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Monday, January 21, 2013

Constitution: Obama is not President

According to the Constitution:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Okay, if you allow the exclusion of the parenthetical "(or affirm)" then Obama met these terms. So he is President. The addition of "so help me God" at the end obviously doesn't negate the required oath it followed, but there is still something very wrong:

An unsuccessful lawsuit attempted to "enjoin Defendant Roberts ... from altering the constitutionally-prescribed text of the presidential oath of office while administering that oath to the President-elect ...."

There is nothing legally wrong with the President voluntarily saying "so help me God" or "just kidding" or even reciting "jabberwocky" following the oath, but for anything to be added to the oath by the official administering it at the very least undermines the Constitutional provision of Article II, Section 1, clause eight, in which the oath itself is explicitly specified.

By adding those specific words, however, Roberts violates more than just Article II Section 1 of the Constitution. Article VI specifically states that:

...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Requiring the recitation of an oath affirming some aspect of one's religion is very definition of religious test! The courts have upheld state-lead recition of pledge of allegiance, altered to include the phrase "under God," on the grounds that recitation of the pledge is not compulsory, but this oath is compulsory!

The lawsuit also claims the violation of rights guaranteed under the First Amendment as well as the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Those arguments are less clear to me. They hinge on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A state-sanctioned religious ceremony implies some disrespect for the First Amendment, but that decision was made a long time ago, and the secularists lost.

We became a Christian nation in the 1950s when, after a 150 year battle, that portion of the First Amendment was  revoked. Though the text still stands as a meaningless vestige, its interpretation is so weak as to be worthless in the protection of any minority against the establishment of a religious preference by the government -- while it could no doubt be effectively applied in the protection of the religious majority, it is not necessary to do so since political pressure protects them already.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How Dems Got a "Good Deal" on Fiscal Cliff

If it seems like Democrats got a "good deal" on the fiscal cliff negotiations, there are two reasons for that:

(1) To some degree, it seems better in comparison to the bad deal Obama offered two weeks earlier. Lucky for Democrats, they rejected it.

More importantly,

(2) As I explained in my previous post, going over the cliff would give the GOP a bloody face, and every day they stood firm would do long-lasting damage to the Republican brand and give Democrats a better negotiating position. Two weeks ago, the GOP leadership was nowhere near even that worse deal Obama offered, but a few hours after going over the cliff, the GOP leadership allowed Democrats a deal one might not have expected for another week after going over the cliff. Why? Saving face! If the talking points we hear from Republicans today sounds at all like credible arguments from a team that just lost a couple of games rather than hallucinatory ramblings of a fanatic, it's because they were allowed to avoid showing the nation what the fiscal cliff really was and how weak their position really was.

If it seems that Democrats extracted concessions from Republicans without giving up much in return, it's because they did give up something more abstract, but huge nonetheless: instead of giving the right wing the bloody face they had coming and gutting the Tea Party, Democrats took some favorable policy and allowed the GOP base to continue holding on to the fantasy that they are serious, responsible fiscal conservatives rather than delusional fools.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Obama Concedes, Boehner Turns Him Down

Yesterday, the president offered some concessions. He offered to continue the Bush era tax rates on some of the wealthiest 2% of Americans and he offered cuts to Social Security that are unacceptable to much of his base.

He asked for no concessions from the GOP. John Boehner apparently misunderstood. Instead of offering concessions of his own in return, he rejected the package of concessions as if it were an intermediate Democratic negotiating offer!

Policy preferences matter, but reality matters more!
That's how far apart the two sides are! That's why going over the fiscal cliff is not just an option, but a necessity.

If our future depends on these two sides compromising, it looks like we are doomed. There is a no man's land miles wide considered completely unacceptable by both sides. The usual suspects are all partly to blame, but the more difficult problem is not just disagreement and obstinacy over policy preferences but a far right gone completely mad.

They are so disconnected from reality, it's not even clear that the far right would go along with getting their own way!

Remember that the fiscal cliff was created by demands of severe deficit reduction under threat of not raising the debt ceiling. Many on the far right opposed raising the debt ceiling at all! What does that even mean? In theory, it means immediately cutting the deficit to zero. But if you write up the details of various scenarios that might actually occur with a failure to raise the debt ceiling, not a single one would actually pass muster with them. The fiscal cliff is the severe deficit reduction they demanded, not something Democrats asked for. Going over the fiscal cliff will be bad for the economy, and it was never the policy preference of Democrats. Yet even as the GOP mainstream calls spending cuts on the defense side "devastating" and wring hands over the revenue increases [both components that reduce the deficit] even as it is, it still doesn't go far enough to cut the deficit to zero!

So as we still drive towards the brick wall that is the debt ceiling, the far right simultaneously demands that we accelerate towards the wall faster and not move the wall!

What's more, this demand is not just a preference to them the way not cutting Social Security is to me; failing to follow this path towards suicide is framed as an existential threat!

These nuts have the power to scuttle a compromise, and that's a huge problem. Our only hope is to force them to see reality. It's not just arrogance, pride, or anger that makes me want to rub this reality in the faces of these far right nuts. It is not just obstinacy that makes me want Democrats to go all the way.  I would be willing to compromise on a lot of policy points that my fellow progressives would not. But it has become a necessity to go over the cliff. The far right really does now represent an existential threat.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Republicans Need an Intellectual Enema

The GOP is so full of shit, it's put us all at risk. Some worry about the dangers of going over the fiscal cliff, but it may be the only thing that can save us!

The GOP has gone off the deep end. It's been a long time coming, but went into overdrive sometime around Obama's election to the presidency. They went from merely advancing an ideology, which of course sometimes entailed bending the truth, to actively refusing to recognize the most basic facts of reality. Set aside their asinine beliefs about Obama himself, the UN black helicopter conspiracy paranoia, and other fringe nonsense. They GOP mainstream nearly shut down the federal government. They forced a downgrade of US debt, and brought the economic recovery to a halt. Over what? Economic policy!

In this state of insanity, the GOP is the greatest threat to our country we have seen in a long time. A lot more people die every year in the US due to not having health insurance than from terrorist attacks. Yet, when liberals set aside their desire for a Canadian-style system and instead advanced the broad outlines of the 1990's Republican/Heritage Foundation/Gingrich/Dole/Romney health plan, how did the GOP react? Instead of arguing over minutiae as a sane person would have expected, they screamed bloody-murder government-take-over death-panels!

It's not a matter of wanting to negotiate in good faith. How does one possibly negotiate in good faith with that?

The GOP is intellectually constipated. They need an enema, and the so-called fiscal cliff might just do the trick.

As we head for fiscal triggers negotiated hastily under threats from the GOP to force much worse economic consequences, we are told that this relatively mild "cliff" must be averted or else we will sink into another recession. Perhaps so, but the alternative may be worse. The triggers were negotiated knowing that it was a bad deal all around designed to deal with a problem that Republicans insisted they cared about: the deficit. The only way a deal could be made is if both sides consider it a better deal than going over the cliff, and remember deficit reduction was the GOP plan -- they demanded this! And yet the first demands of the GOP are to eliminate the the deficit reduction by taking tax increases for the wealthy out and keeping military spending. They want to take credit for reducing the deficit, but they want Democrats to take the blame for every unpopular step required to do so and give up the most prized Democratic policy achievements of the 20th century that haven't even contributed to the deficit [after campaigning with this silly premise that Democrats were the ones trying to cut Medicare against Republican opposition, Republicans are are now demanding that Democrats explain to the American people what entitlement cuts they would put on the table when most Democrats won't even accept any as part of this deal.]

The good and bad news is that there is no reason whatsoever for Democrats to take such a deal. Going over the fiscal cliff  is a much better deal! What's worse, this absurd start point is what we are being offered by the Republican leadership that their own far-right wing has now accused of selling out to big government socialists.

Hey you! Remember when you said we should not raise the debt ceiling and we asked "what does that even mean?" and you responded "I'm not listening."  Merry Christmas, asshole!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Please Call your Republican Representative

If you're like me and you're represented by a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, good news! He now has some power to remove one issue from the table in these negotiations: middle class taxes.

Congressman [Quayle], please take middle class taxes off the table in the fiscal cliff negotiations. I understand that most Republicans want lower taxes on the rich and Democrats mostly disagree. The two parties also don't agree about defense spending, military contracting rules, domestic discretionary spending, research, energy, healthcare entitlements, and more. The are plenty of other chips to play with without holding 98% of American households hostage.

Please do the right thing and sign the discharge petition on H.R. 15 to keep my taxes from increasing.

Thank you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

We already won the debate! Tax the rich!

Point 1: The starting point for negotiation around the fiscal cliff is current law, and current law already raises tax rates on the wealthy, so we don't need to negotiate FOR that point AT ALL! If Republicans want to put that change in law back on the table, they need to offer something monumental in return!

Point 2: Is keeping lower taxes for the middle class a bargaining chip? If so, whose chip is it to offer and/or fight for? Democrats should OFFER to keep taxes low on the middle class in EXCHANGE for something we want and force the GOP to either fight for lower middle class taxes or admit that their "low tax" stance is a really just a pro-wealth stance. Am I missing something?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Candidates for Central Arizona Water Conservation District

*UPDATE* Vote for Heather Macre and Terry Goddard only.


As promised, here are the results of my evaluation of the candidates for CAP Board / Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

These are obviously going to be biased, but to avoid injecting my bias too quickly, I built a formula with four components. I did a lot of guesswork to fill them in, but hoped my mistakes would average out well enough.

  1. Subject Matter Expertise - This is, after all, supposedly a non-partisan position, so we want some people who understand the water and infrastructure issues the board deals with.
  2. Intellect and Competence - This gives points for intellect as well as knowledge and experience in ancillary areas such as law, finance, energy, politics, etc.
  3. Alignment - This gives points based on how well the candidate will represent my personal interests as a consumer and water user, and as a citizen concerned about good government, justice, etc. This scale varied less than others except that over-emphasis on agriculture and mining interests lost a point or two and delusional ideological obsessions lost a lot of points.
  4. Sustainability - This score measures my own delusional ideological obsession with maintaining long term stability of ecosystems as well as human civilization and protecting and conserving natural resources for future generations.

Goddard and Macre obviously get two of my five possible votes, with scores that win pretty much across the board. What a coincidence that they are the only two Democrats ;)

If I were just to vote for the five best, I might read more closely to refine the scores, but Guy Carpenter and Robin Bain stand out. Though conservative Republicans, both appear to be strong subject matter experts, so their constructive contributions could make up for some of the negatives they bring to the table. Some people think this is a position where expertise counts.

Just as important, however, there are four candidates who need to be defeated. Brickman, McGrath, Mecum, and Thom are unqualified and unacceptable!

Now, the problem is to determine how to vote strategically to meet the two goals of

  1. Electing Macre and Goddard and
  2. Stopping the wingnuts from sabotaging our water management system

I am currently leaning towards just voting for my two to increase their chances in this Republican-dominated region and just crossing my fingers in hope that enough Republicans are sane enough to pick their qualified folks instead of their batshit crazy ideologues who have no idea what this office is about....

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Military Groups Push Voter Suppression, Dishonor Service

Metals of dishonor, The Week Magazine
In case you missed it, our brave military men and women are under attack again in Ohio. They put their life on the line to defend their own position of privilege only to return home and find that their ability to take away the rights of others in question. Wait. What?!?

Okay, that's not the whole story, but the whole story has me fuming, and it calls into question that special position of honor and respect held for our veterans and military service members. If they want to use that position to take away rights from others [in this case, the ability of civilians to vote early on the weekend before election day because, I don't know, maybe they have to work on Tuesday] and demand those rights be narrowed to special privileges for themselves, then I don't know why we have any special respect for them. Then they lie about it so blatantly!

If you know me, you know I am an ardent atheist (and a Jew), but for this, I find wisdom in the Christian and Hindu traditions.

Matthew 6:5 - And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full

And I say more generally, those who take their karmic rewards for themselves have already received them! There is no reason for US to give them a special place of honor if they have already taken their reward.

Is there? This is why it is so wrong -- not just a little wrong.  It's a lot wrong.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How Supreme Court Really Decides

A more realistic model of justice
People have an idealistic mental model of how a Supreme Court justice might arrive at judgments by carefully pouring through the question and the legal principles to arrive at a conclusion. Most people have that model, but almost nobody actually believes it. Others assume that ideology is the entire explanation and that the opinions of the court are just voluminous ideological screeds. They explain away unexpected decisions as shifts in a judge's ideology or revelations about a judge's true ideology.

A more realistic model for how justices decide is a mixture. More likely what happens is that a judge begins from the conclusion they would like to reach and then they attempt to construct a solid justification for it. They may do the same for alternate conclusions, but they almost certainly spend less effort looking to justify the conclusions they don't want to reach. Perhaps they assign a clerk to construct an alternate conclusion so they can then ignore it.

Recent leaks combined with the contents of a very mixed opinion constructed by Justice Roberts reveals the reality in more detail. Too many people with opinions seem not to know that Roberts actually did strike down the individual mandate, making clear that direct criminal penalties to force commercial activity is an overreach of federal power -- he just upheld the enforcement provision as a legitimate free-rider tax. We now know that Roberts sided with a 5-4 conservative majority to strike the mandate, but as he was constructing the majority opinion, he made a subtle change that flipped that picture. By the time he was done writing it, he had finished writing the 5-4 liberal majority decision. How did that happen?

It shouldn't be too big of a shock if you read the law closely. Suppose you imagine writing the decision to strike down the individual mandate -- if you don't have a basic understanding of law, stop here for a refresher on the commerce clause, the necessary and proper clause, the taxing and spending clause, and the sixteenth amendment....

Back to the story,  suppose you've already decided to strike down the individual mandate as "not a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause" and you've even essentially finished constructing that part of the decision but you are now deciding how to "sever" the individual mandate from the rest of the bill in writing the conservative majority decision to declare it unconstitutional.  At least one extreme right wing judge who saw the case before it reached the Supreme court decided that the mandate is inextricably linked to the entire law and thus the entire law must be voided, and people who understand the policy understand that it is linked to the provision that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, but the role of the court is generally to rule narrowly and leave policy decisions to the other branches of government. The court severs narrow provisions of a law based on what is possible and constitutional, not based on what is good policy.

So where can you sever it? Even for one who has already decided to strike the mandate, it's not entirely obvious. You have to ask a few questions. Where does the constitutional part end and the unconstitutional part begin? At some point, the exercise probably involves reading the law.

One colorful approach might be to start by striking as narrowly as possible just a few words and phrases that make it clear that it's unconstitutional. In this case, the words "requirement" and possibly "penalty" seem to be the ones [the word "mandate" is not actually found anywhere in the "Individual Responsibility" section of the law]. From there, strike any sentences or paragraphs that have become too nonsensical to implement. Finally, any parts of the law that become physically or logically impossible to implement without the stricken parts are also stricken. What is left?

Another approach is to imagine the law written in an alien language and you are an observer incapable of learning the language but able to watch every aspect of it being enacted and enforced. From there, strike any operations, behaviors, or enforcement actions that violate your concept of constitutional federal powers and then write whatever law is left in your own language to reflect what you see as its true meaning. What is left?

There are plenty of other ways, and I doubt these colorful approaches actually reflect Roberts' thinking, but it is interesting to note that they both lead to exactly the same conclusion! The first approach leads one to "strike the mandate" but leave its enforcement in place as a tax incentive. The second leads one to declare that it always was nothing more than a tax incentive, but because of the misleading "requirement" language, the court voluntary offers the opinion for future laws that such a mandate would be unconstitutional.

In other words, Roberts started from the conclusion to strike the mandate and his position never changed! The only thing that changed was his discovery that the free rider tax can be construed as a tax, severed from the mandate, and that the only justification for striking the tax under that interpretation would be purely ideological and not legal! And what ideology? The individual mandate was first proposed by conservatives as a "tax on free riders to promote individual responsibility," it was not popular with liberals, Newt Gingrich promoted it, and Romney implemented it. Many liberals still see it as a giveaway to the insurance industry, and usually it's the conservatives who bend the rules to protect corporate power and profit.  Lucky for Roberts, he was not asked to resolve that question.

So he didn't change his mind, but merely made a discovery. When he made that discovery, he certainly brought it to the attention of the other conservatives. How many of them do you think cared about the legal reasoning? Roberts was not arguing, he was tasking them with the job of rationalizing their pre-determined dissent as he was giving up that task. In Gonzales v Raich, even Scalia decided that the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause could be used by the federal government to criminalize non-commercial behavior legal within a state if indirectly necessary for other measures to have force! He cited precedent, though he has since wavered in his support for that precedent, but given that his decision in Gonzales actively denied medical treatment, perhaps the true deciding factor is that he opposes expanded access to healthcare. Maybe not, but he makes it way too easy.]

One might be surprised that Roberts was the only one who changed his mind until you realize that he was the one constructing the majority opinion [the only important opinion], and it seems it was the act of constructing that opinion that forced him to recognize the more nuanced reality. So we have an answer, for Roberts at least. Like any other human, he is flawed. He most certainly started from his conclusion and constructed the opinion from there, but a majority opinion is not just an ideological screed. Scalia might wish to live in an oligarchy where all resource allocation is decided by a ruling class of wealth elites, and he might think it is moral and just and right, but at some point along the way, even he would have to construct serious legal arguments to support that position as a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ed Schultz

Dear Conservatives, 

We'll give you Ed Schultz if you give us David Brooks. Deal? 

Annoyed Liberal

Righteousness alone doesn't make you right about policy, and it doesn't make up for being an ass.

Take Ed Schultz.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ron Paul and Newt Drop Out, Endorse Romney

Both Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich have been heard recently complaining about all the "establishment money" outspending them, and to a liberal like me, this sounds like an argument for campaign finance reform. But coming from these two gentlemen, it qualifies as an endorsement of Mitt Romney. Let me explain.

Consider Ron Paul's position on campaign finance reform. Whether in the form of public financing of campaigns or other rules governing the finance of campaigns, his position is that it's UNCONSTITUTIONAL.

To those who don't know conservativespeak, "unconstitutional" does not simply mean disallowed under the constitution as currently applied or not legally valid without an amendment to the constitution. That's the liberal definition of unconstitutional. In fact -- you may find this shocking -- in conservativespeak it does not even mean counter-to or in violation of the correctly interpreted currently active text of the Constitution! In conservativespeak, you see, the word "unconstitutional" means "fundamentally evil and wrong despite the appearance of being morally right." For example, protecting people from financial fraud -- it seems like a morally right thing to do, but financial fraud is also highly profitable -- thus, such a regulation would be termed "unconstitutional". See how it works? In crazytown, the world is at a crucial juncture demanding radical change. Without it we are all DOOMED. And also, it's a moral imperative that Mitt Romney be able to leverage all that "establishment money" to grab the reins of power and keep us on that path to doom.

Welcome to crazytown.

But Newt Gingrich's position is a little more subtle. Like Paul, he hails from crazytown, but he also keeps a house [and a mistress] in DC. For Newt, it's not just a matter of constitutionality -- unlimited political spending is a moral good in and of itself! Perhaps because living in DC opens ones eyes to the importance of special interest money in helping leaders to sort policy priorities. And I'm not referring to the big bucks he made lobbying on behalf of Freddie Mac in the years leading up to the financial crisis he would then blame on Freddie Mac's cozy position in the halls of power. I'm referring to his reaction to the Citizen's United case. In an interview the day of that decision, Newt had this to say:
Well, I'm delighted. And I think I would say that the real campaign finance reform under our Constitution would be to allow anyone to give unlimited amounts of after-tax money.... I'm saying that it allows you to have a middle-class candidate go out and find allies and supporters who are able to help them match the rich....
Well, if that's your position, Mr. Gingrich, then the failure of your Super PAC to raise enough money to match Mitt Romney's Super PAC is a triumph for our system of government! It sounds to me like an endorsement of Mitt Romney.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Not Even Newt Can Count the Angels on the Head of a Pin

A recent interview response from Newt Gingrich has the Catholics in a tizzy. Apparently they are upset that he wouldn't take a stand on whether a fertilized egg that had not yet been implanted in the uterine wall was a human life. Of course it is, so the nuts win on that point, but they're both missing the forest for the trees.

The correct answer from science is that life is a continuous process going back millions of years without interruption. There is no specific moment when the life of a single organism begins [or species, for that matter]. Or, as I like to say, life begins long before conception. But the real question I think the religious folks are trying to ask is either: (1) when does the SOUL implant into the organism or perhaps (2) when does the life of value equal to that of an human child begin [obviously not before fertilization, and setting aside the usual liberal quip that conservatives value fetuses more than children].

The more you know, the harder the question gets for religious folks. For example, what if there is a fertilized egg, but shortly after it starts to divide into a multicellular organism, some developmental flaw occurs that guarantees it will never be able to develop anything even resembling a brain. The pregnancy would fail naturally very soon after that, but it raises a question to someone who claims the fertilized egg had a soul or equal value to that of a human, since the event that made it impossible for it to develop into something more meaningful than a blob of tissue happened after fertilization.

But if you reject the religion or the religious proscriptions, the question itself pretty much disappears. Let's hope Newt disappears, too.