Several websites are running cartoons drawn in response to the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Most of them are taking those cartoons from the cartoonists' tweets, but not paying them for their work. These two: The Nib and Graphic Culture, are paying for the cartoons and only using them with permission. Check them out.
Conservative writer Ross Douthat on why blasphemy is important. "If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn't really a liberal civilization any more."
A personal note
The First Amendement to our Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
It's often interpreted more broadly, as meaning essentially that nobody can tell somebody else what he or she can or cannot say, but in truth it applies only to Congress passing legislation.
As a writer, editor, publisher, and bookseller--as someone who, as an adult, has always made his living through the free expression of thought in words and pictures--the principle of free speech is of vital importance to me. I believe that the most basic human right is the right of every human being to think whatever he or she thinks and to feel free to express those ideas.
Often, I object to those ideas. I don't think people should lie, I don't think the press should lie, and I don't think politicians should lie. I don't like hate speech. I don't much care for blatant ignorance or hypocrisy. But I do stand up for the right of people to espouse opinions and ideas I don't like. I don't think Klan members should march through the streets of any town, but I think they should be allowed to. If nothing else, that demonstrates to people that hate lives among us, and that's worth knowing.
Free societies thrive on ideas and information. So, I think, do people. Narrative helps us structure and make sense of those ideas, that information, which is why there have been stories pretty much as long as there has been language. Some stories are told in pictures. A cartoon is just that--a small story, usually expressing only a single idea, and most often in a humorous or satirical way. Nobody should die because they drew a cartoon, as nobody should die because they spoke or wrote words that offended somebody else. Expressing offense in words is just fine--expressing it with bullets is an atrocity.
When I was in college, I was far from famous. I was a radio/TV/film major, and I knew people on campus, and they knew me, but far, far more people had never heard of me. A couple of Iranian students were in some of my classes, and we got to know each other, and occasionally socialized. One of them had a show on the campus radio station, during which he played Iranian music, some of which had been provided by the Shah of Iran's government.
Most Iranian students opposed the Shah, with good reason. He was a tyrant, and his secret police, SAVAK, had a habit of knocking down doors in the middle of the night and making people disappear. I opposed the Shah, too.
But when my friend started getting death threats for playing instrumental music provided by the Shah's regime--when he had to hire a security guard to walk him from his apartment to his classes, when the entire radio station had to be shut down and evacuated because of bomb threats, I spoke up. I wrote a letter to the school paper, comparing the tactics of intimidation and death threats to SAVAK's tactics.
Boy, did I become famous in a hurry.
There happened to be an opening on the college's Communications Board, which oversaw the radio station and the newspaper, among other things. I was invited to fill that seat, because of my letter and the many strong responses it generated. When I accepted the invitation, it made the paper, and when I attended my first meeting, it made the paper, with my picture.
And the death threats started coming my way. I was cornered and warned to stay out of things. I could see and feel the angry glares--particularly, but not exclusively, from Iranian students. Those were the students I agreed with, politically. I thought the Shah should go, as did they. Where we differed was that I thought my friend should be able to play whatever music he wanted--even if, in some way, it defended a regime I found horrific--without his life or the radio station being put in jeopardy.
As it happened, the semester ended, summer came, and by the next school year that controversy had blown over. My fame dissipated, and the threats were no more. No physical harm came to me.
Unlike the cartoonists and satirists of Charlie Hebdo, nobody actually killed me, or even tried to.
And the principle--that people can think what they want, and express what they want (with obvious exceptions, like the "shouting fire in a movie theater" thing) remains my most fervent belief, and one I will always defend.
This is, of course, only my opinion. Others may feel differently, or may differ in how they choose to express those beliefs, even when those beliefs are every bit as fervent as mine. That's fine. The whole point is that everyone can feel what they feel and say what they feel like saying, how they want to say it. When it comes to hard facts, there are rights and wrongs. When it's opinions and ideas, there aren't, and I'm no more right than anybody else. All I can speak to is how I feel.
Below the fold (as we say in the newspaper biz), TWiA's fine staff of journalists and correspondents take on money, oil, plagiarism, bears, and more.
This Week in Terrorism
The admittedly horrific terrorist killings in Paris were not the only terrorist acts committed this week; they just sucked up so many of the headlines and the minutes of cable news channels that they seemed like it. In Yemen, a car bomb killed more than 30 people lined up outside a police academy, and wounded 70 more. In NIgeria, Boko Haram terrorists might have killed 2000 civilians. And here at home, in Colorado Springs, an IED was detonated up against the wall of an NAACP office. It was placed next to a can of gasoline; fortunately, the gas didn't ignite, so the damage was minor. It could have been much, much worse.
We don't know yet who planted it, or why. Police are looking for a person of interest described as a balding white man, around 40 years old, but we doubt they're stopping and frisking everybody who might fit.
We fight terrorism through intelligence and law enforcement and military means, with drones and bullets and bombs. But we also fight it with intelligent thinking, with smart foreign policy, and we should be doing more of that. Reaching out to the Islamic world, helping educate their young people, improve their economies, and create jobs, would go a long way to disproving the lies that radical jihadists tell about us. Disengaging from the world--or worse yet, dealing with its Muslim communities only when we're shooting at them--are the wrong ways to proceed if we want that threat to ever end.
This Week in Having it Both Ways
Elected Republicans often like to pretend they care about the deficit. They don't, as we've seen so many times in recent years--from Vice President Cheney's statement that "Deficits don't matter," to the Bush administration's insistence on not working the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into the regular budget process and refusing to fund the Medicare prescription drug benefit, despite the fact that massive military and health care spending obviously drives up the deficit if it's not paid for in some way.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R/WI) has an undeserved reputation as a deficit hawk and a numbers wonk. In truth, he's neither. He likes to use numbers to make his points, but the problem is that he's not really using math. Instead, he puts numbers out there that don't add up, that contradict each other, and that are intended to mislead rather than to clarify. Ryan is really a far-right ideologue who would like to privatize much of what the government does, despite the fact that in many cases that would reduce services, drive up costs, increase inefficiency, or all of the above.
When it's allowed to function appropriately, government is actually pretty good at large-scale projects that involve Americans across the country. The interstate highway system would be a mess if it had been planned and built by the many states instead of through overall federal efforts. If Social Security were administered by private companies instead of by the government, there would be a profit motive built in, an incentive to provide less to our seniors because the companies would need to take their cut. But Ryan doesn't like government. He wants to starve it, to shrink it down to its barest functions. He wants that because of his radical ideology, not because it's what's best for Americans.
As chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, with a Republican Senate on his side, he'll have an increased ability to do that. The first step has already been taken in the House, and the Senate is expected to follow suit soon. We've discussed this several times on TWiA, most recently in this week's first installment. But it's vitally important that Americans know and understand the charade playing out right before our eyes, so bear with us.
Ryan has long advocated--and is in the process of cementing--a numbers trick called "dynamic scoring." Here's a fairly detailed analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) of what that means, and why it's such a dangerous idea. The linked article isn't long, and its explanation is clear. It says, in part:
"If tax legislation were enacted using a dynamic scoring estimate based on optimistic assumptions but the assumed “dynamic” revenues then failed to materialize, the legislation would add to deficits and aggravate the nation’s long-run fiscal challenges.
"This contrasts sharply with current estimating practices, in which the potential revenue gains from economic growth aren’t included in a bill’s official cost estimate and thus can’t be used to make the legislation appear less expensive. Under the current rules, if a boost to the economy results from enacted legislation and produces lower deficits than estimated, the nation’s fiscal outlook improves, while if no economic boost occurs, deficits do not widen because extra revenue wasn’t assumed. The current rules are much safer and more prudent for the nation’s fiscal health, especially given that we already face long-term fiscal problems."
The gist of it is this: Currently, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is a nonpartisan office that "scores" (i.e., studies the data and offers estimates) proposed budgetary legislation. A tax cut, an infrastructure project, anything that's going to impact the treasury's bottom line, is first looked at by the CBO, and a range of possible costs and benefits is offered. That way, Congress can at least have some idea of what the financial impact of that legislation might be. It's a range, because every piece of legislation comes with unknowns--there's no way to predict what future Congresses might do that will alter it, for example, or whether some global crisis will affect it down the line.
But Ryan has long pushed for "dynamic scoring," which means the CBO will no longer present that range of possibilities. Instead, it will be required to assume that any tax cut automatically grows the economy. That is, of course, nonsense, not borne out by any version of reality. In eras past, tax cuts have sometimes led to small revenue increases, but more times than not, they don't, and they never pay for themselves entirely. That's simple math--if your paycheck is $100 a week, and it's cut by $10, then your paycheck is only $90 a week, not $110. (And you shouldn't be reading TWiA, you should be looking for a new job.)
Math doesn't interest Ryan, though. He and his right-wing allies claim that tax cuts increase revenue, but only because that sounds good to voters. The fact is they don't want to increase revenue. Increased revenue allows increased spending, and that's exactly what they want to avoid. They want the government to spend less, not more. A foolproof way to accomplish that is to a) decrease revenue by cutting taxes, and b) prevent the government from borrowing to maintain its spending levels, by warning about the dangers of deficits.
It would be nice if Ryan would simply admit that's why he wants to turn the CBO into a partisan office that produces misinformation instead of helpful possibilities. But voters tend to like the things government does. They appreciate having the world's best armed forces, convenient highways, safe skies. They don't want to see seniors choosing between buying food and buying medicine. They want their meat inspected for harmful bacteria and their medications tested to ensure that they're safe and effective. They like having health insurance.
So Ryan won't tell the truth about his agenda or about the Republican effort to make the CBO nothing but another propaganda outlet. But Americans deserve to know the truth. They won't hear it from Fox "News," but they'll see it on TWiA. Any time Ryan or any other Republican who voted in favor of dynamic scoring warns about the dangers of "piling debt on our children and grandchildren," know that they're lying to you. If they cared about debt and deficits, they would preserve the impartial analysis of the CBO.
Side Note: If anyone still doubts that this is a purely partisan move, note that the House's legislation specifically excludes stimulus or infrastructure spending from dynamic scoring, even though those both demonstrably create jobs and grow the economy. That's because those tend to be Democratic proposals. The Democratic way is to put more money into the economy, not to take more out. Both approaches add to the deficit, but the one that works--more money into the economy--has, as we've seen dramatically illustrated over the past six years--genuinely reduced the deficit.
* * *
Another piece by the CBPP looks at another rule change approved by the House this week. This one is intended--though again, House Republicans won't tell you this--to damage Social Security, in order to turn that popular program into a bargaining chip down the line. 11 times over the years, the government has moved funds already in the Social Security system from the retirement program to the disability program, or vice versa, depending on which one is running short.
The new rule would make that "reallocation" almost impossible. It doesn't save any money, it doesn't provide better benefits or protect existing ones. In fact, as the CBPP observes, it "could threaten Disability Insurance (DI) beneficiaries — a group of severely impaired and vulnerable Americans — with a sudden, one-fifth cut in their benefits by late 2016."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D/MA) writes, "It’s ridiculous – but not surprising – that on the very first day of the new Congress, Republicans are manufacturing a Social Security crisis to threaten benefits for millions of disabled Americans – including 233,260 in Massachusetts alone. We can’t turn our backs on the promises we’ve made to our families, friends, and neighbors who need our help the most. House Republicans should stop playing political games to put America’s most vulnerable at risk."
* * *
Basic economics aren't that hard to understand, although some economists are happy to quickly leave basic behind and go deep into the weeds. Here at TWiA, we're content to stick to the tried-and-true and not to get too theoretical.
It's unfortunate that new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R/KY) doesn't understand basic economics, because he's in a position of power, and if he were willing to study up and apply what he learned, maybe he could do the nation some good. We admit, that doesn't seem likely.
For that matter, McConnell doesn't seem to understand consistency, or the existence of recording devices.
On January 4th, he said, "We need to do everything we can to try to rein in the regulatory onslaught, which is the principal reason that we haven't had the kind of bounce-back after the 2008 recession that you would expect.”
On January 7th, he said, “After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope; the uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama Administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress. So this is precisely the right time to advance a positive, pro-growth agenda."
It is, of course, absurd to imagine that steady economic growth taking place, slowly but surely, since 2009 (and picking up a lot of speed in April-September 2013, before anybody knew who would control Congress) is a reaction to the "expectation of a new Republican Congress." But it's also absurd to think that a "regulatory onslaught" was responsible for slowing growth. And it's triply absurd to argue, in the space of three days, that there is no growth, and that expectations of Republican miracles have created that growth. He might be a little easier to take seriously if he stuck to one position. But he'd be a lot easier to take seriously if he demonstrated even a rudimentary understanding of economics.
* * *
And speaking of the improving economic situation, The Economist says that 2015 should be the year that ordinary Americans start to feel the effects of the recovery, in more job opportunities and higher wages. Welcome news, indeed. The piece also makes this point, related to the above, "For the past six years Republicans in Congress have argued that America must cut public spending to bring dangerous deficits and alarming public debt under control. Now, the budget deficit has fallen below its average of the past 40 years (as a share of GDP) and perkier growth is making the national debt look more manageable. Republicans are still arguing for spending cuts, of course, but now they have to convince voters that smaller government is better."
Unemployment in the US is down to 5.6%, the lowest since mid-2008. November was the 51st straight month of job growth, and the 57th of private-sector job growth (the longest stretch ever). No wonder McConnell wants to grab undeserved credit.
* * *
More than 50% of the richest Americans believe that the "poor have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return." They have no idea what they're talking about. As the Washington Post points out, "The poor are much less likely to have health insurance, much more likely to be the victim of a crime. They don't get the same level of education or have the same food options. Inequality, as my colleague Matt O'Brien wrote, "starts in the crib," and it plays out even in what babies of different socioeconomic backgrounds are fed. And that's just the tip of the iceberg."
This Week in Oil
Another thing elected Republicans like to play make-believe over is their supposed concern for "state's rights." But the new Republican Senate demonstrated this week that any such concern takes second place to...what, exactly? The only accurate answer is, different make-believe.
The Senate started off their session (with the help of six conservative Democrats) by getting the ball rolling on a bill to build the Keystone XL pipeline--in other words, a bill to create maybe a couple dozen permanent jobs while enriching TransCanada, a Canadian company, and doing nothing to help control US oil prices (which are already so low that Texas is looking for things it can sell on eBay). The House passed a bill on Friday. The White House has assured them that it will veto any such bill.
That veto isn't just because the pipeline is a stupid idea that does nothing for the US except possibly open us up to oil spills involving the most poisonous and hard to clean up oil there is, it's also because there is currently a State Department review under way. That's not only wise, but necessary, since the pipeline would cross international borders.
Beyond that, though, the Nebraska Supreme Court was still considering its options on the pipeline's proposed route through their state, until Friday (well after Congressional Republicans announced this as an immediate priority.
If Republicans (and six conservative Democrats) truly cared about state's rights, they would have waited for that state to conclude its legal process. If they truly cared about the rule of law, for that matter, they would also wait for the State Department's conclusions. Those two things--Nebraska and the State Department--were the reasons cited by the White House for its threatened veto. Nebraska is no longer an issue, but the State Department still is. It's not that the president is necessarily opposed to the pipeline--though he seems to be leaning that way, and with good reason--it's that this is the wrong bill at the wrong time.
So why is it such a high priority for those Senators? Not because it creates jobs, and not because the price of oil is dangerously high and needs to come down. (Even if the price were still high, the pipeline wouldn't help--it would go all the way to a Gulf Coast port specifically so the oil it carries can be sold on the global market, and we would have to bid for it like everybody else.) It doesn't even profit American oil companies, but a Canadian one.
They're doing it for show. They're doing it because liberals and Democrats and presumably the president oppose the pipeline, and they want to stick it to us (and they think, somehow, that passing a bill that will never be signed does that). And they want to send a message to that part of their gullible base that still believes, inexplicably, that Keystone XL would be a good thing for the country.
It's an effort utterly without real meaning. It's a waste of their time, and of the tax dollars paying them and their staffs. It's a waste of the toner in their copy machines.
They want us to believe that now that they control Congress, they can govern. Spending their time playing make-believe doesn't help build a very convincing case.
Side Note 1: The Washington Post lists four things Congress could do that would be more useful than another Keystone XL vote.
Side Note 2: The other side has inflated its arguments, too. Blocking Keystone would not be a huge environmental victory. Unless there's a pipeline leak, some day, which would turn it into an environmental disaster. But the point remains--why should we pass a hugely publicized bill that would create the threat of a leak and require building an oil tunnel across the entire country, border to border, purely to benefit a Canadian company?
This Week in Partisanship
Above, we mentioned "conservative Democrats." What passes for a conservative Democrat is not nearly as conservative as conservative Democrats once were. But they still exist. It is virtually impossible, on the other hand, to find anyone seriously labeled a liberal Republican. These things are true because of increased partisanship in politics (though that's more pronounced on the Republican than the Democratic--see the charts). Here are ten reasons, according to a pair of political scientists, that "America's politics are so broken."
This Week in Bipartisanship
Solar energy, however, is an issue that conservatives and liberals can agree on. We don't know if the conservatives in favor of breaking the monopoly of utility companies in favor of free-market solar power appreciate all that President Obama's stimulus package did to help spur this movement, although they should. But we're in favor of using climate-friendly renewables wherever possible. (And a Gallup poll reminds us that 32% of Republicans think it's more important to protect the environment than to improve the economy. That's a substantial number.)
This Week in Plagiarism
Another potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate--this one with the slimmest qualifications since Donald Trump "ran" in 2012--has been exposed as a rampant plagiarist. Buzzfeed, the same website that caught Sen. Rand Paul's (R/KY) multiple instances of intellectual property theft, has discovered that Dr. Ben Carson lifted sections of his book America the Beautiful (HarperCollins, 2012) from other authors. Some of those authors he attributed elsewhere in the book, but he didn't put quotes around the stolen passages, or indicate that the words were not his.
Ironically, in the book Carson describes a time in college when he was caught plagiarizing in a research paper. He writes, "I did not, however, indicate that this was the work of someone else; frankly, I had never even heard of the term plagiarism." We suppose that's possible, but it doesn't speak well of Carson's education or intellect. Plagiarism is a pretty familiar concept to most young people, in high school if not before.
And of course, having been schooled in plagiarism in college, and having learned his lesson, he claims, why did he keep doing it? In the book, he writes, "Even though I did not know the implications of plagiarism, I certainly should have known inherently that what I was doing was wrong. I had done it before without consequences and probably would have continued doing it if I had not been caught. Fortunately for me, the professor was very compassionate, realized that I was naïve, and gave me a chance to rewrite the paper. This raises another question: Is ignorance an acceptable excuse for unethical behavior?"
So he recognizes that plagiarism is "wrong," and "unethical," but he keeps doing it. What does this tell us about his character? In Rand Paul's case, when he was exposed as a serial plagiarist, his response was petulance and anger, blaming those who caught him, rather than taking the blame for his own behavior, saying essentially that he would use proper attribution if it would make the intellectual property Nazis leave him alone--not because it's the right thing to do. That was an extemely revelatory moment about him. How Carson responds now--and whether he continues to steal--will tell us much about him. What this has shown us so far is not pretty.
This Week in Bears
Ricky Gervais joins the struggle to free Little Ricki the bear.
Betty and Veronica--grizzly bears. (Yes, Betty is the blonde.)