Welcome to This Week in America, 2015. Thanks to our regular readers for your attention, and to any new readers just joining us. We make this plea every week, but please share TWiA with your social media circles and encourage new readers. We haven't had any good arguments in the comments lately, and always appreciate varying points of view.
For 2015, we're going to make an extra effort to highlight good news, in addition to complaining about the nation's villains. We're going to try to go more in-depth on the most important issues. We might also add an expanded True Crime section, as we have below, so let us know if that would be of interest. We here at TWiA World Headquarters live to serve. We're thinking about trying some new organizational structures, too, so let us know what you think as we test them out.
This Week in Taxes
It's no secret that conservatives hate the IRS. In the "CRomnibus" bill that passed through Congress in mid-December, IRS funding was cut, which will inevitably lead to more people paying less in taxes than they should, which in turn either cuts government services and government employment, or increases the deficit, or both.
For all of 2014 and much of the year before, Rep. Darrell Issa (R/CA), from his perch as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been trying to inflate the IRS's lawful investigation of 501(c)4 "social welfare" organizations into some kind of scandal. He's been trying to prove that the White House was using the IRS as some kind of weapon, targeted at conservative groups.What the IRS was really doing was its job, checking to see if groups were inappropriately using the nontaxable status of (c)4 organizations while conducting political activities.
Last week, in the midst of the holiday madness and the corresponding tendency of the American public to ignore the news, Issa--who is being term-limited out of the chair when Congress returns from its holiday break--released his report. He did so without sharing it with any of the Democrats on the committee, which is a serious violation of House norms, if not House rules. Committee members aren't supposed to see reports from their own committee in the media before they're allowed to look it over.
But what Issa managed to prove was exactly the opposite of what he hoped to, and in fact the opposite of the conclusions he claimed in his introductory matter. Issa writes, "President Obama's rhetoric against conservative-oriented groups -- rhetoric parroted by Democrats in Congress and the national media -- influenced how the IRS engaged with these groups." That, however, is Issa's opinion, and is not documented by any evidence within his report. Instead, the report shows what's been widely reported ever since the first attempt to turn this a scandal. The White House played no role in the IRS investigation of (c)4 groups, Instead, that investigation was spurred by the law, passed by Congress, that created those tax-exempt groups, The law stated that these organizations could engage in a very limited amount of political activity, but that their main purpose could not be politics. Political types wanted to use them, though, because donors to (c)4s could remain anonymous.
Issa seems not to understand the law. His report says, "The IRS sought to regulate politically active social-welfare groups." Yes; that's exactly what the law says they're supposed to do.
What never happened, though, was an emphasis on tea party or conservative groups. Yes, some of the individual IRS employees had issues with those groups, as expressed in their emails. This is perhaps not surprising, since conservatives and tea party types have serious issues with the IRS, which they show no compunction about expressing in public. Some call taxation "theft," and many want to shutter the agency for good. But the fact that the IRS looked into groups that had phrases like "tea party" in the name means only that they were checking on groups most likely to be engaging in politics. They also used words like "progressive" and "progress" as search terms. All their investigation revealed only one group that ultimately lost its tax-exempt status--the liberal group "Emerge America." No conservative groups were injured in any way.
It's no wonder Issa tried to spin the report to seem as if he had proved his point, then released it at a time when virtually no one would pay attention to it. That way, the narrative he prefers--that the IRS targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny--will remain intact in the minds of many voters.
The report itself proves otherwise. If Issa weren't so rabidly partisan, he would have admitted the truth. He was as wrong about the IRS as he was about Benghazi, and he's wasted millions of taxpayer dollars trying to "prove" scandals that don't exist.
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One of the arguments frequently made by those opposed to taxation is that higher taxes discourage people from working. If their efforts push them into higher tax brackets, this argument goes, people won't bother working so hard because they'll just have to give more of their income to the government.
In the real world, as it happens, things are not so simple. People like to make more money. If they make so much that they have to pay out more in taxes, they're usually pretty happy that they're making more than they were before. And those to whom that extra taxation is a burden tend to work harder, and more, to make up the difference.
An older post from The Weekly Sift (thanks to TWiA special blogs correspondent Marcy Rockwell for the tip) reminds us that most Americans, left and right, agree on some basic tenets of work. Nobody on either side is in favor of those who refuse to work collecting benefits because they're just too lazy or unmotivated. There are differences of opinion, of course--conservatives tend to think the numbers of the lazy and unmotivated are larger than they are, and that those people's lives could be improved if they would just take jobs, while progressives are more likely to think that those people aren't taking jobs because they can't find jobs (because greedy corporations have sent them overseas, or because they live in inner cities or rural areas where there are no jobs, and they don't have the resources to go to where the jobs are). And liberals are perhaps a little more inclined to believe that when people can't find jobs, government should step in and create them--but it turns out that's a widespread view.
The Sift writes:
"The partisan debate obscures something important: Underneath the polarized opinions about poor people in the abstract, Americans share a broad consensus about the kinds of people who need help and the kinds of things that should be done to help them. For example, just about everyone believes that the best way out of poverty is to get a good-paying job. Conservatives sometimes try to claim this position as their own, but in fact it’s pretty much universal. (Liberals disagree about how to create good jobs, not the value of getting one if you’re poor.) That get-out-of-poverty-by-working plan might fail for one of four reasons:
- There are no jobs for people like you.
- The jobs you can get don’t pay enough to keep you out of poverty.
- There are good-paying jobs available, but you don’t have the skills to get them.
- There are jobs you could get if you wanted them, but you’d rather not work.
"There’s even a broad public consensus about the appropriate government role in each case:
- If there really is no job for you, the government should either create a job (by say, funding a WPA-style public works program or subsidizing jobs in the private sector) or support you directly at some level consistent with human dignity (through old-age pensions, disability payments, or long-term unemployment insurance during deep recessions).
- If you are working at the only kind of job available, the government should provide (or make your employer provide) the extra little nudge you need to stay out of poverty. (Hence the minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, and a variety of supplemental programs like Food Stamps.)
- If all you need to prosper is training, the government should help you get it. (Free public schools, inexpensive community colleges, job training programs, student grants and loans, and so on.)
- But if you just don’t want to work, the government shouldn’t help you at all. You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself.
"A few people would argue with each of those positions, but not anywhere near a majority. Our substantive political arguments over poverty aren’t about what to do with the people in each category, but rather which category is typical and how well government programs target the people in the category they’re supposed to help."
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Where taxes and work come together is in the fact that by paying taxes, we are helping enable the government to create jobs when necessary (to alleviate unemployment, but also to provide necessary services--police, firefighers, teachers, public infrastructure workers, etc.). When jobs are plentiful and easy to find, salaries go up, because employers know their employees could easily move to other, better-paying positions. When salaries go up, people have more money in their pockets, and until you get to the upper-upper middle class and above, when people have more money in their pockets, they spend more (only the rich have already spent whatever they want or need to spend, so use additional earnings to invest in the stock market or simply park it in bank accounts). Since more than 70% of the American economy is driven by consumer spending, more people spending more money creates yet more jobs, which increases pay, which leads to more spending, and so on. It's a virtuous cyle that creates greater prosperity that's more widely shared across all income levels.
None of us enjoys paying taxes. But we should all keep in mind that what we're paying in doesn't just go into some secret government Scrooge McDuck-style cash warehouse for the president and cabinet officials to swim around in. The money that we hand over as taxes comes back into our communities, creates jobs and opportunities, and helps the economy grow, enriching us all. And yes, sometimes it alleviates the human suffering that goes with poverty and unemployment, and those are good things, too (good things which in themselves also help the economy in multiple ways).
As further evidence to support that thesis, the New York Times points out, "Some of the highest employment rates in the advanced world are in places with the highest taxes and most generous welfare systems, namely Scandinavian countries. The United States and many other nations with relatively low taxes and a smaller social safety net actually have substantially lower rates of employment."
We hope it's not forgotten by April 15, but taxation is not inherently bad, and it's not theft. It's a big part of how we watch out for each other, and in how we keep our nation prosperous. Americans are all in this together, and we should remember that.
This Week in the Economy
Bloomberg News reports: "Fewer Americans filed applications for unemployment benefits in 2014 than at any time in 14 years as the economic expansion strengthened."
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Consumer confidence is back in the positive territory for the first time since 2007, according to the folks at Gallup. A new CNN poll backs that up, as does the Conference Board. Since consumer spending drives our economy, that's a good thing.
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Some conservatives have decided that they should start taking credit for the country's economic recovery, despite the fact that their influence slowed that recovery aand kept hundreds of thousands of Americans from finding jobs. Now the recovery is gaining steam, and they want to pretend it's because of their forced austerity, cutting the government workforce, blocking jobs programs, weakening consumer demand and removing capital from the economy.
It's not. Those things are exactly the wrong approach to ending a recession, and we're lucky to have had a Democratic president and Senate to limit them. The New Republic's Danny Vinik and Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman explain.
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President Ronald Reagan continues to be some sort of patron saint to many conservatives. We have to assume that those people don't remember the Reagan years or know his record. It's the height of hypocrisy to complain about President Obama's end runs around Congress without acknowledging that the Reagan administration literally carried out its own secret foreign policy in violation of bills passed by Congress and signed by the president that specifically forbade the actions the administration wanted to take. It's hypocrisy to complain about Obama's diplomatic overtures to Iran, for the purpose of preventing that country from acquiring nuclear weapons, whild giving Reagan a pass for secretly selling arms to Iran in order to finance his illegal Latin American adventures. And it's hypocrisy to complain about Obama increasing the size of government--he hasn't--or adding to the national debt, without holding Reagan accountable for nearly tripling the debt and ballooning the federal workforce. Conservatives in favor of a balanced budget and smaller government should look to President Clinton, not Reagan, as an examplar of their economic ideals.
This Week in Congress
Congress had a remarkably productive "lame duck" session, largely involving the confirmation of nominees to various federal posts. That period lifted it about the 112th Congress that immediately precededed it, so the 112th keeps the crown of "least productive Congress ever."
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Incoming House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R/LA) is in some hot water over a speech he gave to a white supremacist organization back in 2002 [incidentally--or not--the year that Sen. Trent Lott (R/MS) had to leave his Senate post as Senate Minority Leader because he was caught telling the guests at Sen. Strom Thurmond's (R/SC) 100th birthday party that he would have voted for Thurmond in 1948, and had America done so, "...we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years."]
In 1948, Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat on a platform of racial segregation, which makes one wonder what Lott's ideal America of 2002 would have looked like.
In 1964, Democrat Thurmond renounced his party and became a Republican, because LBJ and the Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act. Thurmond campaigned for Sen. Barry Goldwater (R/AZ)--who had been one of only 27 senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act--for president. That vote only came after Thurmond had led a 57-day filibuster against the Act.
Johnson was re-elected to the White House by a considerable margin. But that moment in history kicked off two forces that are still with us today.
The rest of the South followed Thurmond's lead. State by state, politician by politician, Democrats and Dixiecrats became Republicans, driven to that party by their opposition to letting black Americans have the same rights as white ones. Capitalizing on this trend--called the "Southern Strategy," and largely formulated by Thurmond staffers Harry S. Dent, Sr. and J. Fred Buzhardt--won Richard Nixon the White House in 1968. (Dent also worked for Goldwater and Nixon, among others.)
Goldwater swept the Deep South, and became the forerunner of modern conservativism. According to his successor, Sen. John McCain (R/AZ) (who won Goldwater's seat in 1987), "He transformed the Republican Party from an Eastern elitist organization to the breeding ground for the election of Ronald Reagan." From that race forward, Southern whites became the core constituency of the Republican Party. It wasn't until Reagan's candidacy that party operatives realized they could appeal to the bigoted instincts of white voters in other parts of the country, too.
Not all conservatives are bigots, by any means. But the racist backlash to the Civil Rights Act, combined with the fervent conservatism of Barry Goldwater, shaped the conservative movement to this day. Those running the Republican Party know it, but sometimes want to hide it, so Trent Lott had to step down. 13 years later, contemporary conservatives don't seem to mind if their elected officials associate with white supremacists. House Speaker John Boehner (R/OH) has Scalise's back, and he might well keep his seat and his leadership position.
It would be easier to write off the party's bigotry as ancient history if it weren't for their enthusiastic embrace of hate groups like the Family Research Council (FRC), Liberty Counsel, and the American Family Association (AFA). In 2014, would-be Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz all spoke at the "Values Voter Summit" those groups sponsor every year. While speakers at the summit didn't directly epouse white supremacism, they spewed venom at the entire LGBT community, all Muslims, and most immigrants.
Various speakers appluaded Russia and Jamaica, in particular, for their laws criminalizing homosexuality. Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values and former FRC president, said that whoever the Republican nominee for 2016 is, if he has "a heart and a brain, he would tell Obama that pushing back against anti-Muslim attacks is not 'in his job description.'” Cruz claimed that Democrats in Congress want to repeal the free speech and freedom of religion protections of the First Amendment, along with the Second Amendment, and that Congress should "repeal Common Core." The first is, of course, entirely fictional, since no Democrat in Congress has ever suggested repealing those amendments--and since the summit was largely dedicated to attacking the religion of Islam, one wonders how fervent Cruz's defense of freedom of religion really is. And by the way, Senator, Common Core is not a federal law passed by Congress--it's a program that's been adopted by state legislatures all over the country, and Congress can't repeal actions passed by the states. The Harvard-educated US Senator surely understands that, which means he thinks those listening to him were idiots. Also, Cruz, Huckabee, and Santorum were among the many speakers who compared the United States to Nazi Germany. Why do they hate America?
And why do we call those organizations hate groups? Tony Perkins, current FRC president, has praised Uganda's law condemning homosexuals to death. He has called pedophilia "a homosexual problem," and an FRC publication from 1999 explicitly links homosexualtiy to pedophlia, and claims that "one of the primary goals of the homosexual rights movement is to abolish all age of consent laws and to eventually recognize pedophiles as the 'prophets' of a new sexual order." We're not alone in our designation--the Southern Poverty Law Center also calls FRC a hate group.
Bryan Fischer of the AFA has compared homosexuality to pedophilia, incest, and bestiality, and has said, "It's very clear that the Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve automatically religious liberty for non-Christian faiths." He's also stated that “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews,” and "that the “sexual immorality of Native Americans” made them “morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil.” The SPLC has designated the AFA as a hate group.
Mat Staver, founder and still chair of the Liberty Counsel, has said that "Same-sex marriage is the beginning of the end of western civilization. It really is, it’s that serious.” Liberty Counsel is on the SPLC's list of hate groups.
Under the guise of "religious liberty" and "protecting the family," these groups and others preach hatred of and violence toward those who don't share their extremist views. One day, we hope--not too far from now--the Voter Values Summit will be seen for what it is, every bit as offensive to thinking human beings as white supremacist meetings, and those who have spoken before it will be just as ashamed as Steve Scalise should be today.
Side Note: Things that weren't racist in 2014.
This Week in Climate
Over at Esquire, Charles Pierce looks at reports that Pope Francis is planning a major push on climate change for later this year, ahead of a huge UN climate meeting in Paris. According to the chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Holy Father hopes to directly influence the participants in the meeting, and all the world's religions, to embrace the science surrounding climate change. That official said, "The idea is to convene a meeting with leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion."
This is, as Catholic Vice President Joe Biden might say, a "big f...ing deal." Pierce compares it to Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical called Rerum Novarum, in which that pope more or less embraced the concept of a living wage (since largely lost to the sands of time). Pope Leo wrote, "Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice."
This Week in Crime and Punishment
The Koch Brothers, or the K-Bros, as this blog likes to call them, are known far and wide as the boogeymen of the left. They're far-right extremists who are more than happy to funnel some of their vast, mostly inherited fortune through a variety of front organizations to combat environmental regulations that might get in the way of their energy extraction business being allowed to despoil the country, and to keep taxes low so they won't have to share that fortune with the rest of us.
But when it comes to the criminal justice system, Charles Koch's opinions sound almost progressive. Or at least Libertarian, since criminal justice tends to be one of the few areas where Libertarian beliefs overlap more with those of liberals than conservatives. Koch thinks we have too many people in prison, we make it too hard for those who have paid their societal debts to get decent jobs and to vote, and we prioritize prosecutors over public defenders, making it hard for the poor to get good legal representation (which leads to separate justice systems for the rich and the poor). The Wichita Eagle reports: "Campaigning against overcriminalization has prompted Koch to form unofficial alliances with people and organizations that usually champion liberal causes, including political activist George Soros and the American Civil Liberties Union, who are also campaigning for a reduction in prison populations."
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We here at TWiA World Headquarters believe in the sentiment that "All Lives Matter"--black ones as much as white ones, cops as much as protestors. We suspect that Nashville, TN's police chief feels the same way, based on this wise open letter to his city. Chief Steve Anderson is this week's Hero.
Part of the explanation for why police seem to be shooting so many people is that so many police are being shot (compared to 2013, but not to other years--and many of those shootings were accidental. Still, that distinction doesn't necessarily calm the nerves of the cops on the street). When a cop feels that his or her life (or someone else's) is in danger, that cop is supposed to do what it takes to save those lives. That often means drawing a gun. But cops aren't supposed to draw guns they aren't ready to use, and when a cop shoots somebody, there's no such thing as a "warning shot" or intentionally winging the person. The cop wants to put down the threat, which means shooting at "center mass." Such shots--especially when multiple rounds are fired--often kill.
Obviously, if all lives matter, we'd like cops to be less quick on the draw. But at the same time, we're sending them out to keep us safe, and when they feel like they're under fire--and they are--they're going to respond accordingly. Craig Floyd, chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, said, "With the increasing number of ambush-style attacks against our officers, I am deeply concerned that a growing anti-government sentiment in America is influencing weak-minded individuals to launch violent assaults against the men and women working to enforce our laws and keep our nation safe. Enough is enough. We need to tone down the rhetoric and rally in support of law enforcement and against lawlessness." We have to agree.
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We are concerned, however, about NYPD cops refusing to do their jobs because they're mad at the mayor. They're hired to serve the community and to enforce the law--not doing either because they're having a tantrum does their image no good at all.
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Last week we wrote about Rep. Michael Grimm's (R/NY) determination to hold onto his congressional seat even after pleading guilty to a felony. This week, Grimm spoke with Speaker Boehner, and immediately announced a new plan--despite being re-elected in November by a wide margin, he will step down. Good idea, Rep. Grimm.
This Week in Last Year
Media Matters takes a backward look at the year that was and anoints regular TV presence and syndicated columnist George Will as "Misinformer of the Year." Politifact also has issues with Mr. Will, handing him the ribbon for "Lie of the Year" for his nonsensical claims about Ebola.
Will was not alone, of course; the right-wing media, particularly Fox "News," was loaded with ethical and journalistic lapses in 2014. They're ending the year on a high note, with one Fox host claiming that Obama wants to outlaw donuts and Christmas cookies. That's not precisely what's happening--or even close to what's happening--and what is happening has been taking place over the last decade, since long before Obama was president.
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Who were the man and woman most admired by Americans in 2014, according to Gallup? It must be getting boring for the winners. Hillary Clinton, who has been the most admired woman 17 times in the past 18 years, took the crown for the 13th consecutive year. And President Barack Obama was the most admired man, as he has every year that he's been president.
This Week in Predictions
2014 was the hottest year on record. That record will stand until the end of 2015, when this year will break it.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (R) won't be the next POTUS.
Jeb Bush probably won't be, either, but for a strange set of reasons, including the fact that he was well paid for being on the board of directors of a company that made a lot of money last year. What, you say, that's a plus for Republican voters? Not if a large part of said company's earnings came from the Affordable Care Act. Republican primary voters are expected to hate "Obamacare" more than they like corporate success stories.
This Week in Bears
Deadspin's Bear of the Year is the one who outwitted everybody, tore down a trap, and scored free deer meat, while elevating the issue of bears' right to privacy to the national news.