Landmark FCC Decision Is A Victory For Freedom Of Expression And Free Enterprise

In what PoltiFact calls ” a significant accomplishment for Obama” and a “Promise Kept,” the FCC has voted for major changes to help guarantee a free and open Internet. Net neutrality is important for freedom of expression, including helping small blogs such as this to continue, important for small business, and important to maintain the lifestyle we are becoming accustomed to, such as streaming video as an alternative to often exorbitant cable rates.

Net neutrality is a tremendous victory for freedom of expression and free enterprise. Not surprisingly, conservatives have been spreading the untrue talking points of the large telecommunications companies which fear seeing their power diminished. Whenever the goals of the powerful conflict with the best interests of the nation, we know which side conservatives will invariably side with.

There are all sorts of false claims being spread by conservatives about net neutrality, such as that it will lead to $15 billion in new taxes and will lead to either Barack Obama or the United Nations (depending upon the source) controlling the Internet. In other words, this sounds like lots of right wing conspiracy theories we have already heard.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler disputed conservative claims that the new regulations are intended to regulate communication on the Internet:

This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept: openness, expression and an absence of gatekeepers telling them what they can do, where they can go and what they can think.

The Fact Checker at The Washington Post called the claims of higher taxes false. Ron Wyden, who wrote the Internet Tax Freedom Act, debunked conservative claims that the FCC’s action would invalidate the law and result in higher taxes. This ban on taxes in will expire in October, but there is nothing stopping Congress from renewing it.

AP’s fact checking included the following:

THE CLAIM: “President Obama’s plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet.” — Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.

THE FACTS: It’s a shift for sure, but the FCC hasn’t proposed regulating Internet content or controlling access to websites. The question is how to regulate Internet service so providers don’t block or slow web traffic for financial gain.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the only way to do that is to subject retail Internet service to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. That would expand FCC power significantly by allowing regulators to step in if there were allegations of harm to consumers. But it’s a reach to suggest that these new powers equate to a government takeover.

Also worth noting is that the FCC is independent from the administration. While Obama has put pressure on the FCC to enact tougher regulations, and he appointed Wheeler to head the agency, this is not the president’s call.

After debunking additional claims, the article explained why this change is now needed, and not necessarily a break from previous administrations:

THE CLAIM: The FCC plan “represents a stunning reversal of the policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations.” It will backtrack on “decades of bipartisan agreement to limit Internet regulation.” — Former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell in an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal.

THE FACTS: The question of Internet “fast lanes” is far more pressing for Obama than it ever was for Clinton or Bush. In 2000, only 3 percent of American households had broadband access, compared with 70 percent by 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.

It wasn’t until President George W. Bush’s second term, in 2005, that YouTube became available and video services like Netflix became more popular. By the time the FCC voted in 2008 against Comcast for throttling Web traffic, Bush was nearing the end of his presidency.

For those who might find this all boring, here is a more entertaining explanation of net neutrality from John Oliver:

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The Conservative Con Game

If you ever subscribed to any conservative magazines you most likely wound up on their mailing lists which try to sell all sorts of snake oil to gullible conservatives. They often tie it into conservative philosophy/paranoia, such as selling gold based upon warnings about the imminent economic collapse. Their predictions are essentially unchanged from the 1960’s when I first became aware of them, and probably began far earlier. Rick Perlstein has described how they use their mailing lists to con their supporters.

This is hardly surprising considering how gullible one must be to be a conservative these days as they ignore science, economics, and any other facts which contradict their views. They deny evolution, climate change, and basic science whenever convenient. They promote conspiracy theories without evidence, such as their bogus claims about Benghazi, ACORN, and the IRS. Believe it or not, there are lots of conservatives who believe all their claims, supplying cover when wealthy right wingers promote government policies designed to enrich themselves, while hurting everyone else, based upon Voodoo economic theories which don’t hold up in the real world.

Sometimes a conservative starts to figure out that they are being conned, but they generally miss the big picture. Right Wing News looked at fund raising by conservative groups:

Reports about sleazy activities by conservative groups have not exactly been in short supply over the last couple of years. Damaging stories have popped up on the Daily Beast, Mother Jones, Washington Post, the Politico and at the Daily Caller among other outlets. Additionally, for those of us who have a lot of friends in the Tea Party and among grassroots conservatives, stories of abuse have become rampant.

In the past many conservatives ignored such stories, figuring they were just liberal hit pieces. Right Wing News demonstrated that (as liberals had long realized) many conservative groups were ripping off donors to pocket the money rather than use it for actual candidates. The article concludes:

How many conservative candidates lost in 2014 because of a lack of funds? How many of them came up short in primaries, lost winnable seats or desperately tried to fight off better-funded challengers? How much of a difference would another 50 million dollars have made last year?  That’s a very relevant question because the 10 PACs at the bottom of this list spent $54,318,498 and only paid out $3,621,896 to help get Republicans elected. If that same $54,318,498 had gone to the Club for Growth Action PAC and it had been as efficient with it as it was with the money it had, $47,800,278 would have gone to Republican candidates instead of the meager $3,621,896 that those candidates received from those 10 PACs during this cycle. The conservative movement has a right to expect more than this from the PACs that are representing it.

The post has received considerable attention with conservatives being willing to accept data from a conservative blog which they might have ignored from other sources. For example, Jonah Goldberg covered this at National Review under the title The Right Wing Scam Machine.

Now if they would only realize that the entire conservative movement is a giant scam which pushes false information to promote their goals. Their followers are being told lies far beyond such dishonest fundraising. Unfortunately those who see the tip of the iceberg are totally missing the real problem.

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Our Muslim Socialist President Cannot Be A Christian If He Speaks The Truth About Christian History

Obama National Prayer Breakfast

With the possible exception of Brian Williams telling tall tales about his adventures in Iraq, the most controversial statement this week appears to be Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast. Obama said:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities – the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

The right wing blogosphere is very upset–so upset that Erick Erickson writes that, “Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian…” Considering that many on the far right have thought for a long time that Obama is a Muslim socialist from Kenya, this is hardly anything surprising from them.

Despite this outrage, it is hard to see anything all that shocking in what Obama said. Steve Benen writes, ” that the president’s critics aren’t really outraged, but instead are playing a cynical little game in the name of partisan theater. It must be the latest in an endless series of manufactured outrages, because the alternative – that the right is genuinely disgusted – is literally hard to believe.” As he points out, “No faith tradition has a monopoly on virtue or peace; none of the world’s major religions can look back in history and not find chapters they now regret.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t at all subtle in his contempt for the right wing response with a post entitled The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech. Ignorant, but what should we expect from extremists who include people with views such as that the United States was created as a Christian nation, rigging the system to transfer wealth from the middle class to the ultra-wealthy will help the economy, global warming is a hoax, and that intelligent design is a valid alternative to evolution?

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes that Obama Was Right to Compare Christianity’s Violent Past to the Islamic State:

By limiting his criticism of Christian violence to the Crusades and Inquisition, Obama kept his critique of Christian horrors to centuries past. But one need not look back so far to find more recent Christians behaving terribly in the name of Christ. The atrocities of the Bosnian War, including the systematic rape of women and girls, was perpetrated largely by Christians against Muslims; meanwhile, many of the Christian churches of Rwanda were intimately involved in the politicking that produced the genocide of 1994, with some clergy even reported to have participated in the violence.

The degree to which, in retrospect, we are willing to condemn violent perversions of faith often has to do with their proximity to us. Most will now admit, however grudgingly, that the Crusades and Inquisition were efforts to carry out some construal of God’s will, however mistaken and otherwise motivated. With more recent conflicts, such as Bosnia and Rwanda, we are more apt to see Christianity as a single thread in a web of ethnic and political tensions that was ultimately only one cause among the many that ultimately culminated in brutality. And this analysis is probably right.

But it is also probably true of the terrorism perpetrated by ISIS, which has been roundly denounced as contrary to the principles of Islam by a host of Muslim leaders and clerics, most recently after the murder of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Like war crimes and individual acts of brutality committed within the Christian world, the pattern of tensions that has produced ISIS, in all its unthinkable cruelty, seems to be broader and deeper than its self-proclaimed religious convictions. For those not searching for a source of personal offense, this is the only point Obama’s remarks on the religious violence enacted by Christians really conveys.

And it is, at last, a hopeful point: If we in the Christian world are capable of owning the monstrosities of our past, identifying their sources as multivalent and contrary to our faith, and holding one another accountable for the behavior we exhibit moving forward, then so are the members of the faiths we live alongside in the world. But accountability requires honesty, and pretending that Christians have never attributed violence to the cause of Christ is a disservice to modern peacemaking and to the victims of the past. Obama was right to take a clear-eyed view of the years that have come before, and to look hopefully to what we can do together as a multi-faith nation in the years to come.

Ed Kilgore first responded to the right wing attacks here, and then had a follow-up post responding specifically to Erick Erickson:

I also hate to break it to ol’ Erick, but there’s pretty ample scriptural support for the idea that Jesus Christ was a bit of a “moral relativist” himself—you know, the beam and the mote , “Judge Not That Ye Be Not Judged,” “the Sabbath is for man,” the woman by the well, the good Samaritan, the Two Great Commandments, etc. etc. I don’t think Erickson’s disposition has been improved by his recent matriculation at a conservative Calvinist seminary. But then again, I’m not denying the authenticity of his faith, he’s denying the authenticity of mine—and Barack Obama’s.

This likely does fall under the category of attacking anything that Barack Obama says. I’m still waiting for the conservative response should Obama every tell them not to eat yellow snow. In reality, conservatives have far more to worry about than Barack Obama making some quite obvious comments in an era when even the Pope is now taking the opposite position on several issues.

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Conservative Argues That It Is Not A Bad Thing If People Die Due To Repealing Obamacare

If the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed, as most Republicans are calling for, we would see millions of Americans lose their insurance. We would return to past problems, including people being denied insurance when they have medical problems, people once again being forced to declare bankruptcy due to medical costs, and we would see many more deaths than we will otherwise see.  Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute has an op-ed in The Washington Post under the headline, End Obamacare, and people could die. That’s okay.

Note again that the author is from the American Enterprise Institute and this is published in The Washington Post. This is not just some isolated blogger or conservative shouting out their personal opinion.

Strain’s logic is that “We make such trade-offs all the time.” For example, “Consider, for example, speed limits. By allowing people to drive their cars at speeds at which collisions result in death, our government has decided that the socially optimal number of traffic fatalities is not zero.”

He has other such examples, but they do not apply to the type of trade-off he is advocating. There are good reasons for having a society in which people can drive, and it is an unavoidable fact that this will lead to a certain number of traffic fatalities. The types of trade offs he discussed are not analogous to taking away health care coverage.

While there are reasons for having a society in which people can drive, despite traffic fatalities,  there is no good reason for either having people uninsured or for a system in which insurance companies are allowed to profit by denying coverage to those who become sick.

Strain argues that, “In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals.” This falsely assumes that health care coverage is something which we cannot afford to provide. However every other industrialized nation on the planet, existing in the same “world of scarce resources,” is able to provide health care coverage to its citizens. The Affordable Care Act is a valuable step in the right direction, but it is an incremental step which still falls short of what is provided in the rest of the industrialized world.

There is no good reason why the United States cannot provide the same level of health care coverage as is seen in the rest of the industrialized world. One reason why we have been unable to do this is the unnecessary middleman–private insurance companies making huge profits while making health care more expensive than elsewhere. Perhaps the answer is that in a world of scarce resources, a system of private insurance is an unacceptable price to pay, and we should be thinking in terms of conversion to a far more cost-effective single payer system.

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Republican Women Revolting Against GOP Rape Ban But For Wrong Reasons

National Journal reports that the some Republicans oppose their party’s planned legislation to attempt to restrict abortion rights, or as Think Progress puts it,Republicans Introduce An Anti-Abortion Bill So Extreme That GOP Women In Congress Are Revolting.

Republican lawmakers are raising concerns that the party will alienate young voters and women by voting for an antiabortion bill coming to the House floor next week, on the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

In a closed-door open-mic session of House Republicans, Rep. Renee Ellmers spoke out against bringing up the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks, telling the conference that she believes the bill will cost the party support among millennials, according to several sources in the room.

“I have urged leadership to reconsider bringing it up next week.… We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we’re moving forward,” Ellmers said in an interview. “The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn’t be on an issue where we know that millennials—social issues just aren’t as important [to them].”

I have previously discussed how the twenty-week ban, in addition to being an unacceptable act of government intrusion in the rights of women to control their own body, is based upon conservative pseudo-science. They base it on false claims that the fetus can feel pain at twenty weeks despite this being scientifically impossible prior to the development of the cerebral cortex. This objection from some Republicans, based upon political expediency as opposed to principle, also demonstrates the hypocrisy of Republicans. If something really was morally wrong, as Republicans claim abortion is at twenty weeks, then it would not be justifiable to oppose the ban because of fear of losing votes.

If conservatives really had a case that abortion is morally wrong, then why should such an act be justifiable based upon who the father is? It would not be the fault of the fetus that the mother was raped. The abortion exclusion also shows just some of the difficulties in enforcing any laws against abortion rights. The proposed legislation would only apply if a woman reports the rape to the police, but this imposes unfair obstacles considering how women who report rape are often treated. Are we getting back to the Todd Akin idea of “legitimate rape” with such requirements? On the other hand, if reporting a rape to the police is the requirement for a legal abortion, this would potentially give motivation for women to falsely claim rape, along with causing increased skepticism among some people when women do report rape, further worsening problems for women who are raped.

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Gallup Finds Increase In Self-Described Liberals

Gallup Liberals

In a poll of limited significance, Gallup has found an increase in the number of self-described liberals:

Conservatives continued to outnumber moderates and liberals in the U.S. population in 2014, as they have since 2009. However, their 14-percentage-point edge over liberals last year, 38% vs. 24%, is the smallest in Gallup’s trends since 1992. The percentage of U.S. adults identifying themselves as politically conservative in 2014 was unchanged from 2013, as was the percentage of moderates, at 34%, while the percentage considering themselves liberal rose a percentage point for the third straight year.

While not a huge number, this might contradict the idea that the Republican midterm victory was a sign of greater support for conservative views.

I find this to be of limited significance as people tend to take more liberal positions on polls than would be expected if self-described labels had a real bearing on political positions. I have generally seen this poll to be more a measure of the demonization of the word liberal by the right wing noise machine than a measure of ideological beliefs, and perhaps this trend shows that conservatives are having less success in demonizing liberals.

Besides polling on issues, I find the recent Pew survey on religious affiliation to be more meaningful than this poll. Among their findings which might be of significance in speculating on political trends, Pew found that “Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.”

Another finding of interest is that, while 70 percent of Republicans label themselves conservative, only 44 percent of Democrats label themselves liberal. Is this due to a majority of Democrats not being liberal, or again due to people simply avoiding the term liberal? I suspect it is a combination of each, with the Democratic Party being a more centrist party, but also with many Democrats supporting liberal positions without using the liberal label.

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St. Louis Police Oppose Non Violent Protest By Football Players

The controversy over the decision not to indict Darren Wilson extended to football this weekend when five of the St. Louis Rams plays entered the stadium with their hands raised. This was in reference to the eye witnesses who testified before the grand jury that Michael Brown had his hands raised, attempting to surrender, when he was shot to death. These players were engaging in their right to freedom of expression in a peaceful manner.

While I can understand that the police would not be happy to see this, I am disturbed by their reaction. ESPN reports:

The St. Louis Police Officers Association called for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a “very public apology,” its statement read in part.

“I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights,” SLPOA business manager Jeff Roorda said in the statement. “Well, I’ve got news for people who think that way: Cops have First Amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I’d remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser’s products. It’s cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it’s not the NFL and the Rams, then it’ll be cops and their supporters.”

It is understandable for anyone to be upset violent protests but this was a totally peaceful expression of their views. The SLPOA has the idea of the First Amendment totally backwards if they think that the First Amendment was designed for the police to try to shut down protests. I haven’t heard such a confused interpretation of the First Amendment since Sarah Palin expressed the belief it was to protect her from questioning by the media.

While I don’t condone those who are violent, I am also disturbed by the implicit idea of separating the good (you can almost hear white) people of St. Louis and other NFL towns from those (black) people who are protesting, not all of whom are protesting violently. Those football players certainly were engaged in non-violent protest.

The SLPOA took  advantage of unfair nature of the grand jury proceedings to falsely claim that this exonerated Wilson:

“SLPOA Business Manager Jeff Roorda said, “now that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson’s account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eye-witness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again.”

The argument that there was probable cause to indict Wilson, despite the ruling of the grand jury, was never disproven. Both physical evidence and eye witnesses contradict Wilson’s statement. As I discussed here and here, the grand jury proceedings were highly irregular, with the prosecutor essentially acting as the defense, leading the grand jury to come to a decision not to indict. There were also irregularities in the collection of evidence after the shooting.

It is shocking that it has suddenly become controversial in this country to insist that a police officer who shot an unarmed person, who some eye witnesses say was trying to surrender, should have to face cross examination when giving his testimony. There is an incestuous relationship between the police and prosecutor’s office with the prosecutor seeing the police on his side, desiring to protect them. Grand juries are generally used to present the case for indictment, not to present the defense case. Why is it that conservatives who generally distrust the government are suddenly showing complete trust when an unarmed black kid is killed, despite clear abuses of the system by the prosecutor? There is certainly room for disagreement about Wilson’s guilt based upon the evidence presented, both supporting and contradicting Wilson,  but this should be dealt with under normal trial rules, with an adversarial proceeding including  cross examination of the witnesses, not a sham proceeding rigged to exonerate Wilson.

It is only understandable that people will be driven to protest considering the irregularities in this case. This includes football players, who also have the right to freedom of expression. Fortunately the NFL understood this and Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s VP of communications, responded to the SLPOA with this statement, declining to initiate disciplinary action against the players:  “We respect and understand the concerns of all individuals who have expressed views on this tragic situation.”

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Political Polarization–How The Left and Right Follow Different Sources For News

The Pew Research Center has released a study on Political Polarization and Media Habits. Most of their findings, summarized below, are as would be predicted:

Overall, the study finds that consistent conservatives:

  • Are tightly clustered around a single news source, far more than any other group in the survey, with 47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.
  • Express greater distrust than trust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured in the survey. At the same time, fully 88% of consistent conservatives trust Fox News.
  • Are, when on Facebook, more likely than those in other ideological groups to hear political opinions that are in line with their own views.
  • Are more likely to have friends who share their own political views. Two-thirds (66%) say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics.

By contrast, those with consistently liberal views:

  • Are less unified in their media loyalty; they rely on a greater range of news outlets, including some – like NPR and the New York Times– that others use far less.
  • Express more trust than distrust of 28 of the 36 news outlets in the survey. NPR, PBS and the BBC are the most trusted news sources for consistent liberals.
  • Are more likely than those in other ideological groups to block or “defriend” someone on a social network – as well as to end a personal friendship – because of politics.
  • Are more likely to follow issue-based groups, rather than political parties or candidates, in their Facebook feeds.

It certainly comes as no surprise that conservatives are likely to follow Fox, which essentially means they are receiving the talking points of the Republican Party, with little regard for facts. While only 47 percent specifically cite Fox, I often find that conservatives are reciting the exact same talking points even if they deny watching Fox. Most likely they are following other conservative media which repeats the exact same message.

It also is no surprise that liberals are more interested in finding objective information and turn to a variety of sources such as NPR and The New York Times. Conservatives distrust media which doesn’t echo their viewpoints (even though, as Stephen Colbert has explained, “reality has a well-known liberal bias”). It is also not surprising that, while conservatives follow outlets with more overt political propaganda, liberals do not show as high an interest in MSNBC, and paid even less attention to Air America before it went out of business. This is not to say they are a mirror of Fox. MSNBC is far more factual when presenting liberal views. The point is that liberals are much more likley to seek an objective news source as opposed to listening to opinion.

When media outlets are examined by the ideology of viewers and readers, MSNBC’s audience is barely more liberal than the audience for CNN and the broadcast networks. Conservative outlets such as Politico and The Economist have a more liberal following than MSNBC. This might be because, while we generally think of MSNBC’s liberal evening shows, the network carries more objective news during the day. In the morning it runs a show hosted by conservative Joe Scarborough and, until he moved to Meet The Press, Scarborough was followed by another conservative, Chuck Todd. MSNBC’s overall audience is presumably different from their evening audience.

Buzzfeed is the least trusted source, but I suspect that this is because of not being well-known, or perhaps not being taken as seriously, as opposed to an ideological divide. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck follow as the least trusted, and Ed Schultz’s show is the least trusted liberal program.

As the Republican Party is now an ideological conservative party, it is also expected that conservatives are more likely than liberals to follow a political party. The authoritarian mind set which is common on the right might also make them more likely to follow a party, although conservatives have never been shy about complaining when they think the GOP is not conservative enough. Lacking a consistent liberal party in this country, it is expected that liberals are more likely to follow issues as opposed to the Democratic Party.

Initially I was surprised to see that liberals are more likely to defriend based upon ideology, but it makes sense as I think about my own experiences. I have some conservative Facebook friends who I have no reason to consider defriending, but have defriended other conservatives (along with some on the left). While I have certainly run into some on the left who are every bit as obnoxious as those on the right, ideologues on the right are often more likely to attempt to spread their views with a religious fervor. Arguments coming from the right are less likely to rely on facts or logical arguments, and much more likely to resort to insults.

This difference extends to the real world. While I have never ended a true friendship over politics, there are neighbors who I could never be friends with due to politics. I certainly have no use personally for those neighbors who have told my wife that she would go to Hell for having a Kerry sign in our front yard, or who have harassed my daughter in parking lots due to the Darwin Fish sticker on her car. While the experience of others might differ, I don’t see this type of fanaticism from liberals.

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Why Many People In The Middle Now Identify With The Left

While the country has become more liberal in some ways, the Republican Party has moved to the extreme right, and the Democratic Party has filled in the vacuum in the middle by also moving to the right on many issues. As a consequence, many people who previously considered themselves in the middle are finding that the current views of the left are closer to their views. Thomas Ricks, who wrote Fiasco, and excellent look at the Iraq War, described why he moved to the left at Politico:

Disappointment in the American government over the last 10 years. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the first big shocks. I thought that invading Afghanistan was the right response to the 9/11 attacks, but I never expected the U.S. military leadership would be so inept in fighting there and in Iraq, running the wars in ways that made more enemies than were stopped. I believe that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, not only launched on false premises but also strategically foolish in that ultimately it has increased Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Torture. I never expected my country to endorse torture. I know that torture has existed in all wars, but to my knowledge, its use, under the chilling term “enhanced interrogation,” was never official U.S. policy until this century. In fact, until our recent wars, the American military had a proud heritage of handling its prisoners better than most. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington reminded his men of the need to “Treat [captives] with humanity, and Let them have no reason to complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army.”

How we fought. I never thought that an American government would employ mercenaries in a war. And yet we did this in Iraq by hiring thousands of armed “security contractors” who in practice were subject neither to local law nor to the American military justice system, and so could and often did treat Iraqis badly. In September 2007, I remember, American officers, who by then understood the need to treat Iraqi civilians well, were outraged when Blackwater employees shot 37 Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisour Square—the rough equivalent of opening up on the lunch crowd in Dupont Circle. Yet to my knowledge, the U.S. government has not studied how the use of mercenaries poisoned the conduct of the war. Indeed, it gives every indication of planning to operate the same way in the future.

Intelligence officials run amok. I think that American intelligence officials have shown a contempt for the way our democracy is supposed to work in turning a vast and unaccountable apparatus on the citizens it is supposed to be protecting. I remain wary of Edward Snowden’s motivations and connections, yet still am worried by the intrusive surveillance by the National Security Agency he has unveiled. At the very least, in a democracy, we should be able to be informed about the actions that have eroded our privacy but supposedly were taken in our name.

Growing income inequality. I also have been dismayed by the transfer of massive amounts of wealth to the richest people in the country, a policy supported over the last 35 years by successive administrations of both parties. Apparently income redistribution downward is dangerously radical, but redistribution upward is just business as usual. The middle class used at least to get lip service from the rich—“backbone of the country” and such. Now it is often treated like a bunch of saps not aware enough to evade their taxes.

This led to a lengthy discussion at The Moderate Voice, where I also blog. Many of the bloggers and regular commentators there are in a similar position, thinking of themselves as moderates but finding their views are now more in line with the left, especially on social issues. While Ricks didn’t mention social issues, the desire to keep government out of the private lives of individuals has led many people to abandon the Republicans and the conservative movement.

Opposition to the Iraq War and related issues has generally been the defining issue for the formation of the liberal “netroots” and this dominates Ricks’ reasons. Republicans typically use fear and distort Democratic views, such as with the misquotation of Obama as the theme of the last Republican convention, to falsely paint liberals as being for socialism. There are no such economic views listed by Ricks, and the same is typical of many liberals. There is a far greater variation in views on the left than on the right, but the center of gravity has moved rightwards on economic issues. Liberals tend to be  more pragmatists and closer to Eisenhower Republicans than anything close to socialist (by its classic meaning).

If the word conservative really meant anything, in many ways today’s liberals are the conservatives who want to preserve our market economy, while eliminating its abuses, while Republicans are the radicals who want to destroy the system and make our economy more like a banana republic. It is the Republicans who are irresponsible fiscally, financing their policies on credit (while Democrats are more likely to include financing for their policies), caring more about tax cuts for the rich as opposed to cutting the deficit, and rigging the system to redistribute wealth from the middle class to the rich. Besides the ethical problems with this, destroying the middle class is horrible for the economy, and in the long run doesn’t even benefit the rich either, unless you want to live in a banana republic. On top of this we have the Republicans engaging in irresponsible action such as shutting down the government and making an issue out of increasing the debt ceiling, resulting in a lowering of the country’s credit rating.

The Affordable Care Act is a good example of how both parties have moved to the right on health care. Obamacare is quite close to Richard Nixon’s health care plan, the GOP counter-proposal to HillaryCare in the 90′s, and Mitt Romney’s plan. Republicans used to push for mandates, exchanges, and recommended high deductible plans tied to medical savings accounts. Once Obama pushed for all of this, as opposed to previous more liberal health care proposals, the Republicans suddenly claimed that everything they supported in the past is socialism and amounts to a government takeover of health care. (Of course part of the Republican opposition is because Obamacare does differ from the old Republican proposals in including regulations to keep insurance companies from ripping off consumers while pushing to increase use of private insurance companies.)

Conservatives are likely to misinterpret the inclusion of concerns about income inequality by Ricks, as well as myself  in this post, as indicating support for socialism. Concern about the deleterious effects of  the concentration of wealth to our economy is not an exclusively liberal viewpoint–see the works of Kevin Phillips on this. Nor does this mean that socialism is being advocated as the solution.

Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed on income inequality which is worth reviewing:

First, economic inequality has worsened significantly in the United States and some other countries. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Oxfam estimates that the richest 85 people in the world own half of all wealth.

The situation might be tolerable if a rising tide were lifting all boats. But it’s lifting mostly the yachts. In 2010, 93 percent of the additional income created in America went to the top 1 percent.

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

Certainly, the nation grew more quickly in periods when we were more equal, including in the golden decades after World War II when growth was strong and inequality actually diminished. Likewise, a major research paper from the International Monetary Fund in April found that more equitable societies tend to enjoy more rapid economic growth.

Indeed, even Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, warns that “too much … has gone to too few” and that inequality in America is now “very destabilizing.”

Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised. That has been a classic problem in “banana republic” countries in Latin America, and the United States now has a Gini coefficient (a standard measure of inequality) approaching some traditionally poor and dysfunctional Latin countries.

Third, disparities reflect not just the invisible hand of the market but also manipulation of markets. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote a terrific book two years ago, “The Price of Inequality,” which is a shorter and easier read than Piketty’s book. In it, he notes: “Much of America’s inequality is the result of market distortions, with incentives directed not at creating new wealth but at taking it from others.”

For example, financiers are wealthy partly because they’re highly educated and hardworking — and also because they’ve successfully lobbied for the carried interest tax loophole that lets their pay be taxed at much lower rates than other people’s.

Likewise, if you’re a pharmaceutical executive, one way to create profits is to generate new products. Another is to lobby Congress to bar the government’s Medicare program from bargaining for drug prices. That

Fourth, inequality doesn’t necessarily even benefit the rich as much as we think. At some point, extra incomes don’t go to sate desires but to attempt to buy status through “positional goods” — like the hottest car on the block.

The problem is that there can only be one hottest car on the block. So the lawyer who buys a Porsche is foiled by the C.E.O. who buys a Ferrari, who in turn is foiled by the hedge fund manager who buys a Lamborghini. This arms race leaves these desires unsated; there’s still only one at the top of the heap.

Fifth, progressives probably talk too much about “inequality” and not enough about “opportunity.” Some voters are turned off by tirades about inequality because they say it connotes envy of the rich; there is more consensus on bringing everyone to the same starting line.

Unfortunately, equal opportunity is now a mirage. Indeed, researchers find that there is less economic mobility in America than in class-conscious Europe.

We know some of the tools, including job incentives and better schools, that can reduce this opportunity gap. But the United States is one of the few advanced countries that spends less educating the average poor child than the average rich one. As an escalator of mobility, the American education system is broken.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

Update: Norm Ornstein On The Republican Battle Between The Conservatives And Lunatic Radicals

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Liberal Democrats and Libertarian Republicans Working On Common Goals

Republicans have always had a libertarian wing but their influence and willingness to fight for true freedom has varied over time. Far too often Republican talk of freedom turns into the freedom of businesses to ignore necessary regulations or the freedom to impose their social and religious values upon others. Limited government also far too often turns out to mean reducing the authority of the federal government in order to allow state governments to infringe upon the rights of minorities. With true defense of freedom being rare among Republicans in recent years, it was good to see a report from The New York Times that Liberals and Libertarians Find Common Ground in House.

The article lists several areas where some Republicans have crossed the aisle to work with liberal Democrats:

From abortion to electronic privacy to background checks for gun purchases, a strange thing has been happening on the floor of the House as it debates its spending bills for the coming fiscal year: the stirrings of liberalism.

The House on Thursday voted 221 to 200 to approve an amendment by one of its most vocal liberal members, Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, to ban federal contracts for companies that set up sham headquarters in offshore tax havens like Bermuda. Thirty-four Republicans bucked their party to push it to passage.

That was only the most recent stirring of life on the House’s left flank. Democrats have long hoped they could find common cause on at least some issues with the Republican conference’s libertarian wing. That is starting to happen, fueled by rising distrust of government on the right, a willingness of Democrats to defy the Obama administration in some instances and a freewheeling amendment process on appropriations bills.

The article cites examples of liberals and libertarians working together on legislation to increase individual liberty, from medical marijuana to privacy protections:

The tally of left-libertarian legislation is growing, with the House at least on record voting to limit federal law enforcement actions, intelligence efforts and social policy reach. On May 30, 49 Republicans crossed the aisle to approve language barring the federal government from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries.

“Some people are suffering, and if a doctor feels that he needs to prescribe something to alleviate that suffering, it is immoral for this government to get in the way,” said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, once one of the chamber’s most ardent conservatives, now a co-sponsor of the marijuana measure.

The day before, 76 Republicans joined Democrats to add $19.5 million to the federal instant background check system for gun purchases. The House Appropriations Committee has approved an amendment to allow Peace Corps volunteers who become pregnant by rape to have a federally funded abortion and another measure limiting the federal government’s access to private email communications.

“By passing this amendment, the Appropriations Committee is taking a critical step towards ensuring all Americans are protected by the Fourth Amendment — their mail, documents on their desks at home, and now their private emails,” said Representative Kevin Yoder, Republican of Kansas and one of the measure’s authors.

On June 19, the House voted 293 to 123 to prohibit the National Security Agency and C.I.A. from placing “backdoor” surveillance technologies on commercial technology products and to end warrantless collection of Americans’ online activities. That amendment, passed over the White House’s objections with a veto-proof margin, was written by Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky and one of the House’s most outspoken libertarians, with the Democratic Representatives Zoe Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, and Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, a physicist.

An amendment by Representative Dave Reichert, Republican of Washington, reversed cuts to a Bill Clinton-era program that funds local police forces, a program long on the Republican target list. The liberal Democrat that Republicans love to hate, Representative Alan Grayson of Florida, convinced just enough Republicans to pass an amendment blocking the Justice Department from compelling journalists to divulge confidential sources. Another Democratic amendment clears a legal path for states to cultivate industrial hemp.

To be sure, Republicans note, plenty of amendments have driven spending bills to the right. Just last week, the House voted to block the Obama administration’s efforts to combat climate change on multiple fronts, including one amendment that prohibits any funding for any aspect of the administration’s “climate change agenda.”

Amendments also have passed to end the deferring of deportations of immigrants brought illegally to the country as children, to fund a Justice Department investigation of the Department of Homeland Security’s release of illegal immigrants and to block high-speed rail in California.

But, Mr. Massie said, the libertarian-liberal alliance is real and growing. He said he has been working with Ms. Lofgren on legislation that would repeal a federal law that makes it a felony to unlock a cellphone tied to a particular carrier, even after a contract is expired. Libertarians are also teaming with Democrats to change laws on federal mandatory minimum sentencing.

It would be helpful if left-libertarian goals were a higher priority from the executive branch. Obama had initially raised hopes that he would have governed as more of a left-libertarian, and Obama did receive some libertarian support when initially running for president. While he has been far preferable to George Bush on civil liberties, he has disappointed civil libertarians in areas ranging from continuing many of the Bush surveillance plans (even if seeking reform in some areas) to failing to keep his campaign promises regarding ending federal raids related to medical marijuana. While nothing is a certainty in politics, it looks most likely that Hillary Clinton, who has been to the right of Obama, is likely to win the 2016 nomination. This could leave it up to such a liberal and libertarian coalition in Congress to pursue liberal goals. There is hope for greater emphasis by the Democrats (and possibly some Republicans) on matters of personal freedom in the future as polls show that younger voters are more “determined to protect personal liberties from conservative moral constraint.”

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