech. Texas could, one supposes, try to pass a law abridging freedom of speech, but since the states aren't supposed to pass laws that are blatantly unconstitutional, it would be struck down pretty quickly (ignoring, of course, the fact that Texas just passed an unconstitutional voter suppression law that has yet to be struck down). Without such a law, nobody's going to prison. In America, we don't jail people for expressing unpopular opinions.
So while Cruz tries to inflame anger against the government of the United States (of which he's a part), the government of the United States is busy protecting the rights of those pastors to preach intolerance, just as it protects the rights of Cruz to spout hateful anti-government nonsense. Pity he doesn't understand that.
This Week in Ignorance
34% of the American public--or 34% of those surveyed, anyway--claim never to have heard of the Rush Limbaugh Show. Fewer than half have heard of the Glenn Beck show. Only 15% have heard of Breitbart. Sometimes we're sorry to be so well informed.
Other results from this Pew poll: Rush is the least trusted news source in the land. Fox is second least trusted, but also one of the most trusted (though every study ever performed shows that people who get their news from Fox are among the least well informed--here's a fascinating book excerpt that runs through the research and offers an explanation). And conservatives tend to get their news primarily from one source--Fox "News"--while liberals cite a variety of sources, including a much wider array of "mainstream" sources--CNN, NBC, etc., vs. conservatives, who after Fox turn to local TV news, then other far-right sources. No indication of how much people trust TWiA--they probably didn't want to make the big guys feel bad, because after all, every TWiA reader knows we stick to the facts around here.
This Week in Presidential Narcissism
Or, why right-wing "psychiatrist" Charles Krauthammer needs to apologize.
This Week in Climate
Another month, another hottest month. The last time there was a month that wasn't hotter than the 20th Century average was February 1985. May through September of this year, each month has set a new record as the hottest since records started being kept, which was in 1880.
This Week in Threats
Americans are concerned these days (overly so, as long as you're America, say, and not West Africa or Iraq) about Ebola and ISIS. Vox.com helpfully ranks these and the real threats we actually face. A few takeaways--neither of those even breaks the top 5. The worst is a tie between heart disease and cancer. No. 2 is traffic accidents, but traffic fatalities are on the decline, while No. 3, gun deaths, are increasing and are projected to pass traffic accidents by next year.
Side Note 1: Vox also has compiled 11 facts about gun violence that everybody should know. In a related post, they discuss the question of whether mass shootings--a tiny subset of gun violence--are on the rise. The piece is a little misleading, because they say "mass shootings" when they mean "mass murders." A more meaningful metric is the FBI's statistics on "active shooters," which aren't defined by whether anybody dies, and which are definitely on the rise.
Side Note 2: The attack on Canada's Parliament in Ottawa this week raised the question of Canadian gun laws vs. American ones. Canada's are much more strict, with the result that there were 9 homicides in Ottawa in 2013 (population approx. 884,000). The two most comparably sized US cities--flanking Ottawa's population on either side are Austin, TX (30 homicides in 2013) and Indianapolis, IN (124 homicides in 2013).
This Week in RIP
One of America's great newspapermen, Ben Bradlee, is dead at 93. Even if you only know him from the Oscar-winning performance by Jason Robards in William Goldman's (who also won an Oscar for his adaptation of the book) and Alan J. Pakula's brilliant All the President's Men, you know a piece of the truth about him--his dogged pursuit of the truth, wherever it may lead. There might never have been a better newspaper editor, or a more influential one. For a vividly told recollection of the man, you can't do better than David Remnick's piece at the New Yorker.
Personal Note: I never met Bradlee, but in the most remote way, I worked with him. I delivered the Washington Post for a few years between 1968 and 1972, when the country was torn over Vietnam and Bradlee decided to publish excerpts of "The Pentagon Papers," and during the beginnings of what would become his defining moment, when he broke the Watergate story. Here's the first piece the Post ever reported on that scandal, which might never have been uncovered if not for the work of Bradlee and reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and here's a Watergate timeline. The Post required that--weather permitting--each paper be placed carefully at the front door, facing the house, so a customer could stand in the doorway and read the day's headlines. Every morning after my route, I took our copy inside and read, at minimum, the entire front section and the comics page, cementing my lifelong interest in journalism, policy and politics, and comics. Bradlee made sure I was informed, educated, and entertained, and I've always appreciated him for that.
This Week in How You Can Help
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has pledged at least $100 million for the fight against Ebola,which will help a lot. But the New York Times reports that donations for Ebola aid are far below the usual rate for international crises. The death toll from Ebola in West Africa is far greater than what we usually see from a tsunami or an earthquake or any other natural disaster, and although progess is being made, there's still a long way to go. Given that, we're repeating our appeal from last week. If you can afford a few bucks, please give to Doctors Without Borders or one of the other groups on this list.
This Week in Bears
Here's some incredible video shot by a grizzly bear after swiping a filmmaker's camera. Safety note: If a grizzly bear asks to see your camera, hand it over immediately.
And in case you missed it, here's video of a bear cub shopping in an Oregon drugstore. This video was not shot by the bear.