Aug 16, 2013

I've moved!

I have taken the advice of some people smarter than me on this and moved my blog to Wordpress.

Aug 9, 2013

When "religious liberty" isn't

In the wake of electoral and Supreme Court defeats, some social conservatives are retreating from their crusade against the freedom to marry to the safer ground of religious liberty. In theory, this is both a smart and fortunate move. Same-sex marriage bans have both legal and political problems, the combination of which will make the position completely untenable within a few short years. In practice, however, claims of "religious liberty" very frequently aren't. They instead cloak their existing bigotry in this claim, effectively asking for the freedom to illegitimately discriminate.

There are some social conservatives who plan to propose a constitutional amendment to protect this type of "religious liberty":
“A religious organization, religious association, religious society or any person acting in a role connected with such organization, association or society and shall not be required to solemnize, officiate in, or recognize any particular marriage or religious rite of marriage in violation of its constitutional right of conscience or its free exercise of religion.”
Again, this is a great concept in theory (ignoring the fact that the First Amendment makes it wholly unnecessary), but the ways it would be used undermine its innocent appearance. Before and after Loving v Virginia, the Supreme Court case that overturned state bans on interracial marriage, the same argument was made. Religious reasons were given to ban interracial marriage, and religious liberty was claimed after the bans were overturned so that churches wouldn't have to perform interracial marriage. It didn't work then, and it won't work now.

People have their marriages performed in their church. If they don't go to a church, they have it performed in a public place by a public official. If a same-sex couple requests that a church perform their marriage, they were almost certainly already parishioners of that church, in which case the church is already accepting of their relationship and union. No one is going to go into a church they have no relationship with and ask to have their wedding performed by someone who doesn't approve of it. People are asking for this type of religious "liberty" to protect them from something that is entirely fictional.

But this isn't only about marriages. Religious liberty is self-evidently important, since it also includes the broader freedom of conscience. However, as with any liberty, yours ends where it infringes on another. Religious liberty doesn't allow you to commit crimes by claiming your religion allows it, nor should it allow you to exclude certain people (not actions) from your association. The Boy Scouts (before this year) are a perfect example. They claimed the right to exclude gays from their organization because of their religious opposition to homosexuality. This claim undermines itself. Of course homosexual activity can be banned by a private organization, especially since they also ban heterosexual activity within the organization. However, to ban people with a homosexual or bisexual orientation crosses the line. They're not being prevented from practicing their religion or holding any religious or non-religious opinion by having to simply allow certain types of people in their organization.

If your religion opposes eating lobster (which Biblical religions technically do), you can ban eating lobster at your church, but you can't ban people from your church who happen to like eating lobster.

Jul 31, 2013

Hillary vs Rand, the coming political realignment

While many are focused on the Christie vs Rand front of the pre-2016 war, a new rift emerged this morning that could have much more significant consequences.

John McCain, 2008 Republican nominee for President and long-term thorn in the side of both right and left, joked that he would would have a "touch choice" if the nominees in 2016 were Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul. He clarified that he thinks Rand is evolving his father's particular brand of crazy into something more respectable, but went on to praise Hillary's term as Secretary of State and her stature in the world. A few background notes elucidate these comments: earlier this year McCain brutally lashed Rand on the floor of the Senate over his anti-drone filibuster, as the 2008 nominee McCain nearly faced Hillary in that Presidential election, but more recently McCain has been a vocal critic of Hillary's handling of Benghazi in Congressional testimony. So it's quite something that McCain would even joke about supporting Hillary Clinton over his own party's nominee for President.

However, if he wasn't joking, and I suspect not, McCain's comments hint at a possible coming political realignment like our nation hasn't seen since the mid-20th Century. Since the Reagan era the parties have been viewed on opposite sides of two major issue spectrums, Republicans have generally been for small(er) government and big security, while Democrats have generally been for big(ger) government and less security. If the parties choose Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul as their respective nominees, this ideological polarity will have reversed on the security spectrum. While she grew up in the anti-war 60s and was seen in the 90s as the doctrinaire liberal to husband Bill's triangulating centrism, since her time in the Senate, Hillary has emerged as a more globally interventionist hawk than even some Republicans. On the other hand, labeling himself a "libertarian Republican", and with his anti-drone filibuster and opposition to NSA surveillance and most foreign aid, Rand Paul is one of the leading voices for American non-interventionism.

If this realignment on security occurs, it will put the parties on a more clear liberty vs security axis. On all but social/moral issues, which are becoming increasingly state-based anyway, Republicans would be the party of liberty, and Democrats would be the party of security, both economic and national. (I would love to see the social/moral spectrum realign as well, of course, but that will take much more work.) As McCain suggests, Republican national security and foreign policy hawks might have a hard time supporting Rand Paul. To be sure, most would also have a hard time supporting the party's arch-enemy for the last 30 years too, but sometimes the easiest hurdle to cross is the tallest one if it's also the first one. McCain's open praise for Hillary as a competent leader and globally respected personality would be the basis for his and other Republican defections.

Now, all of this assumes that the realignment occurs in both directions. If Republican hawks move to Hillary, but no Democrat doves move to Rand, then we would have more of a one-sided collapse than a realignment. But there are plenty of Democrats who have made similar moves in the past, and more recently explicitly aligned with Rand on security issues.

So if a Hillary vs Rand election happens (and way way early polls suggest it might), and a realignment begins, I will welcome it. We've been dealing with contradictory party philosophies for far too long. We need an explicit party alignment on the liberty vs security axis, not issue-dependent positions on that spectrum. Even if we lose that fight, it's one worth having.

Full disclosure: I'm terrible at predictions.

Jul 25, 2013

Christie orders a new meal: roasted libertarian dove

At a Republican Governors Association event tonight, Chris Christie identified a new target in his neverending branding campaign to be Brow-Beater-in-Chief, but this time on his own side - libertarians. 

The governor labeled a "dangerous thought" the libertarianism making headlines on national security, most recently the Justin Amash and John Conyers effort to defund the National Security Agency over its flagrant 4th Amendment violations. He even morbidly used the "widows and the orphans" of 9/11 to buttress his police-statist policy preference, barely losing out in the dance macabre competition to President Obama and Senator Diane Feinstein's recent corpse parade for gun control.

Christie's friendly fire operation is dumb, short-sighted, and just plain wrong for several reasons.

Jul 18, 2013

Planned Parenthood chooses politics over health care

Today, Planned Parenthood announced that it will close three Texas clinics, after state budget cuts and the new Texas law restricting abortion to 20 weeks and mandating safety standards for clinics that perform abortion. Coming on the same day that Rick Perry signed the new law, and only days after that law was passed during protests at the state capitol, this can only be seen in the lucid world as a purely political move.

The funding that PP Gulf Coast says was cut, forcing these closures at the end of August this year, was done in the 2011 legislative session. So their 12 Texas and Louisiana clinics have been operating without any state funding for two years and just now have to close? Doubtful.

Fortunately, since the Texas legislature increased funding for the Women's Health Program by $71 million this year, affordable care for low income Texas women won't suffer. Also, since Obamacare now mandates that insurance companies provide preventative and contraceptive care free of copay or deductible, Texas women have even less reason to worry about losing out on the things that Planned Parenthood has been providing them.

While PPGC CEO Melaney Linton says the closures are “a completely separate issue” from the new law, their announcement and Perry's signing occuring on the same day is obviously not coincidental. Linton says that Texas not expanding Medicaid under Obamacare was “the final straw” that made them choose to close the clinics. However, the Medicaid issue was decided more than a month ago. If the closures were "a long time coming", then it shouldn't have taken more than a month to announce, if Medicaid was the "final straw".

What makes this PR move even more ironic is that only one of the three clinics that are closing performed abortions. That means only one would have had to meet the new safety standards by September 2014. There would have been absolutely no change for the other two, and any other clinics that don't (or now choose not to) perform abortions.

Sidebar: With all its complaining about public funding, it's ironic that Planned Parenthood itself doesn't even meet the 80% threshold that Obamacare mandates for health insurance companies to spend on medical care. PP only spends about two-thirds of its annual budget on medical care, the rest is overhead, "education", and "public policy work" (read: lobbying). Perhaps if they started worrying less about trying to get laws changed to loosen restrictions on them and more about providing actual health care to women, they could afford to do more of the latter.

Jul 11, 2013

Why is America so "conflicted" about abortion? Political correctness

Confirming every previous poll taken on the subject in the last 50 years, the Huffington Post has a poll out today showing that Americans don't approve of late term abortion. In fact, they don't approve of abortion period. 49% consider the practice itself morally wrong, while only 12% consider it morally acceptable (nauseatingly, another 24% don't consider it a moral issue at all).

The really confusing thing, and the only saving grace for HuffPo's absurdly leftist readers (see embedded poll comparing overall vs reader responses) is the seeming contradiction between respondents personal opinion about abortion and their allowance for the decision to be between the woman and her doctor (63% support).

However, the likely reason for this apparently conflict is pure political correctness. When confronted with the question of whether a medical decision should be between a patient and doctor, or a government dictate, the vast majority of people will allow the individual decision. This is reflected in constant political rhetoric about healthcare in general.

However, the validity of that question is undermined by the rest of the poll. While only 26% say the government should pass restrictions on abortion, 59% (!) favor a federal (!) ban on abortion after 20-weeks, 43% think there aren't enough restrictions on abortion, and only 19% think abortion should always be legal. If 63% of the country really thought the decision should be only between the woman and doctor, then that same 63% would say it should always be legal, otherwise it's not just between the woman and doctor.

But Americans are notoriously inconsistent. Or at least they usually are. On abortion, they're remarkably consistent. Almost no one thinks abortion should always be available to anyone no matter what. That's what is going on in places like Texas and North Carolina, not "extreme anti-choice" radicalism.

Jul 6, 2013

Texas SB1 vs European abortion laws

The American left celebrates Europe as a Platonic ideal society toward which we should strive. They tout the universal healthcare, strict gun laws, generous social welfare, economic progressivism, speech codes, and mass transit infrastructure. So surely Europe must have equally progressive abortion laws (i.e., none at all), right? Wrong. In fact, Europe's various restrictions on abortion make the proposed law in Texas seem positively laissez-faire in comparison.

Of the 27 European Union nations, 18 permit abortion on demand, but almost all only up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. After that, nearly all require there be a threat to the life, health of the mother, or incurable ailment present in the child. Not a single European nation allows abortion on demand at any point in the pregnancy for any reason.

Ireland allows abortion only to save the life of the mother. Portugal, Spain, and the Czech Republican allow it only to preserve the mother's life or health. Many other European countries require specific economic or "social" reasons, but still have restrictions on when it can be performed. Malta bans abortion altogether.

More than half of EU nations have restrictions on the reasons abortions are allowed, where they can be performed, and what procedures must be followed beforehand. Five nations, including socialist haven Sweden, require counseling. Germany even requires that counseling to include that the child has the right to be born, and others require providing information about other options to spare his life. Eight, including the UK, require abortions be performed in a hospital or other approved facility. Three require a 7 or 5-day waiting period for reflection before receiving an abortion.

So despite their status as a tiny fringe minority, the American abortion-industrial complex treats the Texas proposal for a 20-week limit (with exceptions further along) and safety regulations as an unprecedented attack on the "rights" of women. In fact, Texas is really just following the example of enlightened Europe.

Jul 2, 2013

New anti-Obamacare irony offensive: We Can't Wait

If I were a savvy, well funded political organization, I would be busy tonight. Given the breaking news today that the Obamacare employer mandate passed by Congress is being unilaterally delayed by the Obama administration, the following is a list of steps that I would be taking if I were such an organization.

  1. Buy
  2. Create hip "We Can't Wait" logo
  3. Build a database of press releases, sound bites, stump speeches, and interviews of Democrats and "experts" in 2009-2010 defending Obamacare and its provisions, especially things like "urgent", "emergency", "people dying in the streets", etc
  4. Starting with the employer mandate, make a list of every health care regulation, deadline, or mandate that's been missed, skipped, or waived
  5. Start issuing press releases (and make a Tumblr) taking the Obama administration to task for these implementation failures based on its supporters rhetoric
  6. Recruit volunteers to attend Congressional town hall meetings in their local districts and arm them with similar rhetoric and demands
  7. Print posters and signs for citizens to bring to political events with the logo and various 2009-2010 supporter quotes
  8. Enlist willing Congressmen and Senators to sponsor legislation mandating that Obamacare be implemented in full, on time, as enacted in 2010
  9. Petition the CBO to revise their scoring of Obamacare based on delays and waivers
  10. If necessary, file lawsuits to force implementation in full, on time

In short, troll the hell out of them. Democrats aren't going to support their own bill if it's the White House that's screwing it up, so someone has to do it. Even if it is ironically.

Again, if I were a savvy, well funded political organization.
(ProTip: I can be available in approximately two weeks. Thanks, Mgmt.)

UPDATE: Shortly after the employer mandate news broke, another delay was announced. Since employer data will not be available for another year, the health insurance exchanges won't have any way to verify information individuals put in their applications about their employer coverage, so...they just won't. Another reason that "We Can't Wait" is so urgently needed.

Heritage has also provided many more examples.

Jun 27, 2013

Wendy Davis Baratheon

On Tuesday, Texas state senator Wendy Davis took to the floor to filibuster Senate Bill 5, which would restrict abortions to 20 weeks of pregnancy and mandate certain safety requirements for clinics that perform them. She was joined in the chamber by a rowdy mob who, though the filibuster itself failed, succeeded in delaying the vote on the bill until just after midnight, thus negating it and ending the special legislative session.

The filibuster and mob tactics drew national media attention and subsequent fawning admiration. Internet memes were (ironically) birthed. Probably the simplest and most powerful shows Davis with a dragon on her shoulder.

For my non-geek readers, this is an adaptation of Daenerys Targaryen, from HBO's Game of Thrones. The character is a teenage female who is sole heir to her family's dynasty and becomes leader of a vast army partly through the power and majesty of her three newly hatched dragons. Whether you agree with her or not, the image and comparison is striking.

Unfortunately, it's also hilariously wrong. Daenerys suffered through famine and death in the wilderness and freed hundreds of thousands of slaves from bustling slaver ports in the fantasy realm of Essos. Wendy Davis, on the other hand, stood up for a few hours in an air conditioned, well-furnished legislative chamber in order to ensure that the wanton slaughter of viable unborn children would go on unimpeded. 

Actually, there is a much more apt comparison for Wendy Davis in Game of Thrones: Joffrey Baratheon, the uncontrollably violent boy king. Specifically in one episode of the second season, Joffrey orders all black-haired young boys in the city, from infants to teens, slaughtered in order to prevent possible bastard offspring of his late father from challenging his own claim to the throne. The ensuing montage of infanticide is brutal to watch, but that fictional horror doesn't even come close to what goes on in abortion clinics across the country on a daily basis. Wendy Davis is now the face of this morbid crusade. All that's missing is the golden antlered crown.

Jun 18, 2013

BOMBSHELL STUDY: Twins socially interact in the womb

We already know that fetuses feel pain as early as 17 weeks. We also know that twins in the womb demonstrate physical contact as early as 11 weeks. Mental activity can be detected as early as 20 weeks. But a little-covered scientific study published in 2010 in Italy (noted only in Wired as far as I can tell) concluded that much of the physical contact between fetal twins is actually social and interactive in nature, not just reactive or reflexive.
Newborns come into the world wired to socially interact. Is a propensity to socially oriented action already present before birth? Twin pregnancies provide a unique opportunity to investigate the social pre-wiring hypothesis. Although various types of inter-twins contact have been demonstrated starting from the 11th week of gestation, no study has so far investigated the critical question whether intra-pair contact is the result of motor planning rather then the accidental outcome of spatial proximity. 
Kinematic profiles of movements in five pairs of twin foetuses were studied by using four-dimensional ultrasonography during two separate recording sessions carried out at the 14th and 18th week of gestation. We demonstrate that by the 14th week of gestation twin foetuses do not only display movements directed towards the uterine wall and self-directed movements, but also movements specifically aimed at the co-twin, the proportion of which increases between the 14th and 18th gestational week. Kinematic analysis revealed that movement duration was longer and deceleration time was prolonged for other-directed movements compared to movements directed towards the uterine wall. Similar kinematic profiles were observed for movements directed towards the co-twin and self-directed movements aimed at the eye-region, i.e. the most delicate region of the body. 
We conclude that performance of movements towards the co-twin is not accidental: already starting from the 14th week of gestation twin foetuses execute movements specifically aimed at the co-twin.

There are mounds of scientific evidence to suggest that fetuses are living, feeling, aware human beings very early on in pregnancy. This study seems to be a conclusive flag planted on top of that mound. Anyone who continues to call unborn children a "choice", a "mass of tissue", a "growth", or says that whether it's life or not is "above my pay grade" should no longer be taken seriously on the issue. The debate is over. The science is settled. A fetus is alive and should be treated as such.

Jun 12, 2013

The law-breaking canard against immigration reform

There are lots of well-intentioned conservatives against immigration reform. Then there are simple haters. I'm not sure which group the "law-breaker" peddlers fall into, but they're really irritating me lately.

When arguing against any type of legal status for currently illegal immigrants, these people claim that since breaking the law was someone's "first act" in our country, they are apparently forbidden from ever having a meaningful life as an immigrant or otherwise in America. Of course we are a country of laws and our society breaks down when those laws are flaunted, but what about when the laws themselves are...broken?

One argument often used is that since there are over 4 million people waiting to immigrate here legally, we shouldn't reward the ones that have "cut in line" ahead of them illegally. This also argues for reform. The fact that there are over 4 million people waiting for years to immigrate legally is a point in favor of reform, not against it. We should make it easier for everyone to come here legally, not add more people to the already absurdly long line.

But more simply, the argument that breaking an administrative rule by skirting the immigration system should bar you from any rights and privileges as an American in the future is absurd. We can't possibly enforce the laws as they are, the numbers simply prohibit it, and the numbers also prove the need for reform.

I realize this is a mostly libertarian argument, so not everyone will agree to it, but it seems like a speeding ticket to me. Speeding itself doesn't harm anyone. Why is it illegal? Because it increases the potential for harm. Unauthorized immigration itself doesn't actually harm anyone. Sometimes those who do it also break other laws and do harm, but that has nothing to do with their immigration status. Having this hugely complex immigration process seems as pointless as speed limits. People who intend to break them will do so, while the rest of us will drive at relatively safe speeds for its own sake, not because it's the law.

There is a fundamental argument about the purpose of the law under this debate. Should the law be massive and confusing in order to prevent any possible negative event, or should it be simple and predictable and have a net positive effect on society?

And when the law itself is bad, should we really punish people for working around it? Where is the line between justified civil disobedience and lawlessness?

SHORTER: When everyone agrees that the law is a mess and needs fixing, why is someone having already broken it an argument against doing so?

Jun 11, 2013

Bush > Obama, Officially


Americans' views of former president George W. Bush have improved, with 49% now viewing him favorably and 46% unfavorably. That is the first time since 2005 that opinions of him have been more positive than negative.
Whether it's because of recent scandals or the favorable passage of time, it is now official: George W Bush is more popular than Barack Obama.

UPDATE: Another day, another three points down for Obama, now at 45% approval on the 3-day rolling average (different than the weekly average shown above). Bush now leads him by 4% instead of 1%.

The Immigration Game

Immigration is to 2014 as Obamacare was to 2010, whether it passes or fails.

After a year of debate, Obamacare was signed into law in March 2010. The resulting outrage swept the Democrats from power in the House and nearly the Senate in the November 2010 midterm elections. Immigration reform may have the same effect on next year's election, in one of two directions. It will pass the Senate, but its fate in the House is the real question. If it gets full Democrat support and a few Republicans, it will pass the House. It then becomes a GOP target for rallying the base to the midterm election (along with the IRS, NSA, EPA, and other scandals), possibly helping Republicans take back the Senate.

However, if it fails it will have the opposite effect, this time for Democrats. If the GOP stands united against it, and it doesn't pass the House, President Obama gets to rally his base against the "hateful, bigoted, xenophobic, backwards" Republicans. There's not much of a chance of Democrats taking back the House in 2014, but an energized Democrat base could at least hold their Senate majority.

So that's the game. Some even suggest the bill is designed to fail for these electoral reasons. I call myself cynical, but even I'm not that cynical. I think immigration reform is the right thing to do, for many, many reasons, though I don't think the bill is perfect (is any?). But we'll never get a perfect bill, and until then millions of people from other countries who just want a better life for themselves and their children are pushed to undermine our legal system. So screw the politics, let's fix the system.

Jun 6, 2013

The NSA excuse only goes halfway

In response to the collective outrage that the National Security Agency collects records on every phone call made in the US every day, the Obama administration has declassified some details about the program in an attempt to explain it and douse the flames. In short, the program is approved by the secret FISA court, reviewed periodically for abuse, and does not actually use the data except when specific threats or information arise. While this might make them, and even some outraged citizens, feel better, it does not make it any less unconstitutional.

The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The administration argues that since they do not actually look at or use the data without probable cause, the program is valid. They are saying that they have probable cause when they do a search on the data. The problem is that they don't have probable cause when they seize the data. There cannot possibly be probable cause to seize phone records for the entire country. This is by definition unreasonable, and thus prohibited by the Constitution that the congressmen who created the legal authority for, bureaucrats who administer, and judges who sign off on this program swore to protect and uphold.


The full statement by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, has one statement that I think deserves extra scrutiny.
The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications.
Quite simply, too bad. I'm sure there are lots of unconstitutional things the government could do to keep us safe. They still aren't and shouldn't ever be allowed to do them.

The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a former FBI agent, Mike Rodgers, went even further today and said that we have already thwarted a domestic terrorist attack because of this program. Again, too bad. We could thwart even more terrorist attacks if we quartered soldiers in citizens' homes or conducted military operations in American cities, but that doesn't mean we should. Part of the byproduct of living in a free republic is the risk of occasional harm. We formed the federal government to protect our liberties from infringement by others within a framework of laws, not to prevent that harm by any means necessary.

Jun 4, 2013

Christie's gambit

Robert Costa at NRO and others make the case that Governor Chris Christie has sold out the GOP for his own aspirations (?) with his decision to hold a special election to fill Lautenberg's vacated Senate seat in October 2013 instead of allowing his soon-to-be-appointed interim choice remain in the seat until the end of Lautenberg's term in 2014. This objection is wrong on both counts.

First, it isn't necessarily Christie choosing himself (or Democrat electoral chances?) over GOP chances. The only Republican that would be allegedly helped by having the interim appointment serve until 2014 is that appointed candidate, or one Senate seat. Conversely, there are lots of Republicans who could be helped by keeping the extremely popular and charismatic like Democratic nominee, Newark mayor Cory Booker, off the November 2014 ballot. Christie himself will likely inflate GOP turnout in November 2013, which will help Republicans running for the other state offices in that election. Christie won't be on the ballot in 2014, but had he not made this decision, Booker would be, which would probably have inflated Democrat and specifically black turnout, dragging down other potential New Jersey Republicans running for the House. So yes, he may have traded away Republican chances for one more Senate seat in 2014, but really how good were those chances going to be anyway?

It turns out that with an interim appointed Senator, not very good. And that's the second part Costa and others get wrong. Having a Republican appointed to Lautenberg's seat for the next 18 months does not increase the chances of a Republican keeping that seat in 2014. It turns out that interim appointees have a very hard time holding onto their seat in the next election historically. Given that this election would have been against Cory Booker and his +60% approval rating anyway, Christie would be trading 18 months of an extra Republican in the Senate for...nothing really.

May 27, 2013

"Crumbling roads and bridges": A lesson in finger pointing

After last week's bridge collapse in Washington State (and the one in Minneapolis before it), the knee jerk reaction is to blame our nation's "crumbling roads and bridges" on a lack of funding, and by extension miserly Republicans who want to cut spending. And while there is a case to be made that a lot of our highway system needs repair, that is neither because of a lack of funding, nor Republicans standing in the way.

Between 2002 and 2006 when we had a Republican in the White House and Republican majorities in Congress, total public construction spending on roads went from $62,553,000,000 to $78,215,000,000, an increase of 25%. At the same time, we were fighting two wars, creating new national education and Medicare programs, and cutting taxes. Lest anyone think Republicans are anarchistic social Darwinists.

Between 2007 and 2010 the Republican was succeeded by a Democrat in the White House and Democrats took over both houses of Congress. Public spending on roads went from the previous $78,215,000,000 to $80,100,000,000, an increase of...wait for it...2%. Certainly it hasn't risen anymore since Republicans took back the House at the end of 2010, but if you're only going to increase it by 5% over 4 straight years of Democratic control, any argument about what the other guys do is hilariously hypocritical.

The really insidious thing about this data is what occurred right in the middle of that second time period: Stimulus! The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February 2009 by the Democrat-led Congress and signed by President Obama was sold as an "emergency" measure designed to jump start our economy primarily by funding "shovel-ready" (HA HA HA HA HA) infrastructure projects and green energy investment. It did neither. The month the stimulus was passed, public spending on roads was $81,762,000,000. One year later it was 5% lower at $77,779,000,000 and didn't peak until May 2010 at $86,203,000,000.

The main thing the stimulus did (apart from cutting taxes, which I could have sworn was a bad thing...) is create a massive slush fund for public sector unions. At a time when tax revenues were down during and immediately after the recession, states took a hit to their bottom line and faced cutting employees. Given the overwhelmingly Democratic leanings of public employees, that just wasn't an option. So the stimulus basically propped up state budgets to keep their employees working (and contributing to their unions). That's why Department of Education appropriations from the stimulus were twice as high as Department of Transportation. Instead of repairing old bridges, we kept school administrators comfortable. Instead of repaving roads, the NEA stayed happy.

There is certainly an argument to be made (though not one I'd agree with) for maintaining state employment during tough economic times with massive infusions of federal tax dollars. But that's not the argument that was presented to the American people. Instead we were told that all our infrastructure problems would be solved and the economy would bounce back. Neither happened.

May 24, 2013

New Cynicus Prime policy: Don't engage bigots and homophobes

Thirteen years after the Supreme Court affirmed the Boy Scouts of America and other private organizations' right to limit their membership as they choose, delegates of the BSA voted yesterday by 61-39% to allow gay scouts to join (up to age 18). The reaction among the neandercon religious right was predictably swift, vile, and unchristian. Jesus befriended prostitutes, gamblers, and soulless bureaucrats. But you demand the "freedom of association" to not allow teh gheyz in your group? Really?

I've tried reasoning with these people in the past on this. I even tried last night in the fury of the immediate aftermath of the BSA decision. It's beyond futile. With polls rapidly leaving them in the dirt, it is no longer worth anyone's time to intellectually engage on these issues. They're wrong, they'll never accept it, and their hateful, ignorant position will be all but extinct within a decade.

May 22, 2013

No, an increase in 501c4 applications is not an excuse for IRS targeting

Many Democrats on Congressional committees investigating the IRS discrimination against conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status have used an increase in these applications to excuse the discrimination itself. They suggest that applications "doubled" between 2009 and 2012, over the time the discrimination took place. Some go even further to suggest that the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case, decided January 2010, led immediately to the doubling of applications. They then ask if the resources allocated to the IRS to handle this "doubled" caseload was correspondingly increased.

This all seems like a reasonable argument, but for one minor detail. The IRS began targeting in March 2010. The cases "doubled" between 2010 and 2012, not 2009 and 2010. They only went up 30% the year after targeting began, and another 48% the year after that.

IRS officials would have had to be able to predict only two months after Citizens United that their caseload was going to increase significantly over the next three years in order for their actions to be even marginally excusable from an efficiency standpoint. But as the Treasury Inspector General has testified, even in that case, the specific targeting of certain types of groups is unacceptable.

May 16, 2013

A rough timeline of the IRS harassment scandal

5/13/09 - President Obama jokes about using an IRS audit to punish someone over an NCAA basketball tournament bracket.

March 2010 - IRS begins selectively and purposefully stalling hundreds of conservative groups' applications for non-profit status with prohibitively detailed information requests, while fast-tracking liberal groups' applications.

Star Trek, Through the Looking Glass

The latest Star Trek movie in JJ Abrams' rebooted franchise is titled 'Into Darkness'. It could just as easily be titled 'Through the Looking Glass'.

I'll avoid direct spoilers here, but as many production details over the last year suggested, Into Darkness is a remake of sorts of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.  Except after the chronology break that occurred because of the time travel in the last movie, most of the important points are reversed. It's an innovative, but extremely risky move, especially since Wrath of Khan is viewed by many Trek fans as the best film in the over 30-year franchise. 

The plot of Into Darkness on paper is excellent. Everything fits into place in sequence and with a purpose, but most of it feels like a puzzle that's been fit together out of lots of shiny pieces rather than a picture that started off whole but made of individual components. Loud chase sequence(s), classic Trek villain, the Enterprise in peril, flagrant violation of Starfleet regulations, logic vs intuition debates, obligatory "GRAB MY HAND!1!!" falling scene, inappropriate one-liners, it's all there. But it doesn't feel like it comes together to make one cohesive whole.

May 15, 2013

Impeachment, the worst idea ever

Stop. Seriously, just stop.

Impeachment is the civil punishment of a public official for "high crimes and misdemeanors". In the federal government it is voted on by the House of Representatives. The impeachment itself has no significant consequence. It is then followed by a trial in the Senate. If convicted, the possible punishment is removal from office and disqualification from future office. A regular criminal process can then take place.

None of these aspects of the process is advisable right now in relation to the Benghazi, IRS, AP, EPA, or other scandals.

May 13, 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013: The day the Obama administration came crumbling down

In April we had the Worst Week Ever, including the Boston marathon bombing and West TX explosion. For the Obama administration, last Friday was the Worst Day Ever.

The House Oversight Committee's hearing about the Benghazi terrorist attack was two days prior, and on Friday more details came out about the changes made to the talking points used by various administration officials in the weeks to cover their tracks following the attack.

Later that day, the IRS apologized for specifically targeting "tea party" and "patriot" labeled groups in applying for non-profit status.

Now we learn today that on Friday the AP was notified by the DOJ that they had seized two full months of telephone records for 20 of their reporters' phone lines.

May 10, 2013

What America really thinks about abortion might surprise you

A large portion of the last presidential election cycle was spent talking about abortion. It wasn't always front and center (the "war on women" was basically a smokescreen for abortion), but it was there. President Obama was obviously on the side of abortion rights, and he won. So it might surprise you to know that a large majority of the country thinks abortion should be illegal under all or almost all circumstances.

According to a new Gallup poll taken over the last week of 1500 adults, 58% of the country thinks abortion should be totally illegal or only legal in "a few circumstances" (presumably the standard exceptions of rape, incest, and life of the mother), essentially the Republican position. Only 39% think it should be legal in all or most cases, the Democrat position. How then was the President able to so effectively demagogue the issue in 2012?

Even more shocking, especially considering the campaign rhetoric last year, is the almost total lack of gender gap on the issue. Conventional wisdom is that women are more pro-choice than men. However, there is only a difference of 2% in the pro-life majority between men and women, with 59% of men and 57% of women opposing abortion in all or most cases.

May 2, 2013

A progressively gayer flag

I love the American flag. It represents so many wonderful things about our nation - its values, its history, its individual member states' sovereignty, its unity among those states. Not that it needs to be changed, but I often daydream about ways to represent new ideas on the already powerful image of the flag. Back in my more naively anti-capitalist youth, I thought of replacing the stars on the flag with corporate logos. It turns out someone had already done that.

Just today I thought of a new one while thinking about the ongoing struggle for marriage equality in the various states. There is already a rainbow flag, and an American flag with a rainbow instead of 13 stripes. But what if certain stars were replaced with the rainbow instead, to show which states had legalized gay marriage?

May 1, 2013

Chris Broussard: Unknowing bigot or theological outlier?

Yesterday on ESPN, reacting to Jason Collins coming out as the first gay NBA player, analyst and columnist Chris Broussard avoided the cultural and athletic angle and went straight for the theological.

Some called him courageous for his comments. Some demanded his suspension. I don't think Broussard should be either reprimanded or applauded for his comments. In terms of personal offensiveness, they were pretty tame. However, there are huge theological implications of what he said.

Apr 29, 2013

To conservatives: Why Jason Collins coming out matters

It's 2013, y'all. I don't understand why this kind of thing has to be explained anymore, but based on the reactions to Jason Collins, veteran NBA player, coming out today as the first current gay male player in US team sports, it does.

Here's how some conservatives I follow (and one I don't) reacted on Twitter:

Apr 24, 2013

Empty bank accounts: A prime example of government waste

Today the news comes to us from the Washington Post that this year, the federal government will spend
$890,000 on fees for 13,712 empty bank accounts.

I'll let that sink in. You probably have to read it a couple more times, as it makes no sense the first time. Ok, done? No? Still don't understand? Yeah, me neither. So let's review.

The federal government, not including state and local governments, just the federal government, has 13,712 bank accounts. No, I'm sorry, not even that. It has way more accounts than that. Those are just the ones that are...yes...empty. There are actually 202,000 of these accounts that pay out federal grants, and 7% of them are empty, but still open and costing $65 per year to remain so.

Texas House abolishes the lottery...then realizes how insane that is

Every two years, the Texas legislature votes on a measure to renew the Texas Lottery Commission, which oversees the many lottery games in the state, as well as authorizing charity bingo operations. The funds from the lottery provide $2.2 billion in funding for the state every year.

In previous legislative sessions, which occur only every two years in the state, the reauthorization has been relatively uncontroversial. Yesterday before lunch, the bill was defeated 81-65. Apparently no one realized that abolishing the lottery would have actual consequences. Both Republicans and Democrats voted against the measure, some on "moral" grounds that the lottery was a(n ENTIRELY VOLUNTARY) "predatory tax" "on the poor". All hell broke loose in Austin as House leaders had to convince members of the imminent $2B budget gap that would have to be cut or made up for with actual taxes if this vote was not reversed. Within hours, senses returned, cooler heads prevailed, and the measure was reintroduced and passed 92-53.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this farcical episode, most of which are self-evident. Fortunately, my representative, Democrat Carol Alvarado, was one of the consistently sane ones.

Apr 19, 2013

Lindsay Graham: Cafeteria Constitutionalist

During the manhunt for the second Boston marathon bomber today, Lindsay Graham, senior Senator from South Carolina, tweeted the following:
Graham's oath of office requires him to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States". That Constitution requires that citizens of the United States be afforded due process when accused of a crime. Dzhokhar "Jahar" Tsarnaev, one of the two suspected bombers, became an American citizen on September 11, 2012, and the crime he is accused of committing occurred in this country. Regardless of how horrible that crime was, he has the right to be arrested, accused, have evidence presented against him, and defend himself against such in a court of law.

If, as Graham suggests, and "the homeland is the battlefield", then the protections guaranteed to citizens and limits place on government in the Constitution no longer exist. In extending the war on terror within our borders, he is explicitly calling for a police state.

Anyone who witnessed Graham's treatment of Rand Paul after his filibuster over drone use should not be surprised by his flippancy with the civil liberties of American citizens. However, every voter of South Carolina and citizen of the United States of America should be horrified by it.

This should be especially chilling to his conservative constituents. Conservatism is supposed to be about limited government and maximum personal freedom. Graham instead actually calls on the federal executive to exert direct power over what should instead be a local or state criminal matter, presumably because of, what, the ethnicity of the suspect? I assume during the Obamacare debates Graham objected to the interstate commerce justification for the individual insurance mandate. The irony of intrastate police activity being co-opted by the federal government is surely lost on him, but it shouldn't be to his base.

It's a shame that Graham will likely have no significant challenger in his 2014 primary and general election. The people of South Carolina, the rest of the United States, and the Constitution itself deserve better.

Apr 17, 2013

Universal common sense gun safety equal access rights buzzword hashtag

All nine proposed amendments to the Senate gun control bill failed procedural votes today, including stronger background checks, limited magazine sizes, and the assault weapons ban. President Obama, with his tragic human shields, was visibly upset reacting to the votes at an appearance today.
"A few minutes ago a minority in the United States Senate decided it wasn't worth it. They blocked common-sense gun reforms, even while these families looked on from the Senate gallery. By now it's well-known that 90 percent of the American people support universal background checks that make it harder for a dangerous person to buy a gun. We're talking about convicted felons, people convicted of domestic violence, people with a severe mental illness."
If 90% of the public supports something, it's either an obviously good thing or a hideously terrible thing that everyone has been duped into supporting. In the case of the oft-parroted 90% support for background checks, it's a mixture of the two and some other things as well.

The Quinnipiac poll where the 90% figure comes from is as follows:
Do you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun buyers?
Support: 91%
Oppose: 8%
Don't know: 1%
If 91% of people supported universal background checks, and that's all that was in the Toomey-Manchin amendment, it would have passed overwhelmingly. There are three things that kept it from doing so: a large number of that 91% support the idea of universal background checks without realizing the implications, Toomey-Manchin had a lot of other problems, and many of the people voting on it are up for reelection next year.

If actually 91% of people support something, and you're worried about your next election, you would vote for that thing, not against it. "But it's Republican primary voters!" Nope. "But it's Democrats running in red states!" Nope. The Quinnipiac poll shows 88% Republican support, 90% Southern support, and 91% Western support for it as well. Again. If these numbers are right and are actually consequential.

Three of the four Democrats who voted against Toomey-Manchin are up for reelection next year in red states. But even if these states were 100% Republican, 88% of them said they support universal background checks. The fourth Democrat, Heidi Heitkamp, was just elected last year, so she has another 5 years before she has to worry about reelection. Her statement on her vote includes:
"I’ve thought long and hard about this, I’ve taken the tough meetings, and I’ve heard overwhelmingly from the people of North Dakota; and at the end of the day my duty is to listen to and represent the people of North Dakota."

But the people of North Dakota presumably also support it in the high 80s or 90s! Right? RIGHT???

So what's the problem then? If so many people support an idea, why don't their representatives? It must be "willful lies" of the evil "gun lobby"! Nope. It's just that no one really cares. While a lot of people might like the idea of gun control, only 4% of people think it's the most important problem we face. Just as many people think North Korea and immigration are our worst problems, and more people think moral decline is. So while it may have popular support in an isolated poll, it's not going to bring people out to the only poll that matters - their local precinct next November. That means Senators and Representatives are free to use their heads when considering issues instead of poll numbers. So that means they were able to see the other problems with the bill and rightfully oppose it.

There are a few problems with the idea of universal background checks itself, of course. First, it's great theoretically for everyone who buys a gun to have a background check, but it is logistically difficult. Background checks are already mandatory for licensed gun dealers, the only people setup to conduct them. Extending that requirement to everyone in the country would in effect end legal private gun sales. If I had a gun I wanted to sell to my neighbor, how would I go about getting a background check on him? The background checks mandated by federal law aren't as simple as those used by tenant or employee reporting agencies. Perhaps a system could be setup to streamline the process, but Toomey-Manchin didn't do that, otherwise it might have made their case easier to consider. Technically, Congress shouldn't have the power to regulate this kind of commerce anyway, since it' may not occur over state lines.

Second, it doesn't count gifts, donations, or trades. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer, stole his weapons from his mother, who passed a background check. Even banning gifts and trades wouldn't prevent people from stealing guns. For those new to the planet, criminals don't follow the law.

Third, many, if not most, murderers wouldn't be stopped by a background check anyway. Adam Lanza might have been an oddball, but he didn't have a diagnosed mental illness or criminal background. He could have gone to the nearest gun store, bought an AR-15 and two pistols, and done the same thing, even after Toomey-Manchin or even harsher gun control measures were in effect.

So yes, it's easy to use isolated poll numbers and grieving families to bludgeon people who stop your agenda dead in its tracks, but occasionally there are actual ideological and substantive reasons for them to do so, even if they are politicians!

Apr 10, 2013

Corpse Parade

Just before the tentative deal on gun measures came out this morning, this was announced:
Gun control supporters and survivors of gun violence are gathering Wednesday in the Capitol to read the names of the 3,300 killed from guns since the Newtown shootings and protest a potential filibuster of gun legislation.
While I sympathize with the families of those killed both in Newtown and since, they are being used as puppets in a partisan shell game, for many reasons.

There are times when a memorial reading of victims' names is honorable and worth the time. The annual reading of the names of the 9/11 victims at the World Trade Center site is a somber, helpful occasion. There is no agenda being advanced, no campaign being waged, and no political action committee members doing the reading. It is a memorial, pure and honest.

This is not.

It may not seem obvious, but what do the victims of gun violence since last December have to do with pending gun legislation in Congress? The major planks of the proposed legislation are strengthened background checks, magazine limits, and an amendment to ban cosmetic rifle improvements (aka, "assault weapons"). Do we know if the 3,300 victims were killed with modified rifles? Given the statistics, it's much more likely that almost all of them were killed with handguns, not shotguns, rifles, AR-15s, or other "weapons of war" bogeymen. Do we know how many of those 3,300 crimes were committed by people who had undergone background checks? Given the (false) 40% statistic we hear so often, we might assume that 1,320 of them were killed by people who didn't have a background check when they bought their gun (if they bought it at all?). 

That's the thing about gun control measures. Since gun ownership and possession is a guaranteed constitutional right, any legislation has to be limited. That also means its effectiveness is necessarily limited. Even though the full "assault weapons" ban was in place for 10 years from 1994 to 2004, there are questions about its effectiveness, since these weapons are used in relatively few crimes anyway. Limiting magazine sizes would also have a questionable effect since it would only matter in mass killings, of which there are even fewer (relative to total gun crimes).

Of course the 3,300 gun deaths since Newtown are tragic, as those at Newtown and Aurora were. Each and every one of them should be mourned and remembered, and their families should be embraced and supported by their communities. However, their names have nothing to do with the reality of the gun debate we're having as a nation. They are grossly being used as props by political organizations who already know that their proposals wouldn't even have stopped Newtown.

Apr 7, 2013

The Christianist Impulse

YouGov has a new poll out via HuffPo (yes, I know...) that finds minority support for making Christianity (which one?) the official religion of the United States (32%), and slightly higher minority support for making it the official religion of one's state (34%). Fortunately there is majority opposition to such a blatantly unconstitutional and insane idea (52%).

However, the breakdown by party affiliation is what's really distressing, though not at all surprising:

Republicans were more likely than Democrats or independents to say that they would favor establishing Christianity as an official state religion, with 55 percent favoring it in their own state and 46 percent favoring a national constitutional amendment.
While I've dealt with the party's image problem before, this is really the root of our policy problems. It's fine that the majority of the party is Christian; the vast majority of the country still is. What's not fine is that half the party wants to force that on everyone else. Not only does this fly in the face of the small government ideals of conservatism and libertarianism, it also leads to many of our worst and most unpopular platform planks.

The least popular part of the GOP platform is the moral statism, the desire to enforce moral behavior through law, most of which stems from the strong evangelical Christian base of the party. The most obvious and current example being the position on marriage. National support for same-sex marriage is roughly equivalent to the opposition to state religion in this YouGov poll, both now majorities. The effort to mandate "traditional" marriage on the state, and even federal, level is a symptom of the disease of Christianism, the desire to codify religious preferences into secular law. Eliminate the Christianist impulse, and the opposition to enforcing such things fades with it.

It's especially silly on a foundational level for the party of limited government to advocate for state endorsement of anything, especially in violation of one of the basic freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The party that obsessively quotes the Founders should not be the same one that wants to end one of the basic reasons for the founding, religious freedom. This is where the conservative (contra libertarian) ideology exposes its inconsistency. Conservatives like small government on economic matters, but big, intrusive government on moral and social ones. Libertarians (and Rand Paul's "new GOP") consistently prefer small government on both.

One massive contradiction this exposes is the far right's obsession with sharia law in the US, the use of Islamic code to govern the state. There's no way to exactly correlate the two populations without more specific polling, but it's likely that most of the same people concerned about the influence of the religion of 0.6% of the population on the law would favor enshrining the religion of 78.4% in it instead. Our republican form of government is specifically designed to prevent this type of majoritarian abuse. The majority should not be able to vote away the rights of the minority, but that's exactly what having an official state religion would do.

Apr 2, 2013

The surprising connection between Tea Party and gay marriage

Many people assume that since the Tea Party of 2009-2010 was so vocal on the right that it was (yes, was) more conservative on every issue than the previous party establishment. On some issues, largely fiscal, this is true. Tea Party candidates mostly wanted to reform and cut more than their established opponents, who were more comfortable with the status quo. However, this did not necessarily translate to social issues (that don't include abortion). There is ample evidence for this, even in the Senate's current ongoing mass "evolution" on same-sex marriage.

There were 13 new Republican Senators elected in 2010, some who had beaten more establishment Republicans in their primary then won the general, some who just took over for another retiring Republican, and some who beat Democrat incumbents to flip the seat to the GOP. Two of them, Portman and Kirk, have since announced their support for same-sex marriage. At least two others (Rubio and Paul) have said the issue should be left to the states (the same position as President Obama). Rubio goes further and opposes the idea of a Federal Marriage Amendment, which is part of the official platform of the GOP. And I have a feeling that if repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 federal definition of marriage, ever came up for a vote in the Senate, even more would break ranks and support it (most likely, Ayotte, Lee, Toomey, Johnson). Only one other GOP Senator, a pre-2010 incumbent, has made news on the topic, Lisa Murkowksi, who said she's "evolving".

It's thus noteworthy that the only Republican Senators to fully support same-sex marriage, along with the two most prominent GOP voices for allowing states to decide, were all elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Contrast that with the number of established Republican Senators in office before 2010 who support marriage equality, overturning DOMA, or letting the states decide: 0.

Yet more evidence that the Tea Party movement was (yes, WAS) actually more libertarian than arch-conservative.

Reductio ad superstitio: The case against the case against same-sex marriage

The more I read and think about the arguments against same-sex marriage equality, the less sense they make, and the more latent bigotry they reveal, especially when reduced to their base premises.
"Marriage is between a man and woman according to the Bible."
Why? (Also, entirely irrelevant to the law.)
"Because homosexuality is a sin."
"Because it's an unnatural abomination."
"Because it's gross."
Oh, ok.
"Marriage has always been between a man and woman. It's just history. And tradition."
"So we should respect tradition that works and not redefine a historical institution."
Even when that means it discriminates against 5-10% of the population?
Oh, ok.
"Marriage was designed for child rearing. Gays can't have children."
They can't? Adoption? Surrogacy? (Also, the elderly, infertile, or asexual can't marry?)
"Oh, we're against those too."
"Because studies show two married birth parents are ideal."
So we're only allowing the ideal situation through the law now? No divorce? No parental death allowed? No out of wedlock pregnancy?
"Ideally no, but we can't legislate those things."
Why not?
"Because people wouldn't support it."
So you're only enforcing the ideal when it's against a small minority you can beat politically?
"I guess."
Oh, ok. How's that working out for you lately, by the way?
"Marriage shouldn't be redefined. But civil unions are ok."
That's big of you. So they'll have all the same rights, but not be able to use the term "marriage." One might even say you're allowing a "separate but equal" version for a persecuted minority group.
"Exactly. See how accommodating and open minded I am?"
Yes. I'm sure the people who assigned special water fountains for black people felt the same way.
"Hey! This is different!"
Instead, the conversation should go more like this...
Do you accept that gay people do and will always exist?
"Yes." (Otherwise you're totally out of touch with reality.)
Do you accept that they do and will always be able to adopt or have their own children?
"Yes." (Otherwise you're ignorant and spiteful.)
Then wouldn't it be better for society if they raised those children in a loving, stable, married home?
"Yes." (Otherwise you're contradicting yourself.)
So you support same-sex marriage then?
"Yes." (Otherwise no one should ever consider you trustworthy on anything ever again.)
Thank you. You may now be considered a reasonable human being.