Oh, for a little straight talk now that spring is in the air

The political reaction to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is the clearest evidence I’ve seen lately of the sclerotic thinking that passes for wisdom and strategy in American politics.  Not saying I’m surprised, mind you, just saying.

Don’t get me wrong: every vacancy on the Supreme Court of the the United States, ever, has been the occasion for political plotting and pontificating…that’s the nature of the beast.  Maybe there was more lip service paid in the past to observing “a decent interval” before going public, but we know that one reason the successful professional political players are successful is that they don’t let an opportunity to gain advantage go to waste.  In this case, Scalia’s body hadn’t made it home to Virginia before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his intention to block anyone nominated by President Obama in the hope that a Republican wins the presidency this November.

Why?  Because “The American people should have a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice”?  Excuse me, Mr. Majority Leader and avowed Obstructionist-of-Obama-in-Chief, but that’s not the way it’s done and we all know it.

There isn’t—or shouldn’t be—any disagreement on the facts: the Constitution gives this president the responsibility to nominate a new justice in this case, not the next president; many of the same Republican senators now insisting that the process must be put on hold for the good of the nation had very different opinions when the question came up during the last few months of George W. Bush’s presidency.  (Yes, plenty of Democrats have more than a passing acquaintance with hypocrisy as a political tool, too, starting with Chuck Schumer on this same topic eight years ago; I’m sure some of you have more examples.)  Also true is that the Constitution gives responsibility to the Senate to approve or reject that nominee, with no timetable or deadline for doing so.

There’s no question that McConnell and the Republican majority have no legal requirement to approve President Obama’s nominee, or even to put the nomination to a vote.  They may make the political calculation that stonewalling for a year is the better path: bet on winning the White House and holding the Senate so they can have their pick of ultraconservative judges, versus running the risk of losing both and allowing the Democrats to choose another Douglas or Brennan (if one can be found).  I wish they would just say so, instead of going to the well for another round of the Obama Apocalypse that (inexplicably) plays so well with a certain portion of the electorate.  Andrew Prokop at Vox.com wrote them a first draft of such a speech:

Justice Scalia was a strong, solid conservative. And whoever Barack Obama nominates to replace him is certain to be well to his left — and will likely be very, very, very far to his left.

This would upset a balance of power in the Court that has existed for decades. Instead of a five-vote majority that is generally conservative, a Scalia replacement appointed by President Obama would allow a new majority bloc of five solid liberals to form. On issues affecting free enterprise, the sanctity of human life, and federal power, sweeping new liberal rulings could reshape law and precedent across America.

I believe this would be a disaster for the country. Most members of my party believe this would be a disaster for the country. And most of my party’s voters believe it would be a disaster for the country.

So I’m going to do my best to stop it from happening.

(snip)

…in suggesting that President Obama shouldn’t appoint any replacement for Scalia, and that he should just leave it to the next president, I am rhetorically going further than others have in the past.

But really I’ve just hit the fast-forward button. We would have ended up opposing whomever Obama nominated, because that person would, of course, have had liberal views. And my party’s senators would never have approved any other Obama Supreme Court nominee anyway, because they’re terrified of losing their seats in primaries.

So maybe my “no nominees in the final year” position hasn’t explicitly been taken by anyone before, but it hardly means the death of our constitutional democracy. The near-term upshot is that one Supreme Court seat stays vacant for a year. Some closely divided cases will effectively remain unresolved for a bit. Big deal.

A rich vein of loopy

Even though the easy and obvious answer should be easy and obvious (duh), a disturbingly large percentage of our fellow Americans aren’t satisfied with taking the easy way.  Good for them, I say: it demonstrates their exceptional American characteristics of ingenuity and perseverance to come up with these unconventional answers, while generating easy laughs for us lazy slobs whose consciences take no offense when we just skate by, exercising nothing more mentally rigorous than logic and reason.

Public Policy Polling conducted a poll in late March that asked people about conspiracy theories, ones “well known to the public, others perhaps to just the darker corners of the internet.”  What did they find?  A rich vein of loopy:

  • 4% believe shape-shifting reptilian people take on human form and gain political power to manipulate society and control the world (probably thinking of Mitch McConnell on this one)
  • 5% believe Paul McCartney died in 1966 (the rest of us think he’s on another world tour)
  • 11% believe the U.S. government allowed the September 11 attacks to happen
  • 13% believe Barack Obama is the anti-Christ (huh?)
  • 14% believe the CIA was instrumental in creating the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s
  • 15% believe the medical and pharmaceutical industries create new diseases to make money off of treatments

(As for the 29% who think aliens exist—what’s wrong with the other 71% of you?)

Just so much harmless kookery, right?  Yes, but what about the 20% who believe the government is hiding a link between autism and childhood diseases, or the 37% percent who believe global warming is a hoax?  Those people act on their beliefs to the detriment of the futures of both their children and the planet they share with the rest of us.  What does it say about our society when, more than ten years after the fact, 44% still think that our then-president took the nation to war on a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein, and another 12% aren’t sure?

What about the people who had elaborate explanations for the Boston Marathon bombing the day after it happened, before anyone but the bombers themselves could possibly have known the truth?

For starters, I suggest you check out the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate, where Phil Plait recently vented a little about the march of antireality in general and just today about the links between the anti-vaccine nuts and the measles outbreak in Wales.  He has a clear-headed approach and a clean writing style that I think you’ll appreciate.

After that? I don’t know for sure…perhaps we can all get some good advice from the 14% who believe in Bigfoot, or the 9%, like Gen. Jack Ripper, who are convinced that fluoridation of our water isn’t just about dental health.

Just shut up and let me do the talking

It’s about damn time that the public reports about the private negotiations on the federal budget had some good news: Speaker Boehner and President Obama have gotten everyone else to leave the room!

Since the election last month there’s been plenty of balloon juice about how to avoid running the federal budget over a “fiscal cliff,” which is just an agreement made last year between Congress and the administration on a set of tax increases and budget cuts that would go into effect at the first of next year unless they took some other action on taxes and spending by that deadline. Remember when they said that Washington had “kicked the can down the road?” Well, this is where that can stopped; it was kicked to here so the issue wouldn’t inconveniently get noticed while America was paying attention during the fall election campaigns.

You’d like to think that there would have been some effort underway all along during the past year and a half to find a compromise on ways to strengthen the economy and reduce the government’s budget deficit, but to all appearances there wasn’t. The people we elected to go to Washington to use their judgment and wisdom in the best interests of our communities and our states and our country couldn’t climb down off their talking points long enough to get anything constructive accomplished. They could, however, make a lot of noise about the virtuousness of their own moral and political philosophies, and by extension if not by direct accusation the seditious intentions of their “friends across the aisle.” Perfect way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation over disagreements, right?

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that any honest effort to come to a compromise on a course of action regarding a disputed issue isn’t aided by (1) having too many negotiators at the table, and (2) conducting the negotiations in public. The more people that are involved, the harder it is to get everyone to agree on anything. And the more the people who are involved do their talking in public and make great political show of what they will and will not accept, the harder they make it on themselves to come to a compromise without seeming to lose face in public or run the risk of being bashed as surrender monkeys or traitors to some cause or other. So it seems to me to be a thoroughly sensible decision that Boehner has asked the Senate leaders and the House Democratic leader to step back, and that “White House aides and the speaker’s staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks” in the hope that some real progress can be made.

Now for the entertainment portion of today’s post: since I’m not one to overlook an opportunity to point out stupidity where it exists, I should highlight this. The Times story notes that as the president reaffirmed his position that the tax rate on incomes above $250,000 must go up…

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. [Richard] Durbin said.

History indeed: had to filibuster his own bill to keep it from being passed! I’m thinking that Ashley Judd might be just the thing the U.S. Senate and the people of Kentucky need.

Health insurance law ruling will refocus fall campaign–away from the most important issues!

Let the predictable caterwauling begin: today the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with Chief Justice John Roberts leading the majority on the 5-4 decision.

The heart of the disagreement over the law is its requirement that each of us Americans purchase health insurance, and the court has now ruled that the requirement does not violate the Constitution.

During oral arguments in March, conservative justices indicated they were skeptical about the individual mandate, the provision in the 2,700-page health-care law that requires nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a financial penalty.

Arguing the case for the Obama administration, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. defended the law as a constitutional exercise of congressional power under the charter’s commerce clause to regulate interstate commerce. He said lawmakers were regulating health insurance to deal with the problem of millions of people who lack coverage and therefore shift costs to the insured when they cannot pay for their medical care.

Paul D. Clement, representing Florida and 25 other states objecting to the health-care law, argued that Congress exceeded its power in passing the law, which he said compels people to buy a product.

The court rejected Obama administration’s commerce-clause argument, but ruled 5-4 that Congress nevertheless “has the power to impose” the individual mandate under its taxing authority. The provision “need not be read to do more than impose a tax,” the opinion said. “This is sufficient to sustain it.”

Neither the plaintiffs in the case nor the Obama administration had argued before the court that the individual mandate was a tax.

(In fact, that is the point made—the only point made—in the story I saw when I clicked on the lead headline on FoxNews.comthis afternoon.)

The decision means that implementation of the new law should proceed, with the aim to get health insurance coverage for tens of millions of currently uninsured Americans; these are the people who currently access the most expensive health care around through emergency rooms and charity care, medical care that those of us who pay taxes are already footing the bill for anyway.

So, that’s settled.  Or not.  Arguably, the real heart of the disagreement is that this is Obama’s plan, and people who had supported similar health care insurance law revisions in the past (like the conservative Heritage Foundation and many Republicans; like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, W. Mitt Romney, Gov.) opposed this one because it was Obama’s plan.  People like Mitch McConnell, and others who have proudly and publicly asserted that they will do whatever is required to make Barack Obama a one-term president (for whatever reason).

The dissent in the case will only fuel their fire: it argues that the Obamacare mandate that individuals purchase a product—health insurance—and its threatened denial of some Medicaid funding to states for non-compliance both unconstitutionally exceed government authority, and that since those provisions are crucial to making the system work, the entire statute should be tossed out…hmm, not much room for compromise here, I guess.

It’s unfortunate that the divide on the court was (except for Roberts) by perceived political ideology—for many people that’s going to reinforce the idea that the justices make their decisions based on politics rather than the law, and that will reinforce the left/right division in politics.  But it could have been worse: as David Franklin from DePaul University’s College of Law argues in Slate, Roberts found a way to uphold ACA in order to save the integrity of the Supreme Court.

A 5-4 decision to strike down Obamacare along party lines, whatever its reasoning, would have been received by the general public as yet more proof that the court is merely an extension of the nation’s polarized politics. Add the fact that the legal challenges to the individual mandate were at best novel and at worst frivolous, and suddenly a one-vote takedown of the ACA looks like it might undermine the court’s very legitimacy.

And, of course, health care is now likely to become the distraction center for a presidential campaign that I’d hoped would hold its focus on employment and the federal budget.

(We don’t need to spend time discussing how, in their rush to be first with the news, CNN and Fox both got the story completely wrong, do we?  Fish in a barrel…)

Here’s a smattering of the early reports on the court ruling, for your edification and delight:

King scolds super rich for not supporting the society that helped them become super rich

Stephen King rebukes the rich of America for whining like babies about paying their share to keep this country running? Yes, that is an interesting idea…it would be even better if he was all foul-mouthed about it while he called out the rich for not being good citizens. He does? Excellent!

Yep, there it is, today at The Huffington Post The Daily Beast. The author argues that it’s not enough to say “so write a check already” when Warren Buffett or other rich guys say that the rich should pay more in income taxes than they do today, because even the charity of the rich can’t raise enough money to do the things that government is supposed to do.

What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, “OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.” That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry.

(snip)

The Koch brothers are right-wing creepazoids, but they’re giving right-wing creepazoids. Here’s an example: 68 million fine American dollars to Deerfield Academy. Which is great for Deerfield Academy. But it won’t do squat for cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where food fish are now showing up with black lesions. It won’t pay for stronger regulations to keep BP (or some other bunch of dipshit oil drillers) from doing it again. It won’t repair the levees surrounding New Orleans. It won’t improve education in Mississippi or Alabama. But what the hell—them li’l crackers ain’t never going to go to Deerfield Academy anyway. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

King tackles the argument that higher taxes hurt job creation:

Here’s another crock of fresh bullshit delivered by the right wing of the Republican Party (which has become, so far as I can see, the only wing of the Republican Party): the richer rich people get, the more jobs they create. Really? I have a total payroll of about 60 people, most of them working for the two radio stations I own in Bangor, Maine. If I hit the movie jackpot—as I have, from time to time—and own a piece of a film that grosses $200 million, what am I going to do with it? Buy another radio station? I don’t think so, since I’m losing my shirt on the ones I own already. But suppose I did, and hired on an additional dozen folks. Good for them. Whoopee-ding for the rest of the economy.

At the risk of repeating myself, here’s what rich folks do when they get richer: they invest. A lot of those investments are overseas, thanks to the anti-American business policies of the last four administrations. Don’t think so? Check the tag on that T-shirt or gimme cap you’re wearing. If it says MADE IN AMERICA, I’ll … well, I won’t say I’ll eat your shorts, because some of that stuff is made here, but not much of it. And what does get made here doesn’t get made by America’s small cadre of pluted bloatocrats; it’s made, for the most part, in barely-gittin’-by factories in the Deep South, where the only unions people believe in are those solemnized at the altar of the local church (as long as they’re from different sexes, that is).

And, he squeezes one off right between the eyes of the folks pledging their asses off not to raise taxes:

The U.S. senators and representatives who refuse even to consider raising taxes on the rich—they squall like scalded babies (usually on Fox News) every time the subject comes up—are not, by and large, superrich themselves, although many are millionaires and all have had the equivalent of Obamacare for years. They simply idolize the rich. Don’t ask me why; I don’t get it either, since most rich people are as boring as old, dead dog shit. The Mitch McConnells and John Boehners and Eric Cantors just can’t seem to help themselves. These guys and their right-wing supporters regard deep pockets like Christy Walton and Sheldon Adelson the way little girls regard Justin Bieber … which is to say, with wide eyes, slack jaws, and the drool of adoration dripping from their chins. I’ve gotten the same reaction myself, even though I’m only “baby rich” compared with some of these guys, who float serenely over the lives of the struggling middle class like blimps made of thousand-dollar bills.

In America, the rich are hallowed. Even Warren Buffett, who has largely been drummed out of the club for his radical ideas about putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to patriotism, made the front pages when he announced that he had stage-1 prostate cancer. Stage 1, for God’s sake! A hundred clinics can fix him up, and he can put the bill on his American Express black card! But the press made it sound like the pope’s balls had just dropped off and shattered! Because it was cancer? No! Because it was Warren Buffett, he of Berkshire-Hathaway!

To my mind most importantly, he appeals to patriotism—not the store-bought kind so in favor lately, but the kind that really matters:

Mitt Romney has said, in effect, “I’m rich and I don’t apologize for it.” Nobody wants you to, Mitt. What some of us want—those who aren’t blinded by a lot of bullshit persiflage thrown up to mask the idea that rich folks want to keep their damn money—is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America. That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible (a subject upon which Barack Obama can speak with the authority of experience), but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged. That it’s not fair to ask the middle class to assume a disproportionate amount of the tax burden. Not fair? It’s un-fucking-American is what it is. I don’t want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that—sorry, kiddies—you’re on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay—not to give, not to “cut a check and shut up,” in Governor [Chris] Christie’s words, but to pay—in the same proportion. That’s called stepping up and not whining about it. That’s called patriotism, a word the Tea Partiers love to throw around as long as it doesn’t cost their beloved rich folks any money.

Last week I linked to a good article that made some sense of why the growing inequality in incomes in this country is a bad thing; King makes the point a little more…well, pointedly, as a good horror/thriller writer would:

This has to happen if America is to remain strong and true to its ideals. It’s a practical necessity and a moral imperative. Last year during the Occupy movement, the conservatives who oppose tax equality saw the first real ripples of discontent. Their response was either Marie Antoinette (“Let them eat cake”) or Ebenezer Scrooge (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”). Short-sighted, gentlemen. Very short-sighted. If this situation isn’t fairly addressed, last year’s protests will just be the beginning. Scrooge changed his tune after the ghosts visited him. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, lost her head.

Think about it.