Reactionary Judicial Activism, Unions, And The Walking Dead

In the recently decided Harris v. Quinn, Justice Alito and the conservative majority continued the Court’s assault (which began two years ago in Knox v. SEIU) on public employee unions, which just happens (!) to coincide with a larger assault on those unions by Republicans controlling state governments.

This is activism pure and simple. And it used to be that, in the judicial realm, conservatives were dead set against it (remember “judicial restraint”?). But that was then and this is the age of reactionary judicial activism, an activism increasingly blessed by conservatives-turned-radicals like George Will, who in January of this year was cheerleading for conservative judges to be “less deferential to legislatures” and who wrote:

Conservatives’ advocacy of judicial restraint serves liberalism by leaving government’s growth unrestrained.

In Harris, the conservatives took Will’s advice and took it upon themselves to basically overrule the democratic process—legislators in the state of Illinois in this case—and have given, in the words of Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe“a constitutional underpinning to the anti-union ‘right to work’ stance.” Tribe says,

Harris is the latest chapter in the troubling story of the Roberts court indulging attenuated constitutional arguments against economic regulation.

Tribe concludes his piece on Monday’s anti-union decision this way:

Harris, despite its arguably narrow holding and apparent restraint, is thus part of a dangerous trend of veiling deregulatory economics in constitutional law. The Roberts court seems to be forgetting one of the principal lessons of constitutionalism since the New Deal: Economic policy should be made by legislatures, not courts. Harris is the Roberts court’s most recent retreat from that long-standing and wise consensus. It would do well to retreat no further.

Retreat no further? Come on. This is all about retreating. All the way back to the 19th century.

Back in 1977, the Court, not then openly hostile to the idea of unions, held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that private sector employees and public sector employees are essentially the same and that public employees represented by unions, even if they were not members, could be required to pay fees for the collective bargaining services they received, even if they objected to the political activities of the union. The Court essentially stopped in its tracks the idea that there could be freeloading public sector workers—those who took the benefits unions brought them but who didn’t want to pay for those benefits. Without such protection from freeloaders, unions—who are required by law to bargain for both members and non-members—could be in deep, deep trouble, especially if freeloading became the norm.

Monday’s decision in Harris V. Quinn, building on the anti-Abood stance Alito adopted in Knox v. SEIU, has guaranteed that public sector unions have something to worry about—if the composition of the Court is not changed before Alito can come up with enough votes to completely overrule the Abood decision, since right now it appears there is some teensy-weensy respect still left for stare decisis.  (Alito may soon have his chance in a case before the Ninth Circuit right now, Friedrichs v. CTA, in which a group of California teachers are seeking a reversal of Abood.)

Here is the way labor and civil rights attorney Moshe Marvit opened his piece for The New Republic:

The Supreme Court on Monday issued a wide-ranging opinion that will heavily impact the future of labor in America. The majority opinion in Harris v. Quinn held that home healthcare workers in Illinois and every other state that has a similar program are only “partial” or “quasi” public employeesas opposed to “full-fledged public employees” and thus don’t have to pay fees for labor representation. While the majority, led by Justice Samuel Alito, did not go so far as to fully gut the ability of public sector unions to finance their existence, the decision in the case was by no means a moderate one. Harris v. Quinn has set the stage for the eventual overruling of Abood; it has confused and perverted the concept of free-riders; and it has created an impossible standard for unions to meet.

A right-wing law professor sympathetic to the freeloaders, John Eastman, sees it pretty much the same:

While not quite the stake in the heart that would kill public employee unions altogether, today’s decision in Harris v. Quinn has at least made Abood a ghoul, one of the walking dead.

Yes, and soon the middle class, the beneficiary of private and public sector union activity, will also be part of the walking dead. (Some think the death, if not the walking, has already come.)

After Monday’s terrible Court decisions, HuffPo featured this graphic:

liberals crushed in court

Take a look at those faces. When I saw that graphic the first thing I thought about was Hillary Clinton. She could win two terms as president. She could change that headline, change those faces, at least those who are getting old (Scalia and Kennedy are 78 this year). For all her faults, for all her snuggling up to Wall Street wallets, liberals who don’t much like her would do well to think about the graphic above (and about the fact that Ginsburg is 81 and Breyer is 76). Those five men, if they haven’t already, may end up doing more lasting damage to the country than even George W. Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

And if Hillary Clinton can do anything to stop them, I’m with her all the way.


In Case You Didn’t Know, A “Lawless” President Obama Doesn’t Want To Kill You With Drones

More than a year ago I wrote about President Obama’s use of drones in the war against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the world. I essentially endorsed, with some discomfort, the way the President was handling his job as commander-in-chief relative to his use of drones in general and the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki in particular.

Mr. Obama’s incredibly thoughtful speech on Thursday, at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., confirmed by endorsement and took away much of the discomfort.

I don’t know how any fair-minded person, which excludes most of the conservatives you meet on the street, or on cable TV, these days, could have heard the President’s speech and not have come away with a great deal of comfort that he, and not John McCain or Mitt Romney, is our commander-in-chief.

I won’t analyze the entire speech, but I do want to point out a part that addresses what so many liberals and lefties—as well as the usual gaggle of libertarianish Republicans—have been harping on, with some increasing intensity, for quite a while:

For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone or with a shotgun — without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.

But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.

That’s who Anwar Awlaki was. He was continuously trying to kill people. He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S.-bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation, helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and his last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil.

I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn’t. And as president, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took him out.

I suggest a careful reading of the entire speech for anyone interested in how our modern military power should be applied these days. It is essentially the President “thinking out loud” about some of these topics, while being resolute on others. (He also handled a Code Pink protester fabulously, granting her the dignity of her position and weaving her into his speech at the end.)

Particularly interesting was his comments on the Authorized Use of Military Force, which was passed on September 14, 2001:

Now, all these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact, in sometimes unintended ways, the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.

The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.

Contrast this discussion with what the now-ridiculous columnist George Will wrote in yet another ridiculous column about President Obama’s “lawlessness.”

Will was discussing Obama’s controversial recess appointments (the Supreme Court will ultimately determine their constitutionality) of three members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and comparing that action, unbelievably, to the infamous racist act by George Wallace 50 years ago, “when he stood in the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent two young blacks from registering as students.”

If that comparison weren’t embarrassing enough, Will wasn’t finished:

Courts defeated Wallace’s lawlessness. Presumably the Supreme Court will defeat Obama’s by telling the NLRB that the D.C. court was right about recess appointments. By such judicial vigilance against the excesses of elected officials, democracy is disciplined and progressivism’s agenda — unchecked executive power — is understood to be unconstitutional.

I, being a progressive, wasn’t aware that progressivism’s agenda was “unchecked executive power.”  Geeze. I thought it was unchecked executive power that gave progressives and liberals the heebie jeebies. In any case, President Obama’s amazingly engrossing and thoughtful speech on Thursday, in which he wants Congress to take pack the “unbound powers” it has granted to the executive branch, makes a fool not only out of George Will, but all those who think this president is power mad.

George Will Channels Glenn Beck, Or How A Once-Respected Conservative Columnist Has Caught The Hate-Obama Plague

I’ve often picked on George Will, the conservative columnist famous for being a right-wing nerd.

And I’ve picked on him for good reason. He’s written some nasty and nutty columns in his career, but perhaps none as nasty and nutty as his column in yesterday’s Washington Post (“In IRS scandal, echoes of Watergate”).

While I won’t hold him accountable for the headline of his piece, I will hold him accountable for beginning his piece with a selection from the Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon:

“He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to . . .cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”

Will, knowing that he is a media darling, intentionally invoked the ghost of Tricky Dicky to, what else, bring attention to himself, which is somewhat excusable I suppose. A guy has to make a living, even if it is peddling nonsense.

But while it is excusable for a conservative columnist to engage in some hyperbole regarding the Obama presidency—and God knows the Scary Negro brings out the beast in those pale-faced conservatives—it is not excusable for a man with the reputation that George Will has enjoyed to engage in the kind of conclusion jumping fit for, say, Glenn Beck:

The burglary occurred in 1972, the climax came in 1974, but 40 years ago this week — May 17, 1973 — the Senate Watergate hearings began exploring the nature of Richard Nixon’s administration. Now the nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities.

The nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified…” Hmm. Not one thing that has been revealed so far, from either the IRS fiasco or the Benghazi tragedy, has even come close to implicating President Obama in some kind of Nixonian crime. Not one thing. Nothing. But here is the much-respected George Will comparing the “nature” of Obama’s presidency to Nixon’s. I once thought that only in the noggins of people like Glenn Beck would such tripe thrive. But the plague has spread and even those with intellects are vulnerable.

Oh, and to show how this whole column was designed to draw attention to himself and not to offer us any real insight, Will includes this cover-his-ass disclaimer:

It remains to be discovered whether the chief executive is guilty of more than an amazingly convenient failure to superintend the excesses of some executive-branch employees beyond the Allegheny Mountains.

Wait a minute: “It remains to be discovered whether the chief executive is guilty…”? Huh? Will begins his column with a reference to impeachment, compares Obama to Nixon repeatedly, and then adds, “It remains to be discovered whether the chief executive is guilty…”? What bullshit, what utter bullshit, that is.

And to expect the President, no matter who he is, to “superintend the excesses” of anyone and everyone who works in the executive branch is itself an absurdity. What is Obama supposed to do? Do we want him spending his time running from building to building, city to city, state to state, embassy to embassy, making sure all 2.65 million executive branch employees are doing their jobs correctly?

Is Obama supposed to be the superintendent-in-chief?

The tommyrot in this column culminated in this:

Five days before the IRS story broke, Obama, sermonizing 109 miles northeast of Cincinnati, warned Ohio State graduates about “creeping cynicism” and “voices” that “warn that tyranny is . . . around the corner.” Well.

Well what? What’s that “well” there for? I’ll tell you what it’s there for. It is to confirm that the Scary Negro, the one that has driven pale-faced conservatives nuts for more than four years, is the tyrant they all imagined him to be. Barack Obama is a Black Panther—excuse me, a New Black Panther—who means to do real harm to the country, especially the parts of the country with lots of conservative white folks in it.

Finally, Will claims that,

If Republicans had controlled both houses of Congress in 1973, Nixon would have completed his term. If Democrats controlled both today, the Obama administration’s lawlessness would go uninvestigated.

Get that? Did you get that transition from using the specific name “Nixon” to using the phrase “the Obama administration’s lawlessness”? Did you get that slick move from naming a man who personally committed crimes for which he had to be pardoned, to using the phrase, “the Obama administration“? Again, it’s as if bad deeds done by IRS staffers in Cincinnati or elsewhere is Obama’s fault and is equivalent to the crimes committed by Richard Nixon himself.

What dishonest piffle that is.

And by the way, as Politico reported,

[R]oughly one-third of House committees are engaged in investigating some aspect of the Obama administration…

With millions of Americans out of work or out of full-time work, with a slow economic recovery, with working-class incomes declining, with all the other things going on both here and abroad, ain’t it nice to know that Republicans have something to do?

George Will Channels Rush Limbaugh


I thought I could anticipate all the conservative excuses, should President Obama remain President Obama after November 6. But damn, I didn’t expect this one from conservative intellectual George Will:

Perhaps a pleasant paradox defines this political season: That Obama is African American may be important, but in a way quite unlike that darkly suggested by, for example, MSNBC’s excitable boys and girls who, with their (at most) one-track minds and exquisitely sensitive olfactory receptors, sniff racism in any criticism of their pin-up. Instead, the nation, which is generally reluctant to declare a president a failure — thereby admitting that it made a mistake in choosing him — seems especially reluctant to give up on the first African American president. If so, the 2012 election speaks well of the nation’s heart, if not its head.

Get it? Folks don’t want to see Their Negro fail in his first job! Oh, my, God. The condescension is, uh—let me catch my breath—breathtaking. Will is saying that if Barack Obama weren’t black, he’d be toast in November! Americans are engaging in a “pleasant” bit of affirmative action!

If this reasoning sounds familiar, it should. It is very similar to the reasoning Rush Limbaugh used in 2003 on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown—and which lost him that inexplicable gig as a commentator and which later kept him from buying into an NFL franchise—regarding quarterback and African-American Donovan McNabb.

McNabb, you may remember, had three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and had led his team to a couple of NFC championship games before Limbaugh, during pre-game commentary nine years ago, said this:

Sorry to say this, I don’t think he’s been that good from the get-go. I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.

Limbaugh resigned under pressure soon after those remarks, but was always defended by the right-wing as a victim, since it is hard for palefaced conservatives to see the condescension and offense embedded in them.

Perhaps George Will thinks it is career-enhancing to channel Rush Limbaugh, when trying to explain why Obama might win. And given the state of the conservative movement in the Age of The Scary Negro, perhaps it is.

Romney Tax Returns− “Higher Costs,” “Something In There”

This hurts

ABC News’ George Will slammed presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for failing to fully release information on his tax returns and offshore accounts, saying Romney “must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them.” ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd agreed, saying “there’s obviously something there” in Romney’s returns that he doesn’t want public.

It won’t be long now.

The Essence Of Conservatism

I watched ABC’s This Week on Sunday and during the roundtable discussion the topic turned to the hot, hot summer and the issue of climate change.

The program’s regular panelist George Will, who perhaps is the most respected conservative intellectual in the country, is also famous for being  a climate change denier, and not a particularly honest one at that. So, I should have expected his response on Sunday:

WILL: You asked us — how do we explain the heat? One word: summer. I grew up in central Illinois in a house without air conditioning. What is so unusual about this?

Now, come the winter, there will be a cold snap, lots of snow, and the same guys…will start lecturing us. There’s a difference between the weather and the climate. I agree with that. We’re having some hot weather. Get over it.

Ah, if that last sentence doesn’t capture the essence of conservatism, nothing does: GET OVER IT!

Don’t have an air conditioner? Get over it! Don’t have a job? Get over it! Don’t have health insurance? Get over it!

Now, it so happens that I was also watching CNN later that day and crawling across the screen was some notation of the number of folks who had trouble getting over the summer heat; that is, they were killed by it.

I tried getting good numbers on just how many folks died trying to get over the heat, but, naturally, the numbers are hard to get right. Many factors may contribute to a death associated with the heat, besides just the heat. The Associated Press reported last week:

Americans dipped into the water, went to the movies and rode the subway just to be in air conditioning Saturday for relief from unrelenting heat that has killed 30 people across half the country.

I don’t know how accurate that number is, but there have been extraordinary heat waves over the last 30 years around the world and here in the United States, heat waves in which thousands upon thousands of folks failed to take George Will’s advice and get over it.

And I found the following last week in Missouri:

The Kansas City Health Department said five heat deaths are being investigated.

As Kansas City remains in the grips of an unusual early summer heat wave, the suspected heat deaths are soaring.

And moving east on I-70:

The medical examiner in St. Louis says three elderly people have died of heat-related illness in recent days.

People like George Will, who now has a professional stake in the outcome of the debate over climate change (to the extent there is a debate anymore; Republicans have pretty much shut it down) and the strange and extreme weather that goes along with it, can cavalierly dismiss the warnings that real scientists, as opposed to those who play them on right-wing radio and TV, are giving us about the effects of warming the planet via the world’s excessive exploitation of fossil fuels.

But the results of Will’s denial—and the entire American conservative movement shares that denial—is that some increasing number of vulnerable folks will not survive the summers to come, not to mention other extreme weather events like droughts, flooding rainfalls, and derechos.

And throughout all those events, just like throughout the extreme economic events that Americans have endured and are enduring, the conservative response will be: Just get over it.

The Shade Tree

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

—Genesis 2:8,9


At the end of ABC’s This Week last Sunday, which was a “Great American Debate” with the resolution that “There’s Too Much Government In My Life,” George Will summed up his case in favor of the resolution: 

…I think big government harms prosperity. It harms prosperity by allocating resources not in terms of efficiency, but in terms of political power that directs the allocation. I think big government harms freedom, because it is an enormous tree in the shade of which the smaller institutions of civil society cannot prosper. And most of all, big government today harms equality. It harms equality because, by concentrating power in Washington, in big government, it makes itself susceptible to the rent-seeking by big, muscular interest groups. The only people who can come to Washington and bend the government to private purposes.

Get the government out of our lives more and more, and you’ll find that freedom and the market allocations of wealth and opportunity prevails.

Jefferson understood—Jefferson understood that you can have a government with minimal attention to the absolute essentials we have talked about. Of course, we want government to build roads, we want government to defend the shores, we want the government to deliver the mail. But after it does the essentials, understand what Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan said we’re going to have less government—under Reagan, respect for government, something we all want, respect for government rose as government’s role declined.

Now, there are several things wrong with what Will said (especially that erroneous claim about Ronald Reagan), even as he expressed very well the traditional, mainstream conservative arguments against big government, which contradict some of the extremists in the Tea Party and elsewherethat don’t necessarily even want the government to build roads or deliver the mail. 

But I want to focus on what appears to be the heart of his argument, as expressed by his shade tree metaphor, which does echo much of what teapartiers say today about Barack Obama and his mythical attack on our liberties: 

I think big government harms freedom, because it is an enormous tree in the shade of which the smaller institutions of civil society cannot prosper. 

Let’s look at that metaphor a little more closely because it illustrates the difference between conservatives and liberals quite well. 

I write this in the middle of the Arizona desert, where the sun in all its glory can be quite harmful, not to mention deadly. In the summertime, without shade, it is relentlessly efficient in its ability to scorch skin and earth. And there is a relentless efficiency in the laissez-faire approach that, much like the desert sun, would harm its potential beneficiaries, if there is no relief, no shade tree to thwart that sometimes destructive efficiency.

And that is what government does, or at least should do: Provide some shade from a relentless and necessary power source, a source without which we can’t live but with which we must take precautions to keep it from wilting us, or worse, from searing our civilization. So, there are those of us who welcome such a large shade tree, and we know there are species—”smaller institutions of civil society“— that can thrive—indeed, can only thrive—under its beneficence. 

Obviously, there are activities that can only be done in the sun, out from under the blessings of government’s penumbra. But in order to fully enjoy and benefit from those activities, we need to know that the tree of government—of “we the people”—is there when we, the people, need some civilization-saving relief from a withering sun. 

And that is, thanks to George Wills’ metaphor, a good accounting of the difference between those of us who call ourselves liberals, who see the value in a big shade tree, and those who call themselves conservatives, who do not. 

“We Have The Guns,” Says Republican “Establishment” Darling

The Tea Party, said conservative commentator George Will on Sunday, is the Republican “establishment” today.  If that doesn’t scare you, let’s look at one of the Republican Party establishment’s leading spokesman, teapartier Andrew Breitbart.

Speaking to a sparse Tea Party gathering in Lexington, Massachusetts, last Friday, the $60-a-head Republican establishment was treated to this (Pensito Review provided a partial transcript below):

BREITBART: I must say that in my non-strategic — ‘cuz I’m under attack all the time — if you see it on Twitter, the tolerant call me gay. And it’s just like, they’re vicious, the death threats and everything. And so, there are times where I’m not thinking as clearly as I should, and in those unclear moments, I always think to myself, “Fire the first shot. Bring it on.”

Because I know who’s on our side. And they know that. They can only win a rhetorical and propaganda war. They cannot win. We outnumber them in this country, and we have the guns. So — [Laughter.] I’m not kidding. They talk a mean game, but they will not cross that line because they know what they’re dealing with.

And I have people who come up to me in the military, major named people in the military, who grab me and they go, “Thank you for what you’re doing, we’ve got your back.”

And so they understand that. These are the unspoken things we know, they know.

They know who’s on their side. They’ve got Janeane Garafalo. We are freaked out by that. [Garbled.] When push comes to shove, they know who’s on our side. They are the bullies on the playground, and they’re starting to realize — What if we were to fight back? What if we were to slap back?

You know, these union thugs. These public sector union thugs — I’m just waiting — bring it on.

I am sick of it. I am sick of this Trumka guy. I’m sick of this John Sweeney. I’m sick of the SIEU. I’m sick of them going to people’s homes, executives’ homes and showing up and the media not think — you don’t think there’s a problem with that?

Katie Couric. What if we went to Katie Couric’s house? What if the tea party showed up at Katie Couric’s and scared the living crap out of her teenaged kids? And that’s what they do because they know the mainstream media won’t cover it.

And so, there’s just a part of me that wants them to walk over that line.

George Will Proves Himself Wrong About The Constitution

On Sunday’s This Week With Christian Amanpour, the Constitution, naturally on Independence Day weekend, was the topic.  The panelists were Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown, Jill Lepore of Harvard, and Richard Stengel, editor-in-chief of Time magazine, and, of course, conservative commentator George Will, whose views on the nature of the Constitution I want to discuss.

Will’s position can be fairly summarized in two excerpts from his commentary on the show, beginning with this:

It’s one thing to say it’s open to interpretation, which it obviously is. It’s very open-textured language. On the other hand, I mean, when you say unreasonable searches and seizures, what’s reasonable? We argue about that. But to say that the Constitution is a living, evolving document, as you did, is almost oxymoronic. A Constitution is supposed to freeze things. It is an anti-evolutionary device as Justice Scalia said. It is intended to put certain things beyond the reach of transient majorities.

Here is another selection from later in the program:

The framers were not narrowed and blinkered men. They were men of the enlightenment. They believed in progress, to which end they included in this document an amendment provision. They said there will be changes made.

The difference is, do you amend the Constitution by the casual weak interpretation of it, or do you candidly, when you want to change the structure of the government, change it by the amendment process they provided?

Now, these two sections seem to me to be a fair representation of the general conservative understanding of the nature of our Constitution and of constitutional interpretation.  They certainly represent the view I held as a conservative, and one reads or hears a variation of this idea from the lips of most conservative thinkers today.

The problem is that the conservative view is simply mistaken.  And George Will proved it during the subsequent discussion.

Will ask the following question, in the context of the health insurance mandate, of his fellow panelists, a question he no doubt thought would prove the superiority of his position:

Let me ask the three of you. Obviously, obesity and its costs affect interstate commerce.  Does Congress have the constitutional power to require obese people to sign up for Weight Watchers?  If not, why not?

Two of the panelists eventually answered the question, sort of:

RICHARD STENGEL: If something is unconstitutional, people out there tend to think like some alarm will go off if something is unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional if the Supreme Court decides it’s unconstitutional. And by the way, this can go to the Supreme Court, and we can see whether that happens.

GEORGE WILL: Well, does Congress have the power to mandate that obese people sign up for — do they have the power to do this?

RICHARD STENGEL: I don’t know the answer to that.

GEORGE WILL: You don’t know.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, the beauty of that is, the not knowing…The basic foundation is set.

GEORGE WILL: Is that a yes, Congress does have the power to mandate?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: It’s open. If they decide that they will, they will have the power to do so.

The truth is—putting Stengel’s and Dyson’s thoughts together—that Congress does have the power, in Will’s formulation, to “require obese people to sign up for Weight Watchers,” if, and only if, the Supreme Court says it has the power.*

In the case of the health insurance mandate, if the Supreme Court ultimately rules that Congress has the power under the Commerce Clause to tell Americans they have to purchase health insurance, then they have to purchase health insurance or suffer the consequences.  Period.  There is no appeal from such a ruling, except via the formal amendment process. Likewise, if the Court says that Congress doesn’t have that kind of power, the Affordable Care Act’s mandate would be dead.

You see, this is the way it works, under a genuine, small “c” conservative understanding of the Constitution: The Congress acts, the Supreme Court decides if congressional action is constitutional, and we move on.  This dynamic is why liberals rightly call it a living, breathing document.

And despite the fact that conservatives like George Will believe our founding document is designed to “freeze” in time certain principles, the truth is that the Constitution gives—through Chief Justice John Marshall’s bold assertion in 1803 of an otherwise only implicit constitutional power—the Supreme Court the right to judge whether Congress’ actions shall stand or fall.

And, more controversially but unmistakably, it gives the justices—even conservative justices who pretend to believe in something called originalism—the de facto right to interpret the document in novel ways (see, for instance, the 2010 Citizens United decision in which corporations became people with free speech rights).

Finally, George Will really undermined his own claim about a frozen Constitution with this remark:

In the first decade of the 21st century, that 18th century amendment—Second Amendment—pertaining to bearing arms, was settled in this sense — the Supreme Court finally said, based on extraordinary scholarship on both sides, that it does protect an individual right, not the collective right of militias.

Think about that. It took 217 years to “finally” settle the meaning of the Second Amendment? Remember what Will said before:

…to say that the Constitution is a living, evolving document, as you did, is almost oxymoronic. A Constitution is supposed to freeze things. It is an anti-evolutionary device as Justice Scalia said. It is intended to put certain things beyond the reach of transient majorities.

But what about transient majorities on the Supreme Court?  How can anyone argue, “a Constitution is supposed to freeze things,” when it has taken so long for us to understand what the Second Amendment means?  How about the First Amendment, the crucial meaning of which is still debated as it applies to twenty-first century life?

The point is that we know the Constitution is alive because new or nuanced interpretations of it keep breathing into its 18th century lungs the breath of life. And nothing confirms that truth more than the recent decisions by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, notwithstanding the phony constitutional philosophy championed by those conservative justices and their defenders on television.


* This, of course, overlooks Congress’ power to define and therefore limit the apellate jurisdiction of the Court and preclude constitutional challenges to some of its actions. Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution says in relevant part:

…the supreme [sic] Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

Many conservatives see this provision as a check on “judicial supremacy,” and advocate that Congress pass laws that contain restrictions on judicial review, thus legislating the courts out of the mix.  So much for “separation of powers.”

In fact, none other than Missouri’s Todd Akin, the extremist congressman from the 2nd district who wishes to replace Claire McCaskill as our senator, introduced a famous jurisdiction-restricting bill in 2004 involving protecting the Pledge of Allegiance. The bill, which ultimately didn’t become law, did pass the House.  It had an amazing 226 co-sponsors, as conservatives in both parties couldn’t help but jump on the side of God and the Pledge.

Here is how Akin’s official House site, bragging about House passage of his bill, describes it:

Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO) praised its passage of his bill to protect the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. “This is an essential step in stopping the overreach of activist judges and will free the vast majority of children and adults who wish to use the words ‘under God’ in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from the threat of censorship,” said Akin…

Exercising Article III of the Constitution, the Act (H.R. 2028) protects the Pledge of Allegiance by removing from the jurisdiction of the federal courts the question of the Pledge’s constitutionality.

Here are some notable Republican co-sponsors of Akin’s bill, who not only put themselves on the side of “under God” in the Pledge, but also believe that Congress should from time to time limit the jurisdiction of the courts:

Roy Blunt, Sam Graves, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Jim DeMint, Jeb Hensarling, Paul Ryan, Darrell Issa, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Pat Toomey, Joe Wilson.

In my experience, it is usually religious conservatives who want to limit the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction on “vital issues” like the “under God” in the Pledge, and also over display of the Ten Commandments and the “defense of marriage.”

George Will’s Tanning Bed

George Will’s column on Texas Governor Rick Perry, which should have been titled, “Run, Rick, Run,” appeared in Monday’s Joplin Globe.  I want to point out a bit of, well, chicanery from the column, but first this:

Supposed examples of Perry’s extremism evaporate in sunlight.

Now, when you have to point out that your guy has an “extremist” problem, you have a steep hill to climb in elevating him to presidential status, no?

In any case, Will plodded on:

One is that he intimated support for Texas’ secession from the Union. After people shouted “Secede!” at a rally, he said he understood their frustration but added: “We’ve got a great union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it.”

The rally was an anti-tax tea party gathering in Austin, and Perry had entertained the crowd with suggestions that, in the words of the AP, “the federal government is strangling Americans with taxation, spending and debt.”

Strangling Americans.  Nothing extremist about that, I suppose.

Later, Perry was answering reporters’ questions and he said the following, only part of which Will quoted:

“There’s a lot of different scenarios,” Perry said. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.”

Will, who said “examples of Perry’s extremism evaporate in sunlight,” sort of kept his readers in the dark regarding Perry’s complete statement. Perry’s saying, “if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that,” sounds sort of, well, extreme doesn’t it?

But will had more strange sunlight to shine on Perry’s extremism:

He signed a law requiring women seeking abortions to be shown sonograms of their babies. Do people objecting to this mandatory provision of information object to the new graphic warnings on cigarette packs?

Hmm. What a clever use of deflection. Instead of thinking about Perry advocating government force to require women seeking abortions to look at sonograms of their “babies,” we are instead thinking about those nasty pictures on packages of smokes.

And we certainly don’t want to think about the fact that in order for the government to force women to view sonograms of their “babies,” they first have to force them to have sonograms in the first place, some of them possibly with vaginal probes.  That’s kind of like putting a picture of a charred lung on a pack of Camels, isn’t it?

Sunlight, indeed.

The truth is that there just isn’t enough sunlight to evaporate the extremism of Rick Perry, especially if that sunlight is really only a tanning bed in which conservative Republican George Will has tried to hide the truth about the Governor of Texas.

Good Conservative Commentary As Easy As 1-2-3

Good things come in threes, the superstitious often aver.  On two of the Sunday morning shows, I heard two different conservative pundits—George F. Will and David Brooks—say sensible things, in threes.  And after I throw in a little William F. Buckley, this will mark the first time in the history of this blog that I have favorably quoted three conservatives.

From ABC’s This Week, I want to bring attention to this brief exchange between two regular panelists, Martha Raddatz and Will, during the program’s segment discussing President Obama’s speech last Wednesday on the planned withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year:

MARTHA RADDATZ: I think the president has never wanted a full counterinsurgency. The president has never even mentioned counterinsurgency in December 2009 and he certainly didn’t mention it the other night.

I always had the impression that David Petraeus and Stan McChrystal before him were fighting a war based on counterinsurgency, but the president was never committed to that…

GEORGE WILL: Obviously Pakistan is key. If Afghanistan were next to Denmark, we wouldn’t be there, we wouldn’t be worrying about it the way we do, because it is next to Pakistan, a nuclear power.

I think Martha has got it exactly right, which is the commander in chief and his commander in the field are fighting different projects.

David Petraeus is the author, literal, of the book on counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is nation building. The United States army — army has been engaged in 16,000 economic projects over there.

There are three problems with nation building. It’s expensive and we’re short of money. It takes time and we’re short of patience. And, three, we don’t know how to it. It’s like orchid building, nations are not built like tinker toys.

I think Raddatz and Will are pretty close to the mark, although calling them “different projects” is going too far.  But Petraeus and Obama are not exactly on the same page with the counterinsurgency stuff, as I suggested last week

And Will’s triplet formulation and criticism of the counterinsurgency strategy is right on:

1. It’s expensive and we’re short of money.

2. It takes time and we’re short of patience.

3. We don’t know how to do it.

I will insert here a quote from another conservative voice, William F. Buckley, related to the nation-building idea:

One should not tire of repeating the fatalistic but wise maxim of Senator Fulbright, that the United States government has no proper quarrel with any nation no matter how obnoxious its domestic policies, so long as it does not seek to export them. As much was said by President John Quincy Adams when he stressed that Americans were friends of liberty everywhere, but custodians only of their own.

I also want to point out another triplet advanced on Sunday by yet another conservative, David Brooks.  On NBC’s Meet the Press, this brief exchange took place:

DAVID GREGORY:  …I spoke to a CEO this week who said, “Yeah, you go around the world, in Asia and Europe, there’s this sense that Pax Americana is over.” But even in a more positive way, David, that American influence is waning because our politics is not up to the task of some of the challenges we face.

DAVID BROOKS:  Yeah.  We’ve got a government problem.  We don’t have a country problem.  We still have an entrepreneurial country.  We’ll still have the only country in the world, only big country, where people can come in from all over the world and magnify their talents.  But we have a government problem. 

We have to do three things.  We have to be fiscally sustainable, we have to do it in a way that increases growth, and we have to do it in a way that reduces inequality.  Those are three things that are in tension with each other.  So if any of us who watch Washington think that our political system is capable of doing two–three things in tension with each other all at once?  It means borrowing from column A, column B, I haven’t seen that level of borrowing.

Again, the triplet that Brooks advanced is sound:

1. We have to be fiscally sustainable.

2. We have to be fiscally sustainable in a way that increases growth.

3. We have to be fiscally sustainable in a way that reduces inequality.

While I tend to share Brooks’ pessimism about the ability of contemporary politics to achieve those three things, my admittedly liberal analysis leads me to believe that Democrats and Republicans all agree on the first two points, but the truth is that Republicans don’t give a damn about the third point: whether any fiscal solution involves the reduction of inequalities.

And that’s why they are willing to play chicken with the economy.

“Conservatism Can Cure Classroom Cancer, Blah, Blah, Blah”

George Will’s column in Saturday’s Joplin Globe touted the efforts of John Kline, a Minnesota congressman who is on a crusade—or is it a Marine expedition, since Will makes a major issue of Kline’s military background—to use his position as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee to, oddly, get the federal government out of education.

Yes, I know. That’s nothing new.  Will’s column touted the usual conservative chestnuts: Teachers’ unions are the root of all education evil, charter schools “operating outside union restrictions” are the answer, conservatism can cure classroom cancer, blah, blah, blah.

But one of those blahs had to do with No Child Left Behind and that law’s decree “that schools shall achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014.” Will suggested that states, which are nearly en masse failing to meet the current proficiency targets, have “a powerful incentive” “to define proficiency down,” much like the state of South Carolina, heaven-on-earth for conservatives, has.  Then Will wrote this:

There also are reasons to suspect that NCLB‘s threat of labeling schools as failures constitutes an incentive to cheat. In a number of jurisdictions, including 103 schools in the District of Columbia, machines that grade the tests have detected suspiciously high levels of erasures as test-takers changed incorrect to correct answers.

Now, George Will doesn’t say so, but any “cheating” that occurred in the District of Columbia occurred under the tenure of D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, currently a conservative hero (don’t give me any of that, “but she’s a Democrat” nonsense; she is openly cheerleading for Republican governors who are attacking teachers and their unions). 

Rhee—Will once praised her for being “constructively confrontational“—is the leader of the so-called “education reform” movement, which should really be called the “get professional teachers out of education” movement.  

I last saw Rhee, who resigned after her boss, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the 2010 Democratic primary, on the IQ-eroding Fox and Friends, where she exclaimed: “I’m a huge fan of Governor Christie,” referring to the current political champion of right-wingers everywhere, the governor of New Jersey. 

Indeed, it was Rhee, perhaps more than anyone else in the country, who made it safe for Republicans like Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to bash teachers and trash their unions.

But, because there is still such a thing as journalism, USA Today did an expose of sorts on Michelle Rhee and her alleged success in dramatically improving the standardized test scores in Washington, D.C., most notably of a formerly low-performing school, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus.

Using some old-fashioned authoritarianism, as well as her laissez-faire formula for education success, Rhee fired teachers and handed out awards and bonuses for improved performance, especially using Noyes as the poster-school to validate her approach.

But it turns out that, as Will mentioned without mentioning USA Today‘s reporting, the improvement in test scores may not have been real. The paper reported:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

Gene Lyons wrote a couple of weeks ago—which is how I first learned of increasing doubts about the Rhee-inspired phenomenon in D.C.—that,  

Although the national media appear determined not to notice, similar testing scandals have taken place in New York, Texas, Georgia, California — basically anywhere school funding and/or jobs have been linked directly to multiple-choice testing. Private charter schools as well as public schools, incidentally.

“This is like an education Ponzi scam,” a teacher’s union official told USA Today. “If your test scores improve, you make more money. If not, you get fired. That’s incredibly dangerous.”

Yes, it’s dangerous.  Test-driven formulas for education excellence, as the conservative George Will and the liberal Gene Lyons both might agree, are not a panacea for the real or imagined ills of our education system. (Lyons points out that over the last 30 years “overall student performance” has actually gone up.)

Now, someone just needs to tell President Obama, who seems to have embraced the idea of test-heavy reforms.

Will says that Rep. Kline,

promises that the current system for measuring “adequate yearly progress” “will not exist when we are done.”

We shall see about Kline’s promise, but if that happens it will be an unwitting repudiation of Michelle Rhee’s effort to, in the words of education historian, Diane Ravitch, “subject public education to free-market forces, including competition, decision by data, and consumer choice.” 

Ravitch continues:

All of this sounds very appealing when your goal is to buy a pound of butter or a pair of shoes, but it is not a sensible or wise approach to creating good education. What it produces, predictably, is cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum.

It has also produced a conservative celebrity, sometimes openly promoted by Democrats, Michelle Rhee.

Finally, it needs to be said here that there is no magic in turning ill-nourished kids raised in anti-learning environments, mostly without an intact and interested family, into little Einsteinian prodigies, which, I suppose, is what some Americans expect teachers to do in urban schools and elsewhere.

Standardized tests won’t do it. Cutting teachers’ pay, or taking away their collective bargaining rights, won’t do it.  Devilizing their unions and starting non-union charter schools won’t do it.

Perhaps nothing will do it.

But a start might be to stop blaming teachers and start listening to them. Commenting on the anti-teacher film, Waiting for “Superman,” Richard Kahlenberg wrote in The Washington Post that the movie,

implies that teachers unions are to blame for the failures of urban education and that non-unionized charter schools are the solution. The movie includes no acknowledgment that the things teachers want for themselves – more resources devoted to education, smaller class sizes, policies that allow them to keep order in the classroom – are also good for kids.

Resources devoted to education? Smaller class sizes? Order in the classroom?

Imagine that.  Teachers actually want things that are good for the kids.

Who would’ve thunk it?

The Constitution And Negative Commerce

I finally got around to reading George Will’s column on the federal mandate and health care “muddle,” which appeared in the Globe on Monday.

I wasn’t impressed.

In fact, I detected some (faint) resignation on the part of Will that the whole mandate thingy will survive constitutional scrutiny.

Anyway, most of Will’s column explored the necessity of the mandate to the law (which, like a Tea Party placard-maker, he labels “Obamacare”) and whether it therefore could be constitutionally defended on that basis. But as far as I’m concerned, the following is the crux of the matter, in Willian prose:

Madison’s constitutional architecture for limited government will be vitiated unless the court places some limits on what constitutes commerce eligible for regulation. So the question becomes: Is the inactivity of not buying insurance a commercial activity Congress can proscribe because it has economic consequences?

It occurred to me that behind Will’s argument is an assumption that needs attention.  That assumption  is that commercial inactivity in general is a passive choice that does not equate to commerce as defined by the Constitution and thus can’t be regulated by Congress.

But commercial inactivity is, indeed and often, really a kind of commerce, call it negative commerce, if you will.

Think about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 Alabama.  The idea was to execute a crippling boycott of the segregated public transit system, since black riders made up a large majority of passengers.  It worked.  In fact, it was overwhelmingly successful.

Now, the point is that refusing to ride the bus—commercial inactivity—was an act of commerce, even if negative commerce.  The lack of participation had a definite commercial effect.  In fact, it put Montgomery city officials in defensive mode. They fined black taxi drivers for supporting the boycott by charging riders only ten cents, the same as a bus ride would have cost.

The officials also pressured local insurance companies to stop issuing policies on automobiles used in carpools, which had been organized to transport bus boycotters to work.  The officials also used an old ordinance to jail Martin Luther King for “hindering” a bus. Fined $500 and sentenced to serve 386 days, he served two weeks.

That was all due to the effects of commercial inactivity.  And besides the desired effect of ending racial segregation on buses, I haven’t even mentioned the larger effect of leading to an end of Jim Crow in the South.

So, it’s clear that there can be a purpose in commercial inactivity and in the case of health care, those who refuse to purchase health insurance are doing so with a decidedly economic purpose in mind: don’t pay until it’s necessary and pocket the windfall.  It is not merely a case of passivity, of choosing not to purchase something.

And that is where their actions differ from those bus boycotters in Alabama. In 1955 the active goal was to end segregated buses. In 2014 America, the active goal of those who refuse to purchase insurance will be to freeload on those responsible folks who do purchase it. 

Thus, back to Will:

So the question becomes: Is the inactivity of not buying insurance a commercial activity Congress can proscribe because it has economic consequences?

Yes, it is.

Remarks and Asides

Jason Linkins of HuffPo, previously a semi-supporter of Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, has changed his mind. Here’s why:

Snyder’s just lost me completely with his apparent desire to enact a law that would impose “financial martial law” upon struggling communities in the form of “financial managers” that would have the power to abrogate contracts at will and supercede the democratic process. There’s been a lot of recent media attention focused on a similar disregard for the public will in Wisconsin, but what’s happening in Michigan really makes Scott Walker look like an amateur.

Linkins quotes the Michigan Messenger:

According to the law, which has already been approved in the House, the governor will be able to declare “financial emergency” in towns or school districts and appoint someone to fire local elected officials, break contracts, seize and sell assets, and eliminate services.

Under the law whole cities or school districts could be eliminated without any public participation or oversight, and amendments designed to provide minimal safeguards and public involvement were voted down.

Czars, anyone?


Politico is reporting on the “conservative backlash” against Sarah Palin, including one Weekly Standard writer calling her an Alaskan Al Sharpton.  Wow.  That has to hurt the pale-faced Palinistas out there.


Speaking of Palinistas, I saw George Will, who admitted his wife “occasionally advises” the Lady Gaga of the Tea Party movement, Michele Bachmann, dismiss her presidential candidacy as not serious:

We know who settles presidential elections, they’re independent voters. Independent voters are not inflamed, and not inflamed in the way that some of the marginal Republican candidates are.

Oh, George!  “Inflamed”?  That is a perfect description of the Tea Party, whose “energies” you welcomed last year into your party:

But eight months ago, the worry was the worst case analysis for Republicans was that the Tea Party energies would be diverted in a third party candidacy splitting the conservative vote in this country. Sarah Palin, think of her what you will, has brought them into the Republican Party, and they are one of the main reasons for what is going to be probably decisive in November and that is the enormous enthusiasm and intensity gap that favors the Republicans this year.

You see? The unelectable teapartier Bachmann is “inflamed,” but teapartiers in general are endowed with “enormous enthusiasm and intensity.”

Only conservative intellectuals can weave these kinds of contradictions into a seamless defense of the indefensible.


Democrats have been damning Mitt Romney with praise lately. They have been reminding voters that Romney’s 2006 health care law in Massachusetts was sort of the model for the much-hated “Obamacare.”

Some worry it will backfire, should Romney win the GOP nomination next year and Democrats are left trying to convince independents that Romney is really, truly a scary sort of guy.

Well, I wouldn’t worry.  By the time Romney makes himself fit to win the nomination, he will be a really, truly scary sort of guy.

George Will Rats Out Wisconsin Governor

George Will has done us a favor by ratting out Governor Scott Walker.

But first:

Will’s latest assault on public employee unions is full of his usual lack of candor dressed up as an excess of it.  Writing about the goings-on in Madison, Wisconsin, he says:

This capital has been convulsed by government employees sowing disorder in order to repeal an election.

The convulsion is, of course, a convulsion of democracy, which Mr. Will and his fellow conservatives like Glenn Beck—whom Will resembles more and more with each column—just don’t seem to like all that much.

Unless the convulsive sowers have tea bags hanging from their hats.

Beck said on his radio show on Tuesday:

What is the job of he AFL-CIO?  I contend the job of the AFL-CIO is to create a global disruption…sowing the seeds of a global revolution.

So we have:

Will: “government employees sowing disorder.”

Beck: “AFL-CIO…sowing the seeds of a global revolution.”

As they say, paranoid minds think alike.

George Will (or Glenn Beck) never once characterized Tea Party town hall protesters as sowers of disorder, whose delirious democratic seizures were by design intended to repeal the 2008 election.  Not once. 

But nevermind that inconsistency. Here’s the ratting-out part:

In his Beckish column, Will’s Reaganization—deification, for conservatives—of Governor Scott Walker merely repeats the half-truths, quarter-truths, and lies that is the “it’s my story and I’m sticking to it” strategy of the Governor and his Republican allies. 

But we’ve heard all the misleading statements of the Governor.  No need to recount those. What we haven’t heard, and what Will contributes to the controversy, is this little paragraph about Walker’s motives:

I am convinced,” he says, “this is about money – but not the employees’ money.” It concerns union dues, which he wants the state to stop collecting for the unions, just as he wants annual votes by state employees on re-certifying the unions. He says many employees pay $500 to $600 annually in union dues – teachers pay up to $1,000. Given a choice, many might prefer to apply this money to health care premiums or retirement plans. And he thinks “eventually” most will say about the dues collectors, “What do we need this for?”

There it is for all to see.  No need to learn it from a Democrat or a union leader. The Governor’s goal is to make unions unnecessary by starving them to death, sort of the way Republicans have starved government through massive tax cuts, hoping to shrink it small enough to drown it in a Koch cocktail.

From the start, this was all about killing the public employee unions and there is no hiding that fact now.

And we have George Will, who had hoped to apotheosize Scott Walker, to thank for it.

A Sickness Unto Death

And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.

—The Gospel of Luke, 9:50


By now you have heard about the focus group of Iowa Republican caucus voters put together by GOP message-meister Frank Luntz, which was featured during a segment on Sean Hannity’s Comedy Hour on Monday.  

In what can only be seen as a criminal indictment of the blessed concept of democracy—these people are voters!—a full 40% of the pale-faced folks admitted to the world that they were simpletons, when they volunteered to Luntz that they believe the President is a Muslim. 

And one got the impression while watching the segment that even those who don’t think Obama is exactly a Muslim believe he is “sympathetic” to Muslims, whatever in Allah’s name that means. Did I mention that these Hannitized folks vote?

In a recent column by George Will, extolling the god-awful Rick Santorum, I learned that 60% of Iowa caucus voters are “born-again and evangelical Christians.”  I’m only guessing—going way out on a limb—that most of those who think Obama is a Muslim are washed-in-the-blood, born-again and evangelical Christians.   

Now, that’s kind of strange when you think about it, isn’t it?  I mean, Obama has repeatedly acknowledged his Christian faith—even describing Jesus as his “Lord and Savior,” which is the standard formulation for those who advertise their heaven-bound eternal security. One would think that people who claim that belief in Jesus is the entire point of existence, would at least be able to put political partisanship aside long enough to call the President, Brother Barack.

But because I know evangelicals—I used to be one, remember—it’s not so strange to me.  In his column, George Will referred to Rick Santorum, an ultra-conservative Christian, as a “relentless ethicist“—and he meant it as a compliment!  What that goofy characterization demonstrates is that right-wing Christians are given way too much credit for their allegiance to morality.  I suppose since they talk it about it all the time—relentlessly—that people confuse the talk for the walk.

But in Frank Luntz’ Iowa caucus sample, we have the truth revealed: when it comes to evangelicals and politics, morality be damned.  Conservative Christians cannot call the President of the United States a liar—without having any evidence whatsoever to back it up—and then claim they value morality.  It’s one thing to claim Mr. Obama is a Muslim and present an interview or a video or some other evidence that shows him saying the equivalent of, “I believe in Islam.”  It’s another thing to claim he’s a Muslim despite an ark-load of evidence—including his own statements—that he is a Jesus-is-my-Savior Christian, something that would be impossible for a Muslim to utter.

I heard Andrea Mitchell say today, after reviewing the “Obama is a Muslim” idiocy from Hannity’s show, that it shows “just how conservative” those Iowa Republican caucus voters are.  No, it doesn’t.  While it’s tempting to conflate ignorance and bigotry with conservatism, that’s not the case here.  There are plenty of conservatives who don’t believe that Obama is a Muslim. 

What the Luntz segment shows is the pathology of fundamentalist-evangelical belief, when it is mixed with politics. This pathology is so profound that people who purport to believe in Truth and in “speaking the truth in love”* are willing to tell lies about Barack Obama and essentially call him a Christian impostor, a fraud, a phony, a fake, a Muslim.

And if conservative Christians continue to mix their theology with their political ideology, their theology will die, even if their politics survives.


Here is the cringe-inducing segment:


*Ephesians 4:15:

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

Ideas Matter, Otherwise Why Bother?

Naturally, conservatives are on the defensive.

I want to say up front that I will agree with any conservative who protests that what happened in Tucson is not directly related to anything said or done by anyone on the near or middle or even the far Right.

But as George Will demonstrated in his column published today in the Joplin Globe, conservatives have a problem with that choice of words:

On Sunday, the [New York] Times explained Tucson: “It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But . . .”  The “directly” is priceless.

The basis for Will’s snooty objection is that progressives, acting as charlatans and political opportunists, always use “bad sociology” to explain to superstition-riddled minds that there is a connection between ideas and behavior. 

The argument, which Will has used frequently in some form or another, goes like this (using my George Will Disgronificator, the translation is in the parentheses):

1. There exists a “timeless human craving” for “banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.”  (Translation: People don’t like leaving things to chance or mysterious forces.)

2. “A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment.” (Translation: Non-conservatives are gullible and believe that every single act by a human being can be traced to something in society, often something bad.  Conservatives, of course, know better.)

3. Progressives have created a “political doctrine” (“the crux of progressivism”) that exploits the above two Facts about humanity. The doctrine goes like this: “given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected.” (Translation: Liberals tell the gullible masses that if we just get rid of all the bad stuff in society, people will stop doing bad things.)

Now, if you are a liberal or a progressive and you don’t recognize yourself as the charlatan in Will’s argument, don’t feel too bad about it.  I am a liberal and I know a lot of liberals and I don’t know one single liberal who believes what Will claims we believe. 

I’m not saying there aren’t such people; I’m just saying that I don’t know any of them.  It may be that, in the lofty world George Will inhabits, people with frontal lobes the size of watermelons say such things.  I suppose that’s possible.

But I and the liberals I know don’t think human beings can be perfected by any means here on earth.  What we do think is that we can make society a better place to live and we don’t have to leave things completely to chance, or to the Darwinian brand of conservatism in fashion today.

Indeed, Will himself has been a critic of that Darwinian brand of conservatism—libertarianism.  Early into the Age of Reagan, he said that the label “Libertarian conservative” is as self-contradictory as “promiscuous celibate.”  He wrote that a misplaced attachment to laissez-faire philosophy makes conservatives,

deeply ambivalent about government, and reluctant to use it as an instrument of conservative values, tempering and directing social dynamism… Real conservatism is about balancing many competing values… and always requires resistance to libertarianism (the doctrine of maximum freedom for private appetites) because libertarianism is a recipe for the dissolution of public authority, social and religious traditions, and other restraints needed to prevent license from replacing durable, disciplined liberty.”

This was, of course, long before the rise of the anti-government Tea Party and a revival of Ayn Rand’s ideas of dog-eat-dog capitalism, but it demonstrates, as does Will’s 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, that once George Will understood that in any society ideas have consequences, although it is often hard to measure with precision the exact causes and effects.

No, conservatives or libertarians or libertarian-conservatives or Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck didn’t directly cause the massacre in Tucson.  And it is entirely possible that the anti-government propaganda shouted night and day on television and radio by people on the Right—aided and abetted by Republican politicians—had no indirect effect either. 

But it is unworthy of an intellectual spokesman of the Right—who makes a living by sharing his ideas—to argue that liberals are charlatans who exploit the superstition of the masses because we take seriously the notion that cultural ideas do have cultural consequences, as hard as they are to measure.  And it is folly to criticize us because we also take seriously the notion that we may be able to avoid the bad cultural consequences by countering the bad ideas.

As Edmund Burke, one of George Will’s heroes, said,

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.

The Case Against Libertarianism, Against Fear

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

—1 Corintians 13:11

I have often chided libertarians and libertarian-ish conservatives for embracing a “childish” philosophy, one that worked well when we were cutting and shooting our way to the Pacific, living out our self-serving Manifest Destiny.

But it’s time we put away childish things.

America has matured; it has blossomed into the most powerful nation in the history of civilization.  And as it has developed and gained world prominence and dominance, its Constitution has remained the preeminent document guarding liberty and justice for all Americans, partly because courageous interpreters dared to understand it in terms conducive to life in the modern world.

For the moment, libertarians and social conservative zealots and haters of either our progressive or pigmented president—take your pick—are playing nice as they join together to rout the Democrats this November.  But as the conservative fanatic Richard Viguerie suggested the other day in the New York Times, after November 2, the Peace Train will collide head-on with the Soul Train—the fight will be on in earnest for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

But for now, let’s look briefly at libertarian philosophy through the eyes of one of its most famous national proponents, Barry Goldwater, whom George Will married to the Tea Party movement in today’s Joplin Globe:

In 1964, the slogan of the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, was “A choice, not an echo.” Forty-six years on, the tea party is a loud echo of his attempt to reconnect American politics with the tradition of limited government.

I have owned a copy of Goldwater’s, The Conscience of a Conservative, for more than 25 years. The book was first published in 1960, four years before Goldwater was overwhelmingly rejected in his run for the presidency.  The following is an excerpt from the book that sounds eerily similar to what one might hear today, as teapartiers temporarily coalesce around demands for a drastically smaller government, some even calling for an end to what libertarians love to call the Welfare State: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid:

The long range political consequences of Welfarism are plain enough: as we have seen, the State that is able to deal with its citizens as wards and dependents has gathered unto itself unlimited political and economic power and is thus able to rule as absolutely as any oriental despot.

Unlimited political and economic power“?  “Oriental despot“?  Keep in mind that was in 1960, and Medicare and Medicaid were still liberal dreams, not to come until 1965.  One would think that after 50 years of even greater “Welfarism” than Goldwater could imagine in 1960, today we would all be bowing to our oriental despot, given a 50-year reign with “unlimited political and economic power.”  

But there just isn’t any oriental despot around, and as our elected President Obama struggles to use the federal government to lift us out of our economic doldrums, one can hardly say the feds have “unlimited” anything, especially “political and economic power.”

Such extremist talk was silly in 1960 and its just as silly today coming from platforms at Tea Party rallies or from 30-second television spots.  In fact, it is embarrassingly immature talk, and fortunately we have half a century of evidence that such fears are cynical and baseless.  Despite an increase in the role of government in overseeing our social well-being, our government is not tyrannical and we still enjoy our liberties.

In 1960, not only was there no Medicare and Medicaid, but the top marginal tax rate was a whopping 91%. Today’s top marginal rate is 35%. Hardly a sign that we are slouching toward oriental despotism.

As far as Social Security, always an object of libertarian and conservative angst, in 1960 the government only taxed the first $4,800 of income at a rate of 3%.  Today, the tax rate is more than twice that and it applies to all earnings up to $106,800. Yet despite that increase, which would have terrified the 1960 Goldwater, there still is no oriental despot on the horizon. 

In fact, Social Security is wildly successful—USA Today reported that the program “kept 14 million seniors above the poverty level” last year. Yet, despite that success, anti-government sentiment is as thick today as when Goldwater wrote in 1960:

Let welfare be a private concern. Let it be promoted by individuals and families, by churches, private hospitals, religious service organizations, community charities and other institutions that have been established for this purpose.

You hear this argument a lot from libertarians and conservatives.  In fact, it is one of their core beliefs that taxing citizens to pay for social programs is illegitimate, amounting to “theft.” The idea that taxation is stealing is creeping into the minds of otherwise sober Americans, who have begun buying into the notion that the government has no business in promoting the general welfare by establishing government social programs. 

Yet what we don’t hear from liber-cons is, what happens if we leave to private concerns all the needs of the needy and those private concerns aren’t all that concerned?  Before Social Security—when private concerns were free to promote the welfare of the poor—seniors were likely to die in poverty. The estimated poverty rate for the elderly was between 70 and 90%.  By 2008, it had dropped to less than 10%.

And whether one thinks that improvement was because of or in spite of Social Security and other “entitlement” programs—programs that are now threatened by Tea Party hysteria—there is simply no denying that the fears that have always accompanied an increased federal role in promoting the general welfare—that promotion rooted in the Constitution itself—are never realized.  Never.

We are not ruled by a despotic federal government, oriental or otherwise.  Goldwater’s State does not have “unlimited political and economic power.”

And contrary to libertarian assumptions, federal involvement in the well-being of the less fortunate, in the well-being of the elderly, has not led to less freedom, but to more.

Because thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, more Americans enjoy the “blessings of liberty” today than at any time in our history.

Maybe It Is Time To Repeal The 17th Amendment

What is it that one of the right’s brightest lights—George F. Will—and one of its nuttiest nuts—Alan Keyes—and one of its most ethically challenged exterminators—Tom DeLay—have in common?

Each having the usual conservative antipathy for democracy, they don’t much like the Seventeenth Amendment to our Constitution.

Will wrote last year,

The Framers established election of senators by state legislators, under which system the nation got the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun) and thrived. In 1913, progressives, believing that more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful, got the 17th Amendment ratified. It stipulates popular election of senators, under which system Wisconsin has elected, among others, Joe McCarthy…

His opposition to the amendment is based on the idea that ordinary folks voting for U.S. Senators is a grave threat to the doctrine of separation of powers, an argument his side lost many, many moons ago.  But he continued:

…grounding the Senate in state legislatures served the structure of federalism. Giving the states an important role in determining the composition of the federal government gave the states power to resist what has happened since 1913 — the progressive (in two senses) reduction of the states to administrative extensions of the federal government.

Alan Keyes and Tom Delay and other Tea Party conservatives hold similar views, all based not as much on a principled reverence for federalism, but, as Will suggests, more out of a fear that “the people” would not vote sufficiently conservatively.

Whatever one thinks of their argument—there is a point to be made about the crippling effect of large-scale direct democracy—I was struck by what I found posted by Tom Schaller at FiveThirtyEight.

Titled, “Department of Colossally Stupid Ideas: Repeal 17th Amendment,” Schaller isn’t necessarily calling the philosophy behind the repeal movement stupid, but the politics of it:

What I want to point out is how patently stupid repealing the 17th Amendment would be for Republicans and conservatives–and yes, tea partiers–based on a simple fact: Democrats have long dominated the control of state legislatures. And they currently enjoy a level of dominance unlike they’ve experienced since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He posted a graph that seems to confirm his point [click on to enlarge]:

As you can see, more than half of the time, since 1968, Democrats controlled the majority of state legislatures and thus would have had the upper hand in picking our U.S. Senators. 

But the most interesting thing about the graph is that at no time in the last 42 years have Republicans controlled a majority of state legislatures.  At no time.

Suddenly, I don’t find the idea of repealing the Seventeenth Amendment as troubling as I first thought.

Orgasmic Conservatives Spew Impeachment Talk

Over the last 30 years, our country has been governed by Democratic presidents about one-third of the time.  Clinton served eight years and Obama is in the middle of his second year.

From the beginning of Clinton’s term as president, the right-wing had it out for him.  The worst of the lot, including the Reverend [sic] Jerry Falwell, claimed Clinton was a cocaine smuggler and a killer.

The best of the lot impeached him, essentially for trying to hide his unfaithfulness to his wife.*

Now, comes the inevitable and hysterical talk of impeachment of President Obama. It seems that this ideologially-sick generation of conservatives has never met a Democratic president they couldn’t impeach.

Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman from California and a frequent visitor to the brothel at Fox “News” Channel, had intercourse with Sean Hannity last night over the allegation that someone at the White House offered Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) a government job in exchange for not challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania.

Now, you know you’re in for a treat when Sean starts reading from the United States Code to make a point and uses the old line, “what did the president know and when did he know it.”  It is a little like foreplay for these folks.  So, naturally, given such titillation, threats of impeachment were soon ejaculated during Hannity’s interaction with Issa. 

The congressman is seeking a special prosecutor—that, of course, is how the Clinton impeachment fiasco began—to determine if any laws were broken.

Meanwhile, the rest of the sane world, including George F. Will, realizes that some government jobs have always been a sort of currency in the world of politics.  Heck, Roy Blunt once offered me a job as Ambassador to the Joplin Spook Light, if I would stop writing bad things about Jack Abramoff.  I was too scared to take it, though.

On ABC’s This Week, this brief conversation between Jake Tapper and George Will just about says it all regarding the seriousness of Issa’s and Hannity’s talk of impeachment over the “Sestak Affair“:

TAPPER: So, first of all, let me ask you a question, George. This — this — the Republicans are trying to make hay over this alleged deal that the White House made to Sestak. If you don’t run against Specter, we’ll give you this other job. A big deal or not a big deal?

WILL: Not a big deal. It’s — politics is a transactional business. They offered him a transaction — if they did, and I don’t see a thing wrong with it.

TAPPER: They are trying to make a big thing out of it, though.

WILL: I don’t care what they’re trying to do. It’s a small thing.


During Obama’s long-awaited press conference today—which understandably was dominated by the BP oil disaster—none other than Major Garrett of Fox “News” thought he would earn his Fox “News” bonus this week for asking the president about the  allegations surrounding Joe Sestak. 

Obama said “nothing improper took place,” and that an official response would be forthcoming, and soon, too.  That answer should keep Sean Hannity busy tonight on his show.


*Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House at the time and cheerleader for Clinton’s impeachment, admitted he was having an adulterous affair while he publicly ridiculed Clinton and urged his colleagues and the country to condemn him.  See here Jake Tapper’s piece on Gingrich’s interview with James Dobson, an evangelical promoter of family values conservatives like the thrice-married Gingrich.

“Hood-draped Racists Turgid With Anticipation”

Perhaps I have been too hard on teabaggers.  

Perhaps my distaste for bone-headed, right-wing populist protests has clouded my vision and affected my objectivity.

Maybe the events in Nashville this weekend do represent a revival of Republicanism, injecting that party with a booster shot of bona-fide conservatism, provided by the likes of Tom Tancredo, who opened the National Tea Party Convention with remarks that, no doubt, made hood-draped racists turgid with anticipation. 

Maybe the Tea Party movement does portend a “counter-revolution” to come, sweeping away “big government,” including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other malevolent bastards of liberalism, replacing such things with free-market Darwinism.

Maybe I don’t know a darn thing about conservatism, despite spending most of my adult life claiming I was one. It’s possible that I don’t know the difference between genuine conservative thought, which I have contended has all but disappeared, and the current wave of reactionary populism being promoted by no-nothing right-wing broadcasters, who sell such nonsense as genuine “conservatism.”

That could all be true.

But having read, among other things, George Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft a long time ago, I thought I had a handle on all this stuff.  In that book, he wrote:

Conservatives rightly defend the market as a marvelous mechanism for allocating resources. But when conservatives begin regarding the market less as an expedient than as an ultimate arbiter of all values, their conservatism degenerates to the least conservative impulse, which is populism. 

Maybe George Will doesn’t understand conservatism either.

Corporations Are People, Too

Warning: The following is a relatively lengthy entry on the recent and controversial Supreme Court decision overturning limitations on corporate and union political advocacy immediately preceding elections. I assume that most faithful readers of this blog are at least as interested in politics as I am, thus I wrote this piece for hard-core junkies.  For those not interested in such things, feel free to bypass.

The Supreme Court, these days binging on conservatism, sobered up long enough last week to engage in an awesome display of “liberal” jurisprudence.

Avoiding a narrow judgment in favor of a broad one, in a fit of hypocritical judicial activism, the court essentially declared in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations—despite the fact that they are “creatures of the state“—are people, too, and that they have free-speech rights every bit as inviolable.   There are now no limitations on how corporations can attempt to influence the outcome of elections.

Inventing “rights” used to be the responsibility of liberals on the court, at least according to Constitutional purists on the right, who hate the fact that liberals have managed to find, among other ungodly things, a “right to privacy” lurking in the shadow of the Bill of Rights. 

God forbid such legal reasoning, except when it comes to creating—against a century of precedent—a free-speech right for corporations that is now superior to the rights of individuals.  While conservatism’s inner consistency may be challenged on many fronts, one thing is agonizingly consistent about it: protecting business interests above all other interests.  Thomas Frank calls this sort of thing, “industry conservatism.

Jamin Raskin, Professor of Constitutional Law at American University, said that by overturning McCain-Feingold the Court has declared

that a corporation is essentially a citizen, armed with all the political rights that we have, at the same time that the corporation has all kinds of economic perks and privileges like limited liability and perpetual life and bankruptcy protection and so on that mean that we’re basically subsidizing these entities, and sometimes directly, as we saw with the Wall Street bailout, but then they’re allowed to turn around and spend money to determine our political future, our political destiny.  So it’s a very dangerous moment for American political democracy.

Justice Stevens, in his dissent, wrote:

The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant.  Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process.

Much later in his opinion he wrote:

It might also be added that corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their “personhood” often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.

Never mind the argument from conservatives that unions are now considered people-citizens, too, supposedly providing some kind of symmetry amid the mess.  As Ted Olson, the attorney for the aggrieved Citizens United, admitted during oral argument, there were 6 million corporations (although many of them are very small) that filed tax returns in 2006. There weren’t 6 million unions the last time I checked.  And certainly no one will pretend that if there were 6 million unions (no matter how small) in this country and only a handful of corporations, that conservatives would gleefully find that unions enjoyed people-like rights.   

And George Will attempted to argue on This Week on Sunday that the real effect of the decision will be to “emancipate our non-profit advocacy corporations“—he conveniently used the Sierra Club as an example—because businesses—he conveniently used Microsoft as an example—”are not interested in getting into political fights.”  Huh? Has he been out of the country the past year while insurance companies and Wall Street bankers were making it rain cash on the Capitol?

This isn’t the first time that “principled” conservatives on the Supreme Court—some, like Scalia*, who long-windedly lecture liberals about the folly of a “living” Constitution—have sacrificed their principles to protect Republican interests.  Bush v. Gore was decided less than 10 years ago, and the country is still paying the price for that episode of conservative judicial activism.

But this decision may do more long-term damage to our democracy than even assuring the election of George W. Bush did, as hard as that is to imagine.  Nothing in recent memory has the potential to truly make our country a “fascist” state than the unrestrained corporate political advocacy now permissable.

I say, “potential,” because unlike many critics of the Court’s majority decision, I don’t have the ability to calculate all of the variables that are in play, including whether foreigners—through global corporate entities—will now be able to influence American elections.  (Could Osama bin Laden form a multinational corporation and run ads in the United States designed to influence elections? There doesn’t appear to be anything in the majority’s opinion to prohibit such a thing.)

And although I have much sympathy for the position of  free-speech advocates like Jonathan Turley, who have genuine fears that campaign finance limitations may have a “chilling effect” on our First Amendment rights (Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, made this point), there isn’t much evidence that such an effect has resulted from McCain-Feingold—a point Justice Stevens made in his dissent.

Additionally, it is possible that Congress will tinker with laws governing the nature of corporations—after all, Congress created them and enable them to exist—to counter the ill effects of the decision.  There may be enough sympathetic Republicans to overcome yet another likely filibuster by conservatives in the Senate against such tinkering.

So, after having listened to the oral arguments from last fall, after having muddled through the opinions of the various justices, and after considering a sampling of opinion from polarized legal analysts, I found very little ground left untilled that a lowly blogger could fruitfully work.

Thus, I’ll content myself with pointing out the fact that yet another example has been offered to the public—to the extent that it is paying attention—of conservatism’s flawed, sometimes ad hoc legal theories and its phony populism.  And although they are not, teapartiers should be screaming epithets night and day about this decision because of its potential to completely drown out the voice of “the people.” 

But so clever are corporate and business interests, that they have managed to purchase the newest incarnation of populism, angry teabaggers who have bought into the laissez-faire mythology broadcast by conservative shamans. Oddly, Citizens United, which appealed the case to the Supreme Court, claims on its website that it is, “Dedicated to restoring our government to citizen control.”  

Only in the world of delusional conservatism, does the recent decision do that.


*Reading Scalia’s concurring opinion in the case is, as usual, quite entertaining.  But he strains to explain why his default position on the First Amendment is to include non-persons (corporations) within its purview.  He also makes an awkward (and untenable) argument that the right of individuals to freely associate with other persons under the umbrella of political parties is equivalent to the association of individuals in a corporation.  There is a presumption that when one contributes money to a political party, it is authorizing the party to speak on one’s behalf. There is no such presumption inherent in an individual’s association with a corporation. 

The Truth Behind The Phony Outrage

From Michael Steele to Liz Cheney to Senators Jon Kyl and John Cornyn to nearly every conservative pundit, the right wing is making much of Harry Reid’s racially-tinged comments about Obama found in Game Change, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann:

He (Reid) was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he later put it privately.

Steele laughingly said Reid should resign; Kyl, too, invoking the Trent Lott controversy over sympathetic remarks Lott made about a real racist, Strom Thurmond, said Reid should step down.  Cheney predictably said liberals were protecting one of their own and ignoring his “racist” remarks.  In a fight with none other than George Will yesterday, she said,

The comments were outrageous … I don’t think it’s okay if you say it in private or public. The excuse by liberals is inexcusable.

First, notwithstanding phony outrage from conservative Obama-haters, Reid’s comments were not “racist” in the same way that Bill Clinton’s alleged remarks about Obama—found in the same book—were.   As quoted,  Clinton supposedly said to Ted Kennedy in 2008, while the former president was seeking Kennedy’s endorsement of his wife,

A few years ago this guy would have been getting us coffee.

Now, those are racist remarks, pure and simple, and if Clinton made them (which, of course, will probably never be confirmed) then he deserves condemnation from all sides, including liberals.

But Reid’s comments were in a different class, albeit they do demonstrate a certain “polite” or “genteel” kind of racism we might call racism-lite.  

However, no matter what one thinks about Reid’s remarks, what he said says more about us as a culture than it says about Harry Reid, who is prone to making dumb statements. The truth about America is that it has travelled a long way in overcoming its racial past, from abolishing slavery, to overturning Jim Crow, to electing its first African-American president. But a deeper and darker truth is that our country is a long way from treating all blacks as equals and Harry Reid’s comments reflect a reality very few want to acknowledge.

During the Obama campaign in 2008, I attended a meeting locally with some union activists who supported Obama and were preparing to work to get him elected.  During a talk, one of the activists who was working on behalf of the AFL-CIO, was talking about the difficulties of campaigning for a black candidate around these parts (a realistic concern) and said something like this:

When you run into someone who is sympathetic to Obama’s views, but has problems with him because he is black, remind them that he is only half black and encourage them to vote for the “‘white half.”

Now, I knew this person and I knew he was not a racist in any way I could discern, but as we all acknowledged at the time, there is something sad about the truth he was expressing.  Light-skinned blacks do fare better in our culture than dark-skinned blacks.  And, à la Harry Reid, blacks who talk like educated whites do fare better than blacks who don’t.

Naturally, Democrats, including Obama, are giving Reid the benefit of the doubt.  Reid is an Obama supporter and the top Democrat in the Senate, who is steering health care reform through some rough seas in Congress.  And quite as naturally, Republicans are crying hypocrisy on every news channel.

But the larger truth shouldn’t get lost in the charges of hypocrisy, whether applicable or not.  As Americans—Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites—we have a long way to go before we are truly color blind.

Social Security: A Success Story

Poor House Poem

Yesterday’s Globe brought us yet another gem from George Will.

The eruditical (neologistic excess—sorry) Mr. Will unwittingly made the case for means-testing Social Security in his column, “Hardest hit? Certainly not seniors.”  social_security_626_article

Will suggested that since our senior citizens were so well off, they don’t need the $250 that Obama and the Democrats (and you can bet most of the Republicans, too) are planning to send to them, in order to, in Will’s words, “assuage the disappointment of having not been injured by inflation.”  (For those of you who don’t know, that’s high-brow comedy.)

The thoughtful conservative columnist bases much of his skepticism about Obama’s attempt to, “purchase the affections of the elderly,”  on the claim that,

…after lifetimes of accumulation, Americans over 60 have the highest net worth of any age cohort.

Now, I’m sure that is true, since it is a stunning example of common sense.

But what does that little factoid really say about whether seniors should get the 250 bucks?

A lot, but not in the way that Will intended.

The fact that as a group, folks over 60 are, relative to the rest of the population, doing okay says a lot about the success of Social Security, a program designed to help augment the economic well-being of the elderly, many of whom used to end up in “almshouses,” which is where many would be today if conservative and Republican philosophy had prevailed last century.

Alms Houses ReportIt also says a lot about why Social Security has fast-approaching fiscal problems.  If, as Will suggests, that it is folly to give all seniors a check because many of them don’t need it, then the logical thing to do would be to means-test the entitlement to the $250, and while we’re at it, the entire Social Security (and Medicare) systems. 

Now, I understand why we don’t do that, or why there isn’t much political will to do that. Because to tax citizens all of their lives for a program they are not then entitled to access, would theoretically undermine support for the program. 

In other words, if the affluent don’t get their checks every month, then affluent families are going to agitate to eliminate the program, and many Republican politicians would be all too eager to kill it.  It seems that the rich have an “entitlement” mentality, too.

When I was very young, I rented an apartment from one of the wealthiest men in my little town.  He was in his late 70s at the time, and went to work every day, selling insurance and managing his considerable rental properties.  He also collected a Social Security check every month.  And it wasn’t like he just took it because he had to; he actually bragged to me one day about how long he had been drawing it, and how he looked forward to getting it each month.  At the time, I was a financially-challenged young lad, and I envied the old geezer (who actually was a pretty nice guy). 

But as I learned more and more about how the Social Security program worked (largely through my parents experience with it), I would often think about the old guy and how obvious it was that he didn’t need his check, and how much my parents did.

Jasper County Poor HouseTo my folks, like so many others, the Social Security check was the only thing—after a lifetime of work—that kept them “out of the poor house,” as my mom used to say.  It was, along with Medicare, essentially a matter of life and death for them.  For my landlord, the check had no measurable financial impact, yet he received it for nearly 30 years (he lived into his 90s).

That situation is simply unsustainable.  Baby boomers are beginning to retire, and demands on the system will grow exponentially.

It’s time politicians in both parties have the courage to do what is right:  Means test Social Security and Medicare, with the basic idea being that for people who enjoy a certain amount of affluence, they should only receive in Social Security and Medicare benefits the money they have paid into the system and nothing more.  

We may even be able to get George Will on board, since he obviously hates to see folks get what they don’t obviously need.

Conservatism’s Big Shtick

George Will’s column in the Globe this morning once more scapegoats unions for the nation’s economic troubles, this time in California. He specifically singles out California teachers and their unions because they have committed the crime of being the highest paid in the nation. These overpaid teachers are, he wrote, “emblematic of the grip government employee unions have on the state, where 57% of government workers are unionized (the national average is 37 percent). Shame. Shame.

Because columnists like George Will and other conservative intellects have written such condemnatory pieces on unions over the years, and because right wingers on radio and television have followed suit with their anti-union rants, it is not surprising that conservatives are opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which among other things implements a “card-check” procedure for unionization.

But it is surprising that their opposition to the proposed change in labor law is based on a concern for workers’ rights.

George Will has written that the EFCA “would deny employees the choice of a secret ballot when voting on unionization of their workplace,” and the Heritage Foundation has charged that it “would strip workers of their fundamental rights and leave them more vulnerable to pressure than before.”

But conservatives don’t fear the EFCA because they are worried about the principle of the “secret ballot,” or are concerned that democracy in the workplace is endangered. They are worried because they know what unions know: It will help to level the playing field between workers and their employers. And in any interaction between labor and management, conservatives and most Republicans will always side with management, since they do not appreciate the value of collective bargaining, the value of relatively powerless individuals joining together to improve their negotiating position with their employers.

In Will’s words, the EFCA would allow union organizers (whom conservatives usually call “bosses”) to “pick the voters they want: Once a majority of workers — exposed one at a time to face-to-face pressure from union organizers — sign a union card, the union is automatically certified as the bargaining agent for all the workers.” In other words, union thugs will force you to vote for a union.

But such claims ignore the inequities in the present system. Employers are virtually free to threaten, coerce, and intimidate employees, if unionism is in the air. While such bullying is illegal, the penalties are negligible and most employers will incur them to defend against the greater evil of having to bargain with a union.

According to Gallup, 53% of Americans favor “a new law that would make it easier for labor unions to organize workers,” and polling last year indicated that labor unions enjoyed a 59% approval rating. And for good reason. On average, union workers earn more money, have better benefits, and are four times more likely to have pensions, than non-union workers.

But in so many workplaces, joining a union is just not possible. Non-union employers routinely fire union activists, hire union-busting consultants, require supervisors to deliver anti-union propaganda, and threaten to close down and relocate, if a union is organized.

I once worked for a non-union garment manufacturer in the 1970s. The owner of the company put in the employee handbook a warning that any attempt to organize a union would be met with the closure of the plant, because, he implied, he had nothing to lose. He had little money tied up in the building, he could sell the machinery and inventory, and he could take his toys and go home, if his workers wanted union representation.

It worked. The company was never unionized.

Now, it is fair to ask: Were these workers “free” to vote (secretly or otherwise) for a union?

Of course not. They all needed their jobs, and a very real threat to close down the factory in a small town with a depressed economy was enough to intimidate anyone seeking to organize a union.

This kind of freedom—the freedom to say “no” but not “yes” to unionism—is what passes for “democracy in the workplace” for conservatives. Under current law, the employer completely controls the process of union certification, either through a card check procedure or through elections sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Even if 100% of employees sign cards authorizing a union to represent them, the employer can still demand a secret ballot election, and the gap between the announcement of the election and the actual election gives the employer valuable time to work its intimidation magic.

Under the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, if a union collects cards from more than 50% of employees, the NLRB must certify that union as the exclusive representative for those employees without an election; the employer loses its ability to intimidate at that point.

Oddly, given their anxiety over the end of democracy in the workplace, I haven’t read one column by a conservative or heard one right winger on the radio or television demand a change to the current decertification process, which gives the employer the right to boot out a union—without a secret ballot election—if a majority of employees signs a card indicating it no longer wants union representation. Of course, consistency can’t be an obstacle when your purpose is not to defend democracy, but to attack and undermine unions.

The phony concern over workers’ democratic rights is just conservative shtick to hide the real reason the right wing opposes the EFCA: It will enhance the ability of individual workers to pool their resources—capitalize their labor—and seek better wages and working conditions from their employers through union representation.

And union representation means that employers will not enjoy complete dominance over their employees. Workers can speak loudly, and management must listen, which is what real democracy in the workplace is all about.


From: Andy American
Monday, May 4, 2009, 04:26 PM
I don’t know much about all that, but the real problem is that theirs no prayer in schools. These young people today are not grounded in morels and go around with their bell bottoms dungarees and free love. Next thing you know they are burning flags while hopped up on the pot. I saw some street toughs the other day by the high school that were part of some gang, both had shirts that said ‘Monarchs’ which is probably one of those south of the border gangs. You write like your an educated man, but book learnin isnt everything. Maybe you’d like to see those gangs unionize too. Also, I’m an AMERICAN, not a spam robot- whatever that is.

From: Anson

Tuesday, May 5, 2009, 09:46 AM

“Workers can speak loudly, and management must listen, which is what real democracy in the workplace is all about.”

I always thought that the purpose of a business was to develop and produce a product that could be sold for a profit. Is that now subordinate to “democracy in the workplace?



From: Duane
Tuesday, May 5, 2009, 02:24 PM


I’m sure you don’t think that the “profit motive” of a business justifies mistreatment of its workers. While businesses exist to sell or serve, they can do so while still treating their workers with dignity and respect. Profitable companies and unions are not mutually exclusive. General Motors, for instance, made a googol of money over the years in partnership with the UAW.


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