Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, June 23, 2014 7:01 pm

In which John Oliver shows Dr. Oz how to pander without making potentially life-threatening medical claims

N.C. seeks to immunize pension-fund managers, banks from criminal liability

Really, that’s about the only way you can read this:

In the last few months, there has been increasingpressure on public officials to stop hiding the basic terms of the investment agreements being cemented between governments and Wall Street’s “alternative investment” industry.

That pressure has been intensified, in part, by twosets of recent leaks showing how these alternative investment companies (private equity, hedge funds, venture capital, etc.) are using the secret deals to make hundreds of millions of dollars off taxpayers. It is also in response to the Securities and Exchange Commission recently declaring that many of the stealth schemes may be illegal.

And yet, as the demands for transparency grow louder, a potentially precedent-setting push for even more secrecy is emerging. Pando has learned that legislators in North Carolina — whose $86 billion public pension fund is the 7th largest in America – are proposing to statutorily bar the public from seeing details of the state’s Wall Street transactions for at least a decade. That time frame is significant: according to experts, it would conceal the terms of the investment agreements for longer than the statute of limitations of various securities laws.

In other words, the legislation – which could serve as a model in state legislatures everywhere – would bar the disclosure of the state’s financial transactions until many existing securities laws against financial fraud become unenforceable.

A growing scandal in North Carolina

If the North Carolina Retirement System and its sole trustee, Treasurer Janet Cowell (D), seem familiar to tech readers, that is because the NC system is one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action suit surrounding Facebook’s initial public offering. Additionally, as part of her career in the financial sector, Cowell was the marketing director for the tech-focused VC firm, SJF Ventures.

Like other states, North Carolina has been redacting and/or refusing to release the contractual terms of its pension fund’s massive Wall Street investments, even though the contracts involve public money and a public agency.* In recent months, that practice exploded into a full-fledged political scandal when the State Employees Association of North Carolina released a 147-page report from former SEC investigator Ted Siedle.

The report asserted that under Cowell, up to $30 billion of state money is now being managed by high-risk, high-fee Wall Street firms, and that the state could soon be paying $1 billion a year in fees to those firms. The report also noted that the investment strategy “has underperformed the average public plan by $6.8 billion” and it alleged that Cowell has misled the public about how where exactly she is investing taxpayer dollars. The union has called for a federal investigation, while Cowell has publicly denied the allegations.

Note that it’s state employees, a majority of whom are presumably Democrats, calling for a federal investigation of a Democratic state official.

I don’t know whether the state’s Republicans just haven’t had this issue on their radar, or whether they see a payoff in insulating investment banks and other financial institutions with which the state does business from criminal liability. But either way, their silence is puzzling. And since banks are about as popular with Americans right now as strychnine, this down-low approach by the GOP doesn’t even make political sense.

*This practice appears to this layperson to be a clear violation of North Carolina’s Open Records Law. No exception recognized in the statute to the presumption that a record is public applies to this information. This practice appears to be the equivalent of your stockbroker refusing to tell you where and how he has invested your money: Would you find that arrangement acceptable?

Additional, deeply scary and infuriating background via Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism:

North Carolina’s investment performance in alternative investments is terrible. Of 23 reporting public pension funds, it ranked 21 in real estate and 23 in private equity. Whether due to corruption or incompetence, it is clear the state would have done better and at lower cost buying a mix of index funds. So the notion that these persistent bad results are due to payola is worth taking seriously.

However, the overwhelming majority of abuses Siedle cites [in the report linked above -- Lex], such as charging of dubious fees, pervasive broker-dealer violations, pension fund consultant conflicts of interest, various securities and tax law violations, also take place with investors who have no potential for pay to play to be operating, such as private pension funds, life insurers, and endowments like Harvard that also invest in private equity. We’ve written about many of these bad practices in earlier posts, and have had to stress the degree to which limited partners have deeply internalized the idea that they can get better returns from private equity than from other investment strategies, and therefore they can’t cavil about the terms, since otherwise they won’t be allowed into this club. In keeping, the SEC has said, with uncharacteristic bluntness, that supposedly sophisticated limited partners have entered into agreements which are vague on far too many key terms and weak on investor protections.

Disclosure: Never having worked as a public employee in North Carolina or anywhere else, I have no direct interest in the state’s pension fund; nor, so far as I know, do I have any indirect interest beyond being a North Carolina taxpayer.

Thursday, June 19, 2014 10:40 am

And while we’re on the subject of Iraq …

I see now that bloody-handed GOP foreign-policy apparatchik John Bolton has leaped into the fray as well, joining the Cheneys, Lindsay Graham, Paul Wolfowitz and all the other bloody-minded neocons in arguing that we need to KILL KILL KILL in Iraq because MURCA!

And news-media outlets of all political stripes are giving these effups a platform.

Yo, media: Stop. Just. Stop.

Every one of these people was wrong, wrong, WRONG about Iraq. They lied us into a war, they lied to us about how much it would cost in blood AND treasure, they lied to us about how we would be received, they killed thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians for a lie, and in the process they mismanaged the whole thing to the point at which it would have been impossible to mess it up worse if they had been trying, if in fact they were not. ANY news outlet giving ANY of these people a platform anymore is committing journalistic malpractice, full stop.

(As I’ve said before, I, too, was wrong about Iraq. I supported the invasion because I believed the lies about a possible nuclear program and not for any other reason. I knew damn well that the case was far from conclusive, but the idea of Saddam with a nuke combined with my belief that no administration would deliberately lie this country into a war to overcome my misgivings. To borrow from “Animal House,” I fucked up. I trusted them. But my mistake, however naive, at least was honest. These people, with far more information, fabricated a casus belli, which is a war crime by definition.)

Media, if you truly want to help your readers/viewers understand Iraq rather than just beating the drum for MOAR WAR, you might do well to consult some of the people who were right about Iraq. Just for starters, here’s Athenae, who predicted in 2006 what’s happening today:

It occurred to me this weekend, listening to family and others talk about the war, that really what we’re doing now as a country is looking for some answer that doesn’t make us wrong, doesn’t make us [expletive]s, doesn’t make us the people who screwed this up so catastrophically that there’s no way out.

You see that with McCain and his troop plans, you see it with various Bush officials and their whole “we have to give it time, just like Vietnam” schtick (which, way to lose the five people you still had on this issue, Genius McMensa), and you see that with every single person around the Thanksgiving table that talks about how “we can’t leave now, it’ll just turn into chaos.” And I think the liberal war supporters are most swayed by the last argument, because c’mon, they clung so desperately to their hope that Bush wouldn’t cock this up, plus they were the ones screaming about US sanctions and repression in the Middle East long before we needed those excuses to blow some stuff up.

Things will be horrible if we leave. The answer to that last is always, unequivocably yes, yes, it will. Iraq will continue to be chaos, civil war, a breeding ground for hatred of America and a place of misery for those who live there. When the bough breaks, the cradle of civilization will fall. It’s time to stop dancing around that and just admit it. If we leave, it will be awful. For us, for them, for everyone.

BUT THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO TO STOP IT ANYMORE.

We lost this war three weeks after the invasion; we lost this war two and a half years ago at least. Those of you who read this blog just to be pissed off and think I take some pleasure in that can just go [expletive] off, you don’t know how much I wanted to be wrong about the sick feeling in my gut at seeing the looting start. We lost this war before it even began, with the piss-poor excuses for planning that gave us the Ballad of Dougie Feith and His Sidekick Ahmed Chalabi, that gave us Curveball and WMDs and letting libraries burn. We lost this war when we marched in with our own ideas about how to run Iraq and as much as said to the locals, [expletive] off now, let us play with our new toy. We lost this war long ago, while the majority of Americans were still waving flags and singing “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” The only way to fix it, the only way to win, is to build ourselves a time machine and go back and not invade in the first place.

What’s more, I think the people saying we can’t abandon the Iraqi people, I think they know it, too. I think deep down they know there’s no way this is going to end well, considering how it began. I think deep down they know there’s no way to turn this around, but they don’t want to look at it yet, stare themselves in the face, see how completely and utterly taken they got. Take responsibility for the collective American failure. Take the weight of that on their souls.

I do get it: It’s not wrong to want the best. But it is selfish and small and downright immoral to allow your wanting the best to put others in danger when you know your delusions are just that. You have the right to pretend. You don’t have the right to ask someone to die for your puppet show. You don’t have the right to keep thinking it’ll get better, not when you know it won’t.

And so the answer to the statement, the desperate excuse, the Hail Mary: “We can’t just leave, it’ll be chaos.”

Yes. Yes, it will.

But American news media still insist on dividing their potential sources into the Very Serious People like Cheney and Bolton and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and so on, and those of us who disagree with them, who are dismissed as “unserious” or, in Internet parlance, Dirty [Expletive]ing Hippies. And those media ignore the fact that the “unserious” people, the DFHs, have been right all along.

Sadly, this phenomenon of providing platforms to people who have been proved wrong repeatedly isn’t limited to the subject of Iraq. It also applies to the economy and jobs, global warming, and just about every other major public-policy issue. I believe Driftglass said it best:

LIBERALS

Thursday, May 15, 2014 9:25 pm

In which Michael Gerson notices that we have a Republican problem without using the word “Republican”

Gee, he says, no one trusts science anymore, even though not trusting science is going to lead to some very bad things.

This man wrote speeches for arguably the most antiscientific administration since before the Civil War, if not ever, and he wonders why “we” have a problem?

We don’t have a problem, Mike. The Republican Party, for which you shamelessly whored, both has the problem and is the problem. And you know it. So stop pretending you’re stupid. And for God’s sake stop talking to us as if we are.

 

Throwing our children’s still-beating hearts into the stone mouth of the free-market idol; or, you’ll never guess whom economist Steven Levitt tried to bullshit.

Anyone who has sat through Econ 102 and higher understands that while lots of things work well in theory, in real life they bump up against human beings who are not nearly as rationally self-interested as theory would have us believe.

Noah Smith likens belief in free markets to idolatry and calls its unblinking supporters “the free-market priesthood.” The good news, he says, is that among econ academics, a little nuance is finally starting to creep into an area of thought that had been dominated for decades by the free-marketeers. The bad news, though, is that popular economics, which is the only kind most Americans are aware of and espouse, hasn’t gotten the memo.

One guy who should know better is Steven Levitt, co-author, with my acquaintance Stephen Dubner, of the “Freakonomics” books. Their new book is called “Think Like a Freak” — i.e., like them. I haven’t read it and so won’t pass judgment on it, but the behavior of Levitt himself is, by his own description in the book, apparently … questionable.

In their latest book, Think Like a Freak, co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tell a story about meeting David Cameron…They told him that the U.K.’s National Health Service — free, unlimited, lifetime heath care — was laudable but didn’t make practical sense.

“We tried to make our point with a thought experiment,” they write. “We suggested to Mr. Cameron that he consider a similar policy in a different arena. What if, for instance…everyone were allowed to go down to the car dealership whenever they wanted and pick out any new model, free of charge, and drive it home?”

Rather than seeing the humor and realizing that health care is just like any other part of the economy, Cameron abruptly ended the meeting…

So what do Dubner and Levitt make of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which has been described as a radical rethinking of America’s health care system?

“I do not think it’s a good approach at all,” says Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. “Fundamentally with health care, until people have to pay for what they’re buying it’s not going to work. Purchasing health care is almost exactly like purchasing any other good in the economy. If we’re going to pretend there’s a market for it, let’s just make a real market for it.”

Smith brings the pain:

This is exactly what I call “free market priesthood”. Does Levitt have a model that shows that things like adverse selection, moral hazard, principal-agent problems, etc. are unimportant in health care? Does he have empirical evidence that people behave as rationally when their health and life are on the line as when buying a car? Does he even have evidence that the British health system, specifically, underperforms?
No. He doesn’t. All he has is an instinctive belief in free markets. Of course David Cameron didn’t “realize that health care is just like any other part of the economy” after a five minute conversation with Levitt. Levitt didn’t bring any new ideas or evidence to the table.
And it’s not like Levitt’s idea was new or creative or counterintuitive. Does anyone seriously believe that the question of “why is health care different from other markets” had never crossed David Cameron’s mind before? Obviously it has, and obviously Levitt knew that when he asked his question. He wasn’t offering policy advice – he was grandstanding. Levitt wants to present himself as “thinking like a freak” – offering insightful, counterintuitive, original thinking. But if this is “thinking like a freak”, I’d hate to see what the normal people think like!
Surely it has not escaped Levitt’s notice that the countries with national health systems spend far less than the United States and achieve better outcomes. How does he explain this fact? Does he think that there is an “uncanny valley” halfway between fully nationalized health systems and “real markets”, and that the U.S. is stuck in that uncanny valley? If so, I’d like to see a model.
But I don’t think Levitt has a model. What he has is a simple message (“all markets are the same”), and a strong prior belief in that message. And he keeps repeating that prior in the face of the evidence.
I’m am not arguing, nor would I, that free markets are always and everywhere wrong. But Levitt is arguing pretty much the opposite, even though 1) he knows damned well it’s untrue, 2) he knows damned well that control of markets exists on both a quantitative and qualitative spectrum, and 3) he knows a world of empirical evidence derived from both this depression and the last one proves him wrong. I mean, dude, if Alan Greenspan admitted that, much to his surprise, free markets were not always self-regulating and self-correcting, surely you could concede the same?
But no.
I don’t know whether Levitt is insane or just has books to sell, nor will I speculate. But the fact is that he is intentionally saying things about the economy that he knows are false, and the fact is that he knows that these falsehoods that have real and painful consequences for tens of millions of Americans and make America look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. He had the ear of perhaps the second most powerful person in the free world, and he bullshat the guy.  I don’t care why. I just want him to stop.

Stressing the country out; or, Tim Geithner should have been fired about umpty-’leven years ago

Tim Geithner, the guy President Obama inexplicably put in charge of the bank bailouts, has a new book out called “Stress Test.” (The term derives from the laughably phony “tests” endangered large banks were put through to see whether they had so many crap assets on their books that they needed to be liquidated; the fix was in, so not one large bank was broken apart of liquidated. Instead, we gave them bazillions of taxpayers’ dollars which they spent on bonuses for themselves instead of lending money to businesses to create jobs.)

The consensus seems to be — unsurprisingly, to me — that it sucks. Particularly, it’s incoherent where it’s not downright dishonest. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth rounds up some of the responses:

Glenn Hubbard:

About housing… I must say I split my side in laughter because Tim Geithner personally and actively opposed mortgage refinancing…. And now he’s claiming this would be a great idea…

David Dayen:

The guy who handed hundreds of billions of dollars over to banks with basically no strings attached [was] suddenly worried about fairness when homeowners get a break on their mortgage payments…. Even as he says in the book “I wish we had expanded our housing programs earlier,” he completely contradicts that to Andrew Ross Sorkin, saying [that his own] statement is “unicorny”…

Amir Sufi and Atif Mian:

Multiplying $700 billion by 0.18 gives us a spending boost to the economy in 2009 of $126 billion, which is 1.3% of PCE, 10 times larger than the estimate Secretary Geithner asserted in his book. So Mr. Geithner is off by an order of magnitude…

Economist Brad DeLong concludes:

In the “real world” Geithner did have full control over the GSEs and the FHA–because Paulson nationalized them in the summer of 2008.

In the “real world” Geithner submits his recommendation that Glenn Hubbard be nominated as head of the FHFA to President Obama on January 21, 2009, it is approved by the senate in February 2009, and thereafter there are no constraints on technocratic use of FHFA and the GSEs to rebalance the housing sector and aggregate demand.

Geithner should not say “I wanted the FHFA to act but I did not have the authority to get the FHFA to act” and at the same time say “having the FHFA act would have made no difference”; Geithner should to say “you cannot blame me because of the constraints” when we know that it was his own actions and inactions made those constraints.

Look: Tim Geithner did much better as a 2009-2010 finance minister than any of his peers. Look: the stress tests worked, and worked very well. (I disagree — Lex.) Look: Christina Romer and company say that if you need a bank rescued in 48 hours, Tim Geithner is your man. But the purpose of Stress Test is to explain to us what Tim Geithner thought and why he thought it, and thus why he did what he did.

And in Stress Test, on housing policy, he doesn’t.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 7:20 pm

How utterly debased New York Times reporting is in two simple blog posts and why that matters to people who don’t read the Times

First, a key paragraph from the offending Times article:

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

Now, an analysis of that paragraph by Felix Salmon, formerly with Reuters and now a senior editor at Fusion. Here’s the money quote:

I’m sure that if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find a member of the Republican party who believes that cheating is rife in today’s elections. Hell, you could probably even find a member of the Democratic party who believes the same thing. But in general, I don’t think that Republicans believe — or even contend — that cheating is rife.

It’s certainly true that a lot of Republicans support voter ID laws. But you don’t need to think that cheating is rife in order to support such measures. In fact, you don’t even need to think that cheating exists in order to support such measures. It’s entirely rational to support a voter ID law even if cheating is rare or nonexistent, on the grounds that cheating is just too easy right now and that you want to make it harder.

In other words, Peters’s formulation actually does Republicans few favors. If you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, you know that (2) is true and (4) is false. Which means that if you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, and you read Peters’s article, you’ll come away thinking two things:

A) In order to support voter ID laws, you first need to believe that cheating is rife.

B) In general, Republicans are liars.

After all, if you contend that cheating is rife, as Peters says Republicans generally do, you are lying.

And, finally, Jay Rosen at PressThink, with the larger context. Money quote:

So what is that exceedingly crappy paragraph doing there on the newspaper-of-record’s front page? Salmon says it’s laziness. (“He-said-she-said is so easy, for a journalist on deadline, that both journalists and editors tend not to really thinking about exactly what they’re saying.”) Certainly ease-of-use is part of the device’s fading delights.

Here’s how I described the appeal of he said, she said in 2009. It makes the story writable on deadline when you don’t know enough to sort things out. In a “he said, she said” classic:

* No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)

* The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.

* The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter [and the user] in the middle between polarized extremes.

I question whether that between-two-extremes territory, the “you figure it out/for us partisan polarization rules” space is valuable turf in the news business. I doubt that it’s “safe,” either, if you mean by safe: won’t do the brand harm. I think it’s likely to corrode trust over time. A conventional explanation for he said, she said says: it may be lazy or incomplete, but it is also a safe middle ground place to land so you can get the damn paper out!

But it’s not that safe. Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have No Idea… increasingly won’t cut it for the Times, or its competitors like the FT, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg. The upscale, high-information readers the Times wants to charge more money to, the core loyalists who are being asked to finance more of the operation— these users are increasingly likely to know about various preponderance-of-evidence callsindependent of whether the Times knows enough to include that review in its reporting. When this kind of reader comes upon he said, she said reporting on a big story where it’s CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, as with the right to vote: bad moment for the Times brand.

On the surface, this example appears to favor Republicans. Salmon argues that upon closer inspection, it favors Democrats by demonstrating that Republicans are liars on this issue. My big picture is that any one example isn’t the issue; the phenomenon is the problem. Some days I want to grab every publisher, executive editor, and executive producer in the country, slap them across the face and say what Jonathan Stewart famously said to then-”Crossfire” co-host Tucker Carlson: Stop it. You’re hurting the country.

Several different things can cause this kind of false-balance, he-said/she-said reporting to be published. Time pressure and byline-count requirements can tempt reporters to slap it down and file it without taking the trouble to see whether there is, in fact, a preponderance of the evidence (or preponderance of LACK of evidence) that would allow a reasonable conclusion to be drawn. Editors and publishers, in an era of dwindling circulation and readership and viewership and, correspondingly, ad revenue, don’t want to risk alienating a large segment of the public, even if that segment has been aboard an accelerating handbasket toward intellectual hell for the past half-century.

But you know what? Those are only excuses. If enough consumers of news demand it, news outlets that genuinely want to stay in business — not all do, but that’s a subject for another day — will respond accordingly. That said, those consumers need to target publishers, executive editors and managing editors, not the reporters who write this stuff or their assigning editors. Reporters write this stuff, and assigning editors send it on through to the copy desk, because they believe they can and/or must. If publishers, executive editors and managing editors — and, yes, I’m talking about my friends at the News & Record, among others — send the strong message that this kind of fake-ass reporting cannot and must not be published, then it won’t be. It’s that simple. So apply pressure in the right place; if nothing changes, then you know whom to blame.

Facts matter. Facts have consequences. And, dammit to hell, in the lives of real people, policy trumps politics. Journalists need to be committing journalism like they understand these things. Too many aren’t, and that crap must stop.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 12:09 am

Radical conservative morons try to shut down local blogger; or, An even more special kind of stupid, cont.

So it turns out that the political action committee Conservatives for Guilford County and four of its principals are suing local blogger Jeff Martin, who blogged under the pseudonym Fecund Stench, for defamation. If I liked popcorn, I’d be buying some.

First, the obligatory disclosures: Jeff and I have been friends online and in real life for years. (Less relevantly, his wife and my ex-wife used to work together at the old TriadStyle magazine, which is, indirectly, how he and I first met in real life.)

Second, for those of y’all not from ‘Round Here: C4GC is a local Tea Party outfit, with all the ideological baggage that that term implies. And Jeff Martin, a more traditional Republican, despises it and everyone associated with it. And Jeff plays hardball. To extend the baseball metaphor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him intentionally hit a batter, but when a batter crowds the plate, Jeff will throw a 99 mph brushback pitch and not lose a second’s sleep. I like him, but I don’t agree with every last thing he says. And fellow Greensboro blogger Ed Cone, who is more dispassionate about Jeff, says this about him: “At his best, Fecund Stench is Guilford County’s own, digital H.L. Mencken (and like Mencken, his use of racial and religious stereotypes can be an issue). At his not-best, duck.” I think that’s fair.

Now, the complaint, which you can read for yourself. (Jeff has 30 days to respond.)

Now, the obligatory disclaimer: I Am Not A Lawyer, and I don’t play one on the Internet. However, I did publish a fair bit of potential lawsuit bait about some incompetent and/or bad people during my 25 years in print journalism, consulting with lawyers many times in so doing, without ever being sued at all, let alone successfully. And my just-completed master’s program included a media-law course just a year ago. (Much of what appears below is adapted from the text for that course, The Law of Public Communication, by Kent R. Middleton and William E. Lee, published in 2013 by Pearson.) So I’m in a position to do a little analysis without attempting to say who will win.

Now, the caution: Jeff has taken the Fecund Stench blog down, apparently as a result of the lawsuit, so the posts quoted in the complaint are absent any context. That caution is important no matter which side of this case you’re inclined to come down on at the moment.

In plain English, the first question is: Are the plaintiffs — that is, C4GC and the four named individuals — public figures? The answer determines what they have to prove in order to win the suit. The answer is that they almost certainly are. They are not public officials — the least ambiguous type of public figure. But they are public figures. The PAC has attempted to play a role in local elections. Jodi Riddleberger is an occasional op-ed columnist for the News & Record. And so on.

I’ll explain why the fact that they are public figures is important in a minute. First, you need to know that to win a libel suit, plaintiffs must prove, at a minimum, all of the following six things:

  • defamation: that what was published damaged plaintiffs’ standing in the community or professional reputation via attack on plaintiffs’ character or professional abilities, and/or that it causes people to avoid the person defamed. (Fun fact: The law does, indeed, recognize the possibility that someone’s reputation might already be so bad that they can’t be damaged any further by being libeled.)
  • identification: that what was published specifically identifies each plaintiff (it need not do so by name if the description clearly identifies a particular individual).
  • publication: defendant made the allegedly defamatory statements where at least one other person besides defendants could see them. Blogging on the World Wide Web meets this definition.
  • fault: defendant published the information either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
  • falsity: the information must be provably false, and the burden of that proof falls on plaintiffs.
  • injury: plaintiffs must prove some form of actual damage, financial or reputational.

Remember, the plaintiffs must prove all six to have a chance of winning.

Now, the public-figure status of the plaintiffs matters because of the level of fault they must prove as public figures, noted in bold above. In North Carolina, private figures under the law need not prove quite as much — merely that the allegedly libelous material was published negligently. But, as I noted, I’m pretty sure that C4GC and the named individual plaintiffs qualify as public figures because of how they have injected themselves into public debate on issues of public import, e.g., elections. If the court finds that they are in fact public figures, they’ll have to prove that Jeff knowingly or recklessly published false and defamatory statements about them.

Here’s the thing, though: Defendants in libel cases have several defenses available to them under the law, and if the defendant employs any of those defenses, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs not only to prove the six things listed above but also to show that those defenses are inadequate or don’t apply.

Some of those defenses that might relate to this case are:

  • statute of limitations: Even if a statement is libelous, a suit must be filed within a certain period of time after its publication to be allowed to proceed. If a would-be plaintiff waits too long — typically a year — to sue, the plaintiff is out of luck. Some of the statements at issue date to 2011.
  • truth: If the plaintiff alleges that the defendant has published something false and the defendant can prove that the statement is true, the plaintiff is out of luck.
  • neutral reportage: If Candidate A says something potentially libelous about Candidate B, Newspaper C may be able to report what Candidate A said without committing libel, even if it knew or suspected that Candidate A’s statement was false and defamatory, as long as it reports what Candidate A says in fair and disinterested fashion. Candidate B might, just maybe, have a libel case against Candidate A, but not against Newspaper C.
  • First Amendment opinion defense: Statements can’t be libelous if they are opinions based on verifiable fact or if they are opinions whose truth can be neither proven nor disproven.
  • exaggerations and figurative terms generally are not libelous.

Obviously, we can’t even begin to know until the discovery phase of the suit is complete whether plaintiffs can prove the six things they need to prove. Publication is a slam dunk, and for the sake of argument, let’s give all five plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt on identification. That still leaves falsity, defamation, injury, and fault, specifically that the plaintiffs must prove that Martin published false and defamatory material either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.

Which raises another issue. Is it provably false, for example, that plaintiff Brett Riddleberger “suffers from a medical condition known as Erectile Narcolepsy, by which loss of blood to the brain when aroused causes him to lose consciousness.” To this layman, a better question would be: Who, among those older than 9, would believe this to be true in the first place? This is arguably an example of the kind of exaggeration that cannot be considered libel.

Anything is possible in a lawsuit, particularly if a case actually gets tried in front of a jury. But few libel cases get that far. The farthest most ever get is that after discovery (in which each side is obliged to provide certain evidence to the other), both sides move for summary judgment — they ask the judge to rule for their side without even letting the case go to trial — and the judge grants it to one side or the other after determining that there are no real issues of fact for a jury to determine.

But even more likely than that is that the two sides settle or one side, usually plaintiffs, realizes that it has no case and cuts its losses. A letter from Jeff’s counsel, Ron Coleman, strongly suggests to plaintiff’s attorney that that is where this case should be headed:

Although we have only passing familiarity with the litigation pending in Guilford County at this point, we see no reason to doubt that a cooperative resolution of this matter is the likely outcome. In light of your own experience and considering your level of practice, we would expect that you see it the same way. If so, you will probably agree as well that we should make every effort to skip the stupid steps and get to that point now.

Rationally, I agree that that’s exactly where this case should be headed. But I’ll be honest: Part of me wants to see what plaintiffs have to say, under oath during depositions in the discovery phase of the suit, about the businesses of the Adkinses and the financial backing of C4GC. As a longtime Republican living in N.C.’s 6th Congressional District, I must vote in a runoff between the top two finishers in the May 6 GOP primary, one of whom, Mark Walker, is backed by C4GC. If one of the candidates is backed by money from strip clubs, I’d certainly find that relevant. It might or might not affect my ballot — past performance, more than anything else, generally dictates my voting decisions — but it might very well affect those of other Republican voters in the 6th District. It’s certainly germane. And, frankly, given the Christofascist nature of some of the candidates previously supported by C4GC, the possibility of exposing great hypocrisy is attractive to me.

In short, part of me wants to see plaintiffs spanked so hard their appendixes come flying out of their mouths.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about Jeff and his constitutional right to publish factual information, criticism, and even parody, and about the same rights for other bloggers, perhaps, one day, including me. Assuming everything he has published is either true fact, protected opinion or parody, not only does he need for this suit to go away, America needs for the plaintiffs to be driven away with their tails between their legs and lots of bright red bruises on their asses so that robust political commentary and criticism can continue unabated.

Saturday, May 10, 2014 10:46 pm

An even more special kind of stupid

SpecialKindOfStupid

It takes a very special kind of stupid to inherit peace, prosperity and a budget surplus and explode the deficit, allow a horrific terrorist attack, launch a war both illegal and unnecessary (killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the process), order Americans to carry out exactly the same kind of torture for which we hanged Germans and Japanese after World War II AND push policies that allowed the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century.

But it takes an even more special kind of stupid to say, on the subject of George W. Bush, to intelligent Americans, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” Naturally, these days we do not lack for that very special kind of stupid; we need only turn to Matt Bai, formerly of the Times Almighty and now with Yahoo, to find it:

A graphic this week on FiveThirtyEight.com showed how fewer and fewer Americans blame Bush for the country’s economic morass, even though his successor, Barack Obama, won two presidential campaigns based on precisely that premise.

Bush’s critics will argue that this is testament to how quickly we forget the past. But it has more to do, really, with how we distort the present.

The truth is that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was. Read “Days of Fire,” the excellent and exhaustive book on Bush’s presidency by Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times. Bush comes off there as compassionate and well-intentioned — a man who came into office underprepared and overly reliant on his wily vice president and who found his footing only after making some tragically bad decisions. Baker’s Bush is a flawed character you find yourself rooting for, even as you wince at his judgment.

Not just no, Matt, but hell, no.

I don’t need to read your buddy’s slobbery hagiography: I know what I saw and heard, out of the man’s own mouth, for eight long, painful, and disastrous years. For sheer incompetence, only Buchanan comes close, and in terms of the consequences of his stupidity, he is without peer or even parallel. America is vastly poorer, dumber, less free and yet more vulnerable today than it was in 2000, and the blame for that can be laid squarely at the feet of Li’l Boots McDrydrunk and the monsters he hired. I heard the man talk, so I know for a fact that he is an imbecile. I heard him admit on ABC News that he ordered torture, so I know for a fact that he is an ogre. And you, sir, can go straight to hell with him.

The only thing I’m rooting for where Bush is concerned is a seat in the dock at The Hague. And while oral sex is no longer a crime, public oral sex still is, so, Matt, buddy, next time you sit down to write about Bush 43, I’d look around for cops first.

 

The problem with the “new economy” — and how the media make it worse

Ed at Gin and Tacos:

Things like airbnb and Uber (a car sharing service, for those of us who don’t live in a city large enough to make the prospect of paying a stranger to drive you somewhere viable) are “building trust” among Americans, bringing them together and facilitating economic activity. Plus, they make the economy more efficient, partially eliminating the dead airtime in daily life. Why leave your house empty when you can get someone else to pay you to stay in it? Why sit around watching TV all evening when you could make money driving people around?

It all sounds great, at least according to the fawning sycophants who provide all of us out here in the provinces with such worshipful coverage of the amazing achievements of the Techno-Demigods. And it is great as long as you don’t bother to ask (or care) why people are suddenly employing themselves as improvised innkeepers and taxi drivers. After all, does anyone really want to let some strangers stay in their home for a few bucks? To drive some trust fund asshole to the airport on Saturday after a 45 hour week? I doubt it. People turn to the “Trust Economy” because they’re somewhere between financially stressed and desperate. They don’t make enough or they’re without any steady source of income at all. They do it for the same reason that people go to work at a temp agency or loiter in a Home Depot parking lot to do day labor: because they have no better options.

The tech media work hand in hand with the mainstream media to put the brightest and prettiest coats of paint on economic developments of this kind, but who really benefits from this kind of arrangement? Hold on to your hats, kids, but it isn’t you. The beneficiary is the guy who can get people like you to perform for pennies on the dollar all of the tasks that a driver, personal secretary, and butler would do. It’s remarkable how many of the recent Big Developments from the omniscient men of the Valley have managed to make the lives of the well-off easier without actually creating any jobs that pay a livable salary or have benefits. Oh, and they convince the media to cover these breakthroughs in a way that makes it sound like they’re doing you a favor. You’re free at last, free at last. Say goodbye to the chains of full time employment and hello to the boundless freedom of working piecemeal, making phone calls on Mechanical Turk for a quarter and driving Damon the Junior Content Developer to the airport so he can spend the weekend in Cozumel with his frat bros.

The problem with the fact that the economy created a robust 288,000 jobs in April is that it needs to keep doing that for many, many more months to begin to undo the damage wrought by the Crash of ’08. And in the meantime, people are doing whatever they have to do to get by. Ignore it if you like, sociopaths of the world, but for God’s sake do not try to romanticize it. There is some shit even Americans won’t eat.

The future is here, and it blows.

 

Thursday, May 1, 2014 8:30 pm

War, huh! Good God, y’all. What is it good for? Gun sellers’ bottom lines.

Well, that and right-wing seditionists.

At its convention in 1977, the NRA rejected its history as a club for hunters and marksmen and embraced activism on behalf Second Amendment absolutism. Rejecting background checks and allowing “convicted violent felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics” easier access to guns was, said the executive vice president that year, “a price we pay for freedom.” In 2014, 500 days after Newtown and after a year of repeated legislative and judicial victories, the NRA has explicitly expanded its scope to the culture at large.

The NRA is no longer concerned with merely protecting the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms – the gun lobby wants to use those arms on its fellow citizens. Or, as the NRA thinks of them: “the bad guys”.

It is useless to argue that the NRA is only targeting criminals with that line, because the NRA has defined “good guys” so narrowly as to only include the NRA itself. What does that make everyone else?

I’m actually a gun guy. Grew up with long guns, did target shooting. Carried concealed earlier in my career when I was covering some people I was worried were serious bad guys, and I still support the right of law-abiding citizens to carry concealed — if they’ve been properly trained in the use of a firearm. Problem is, a serious percentage of gun-holding Americans either have not or have decided not to care what they were taught; as several years of covering the Knife & Gun Club for various newspapers taught me quite well, the American public is in no way, shape or form a well-regulated militia.

Now, that position puts me well to the right of pretty much all my liberal/Democratic friends and not even on the absolute left fringe of the pro-gun crowd. (Some people support gun ownership but want strict limits on concealed carry, for example.) But to Wayne LaPierre and his minions, it makes me the enemy, someone they’re trying desperately to find a way to shoot legally — not me personally, understand, but people like me, anyone who disagrees with them.

You can call that Second Amendment absolutism. You can call it fanaticism. You can call it irrationality. I call it batshit freaking insane, flirting with treason. And if you want to know why police chiefs historically have favored gun control, it’s because they have to clean up after the messes that the Wayne LaPierre disciples of the world, whether or not they are, in fact, NRA members, tend to create.

LaPierre has decided to use this nightmare apocalyptic vision he outlined in his speech at the convention to get people to buy more guns, grow more paranoid, be prepared to see any reversal as an existential threat, to be met with deadly force, even in the teeth of the lowest homicide rate in decades. This is the behavior of a man who is neither sane nor law-abiding, and more innocent Americans are going to die because of it.

Charlie PIerce on the “states’ rights” argument’s ugly history

A lot of conservative politicians are arguing for a smaller federal government and more “states’ rights.” Unfortunately for them, that argument has a history, and, yes, that history is ugly:

This view of things was litigated at the Constitutional Convention. It failed. It was litigated over the tariff. It failed. It was litigated at Cemetery Ridge. It failed. It was litigated prior to the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. It failed. It was litigated at Central High in Little Rock. It failed. It was litigated on the campus at Ole Miss in 1962. It failed. It was litigated at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It failed. It is the connective tissue that binds modern conservativism inextricably to the remnants of American apartheid because this view of the nature of the nation always was the expression of threat that the slaveholder felt about his way of life. It camouflaged itself in a number of ways involving a number of different issues, but always it was about the fear that, sooner or later, the federal government was going to come and take away the chattel from which you derived your personal economy, and so even what might be beneficial to the nation as a whole must be resisted on the pretext of sovereign states.

Mike Pence is one of the more prominent politicians to make this argument lately, but he’s far from the only one. And any student of American history, whether Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated, ought to know that this argument has been dishonest since 1787.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 7:17 pm

Listening to the people who were right: Janet Napolitano

Outsourced, in the wake of the charging of Frazier Glenn Cross, the guy we North Carolinians knew as Glenn Miller, with three shooting deaths at Jewish centers in Kansas City,  to Charlie Pierce:

I think this is a particularly good day to look back to, say, April of 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano presiding, put out a nine-page report in which the DHS pointed out that veterans were being recruited by rightwing terrorist groups around the country. (This was about when people started noticing that the real crazy had come out of the jar when this particular president had been sworn in.) Oh, the fuss that this raised.

John Boehner said of Napolitano that he wanted an “explanation for why she has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

Professional rage puppet Michelle Malkin wrote: Moreover, the report relies on the work of the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center to stir anxiety over “disgruntled military veterans” – a citation which gives us valuable insight into how DHS will define “hate-oriented” groups. The SPLC, you see, has designated the venerable American Legion a “hate group” for its stance on immigration enforcement. The report offers zero data, but states with an almost resentful attitude toward protected free speech: “Debates over appropriate immigration levels and enforcement policy generally fall within the realm of protected political speech under the First Amendment, but in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent.”

Well, if ol’ Frazier Glenn Miller had had his way, Malkin wouldn’t have had to worry about the left-leaning SPLC any more.

Brand new ABC employee Laura Ingraham was still lying about it three years later.

And the freaking out was general and vast.

The fauxtrage did succeed in making the DHS withdraw the report, forcing Napolitano to apologize, and get everyone else to stop paying attention to the genuine extremism that had filtered into the conservative base of one of our two major political parties. This is a very good week to remember it, however.

And so it is.

Between 1984 and the early 1990s, I covered a lot of cluckers and other white supremacists. Most of them, to be charitable, couldn’t find their own asses with both hands and a flashlight. The late Virgil Griffin, perhaps the most famous clucker of his day and certainly the most famous gas-station owner in Mount Holly, might have had the leather-lunged capability of shouting creepy racist, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist stuff until his face was so red that he looked like he was going to stroke out, but he also always looked like one good shot to the head with a beer bottle would shut him up.

Glenn Miller, on the other hand, looked like one good shot to the head with a beer bottle would just piss him off.

He scared the bejesus out of me the one time I talked to him, and I was very glad that there were uniformed law enforcement personnel around. For those of you not from around here,  Miller took part in the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings here in Greensboro in which five Communist Workers Party members were killed but no one went to prison. I don’t recall now whether the evidence ever put his finger on a trigger, but that doesn’t matter, because when I met him I didn’t know that history. All I knew was that the guy in front of me was both capable of great aggression and batshit insane, that to him shooting me would be like stepping on an ant.

But the greater issue is that although he’s being charged with murder and hate crimes, both the media and law enforcement have stopped short of calling what he is charged with doing “terrorism.” There’s some history in that that predates even 9/11.

America’s long campaign of lynching African Americans, for any reason or no reason at all, as a de facto legal mechanism of social control, was terrorism, but show me five high schools in the U.S. today that teach it as such. And, of course, post-9/11, “terrorism” became “that which those brown Mooooslims do to hurt us.” No word about Timothy McVeigh. No word about Eric Rudolph. No word about Scott Roeder or James Kopp. And now we’re not using the “t-word” with respect to Glenn Miller. But the fact is that the only meaningful difference between those guys and Osama bin Laden was that bin Laden killed more people.

Law enforcement and the media need to start calling this what it is, and dealing with it accordingly.

And John Boehner, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham and their ilk need to sit their asses down and drink a liter mug of STFU, because Janet Napolitano was right and you bitches were wrong. And all this whining in the media about the “deadliest assembly of al-Qaeda in the history of, like, ever” needs to stop ignoring the terrorists already in the open in our midst, some of them holding responsible positions in one of our nation’s two major parties.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 7:09 pm

If you’re having trouble understanding why Citizens United and McCutcheon were such bad decisions, it’s because Nixon would have loved them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, author of the majority opinion in McCutcheon, and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in McCutcheon, live in a fantasy world, Ian Millhiser explains:

In 1974, a Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) revealed activities that nearly anyone other than the five justices who signed on to Roberts’ decision in McCutcheon v. FEC would unreservedly describe as corruption. In the early 1970s, for example, the dairy industry desired increased price supports from the federal government, but Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Hardin has decided not to give these price supports to the milk producers. In response, various dairy industry organizations pledged $2 million to Nixon’s reelection campaign — and then developed a complicated scheme to launder the money through various small donations to “hundreds of committees in various states which could then hold the money for the President’s reelection campaign, so as to permit the producers to meet independent reporting requirements without disclosure.”

President Nixon later agreed to a meeting with industry representatives, and he decided to overrule his Agriculture Secretary. The milk producers got their price supports.

The Ervin report “identified over $1.8 million in Presidential campaign contributions as ascribable, in whole or in part, to 31 persons holding ambassadorial appointments from President Nixon, and stated that six other large contributors, accounting for $3 million, appear to have been actively seeking such appointment at the time of their contributions.” Outside of the White House, the report uncovered “lavish contributions” to members of Congress from both political parties. The chairman of one oil company testified that executives perceived campaign donations as a “calling card” that would “get us in the door and make our point of view heard.” American Airlines’ former chair testified that many companies funneled money to politicians “in response to pressure for fear of a competitive disadvantage that might result” if they did not buy off lawmakers. In essence, businesses feared that if they did not give money to elected officials, but their competitors did, then their competition could use their enhanced access to politicians in order to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

And yet, according to Chief Justice Roberts and his fellow conservative justices, hardly any of this activity amounts to “corruption.”

Even the Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which famously created the law that money = speech (but also largely upheld post-Watergate campaign-finance reforms), conceded that Congress could regulate campaign contributions to prevent corruption or its appearance. But Kennedy and Roberts have gone much, much farther than that:*

Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon, however, defines the word “corruption” so narrowly that it is practically meaningless. In order to survive constitutional review, Roberts writes, a campaign finance regulation must “target what we have called “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.” Thus, unless a donor offers “dollars for political favors,” no corruption exists.

Lest there be any doubt, this narrow understanding of the word “corruption” does not capture cases where a donor pays off a politician in order to buy access. To the contrary, as the conservative justices held in Citizens United v. FEC, “[t]he fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt” (The word “speakers,” in this context, is used to refer to what most people describe as “donors”). Indeed, Citizens United goes much further than simply claiming that dollars-for-access arrangements must be tolerated. At one point, it seems to view them as an objective good:

Favoritism and influence are not . . . avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies. It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness.

Democracy certainly is premised on responsiveness. Though it is a strange definition of democracy that offers enhanced responsiveness to those who can afford to pay for it.

Under Roberts’ definition of “corruption” most of the corrupt activities of the Nixon era would be viewed as completely benign. Though an isolated incident, where a Nixon fundraiser promised that the president would make a donor Ambassador to Trinidad in return for $100,000, would qualify as an explicit “dollars for political favors,” arrangement, politicians who give greater access to their donors are not “corrupt” under McCutcheon and Citizens United unless they offer to exchange votes or similar favors in return for campaign donations. Indeed, even the dairy industry’s $2 million bid for a meeting with President Nixon may not qualify as “corruption,” as Roberts understands the word, because there is some uncertainty as to whether the $2 million donation was “conditioned upon or ‘linked’ to” the President agreeing to make specific changes to the administration’s policies. According to Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon,

Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. And because the Government’s interest in preventing the appearance of corruption is equally confined to the appearance of of quid pro quo corruption, the Government may not seek to limit the appearance of mere influence or access.

So what Nixon likely would have gone to prison for in the 1970s had he attempted to stay in office is now the law of the land, per five Republican justices who no doubt also believe they are Tsars of All the Russias, to borrow a phrase from Charlie Pierce.

And the American people know it, Millhiser concludes:

Very few Americans agree with Roberts’ view of what constitutes corruption. Indeed, a 2012 poll determined that 69 percent of Americans believed that the rule emerging from cases likeCitizens United allowing “corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.” Just 15 percent disagreed.

To put that number in perspective, another poll found that fully 19 percent of Americans believe in “spells or witchcraft” — a full four percentage points more …

Myself, I’m wondering, given how many presumably sensible Americans have, since 2000, been willing to give away so many of their own rights and to refuse to hold accountable a generation of the most corrupt and wicked pols and business leaders since the Harding administration, whether more Americans ought to believe in witchcraft.

*I’m “conservatives oppose judicial activism” years old.

 

Thursday, April 3, 2014 7:21 pm

The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon ruling: Of the money, by the money, for the money.

In a sane country, the Supreme Court would recognize that the right of the people to a government free of undue influence by a tiny minority of the wealthy elite dramatically outweighs the right of one person to spend as much as he damn well pleases supporting political candidates, particularly when the spending creates at least the appearance, and almost definitely the certainty, of corruption: corruption in which the donor’s interest outweighs the public’s and the candidate, once elected, votes accordingly.

But we do not live in a sane country.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the Citizens United ruling, 2010: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” 

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the McCutcheon ruling, just this week: “The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.

To both gentlemen: Are you farking blind?

Of course independent expenditures give rise to the appearance of corruption — and to the real thing. Of course aggregate limits would make it harder for apparent or actual corruption to occur. If it ain’t the money that’s causing it, gentlemen, then, pray tell, what is?

You morons have just declared as a matter of both fact and law that water is dry, that the sky is chartreuse with emerald-polka dots, and that the country and the public interest are but offal to be fed to the nation’s honeybadgers. Because honeybadgers don’t … well, you know:

UPDATE: Actually, this metaphor might do a disservice to honeybadgers, which at least do useful things like killing and eating cobras. I thought about substituting jackals, but then, generally, they only eat the dead, while our nation’s sociopath elite are at least metaphorically feasting upon the living as we speak. I don’t know what the appropriate animal would be for this metaphor, but I know what it does: It feeds on the living, particularly the poor, brown, female, and otherwise vulnerable, and it pees fracking chemicals and defecates coal ash.

Friday, March 21, 2014 11:16 pm

An educator unworthy of the name

Long story short, a high-school publication in Fond du Lac, Wisc., is, in the words of regular contributor Doc at First-Draft.com, “being punished for pointing out that RAPE IS REAL and it SUCKS WHEN IT HAPPENS TO HIGH SCHOOL KIDS.” And, more specifically, that at Fond du Lac High School, lots of people make jokes about rape, which REALLY sucks for those students who have been, you know, raped.

The school system is imposing a sweeping prior restraint on student publications because a student magazine dared to make an issue of this. Here’s the issue in question; the story at issue begins on page 11. Read the article — indeed, read the whole issue, or at least skim it to get a feel for the kind of publication it is trying to be — and then judge for yourself who’s being responsible here and who is not.

Doc, who works with student journalists in some capacity elsewhere in that region, and his First Draft companions who are scattered around the country, are keeping the heat on, with subsequent posts here, here, and here.

I weighed in with my own missive to the school system’s superintendent, Dr. James Sebert:

Dear Dr. Sebert:

I write as a lifelong red-state Republican, the father of a high-school daughter about to turn 16 — and a former journalist who won a lot of awards for publishing unpleasant truths. And I have one very simple question for you:

What in the pluperfect hell do you think you’re doing?

It is not your job to ensure an environment full of nothing but rainbow-colored unicorns. It is not your job to try to shield students from life’s unpleasant realities because they might somehow interfere with the educational process.

In fact, the very idea that you could is laughable. By the time they cross Fond du Lac’s thresholds for the first time, nontrivial numbers of students at the high school will already have endured more unpleasantness than most U.S. adults could possibly imagine, including but not limited to starvation, bullying and other physical abuse (including from family members), sexual abuse and incest, date rape, stranger rape, psychological abuse, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and pretty much anything short of a mass murder. Are you seriously arguing that those aren’t already interfering with the educational process? And if not, then why don’t you want to talk about them? Certainly we won’t stop them from interfering with the educational process until we do talk about them.

Are you seriously arguing that students shouldn’t talk about these issues, issues that are a real, and damaging, part of their lives, issues that are harming and will continue to harm their educational processes whether Cardinal Columns discusses them or not? Because if you are, you forfeit all moral claim to the title of “educator.”

It’s that simple. Sure, a misbegotten Supreme Court ruling might give you the right to censor student publications. But keep a couple of things in mind. First, this is basically the same Supreme Court that more recently has stated as a fact that campaign finance does not cause corruption, which is on an intellectual par with the high court’s declaring that the sky is chartreuse with purple polka-dots. Second, having the right to do something is not the same thing as saying you must, you should, or that it might not be a bad idea.

Anyone who seriously considers himself an educator and engages in prepublication review ought to presume news items publishable unless they are proven otherwise, and ought to require no more than the minimum change necessary to make unpublishable items publishable. Topics in general shouldn’t be reviewed at all because high-schoolers are high-schoolers: They’re going to write about what’s important to them, whether or not you like it and maybe even because you don’t. What should you do about that? Nothing. Let. It. Go.

I reviewed the article in question and found it not perfect, but excellent for high school journalism, with due consideration obviously given to the journalistic imperatives to report the truth while minimizing harm. And if you want to argue that the article was not necessary, you need only consider the results of the accompanying poll, which is about as rigorous as polls of students at a single high school can get. Rape jokes are everywhere at Fond du Lac High — and so are the rape victims who have to listen to them and are degraded by them. As an educator, you ought to find THAT intolerable, not a piece of journalism about it.

You’ve still got a chance to make this a teachable moment — for yourself, the school system, the high-school faculty and administrators, and the students. If you’re truly an educator, then that’s what you’ll do. If you need to consult outside experts — rape-crisis experts, clinical mental-health counselors, whatever — for context and advice, swallow your pride and do it.

The kids at Fond du Lac High deserve better. So do their parents. So does their community, whose taxes pay your salary. How you handle this situation going forward can make a nontrivial number of students’ lives easier than they are now — and, oh, by the way, improve the educational process. So get going.

Sincerely,

Lex

Obviously, I don’t expect either a response or a change of heart. But this sorry excuse for an educator is now all over the Internetz as a stick-up-his-butt censor, which may well give pause one day to any larger school system that might consider hiring him. And I think it’s important for reporter/editor Tanvi Kumar and her fellow student journalists, who performed admirably not only in their original journalism but also in how they have handled themselves so far in the resulting dispute, to know that there are people out here watching them with pride and admiration.

I’m sharing the story of these kids with my own high-school-age daughter. I want her to know that the adults in her life (other than me, of course) are fallible, and that this is what one very important kind of fallibility looks like. But I also want her to understand the merits of what these student journalists were trying to do, and why, and how well they went about it, and to learn from them as well — things like responsibility and curiosity and courage and judgment that to date have been utterly absent from the people running that high school and that school system.

I want her, in short, to learn very quickly at least as much as these Fond du Lac student journalists already know about how, when, and why you speak truth to power. Because everything I see in our society suggests to me that we need more of that, not less, and will need more for many years to come. I want her and her generation prepared, for one small and simple reason: The future of the country and the well-being of their fellow citizens depends on it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 8:11 pm

“State secrets” and the erosion of the Bill of Rights

Time after time, in case after case in the So-Called War on Terror, we have seen the government invoke “state secrets,” as a means of denying defendants access to potentially exculpatory information in the government’s possession or as a means of denying civil plaintiffs access to information that would strengthen their own case at the government’s expense. As a result, some potentially innocent people have remained in custody for years, in many cases without trial or even charge. As a result, some meritorious lawsuits against government overreach have been tossed.

As a result, the country has both weakened and betrayed its own values. That’s bad enough.

But now? We come to find that for seven years, the government has been invoking “state secrets” to cover up a simple, understandable, and easy-to-fix paperwork error, albeit one with significant consequences. That error, compounded by the massive cover-up on the part of high-ranking officials in both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations, particularly Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder, kept an innocent woman named Rahinah Ibrahim on the U.S. government’s no-fly list for that period. For much of that period, the defense was invoked merely to prevent her from learning whether she was even on the list, let alone being able to do something about it.

Holder went so far as to tell the judge presiding over the case that this assertion of the state secrets privilege was fully in keeping with Obama’s much-ballyhooed 2009 executive branch reforms of the privilege, which stated the administration would invoke state secrets sparingly.

“Under this policy, the Department of Justice will defend an assertion of the state secrets privilege in litigation, and seek dismissal of a claim on that basis, only when necessary to protect against the risk of significant harm to national security,” reads an April signed declaration from the attorney general to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who presided over the Ibrahim litigation in San Francisco.

The state secrets privilege was first upheld by the Supreme Court in a McCarthy-era case and generally requires judges to dismiss lawsuits against the United States when the government asserts a trial threatens national security.

In his declaration, Holder assured Judge Alsup that the government would not be claiming national security to conceal “administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment” — an assertion that is now nearly impossible to square with the facts.

Way I read that, “now nearly impossible to square with the facts” means “a stone lie.”

Finally, her case was allowed to come to trial, a month before which the presiding judge, during a pretrial conference, told lawyers, “I feel like I have been had by the government.”

Time was, lawyers who intentionally misled judges suffered serious consequences to their cases, if not to themselves personally. As it was, after a five-day nonjury trial, the judge ruled for Ibrahim.

Here’s my question: If the government would illegally invoke “state secrets” for seven years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, to cover up a bloody paperwork error, what else is it covering up under the “state secrets” defense? Prosecution and/or punishment of innocent people? Ongoing torture? Extrajudicial assassinations? Massive waste, fraud and abuse in the national intelligence apparatus? At this point you’d have to be an idiot to bet on anything except all these and more.

Classification of material to cover up evidence of a crime is, itself, a federal crime. And it’s one with which not nearly enough people have been charged. But beyond that, judges who get played by the government this way should, when they figure out what’s going on, bring the gavel down on the government officials and lawyers involved so viciously that a century from now such officials and lawyers will speak of it only behind closed doors, with hushed voices, in the dark of night, the elderly cautioning the young.

Thursday, January 16, 2014 7:18 pm

You keep using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.

And speaking of invaluable economist Dean Baker, he schools NPR, not that they’ll pay any attention:

This adjective ["enormous" -- Lex] appeared in a top of the hour news piece (sorry, no link [this NPR blog post uses the adjective "massive" -- Lex] referring to the spending bill approved by Congress on Wednesday evening. It would be interesting to know how it made this assessment. While the government spends more money each year than any of its listeners will see in their lifetime, it spends less relative to the size of its economy than almost any other wealthy country. It is also spending less relative to the size of the economy than it did in the years 2009-2012. The domestic discretionary portion of the budget, which was close to half of the spending bill, is smaller relative to the size of the economy than it has been in decades.

It’s a simple point, but one journalists at even the biggest outlets in the business can’t seem to learn: a number is meaningless — or, worse, misleading — absent context. I bolded the last part because although I want to shout this in all upper-case letters, I have chosen merely to emphasize it instead.

New York Times vs. New York Times

If a genie granted me three wishes, I wouldn’t waste one of them on this. But, damn, it would be nice if, at least once in a while, New York Times economics reporters would consult their columnist colleague Paul Krugman, who has, like, a Nobel Prize in the subject, before publishing bilge like this, particularly when Krugman could steer them to a large pile of research showing that he’s right and they’re wrong.

(h/t: Dean Baker)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 7:08 pm

Watch cable TV? Use the Internet? You’re about to get screwed.

So on Tuesday, a federal appeals court threw out Obama Administration “net-neutrality” rules, on the laughable grounds that Internet service providers (ISPs) are not common carriers. The amount of delusion required to make such a “factual” finding is only slightly less than that required to believe that one may walk directly from here to London on dry land.

The companies that sued to overturn the rulings have business  models that have been badly (and, frankly, deservedly) damaged by upstarts like Netflix. They brought this on themselves. So, naturally, this being a free market and all, they turned to the courts to impose burdens on their new competition, and, naturally, this being a free  market and all, the courts obliged them.

MisterMix at Balloon Juice summarizes nicely:

[The plaintiffs], who are almost all cable companies, are full of [expletive], because with their lagging TV business, they’re all scrambling to find ways to (a) kill off Netflix and substitute their own streaming offering and (b) charge hefty usage-based pricing for their internet service, which has roughly 95% profit margins already. Here’s how they’ll do it:

  1. The coming of “4K” streaming, which is a super high definition stream on next generation TVs, will use 3-4 times the amount of bandwidth that today’s high definition streams use. 4K users will blow out the caps that providers like Comcast have in place, opening the door for the cable boys to charge premium premium for users who have 4K TVs.
  2. The streaming services of the cable providers will be exempt from the bandwidth caps, so users who don’t want to pay more for bandwidth will have an incentive to switch to Comcast’s version of Netflix.
  3. Streaming providers who want to sell video to customers without busting the caps will be allowed to provide what AT&T Wireless calls “Sponsored Data”. This means that the streaming company will pay the cable company for the bandwidth their subscriber uses. The streaming company will pass on that cost to the consumer. (Note that AT&T can provide “Sponsored Data” without regulatory issues because wireless is exempt from net neutrality regulation.)

That’s the plan, they’re executing it slowly but with grinding efficiency, and the roadblocks the Obama Administration are throwing up in their path are getting overruled. And, by the way, they won’t be investing in their aging infrastructure, except in places where Google or some other fiber optic provider starts competing with them. This is how corporatism will make slowly but surely leave us in the dust behind countries that make Internet access a national priority.

Many, many countries, developed and developing, friendly and not-so, have correctly perceived that quality Internet infrastructure is at least as important as good roads, water systems, electrical grids and so on. Not all of them approach the issue in the same way on a public-vs.-private basis, but they all understand that quality, affordable Internet is an essential competitive tool in the global economy. Congress has refused to recognize this and has fought to prevent administration efforts to do so; the results, in terms of our ability to compete, are bad and getting worse. If the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn this ruling, Netflix being forced out of business — although it would piss me off — would be the least of our concerns compared with our national ability to compete in the global economic marketplace.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 9:13 pm

The problem with Republicans is that they want to make the whole country like Texas.

And how’s that working out?

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that a group of Texas homes near a gas-drilling operation didn’t have dangerous levels of methane in their water, it relied on tests conducted by the driller itself.

Now, independent tests from Duke University researchers have found combustible levels of methane in some of the wells, and homeowners want the EPA to re-open the case.

The previously undisclosed Duke testing illustrate the complaints of critics who say the agency is reluctant to sanction a booming industry that has pushed down energy prices for consumers, created thousands of jobs and buoyed the economy.

“I don’t understand why they would let the company that was accused of doing the wrongdoing conduct the tests,” said Shelly Perdue, who lives near the two wells in Weatherford, 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of Dallas. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Obviously Shelly Perdue is not fit material to run for office as a Republican.

Monday, January 13, 2014 9:32 pm

Jon Stewart on Chris Christie

In case there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen this yet (language NSFW, duh):

Thursday, January 2, 2014 5:30 pm

Stuff I missed while having a life over the holidays, Too Big to Jail edition

It’s official: Big banks are now Too Big to Jail and therefore will never be held accountable, nor their executives jailed, under the Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act:

(Assistant Attorney General Lanny) Breuer this week signed off on a settlement deal with the British banking giant HSBC that is the ultimate insult to every ordinary person who’s ever had his life altered by a narcotics charge. Despite the fact that HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act), Breuer and his Justice Department elected not to pursue criminal prosecutions of the bank, opting instead for a “record” financial settlement of $1.9 billion, which as one analyst noted is about five weeks of income for the bank.

The banks’ laundering transactions were so brazen that the NSA probably could have spotted them from space. Breuer admitted that drug dealers would sometimes come to HSBC’s Mexican branches and “deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows.” …

Though this was not stated explicitly, the government’s rationale in not pursuing criminal prosecutions against the bank was apparently rooted in concerns that putting executives from a “systemically important institution” in jail for drug laundering would threaten the stability of the financial system. The New York Times put it this way:

Federal and state authorities have chosen not to indict HSBC, the London-based bank, on charges of vast and prolonged money laundering, for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the reasoning here is beyond flawed. When you decide not to prosecute bankers for billion-dollar crimes connected to drug-dealing and terrorism (some of HSBC’s Saudi and Bangladeshi clients had terrorist ties, according to a Senate investigation), it doesn’t protect the banking system, it does exactly the opposite. It terrifies investors and depositors everywhere, leaving them with the clear impression that even the most “reputable” banks may in fact be captured institutions whose senior executives are in the employ of (this can’t be repeated often enough) murderers and terrorists. Even more shocking, the Justice Department’s response to learning about all of this was to do exactly the same thing that the HSBC executives did in the first place to get themselves in trouble – they took money to look the other way.

And not only did they sell out to drug dealers, they sold out cheap. You’ll hear bragging this week by the Obama administration that they wrested a record penalty from HSBC, but it’s a joke. Some of the penalties involved will literally make you laugh out loud. This is from Breuer’s announcement:

As a result of the government’s investigation, HSBC has . . . “clawed back” deferred compensation bonuses given to some of its most senior U.S. anti-money laundering and compliance officers, and agreed to partially defer bonus compensation for its most senior officials during the five-year period of the deferred prosecution agreement.

Wow. So the executives who spent a decade laundering billions of dollars will have to partially defer their bonuses during the five-year deferred prosecution agreement? Are you [bleeping] kidding me? That’s the punishment? The government’s negotiators couldn’t hold firm on forcing HSBC officials to completely wait to receive their ill-gotten bonuses? They had to settle on making them “partially” wait? Every honest prosecutor in America has to be puking his guts out at such bargaining tactics. What was the Justice Department’s opening offer – asking executives to restrict their Caribbean vacation time to nine weeks a year?

So you might ask, what’s the appropriate financial penalty for a bank in HSBC’s position? Exactly how much money should one extract from a firm that has been shamelessly profiting from business with criminals for years and years? Remember, we’re talking about a company that has admitted to a smorgasbord of serious banking crimes. If you’re the prosecutor, you’ve got this bank by the balls. So how much money should you take?

How about all of it? How about every last dollar the bank has made since it started its illegal activity? How about you dive into every bank account of every single executive involved in this mess and take every last bonus dollar they’ve ever earned? Then take their houses, their cars, the paintings they bought at Sotheby’s auctions, the clothes in their closets, the loose change in the jars on their kitchen counters, every last freaking thing. Take it all and don’t think twice. And then throw them in jail.

Sound harsh? It does, doesn’t it? The only problem is, that’s exactly what the government does just about every day to ordinary people involved in ordinary drug cases.

It’s worth remembering, particularly for those of us who grew up along with Wachovia Bank here in North Carolina, that that bank, now part of Wells Fargo, settled with the Feds in 2010 for $110 million in forfeiture and a $50 million fine for laundering $378.4 billion — an amount equivalent to a third of Mexico’s GDP at the time. Then as now, no bank executives were charged; indeed, the bank hung its senior anti-money-laundering officer, Martin Woods, out to dry.

I get that there are good reasons (though not, in my personal opinion, a clearly convincing case) to keep, say, marijuana illegal for recreational use. But even if all laws banning marijuana use in the U.S. were scrapped today, the damage, though enormous in some individual cases, would be nowhere near the damage that is being done, right now, by decisions like this, to confidence in the U.S. finance system and, even more importantly, to the rule of law. Lanny Breuer ought to be named somewhere as an unindicted co-conspirator, at the least, and so should his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder. If Congress wants to impeach someone — and the GOP House, at least, certainly does — it could start with Holder without a peep of complaint from me as long as the charges pertained to his overwhelming failure to even try to rein in the banks during his term.

Friday, December 13, 2013 7:08 pm

The New York Times does not understand Social Security

For evidence of this, I offer the following email exchange between me and D.C. bureau reporter Jonathan Weisman. I first wrote him regarding this article, in which he stated as fact:

Some conservatives feel betrayed, as they often have since the Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said the House Republican conference agreed in the spring that spending levels exacted by the sequestration cuts would not change unless Congress and the White House could strike an accord to control the long-term causes of the rising costs of the federal debt, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Leave aside for the moment that the actual biggest drivers of federal deficits, and thus the growing national debt, are, in fact, NOT entitlements:

The key fact on which I wish to focus is that Social Security does not contribute to the federal deficit AT ALL. This is a simple and widely understood fact with which the reporter took tendentious issue before throwing in the towel, as shown:

On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 2:26 PM, <ordercs@nytimes.com> wrote:

Email: lex.alexander@gmail.com
URL:Your budget-deal story
Comments:Jon, how many times does it have to be said before it sinks into the heads of reporters for the Times Almighty? SOCIAL SECURITY DOES NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEFICIT. It is funded by contributions that, since 1983, have been accumulating a large surplus to be used to pay retirement benefits to the Baby Boomers. Now that Baby Boomers have begun to retire, that surplus, which peaked at around $3 trillion, is being drawn down … just as planned in 1983. There is enough of a surplus that SocSec can pay 100% of expected benefit demands until the mid-2030s and, with continuing FICA withholding revenue, about 80% of benefit demands pretty much forever after that even if we do nothing at all to Social Security. And with small changes (raising the cap on income subject to FICA withholding), we could have SocSec paying 100% of benefits pretty much forever.

Once again: Social Security does not contribute in any way, shape or form to the government’s operating budget deficit. And this isn’t just a matter of opinion, this is an error of fact so egregious that it demands a published correction. My next stop is the public editor, for that very purpose.

Best,
Lex Alexander
Greensboro, NC
www.lexalexander.net

On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 2:35 PM, Weisman, Jonathan <jonathan.weisman@nytimes.com> wrote:

You are simply wrong here. Since 2010, Social Security has been operating in deficit since 2010. As the annual trustees report said, Social Security’s “cash-flow deficit will average $75 billion between 2013 and 2018 before rising steeply” http://www.ssa.gov/oact/trsum/

It is true that the system is now cashing bonds it has been given by other parts of the government that have “borrowed” from its surplus over decades. But the fact is, every bond cashed must be paid in cash by the U.S. government and the taxpayers. Social Security as a system is not in debt yet. It is redeeming what is owed it. But those redemptions ARE driving the the debt upward, along with Medicare, Medicaid and other programs impacted by the aging baby boom.

On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 2:56 PM, Lex Alexander <lex.alexander@gmail.com> wrote:

OK, fine, if you’re not going to believe me, how ’bout walking down the hall or picking up the phone and talking about it with your colleague Paul Krugman, OK? Or, hell, economist Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, or Brad DeLong at Berkeley, or … pretty much any half-sentient economist not on a corporate payroll. Will you do that for me? Please?

Best,
Lex
On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 3:01 PM, Weisman, Jonathan <jonathan.weisman@nytimes.com> wrote:

I am aware of their position on this. They are saying Social Security is solvent because it has trillions of dollars in bonds that are real and owed to it. That is true and it is a valid position. But Krugman, DeLong et al also know that as those bonds are redeemed, the cash must come from the Treasury. That is why Larry Summers wanted to wall off the Social Security surplus, to run large surpluses for the day when the bills come due. That did not happen. Now we are paying the piper. What liberal economists would say is it is simply unfair to make Social Security and its recipients pay for the rest of the government’s profligacy (and maybe theft).

Ask them. (Krugman is at Princeton, not in the building)

On Dec 12, 2013, at 4:27 PM, Lex Alexander <lex.alexander@gmail.com> wrote:

Had the government borrowed the money for its deficits from, say, a private bank, would you seriously argue that the private bank is contributing to the deficit? No, you would not; it would be ridiculous. But, in part, that’s exactly what the government did: It borrowed, in the form of U.S. bonds, not only from the Social Security Trust Fund but also from investment banks, commercial banks, institutional investors and individuals. So how is Social Security “contributing to the deficit” when these other bond holders are not? Or are you going to argue that they ALL are “contributing to the deficit”? That argument, though also basically silly, at least would have the benefit of being consistent and contextually complete.

Best,
Lex
On Dec 12, 2013, at 4:30 PM, Jonathan <jonathan.weisman@nytimes.com> wrote:
OK, whatever

Jonathan Weisman

New York Times
* * *
So that’s the kind of intellectual firepower the Times is assigning to the biggest domestic-policy story of the week. Good to know. I’ve emailed the Times’s public editor, for all the good that will do.

Friday, December 6, 2013 7:35 pm

Quote of the Day, Response to Cardinal Timothy Dolan Edition

So Cardinal Timothy Dolan went on Press the Meat this past Sunday to argue that Catholic doctrine on gays and women has been “caricatured” by Hollywood and the media and that the Church has been “outmarketed” in spreading its message. No, he really said this. So Charlie Pierce responds:

And the Founder assured us that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church, and you’re arguing that you got “outmarketed” by the Sundance Festival?

(Dolan also argued that the Pope “can’t make doctrinal changes,” which would surprise the hell out of most Catholics, the Pope included. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Thursday, December 5, 2013 5:42 pm

If you want to lay money on how well Obamacare is going to work …

… then you might want to pay attention to where insurance companies are putting their money, as insurance executive Richard Mayhew points out:

I was at physical therapy this morning.   As I did my stretches and balancing exercises for my ankle, the local generic “alt” rock radio station was being piped through the speakers and Good Morning America was on the wall television.

On the rock station, I heard a Healthcare.gov “I got covered” ad, an ad from my company advertising its Exchange product.  I heard two other competitors advertise their on and off-Exchange products.  This radio station’s typical advertising rotation is a combination of bars, strip clubs, debt consolidation agencies, cash for gold and structured settlement companies.  The normal advertising mix assumes a fairly young, male and broke listening audience.  This is a prime demographic for the subsidized Exchanges.

On Good Morning America, I saw another Healthcare.gov ad, and three ads from two other insurance companies in the area.  One was the same company on the radio, and the other was the fourth private plan advertising.  The pitch for the last one was “You need to sign up by Dec. 23 for Jan.1 coverage and even if the government website is jacked up, we can help you at 1-800-555-5544″

[That] four  insurance companies are putting their money behind the relaunch with the advertising campaign is a tell that entities with real money to lose if they guess wrong are guessing that things are working right.

But Obamacare will never work. It can’t work!

Monday, November 25, 2013 7:33 pm

I love it when they eat their own

The Heritage Foundation used to be a reliably conservative, respectable Washington think tank, one with which one could disagree without necessarily believing it to be in any way insane. It has become, instead, a parliament of hacks. It would be easy to blame former U.S. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who became the foundation’s chief in April, for this problem. And there would be an element of truth in that; DeMint is crazier than a bag of bugs. But the real problem began before DeMint, with an offshoot of the foundation called Heritage Action, and its CEO, a wealthy young ideologue named Michael Needham:

Needham is the 31-year-old CEO of Heritage Action, the relatively new activist branch of the Heritage Foundation, the storied Washington think tank that was one of the leaders of the conservative war of ideas ever since it provided the blueprint for Ronald Reagan’s first term. Although DeMint is Heritage’s president, it was Needham who had designed much of the defund Obamacare strategy. Beginning in 2010, when Heritage Action was founded, Needham pushed the GOP to use Congress’s power of the purse to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. He formed a grassroots army, which he used to keep congressional Republicans in line. “They make six hundred phone calls and have a member of Congress in the fetal position,” says one GOP congressional staffer.

After months of furious lobbying, Needham sold, at most, 20 members of the House on his plan of attack. In the end, this was enough to cement the party line—and lead the GOP to a spectacular, deafening loss.

Sorting through the wreckage, Washington conservatives can barely contain their anger at Needham for his ideological inflexibility and aggressive, zero-sum tactics. “Their strategic sense isn’t very strong,” griped a prominent Republican lobbyist. “They’ve repeatedly been wrong about how to handle this.” Says a senior House Republican aide, “Mike Needham played a large role in defeating ideas that would have worked out better.”

But the wrath is not solely reserved for Needham; his employer now inspires plenty of disgust among conservatives, too. Increasingly in Washington, “Heritage” has come to denote not the foundation or the think tank, but Heritage Action, Needham’s sharp-elbowed operation. Instead of fleshing out conservative positions, says one Republican Senate staffer, “now they’re running around trying to get Republicans voted out of office. It’s a purely ideological crusade that’s utterly divorced from the research side.” (“If Nancy Pelosi could write an anonymous check to Heritage Action,” adds the House aide bitterly, “she would.”)

As a result, the Heritage Foundation has gone from august conservative think tank revered by Washington’s Republicans to the party’s loathed ideological commissar. “It’s sad, actually,” says one Republican strategist. “Everybody forgets that Heritage was always considered the gold standard of conservative, forward-looking thought. The emergence of Heritage Action has really transformed the brand into a more political organization.”

Needham’s strategy has also sparked a war inside the halls of the foundation itself, where many feel duped by the stealthy yet brutal way the Heritage Action takeover went down. Some now wonder whether the foundation can ever recover its reputation as a font of ideas. “I don’t think any thoughtful person is going to take the Heritage Foundation very seriously, because they’ll say, How is this any different from the Tea Party?” says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. Looking at the organization he helped to create, Edwards finds it unrecognizable. “Going out there and trying to defeat people who don’t agree with us never occurred to us,” said Edwards. “It’s alien.”

So how did someone so young get into such a position of responsibility?

Like all good revolutionaries, Michael Needham had a sterling upbringing, the kind that allows a young man to pursue ideological purity free from worry about consequence or reality. Needham’s mother is a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive; his father runs a boutique investment bank. The future Tea Party rabble-rouser grew up on the Upper East Side. He attended Collegiate, a prestigious New York prep school, then Williams. As a political science major and, eventually, the editor of the college newspaper, Needham loved to provoke his liberal classmates, arguing that Social Security was unnecessary and that the minimum wage hurt the working poor. “It’s amazing how little reflection he’s given to his privilege,” says a classmate. “It was all kind of a game to him. It was an experiment in winning.”

After Needham graduated from Williams in 2004, Bill Simon Jr., a former California Republican gubernatorial candidate and fellow Williams alum, helped Needham secure the introductions that got him a job at the foundation. Ambitious and hard-working, he was promoted, in six months, to be [now-retired Heritage co-founder Edwin] Feulner’s chief of staff. According to a former veteran Heritage staffer, Needham is intelligent but “very aggressive”: “He is the bull in the china closet, and he feels very comfortable doing that.” (“I consider him a friend,” says the college classmate, “but he’s a huge [expletive].”) In 2007, Needham, whose father has given generous donations to both Rudy Giuliani and the Heritage Foundation, went to work for Giuliani’s presidential campaign. When the campaign folded, Needham followed his father’s footsteps to Stanford Business School and then came back, at Feulner’s bequest, to run Heritage Action.

Needham, who in his time at Heritage, had been a proponent of ramping up the foundation’s lobbying efforts, was also given a lieutenant. He wasn’t the seasoned lobbyist who might be expected to keep tabs on his young boss, but a 31-year-old evangelical named Tim Chapman who had a few years experience working on the Hill. Heritage elders viewed Chapman, a boyish young man with freckles and strawberry blond hair, as the golden retriever to Needham’s pitbull. The two were installed in a townhouse down the street from Heritage headquarters, which soon came to be known, dismissively, as “the Frat House.” A young staff of about a dozen people worked there, hanging around in easy chairs, tossing a football around. The foundation scholar recalls stopping by and noting that the conversations at the Frat House sounded “more the way you’d expect a bunch of interns sitting around to sound, talking politics, trying to figure things out.”

That’s right, kids: The Republican Party, which likes to market itself as the grownups in the room, is letting both its political efforts and the keystone of its policy-development infrastructure be destroyed by a spoiled child. And we wonder why they can’t govern.

Saturday, November 16, 2013 11:24 pm

Deficit hawks caught astroturfing. Color me surprised.

Their ideas aren’t gaining favor on the merits (nor should they) — about 90 percent of Americans think Social Security should be preserved or even expanded, not cut — so they resort to paying people to lie, and they’re real sloppy about it:

Our friend Jon Romano, press secretary for the inside-the-beltway PR campaign “Fix the Debt” and its pet youth group, The Can Kicks Back, have been caught writing op-eds for college students and placing the identical op-eds in papers across the country.

This is the latest slip-up in Fix the Debt’s efforts to portray itself as representing America’s youth. Previously, they were caught paying dancers to participate in a pro-austerity flash mob and paying Change.org to gather online petition signers for them.

The newspapers involved in the scam were not amused.

Gainesville Sun to Fix the Debt: “Lay Off the Astroturf and Outright Plagiarism”

The identical op-eds were discovered by Florida’s Gainesville Sun. The paper’s scathing editorial on the topic makes for an entertaining read.

If you liked University of Florida student Brandon Scott’s column last Sunday about the national debt, you also should enjoy columns by Dartmouth College student Thomas Wang and University of Wisconsin student Jennifer Pavelec on the issue.

After all, they’re the same columns.

The identical columns ran last weekend in newspapers in New Hampshire and Wisconsin. They each included the same first-person passage describing the student’s work with the Campaign to Fix the Debt and its “millennial arm,” The Can Kicks Back.

After I was told last week about the column appearing under the byline of different writers in other publications, it was removed from The Sun’s website. Staff with the Campaign to Fix the Debt, who sent out the columns, said they were templates that were supposed to be personalized or otherwise reworded.

The campaign’s vice president of communications, John Romano, said Scott -— an intern with the group — was not at fault.

“This was an inadvertent mistake and the campaign takes full responsibility for it,” he said.

Ooopsie.

Ooopsie, indeed.

Folks, Fix the Debt is not a grassroots thing. It is not a lot of college kids writing letters to the editor. It is a network of PR agencies led by billionaire Pete Peterson. Peterson, because he is stupid, because he would personally profit, or both, wants draconian spending cuts — along the lines of Simpson-Bowles or worse. There are many problems with that, but the most important one, as the linked article points out, is that such cuts would eliminate 4 million jobs at a time when America needs many more jobs, not fewer. As for the deficit? Well, hey, let’s just ask our good friends at Fox News, who actually provide accurate information this time although they take a little too much time explaining what the numbers mean:

The U.S. government started the first month of the 2014 budget year with a $91.6 billion deficit, signaling further improvement in the nation’s finances at a time when lawmakers are wrestling to reach a deal that would keep the government open past January.

The Treasury Department said Wednesday that the deficit in October fell 24 percent compared with the $120 billion imbalance recorded in October 2012. The deficit is the gap between the government’s tax revenue and spending.

Across-the-board spending cuts and the partial government shutdown helped lowered expenditures in the first month of the new budget year. Higher taxes and an improved economy also boosted revenue.

The October decline comes after the government ran an annual deficit in 2013 of $680 billion, the lowest in five years and the first in that period below $1 trillion. Shrinking deficits could take some pressures off of lawmakers, who are facing a Dec. 13 deal to fund the government and avoid another shutdown.

The deficit is a manageable problem, and we’re managing it — almost in spite of ourselves, what with sequestration, but we’re managing it nonetheless. We do not need dramatic new government spending cuts, unless maybe they’re in defense. (By the way, everything else being equal, a dollar spent on defense benefits the economy substantially less than a dollar spent on something civilianish.) What we need, desperately, is J-O-B-S.

Thursday, November 14, 2013 7:21 pm

The Washington Effing Post Needs to Fire Richard Effing Cohen. Today.

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 7:21 pm

As you might be aware, so-called liberal Richard Cohen published a column in the Post a few days ago that, to anyone with half a brain, demonstrated that he is an unreconstructed racist. It included such gems as:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

So, people who gag at the thought of “a white man married to a black woman with two biracial children” are just “people with conventional views” and not, you know, effing racists. And it’s not that so-called cultural conservatives are racist, heavens, no. It’s just that the sight of a white man married to a black woman with two biracial children “doesn’t look like their country at all.”

Which is, I am sure, exactly how Thomas Jefferson felt.

(And don’t even get me started on “used to be a lesbian.” Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. Interrobang.)

Not only did Richard Cohen write this column, but presumably, no one at the Post even blinked during the editing process. Still, it is Cohen’s work, and it is a work of thermonuclear hate and stupidity so vile and staggering that the only decent, humane response from the standpoint of, you know, readers is to terminate him with extreme prejudice, or at least dump him and his desk out a second-floor window and plow the floor of his former office with salt so that nothing that stupid can ever grow there again.

(Ta’Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic offers a slightly more nuanced response.)

But there’s a bigger problem than Cohen. And that problem is that liberals, because they are so damn decent and forgiving, are willing, at the worst, to just shrug and say, “Well, that’s Cohen. Let’s move on.” Just like liberals said impeachment of Bush 43 for torture and other crimes against humanity was “off the table” once Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006. Just like at least some liberals think there might actually be some virtue in cuts, however minor, to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as part of a “Grand Bargain” to “fix the deficit.”

Aw, hell, no. On this one, I’m with John Cole:

This is not the [expletive] time to say “Can we all just agree that Richard Cohen is an [expletive] and move on?”Haven’t y’all been doing that for several decades (I’m kinda new to the cause, having converted late)? How has that worked out? Moving on and not talking about him has meant several more decades of talking about him. How about we once and for all do something about it?

This is what shocks me over and over and over again. Wingnuts, at any perceived slight, go for the throat — and more often than not they get the head. Don’t believe me? Ask Phil Donahue and Ashleigh Banfield and Dan Rather and David Schuster and on and on and on. And those are just media folks — you could start with Shirley Sherrod and work your way through public servants all the way through academia down to the smallest most insignificant guy working for ACORN. They go for the kill.

And here, we have an allegedly well-meaning guy who just wants to translate to the 75% of unenlightend Americans why interracial marriage is unconventional dead to rights, and folks wanna say “Let’s just move on.”

No. I’m not ready to move on. Moving on means moving forward, and moving forward means rejecting the status quo and working towards something better. And we can’t move forward until folks like Richard Cohen and his ilk are put out to pasture. If you want to change [expletive], do it one [expletive]head at a time. I’m tired of waiting for David Broder to die* while Fox News elevates Karl Rove.

Because I’m beyond sick and tired of putting up with this crap, and I’m done moving on.

*Yes, I know Broder is already dead. Cole knows it, too; I think he meant this in the sense of “Broder-style thinking.”

Friday, November 8, 2013 7:24 pm

Rand Paul is a thief and a petulant, whining baby.

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 7:24 pm
Tags: ,

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has been caught plagiarizing. Repeatedly. Serially. He plagiarized Wikipedia entries for his speeches. He plagiarized another columnist’s work for his column for The Washington Times, for which the Times fired him. (Can you imagine how bad you have to be to get fired from an op-ed gig at the Washington Times?) And he has refused to accept responsibility for any of this.

The editorial page of the Lexington Herald-Leader draws him up short and sharp on this. Among my favorite passages:

Paul said he accepted responsibility and then went on quickly to slough it off, laying it on his rapid ascent to national prominence, which he sought relentlessly, on his staff, whom he hired, and finally, of course, on “the haters” who just want to bring the great man down.

Paul appears to believe profoundly in his own exceptionalism, including that the rules don’t apply to him. Even worse, he now wants to rewrite the rules. …

Trying to put this behind him, Paul said that he and his staff will attribute sources “if it will make people leave me the hell alone.” A curious remark for someone who has sought attention at every turn, grandstanding at Senate hearings, touring television talk shows, accepting speaking invitations in states critical to a presidential bid.

For a guy who wants to be president, he certainly has some curious ideas about the amount of scrutiny he should be expected to undergo. And, Rand, buddy, if you think being outed as a serial plagiarist is, in any way, going to make people leave you the hell alone, let me give you some bad news: To the contrary, it’s going to make bloggers, if not the sorry-ass mainstream media, ride you like a beast across the plains of Mongolia. You’re not going to be able to take a DUMP for the next two years without it showing up on the Internet. If you’re not ready for your close-up now, and I don’t think you are, then, buddy, you never will be.

Paul’s sense of self-grandeur is so great that, like a pouting child, he threatened to leave politics altogether if everyone keeps being mean to him. “People can think what they want. I can go back to being a doctor any time,” he said.

And longtime readers here know exactly what my two-syllable, basic-Anglo-Saxon response will be: “Door. Ass.”

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