AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Sat, 03 Oct 2015 01:13:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Jeb on mass shootings (and economic inequality, and institutional racism, and climate change): “stuff happens” Fri, 02 Oct 2015 21:26:36 +0000 When Jeb Bush first heard that a mass shooting had taken place in Oregon yesterday, he was quick to proclaim that he would be doing the only thing anyone can really do in times like these: praying.

Given a full day to think about what should come next, after God’s heard his pleas for, well, something, Bush was asked if he supported any legislation to make shootings like these less likely in the future. He took a half-swing and missed wildly:

The audio’s soft on that clip, but here’s the quote that matters:

I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It’s very sad to see. But I resist the notion, and I had this challenge as governor—look, stuff happens. There’s always a crisis. The impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.

While a lot of people are jumping on Bush’s comments as a gaffe, “stuff happens” is Bush’s position on a lot more than gun violence. There isn’t a single major systemic issue in this country that Jeb Bush thinks the government can take any actionable steps to ameliorate. Economic inequality? Climate change? Stuff happens. You’ve got to let the free market take its course. Institutional racism? Stuff happens. America’s criminal justice system isn’t racist; black people are just more likely to be criminals. Widespread lack of access to health insurance? Stuff happens. But if you’re lucky, your Apple Watch will take care of you!

It appears that the only time Jeb Bush thinks the government should intervene to prevent stuff from happening is when the guardian of someone in a persistent vegetative state wants them to die with dignity.

So it should come as no surprise that when he was asked shortly following his comments if he stood by them — is his stance on mass shootings really that, as with natural disasters, they’re something we just have to live with once in a while (or every day) —  he doubled down:

Because it is Jeb Bush’s deeply-held political belief that prayer is more effective than policy, and that the most pressing problems facing our country now aren’t problems at all; they’re just the price we pay for our freedom. Neither of those things are even close to being true. When bad stuff happens we need to pray less and think about solutions more.

That’s what Presidents are supposed to do when stuff happens: Figure out how to keep said stuff from happening quite as frequently. If Jeb doesn’t like the sound of that, he’s more than welcome to go back to Florida and do nothing on his own time.

Why can’t our gun policy look more like Canada’s? Fri, 02 Oct 2015 20:05:57 +0000 Say something moderately approving of gun control on the Internet, and you’re sure to attract umpteen self-described patriots reminding you that you are wrong and bad. There’s nothing we can do to regulate the guns, they say, because the black market is the freest of markets, and will undercut any regulation you throw at would-be mass shooters.

In the abstract, sure. You can’t prevent every bad person from getting their hands on guns that they shouldn’t have. But in the practice of the aggregate, we know that states and countries with stronger gun laws see fewer gun deaths, in no small part due to the fact that making it harder to acquire a gun, well, makes it harder to acquire a gun. This may come as a surprise to some, but black markets can be rather difficult to access — much more difficult than, say, your mom’s basement or the corner store. This being the case, making it harder for people who we’ve already decided shouldn’t have a gun to go out and buy that gun will, in the long term, save lives.

But once you move past that argument, you inevitably run up against the claim that guns aren’t actually so bad because cars kill more people every year. And when a drunk driver kills someone, we don’t blame the car; we blame the driver.

Which is true! Cars, like guns, are machines that can be super deadly when used improperly. That’s why we’ve found that the state has a compelling interest in making sure that, while almost every adult has the right to buy almost any kind of car they want, there’s an extensive licensing and registration process to make sure that you know what you’re doing.

To see how this sort of process would work for guns, one need only look one country north, to Canada, a country with the thirteenth-highest rate of gun ownership in the world (30.8 guns per 100 citizens) and a rather modest licensing process. Here are their requirements:

First, every person who wants to obtain a gun license has to pass a one-day gun safety course. Much like drivers ed in America, this course isn’t intended to prevent people from getting guns — practically everyone passes — it’s to ensure that when you get your gun, you know what you’re doing.

Second, every person who wants to obtain a gun license has to provide three references. If you can’t find three people who are okay with you having a gun, you shouldn’t have a gun.

Third, every person who wants to obtain a gun license has to fill out an application that asks, among other things:

  • which kinds of guns you intend to purchase
  • if you or your family members have a history of improper gun use
  • if you have a history of mental health problems, particularly relating to depression and suicidal thoughts
  • if you have a history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • if you have a history of violence, particularly domestic abuse
  • if you have recently (within the last two years) been divorced, gone through a breakup, been laid off or gone bankrupt
Man with gun via Shutterstock

Man with gun via Shutterstock

Additionally, if you are married, your spouse has to sign off on your gun purchase.

When we talk about gun policy in America –who should and shouldn’t have which kinds of guns — these are all things that people generally agree should be part of that conversation. Do you not trust people who are close to you with guns? Maybe you shouldn’t have a gun. Are you at risk for suicide? You probably shouldn’t have a gun. Are you already violent and abusive? Let’s not exacerbate that with a gun. Are you going through particularly hard times? Let’s hold off on getting you that gun until things start looking up again.

After you’ve filled out your application, you mail it off to the government. Four to six weeks later, you get your license, and — voila! — you’re good to go.

To add on to Canada’s licensing system, Jen Gunter has some more proposals for regulating guns like we do with cars. Here are a few of them:

  • License renewal: We require citizens to renew their drivers licenses to prove they still know how to drive. And we know that gun safety training wears off if not continuously refreshed. Is it really too much to ask to require gun owners to come back every few years and prove that they still know how to shoot straight?
  • Inspections: The government requires people to take their cars in for yearly inspections because driving a broken car around is dangerous — for the public and especially for the driver. Why should this be any different for guns? If you’re such a responsible gun owner, prove it. Bring your guns in for inspection. If you can’t maintain them, you probably shouldn’t have them.
  • Gun insurance: The government requires people to insure their cars because they recognize that cars are inherently dangerous and will inevitably result in injuries and property damage that car owners will often be unable to cover out of pocket. The same is true for guns. Just as 80 percent of drivers think they’re an above-average driver, a large majority of gun owners think that they’re the responsible ones — that their guns will never cause harm. Until they do. Gun owners, not the general public, should be responsible for that risk.

None of these requirements are onerous burdens on the gun owner of America’s greatest aspiration — the proverbial law-abiding citizen who only wants to protect themselves and would never, ever, ever, ever, ever let their gun be used to harm others, accidentally or otherwise. If you want to go hunting or go all Jason Bourne on that burglar who is totally coming to your house, you can still do that in Canada! A lot! But there’s a reason why only 32 percent of Canada’s homicides are committed using a gun, and there are only 0.51 gun homicides per 100,000 people in the country (US figures: 60 percent of homicides involve a gun; 2.97 gun homicides per 100,000 people): many of the the people who American patriots would call “irresponsible” gun owners are denied access to guns in the first place, while responsible gun owners have to prove their responsibility.

Canada’s figured out how to have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world without a corresponding epidemic of mass shootings. If we want to keep our right to bear arms while drastically limiting the number of “bad guys with a gun,” their model seems like a good place to start.

The Vatican downplays Pope Francis’s meeting with Kim Davis Fri, 02 Oct 2015 16:56:22 +0000 American liberals were shocked and appalled when they heard that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis while he was in the country last week. And with good reason: While the Pope doesn’t disagree with Kim Davis about all that much with respect to same-sex marriage and religious belief’s supersession of irreligious laws, deep down we all hoped that Pope Francis would put his deeply held religious beliefs aside for a few days and be a political figure — one whose top legislative priorities are action on climate change and economic inequality.

Given the tone of the Pope’s address to Congress, it appeared that we liberals got what we wanted: No explicit references to abortion and same-sex marriage, contrasted with a strong warning against the excesses of capitalism. We may not agree with the Pope on everything, but at least he prioritized the stuff we cared about.

This train of thought ignored much of the rest of Pope Francis’s trip. In particular, it ignored his meting with Little Sisters of the Poor, whose fight against contraception is a not-too-distant cousin of Kim Davis’s fight against same-sex marriage, and his endorsement of conscientious objection in the name of religious belief while leaving the country. We wanted to believe that, while in America, Pope Francis would be assertively political about economics while being religious on social issues; some of us missed that he’s both on both.

We also may have underestimated the full political context of Kim Davis’s audience, in no small part due to the fact that the Vatican took practically all week to say anything other than the fact that the meeting took place. In the wake of the news breaking that the Pope granted Kim Davis an audience, she did nothing but fan the flames, turning her audience into an endorsement by saying, “He told me before he left, he said, ‘stay strong.’ That was a great encouragement. Just knowing that the Pope is on track with what we’re doing, it kind of validates everything to have someone of that stature.” Today, finally, the Vatican has come out to tell her to slow her roll, writing in a statement:

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.

The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.

UPDATE: Turns out the “only real audience” Pope Francis granted was to a same-sex couple.

Keep in mind, this isn’t exactly a repudiation of Davis. The statement says that the meeting shouldn’t be construed as a form of support, but it also doesn’t say that the Pope disagrees with her outright. This isn’t the Vatican telling Kim Davis she’s wrong; it’s just the Vatican telling her and everyone who agrees with her to chill out, reiterating what plenty of people said when the meeting first came to light: The Pope meets with plenty of people, and we shouldn’t assume that meetings equal endorsements. As Catholic writer James Martin wrote earlier this week, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pope Francis also met Mark Wahlberg, and that does not mean that he liked ‘Ted,'” one of Wahlberg’s more recent and less-acclaimed films.

But the Vatican’s statement today doesn’t change the fact that Pope Francis placed himself squarely in Kim Davis’s camp independent from their meeting. And it also doesn’t change the fact that she still got an invite over literally millions of more-deserving people who were in the Washington, D.C. metro area at the time. Even if the Nunciature and not the Pope invited her, and even if the meeting was brief and vague instead of personal and specific, none of that changes anything about the Pope’s positions on the issues at hand, and it is still a black mark on what was otherwise a successful visit.

Because if there’s one thing the Vatican should have learned this week, it’s that alliances with the American Evangelical movement aren’t as useful as they used to be. American Protestants today are an odd bunch, and for political purposes it’s best to keep them at arms length. This fact was laid bare following the Vatican’s statement today when Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver made the rather absurd claim that no one from Kim Davis-land ever said the Pope had endorsed them. This from the group that shouted to high heaven that they had been granted an audience with the Pope, positively giddy that “the Pope is on track with what we’re doing.” To do such a rapid about face, only days after being exposed for having lied about Kim Davis being an international superstar, further solidifies the point that they are deranged, fact-free hucksters. From the Vatican’s point of view, they are toxic as hell and you shouldn’t get within two degrees of separation from them.

It’s hard to believe it took them this long to figure that out.

Corn syrup and artificial sweeteners are even worse for you than you thought Fri, 02 Oct 2015 16:00:11 +0000 Beverages containing sugar (and/or high fructose corn syrup) are known to contribute to the obesity epidemic that is raging in the U.S. currently. People who count every calorie in the food they eat may pick up a can of sweetened soda and drink it without being aware that they may have just consumed 300 calories. The calories in the excess carbohydrates taken in that are above the number of calories burned are retained, leading to weight gain. This, among other things (like lack of exercise, poor food choices and others) are likely driving our obesity outbreak.

A large study has recently shown that even drinking one can of sweetened soda daily can substantially increase the risk for type II diabetes. But it also showed that sugar-containing soda can also significantly increase the risk of heart attacks and fatal heart disease as well as stroke, independent of whether or not the patient has diabetes. Data from the study shows that people drinking one (or more) sugar-sweetened beverages daily had a 26% higher risk of developing type II diabetes, a 35% increased risk of having a heart attack (or other fatal heart disease) and a 16% increase in the risk of having a stroke.

The researchers also looked at the role fructose (fruit sugar) plays in this scenario. High-fructose corn syrup is fairly ubiquitous. It’s used to sweeten any number of foods, soda being one of them. If you look at the nutrition facts on that can of soda you’re sipping now, you’ll probably see it listed as one of the top three ingredients. That can be important because of the biochemistry and metabolism of fructose. Somewhat simplified, glucose is absorbed by the small intestine, passes through the liver and into the bloodstream. Fructose, on the other hand, is absorbed by the small intestine, goes to the liver where it gets metabolized to triglycerides. The triglycerides can lead to insulin resistance (one of the contributors to type II diabetes) and to fatty liver. The triglycerides can also contribute to the formation of plaque in coronary, cerebral and other arteries.

The researchers say that while just decreasing or eliminating the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages won’t end the obesity epidemic, it can help slow it. And it may have a significant effect on lowering cardiovascular diseases.

So, should you quit sugar-sweetened beverages altogether? No. You can still have them as a treat, just don’t make a daily habit of them. You can also look for sweetened beverages that do not use HFCS as a sweetening agent. But, they will contain other sugars, so again, limit their intake.

But lest you think that artificially sweetened beverages are better . . .

A forthcoming study took a look at the amount of “discretionary foods” consumed and what beverages are drunk with those foods.

Discretionary foods are those which contain little to no real nutritive value, and are typically high in salt, sugar, cholesterol or fats and calories. We usually think of these as junk foods, or “empty calories.” These foods are ones that can easily cause weight gain and may not leave us feeling full, so that we’re hungry again a fairly short time after eating.

Sugar free via Shutterstock

Sugar free via Shutterstock

The author looked at the eating and drinking habits of about 20,000 people from a large study. The beverages he looked at were: coffee, tea, alcohol, diet beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages. People who drank alcohol or sugar-sweetened beverages tended to have the highest daily calorie intake. Those who drank diet beverages or coffee had the highest calorie intake that was from discretionary foods, and therefore had poorer-quality diets (as did those who also drank sugar-sweetened beverages).

One of the outcomes is that people who do drink diet beverages (or coffee) tend to eat more calories and more of those calories come from junk (discretionary) foods. That leads to less nutritious diets and, often, weight gain.

So it appears that both artificially-sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverage drinkers make poor food choices and can gain weight. Just switching to a diet beverage may not be at all helpful if you’re trying to lose weight unless you look at your other eating habits, too.


Why are you praying over this shooting tragedy? Fri, 02 Oct 2015 15:31:36 +0000 In the wake of national shooting tragedies, the first thing everyone seems compelled to say is that their thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, our nation and whoever else might be affected.

This is a natural reaction. It makes sense. But it is also problematic. It’s time to stop praying over shooting tragedies, as practically every iteration of the concerned post-shooting prayer is either presumptuous or counterproductive, to say nothing of wishful:

Praying for the victims

Every victim of a shooting tragedy has one of two dispositions in reference to the person making an appeal to a higher power on their behalf. Either they believed in the same God as the person praying for them, and they are going to Heaven; or they didn’t, and are going to Hell (or purgatory, if the religion in question is long on prayer and short on Hell). If the former, why do they need the boost? They’re already going to Heaven; they’re “in a better place,” as it were. If the latter, then you’ve brought on a few complications with your belief system:

Think for a hot second about the implications of praying for the soul of an otherwise-hellbound person who didn’t deserve to die, hoping that they find peace and salvation in the next life. First, you are confirming the injustice of your faith, reiterating that the concept of deserving has nothing to do with the delineation between the saved and the damned. Second, you are assuming that if enough people pray hard enough, God will bend the rules — just this once! — and put an infidel in Heaven with all of the believers. But if that’s possible, then why does prayer need to be involved in the first place? Wouldn’t it be more just if God simply saved the souls of those who deserved salvation?

Third, you know how everyone gets more than a little weirded out when they hear that the Mormons retroactively baptized their deceased relatives? There isn’t much separating that from praying for the soul of a non-believer. It’s creepy. Don’t do it.

Praying for the victims’ families

This one is a bit better, but still a bit sticky. Because while there is nothing inherently wrong or harmful about sending good vibes to someone going through a period of unspeakable grief, that’s all they are: good vibes. Any extra baggage that comes with your prayer — perhaps you hope or expect that God will intervene on your behalf to change how these families feel for the better — is wishful and willfully dismissive of the concept of personal overcoming. Grief is a process. You hurt, you heal, you move on — just as God presumably intended.

But setting that aside as a minor quibble, one thing we’ve learned from the many, many families affected by gun violence in recent years is that at least a few of them would like us all to stop praying for them and start doing something meaningful to prevent more families from going through what they’re going through now:

Literally every time shootings like these happen, we are told that this is not the time for action; this is the time for prayer. We are told this by self-professed pro-life political actors who have political and financial interests in doing nothing to prevent gun deaths.

Taken in this context, our immediate national call to prayer feels less about healing and more about distraction and expediency. Talking about how and why this tragedy happened would be really, really uncomfortable, as it would require a lot of us to give up some of our deeply held pseudo-religious beliefs about what good guys with guns can do. Better to avoid that confrontation by loudly reaffirming our other, perhaps slightly less sincere religious belief that if we pray hard enough, this will all go away.

Speaking of which…

Praying for shootings like these to never happen again

This prayer makes the least sense of the bunch. For starters, the sheer volume of prayers asked and soundly unanswered on this front should be enough to convince anyone who has the slightest shred of respect for evidence-based thinking that their particular prayer is going to fall on deaf ears at best, or will otherwise be actively ignored by whichever deity to whom they’re appealing. If prayer worked on this front, it would have worked by now. Instead, God has proven beyond reasonable doubt that they are agnostic, to say the least, when it comes to mass shootings in America.

That aside, this sort of appeal also flies in the face of everything believers supposedly believe about free will and the inevitability of sin. God isn’t supposed to magically prevent bad people from doing bad things, right? Bad things happen, and we as people are supposed to figure out how to deal with them for ourselves.

Which, if you think about it, is a perfectly sensible and completely secular concept.

At the end of the day, the only tangible outcome from praying over a mass shooting is that it makes the person doing the praying feel better. By extension, at the risk of being cynical, it also sometimes comes with its own share of social cachet: If you tell everyone else to pray, everyone else knows you’re praying. And praying is good, therefore you are good.

In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with the former. If praying gives you a sense of personal comfort and helps you cope, then great. That’s your thing, and I can respect it. But as soon as your prayer extends beyond your own personal, introspective attempt to make sense of a grave tragedy, you’ve lost me. Especially since every time you enter the public sphere to tell everyone who will listen to pray, you’re also not telling them that there are actionable steps we can take to preventing future gun deaths in this world, regardless as to what’s going on in the next world.

In other words, Marx seems to have been on to something:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Gun violence in America: the fires of Moloch Fri, 02 Oct 2015 12:00:17 +0000  

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of Ben Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Moloch; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination. – Jeremiah 32:35

Moloch was the ancient Phoenician and Canaanite god known in Deuteronomy for the practice of propitiatory child sacrifice. Apparently, the Hebrew prophets of old had a hard time convincing people that they should stop the practice. There are few images more horrifying to us modern folk than that of fearful people offering up their own children to be burned on the altar of a domineering death-making god. Yet we are seeing the fires of Moloch burning in 21st Century America.

Moloch, via Wikimedia Commons

Moloch, via Wikimedia Commons

This week we have seen yet another disturbing incident of promising lives brought to a sudden end by gun violence — in keeping with our pattern of one school shooting per week. Once again there is talk of stronger gun control laws, yet we are impotent to make any changes. Even when we see students gunned down, and we know that there are steps we can take to make such incidents less likely in the future, we feel powerless to do anything. Our failure to act even in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre  in which 20 young children were killed, all of them 6 and 7 years old, demonstrated that we would rather sacrifice our beautiful preschoolers than do anything that might be perceived as a sleight against the Bill of Rights — they’re the price of our “freedom,” just ask Bill O’Reilly. Our words say that we honor American freedom, while our actions say that we live in fear and have so little regard for our children that we will willingly feed them to our modern day fires of Moloch.

(To see a map of all the mass shooting since Sandy Hook, go here.)

In a country whose politicians love to shout “God Bless America!” at the end of their speeches, and whose people speak of faith in the public square and argue about putting the Ten Commandments on display, it is the ancient and brutal god Moloch who holds sway over so much of our public discourse. Indeed the fires of Moloch continue to consume our children while nothing is done to extinguish those flames.

Why Do We Tolerate Death and Glorify Violence?

According to The Brady Center, “Over 18,000 American children and teens are injured or killed each year due to gun violence. This means nearly 48 youth are shot every day, including 7 fatalities.”

And here are some more statistics from The Brady Center:

America has a problem with gun violence

  • One in three people in the U.S. know someone who has been shot.
  • On average, 31 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 151 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.
  • Every day on average, 55 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 46 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.
  • The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.
  • A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used to kill or injure in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense.

Gun Violence Takes a Massive Toll on American Children

  • More than one in five U.S. teenagers (ages 14 to 17) report having witnessed a shooting.
  • An average of seven children and teens under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day.
  • American children die by guns 11 times as often as children in other high-income countries.
  • Youth (ages 0 to 19) in the most rural U.S. counties are as likely to die from a gunshot as those living in the most urban counties. Rural children die of more gun suicides and unintentional shooting deaths. Urban children die more often of gun homicides.
  • Firearm homicide is the second-leading cause of death (after motor vehicle crashes) for young people ages 1-19 in the U.S.
  • In 2007, more pre-school-aged children (85) were killed by guns than police officers were killed in the line of duty.

Gun Violence is a Drain on U.S. Taxpayers

  • Medical treatment, criminal justice proceedings, new security precautions, and reductions in quality of life are estimated to cost U.S. citizens $100 billion annually.
  • The lifetime medical cost for all gun violence victims in the United States is estimated at $2.3 billion, with almost half the costs borne by taxpayers.

Americans Support Universal Background Checks

  • Nine out of 10 Americans agree that we should have universal background checks, including three out of four NRA members.
  • Since the Brady Law was initially passed, about 2 million attempts to purchase firearms have been blocked due to a background check. About half of these blocked attempts were by felons.
  • Unfortunately, our current background check system only applies to about 60% of gun sales, leaving 40% (online sales, purchases at gun shows, etc.) without a background check.

Why does our society so quickly come to the defense of guns after every deadly incident of gun violence? There are those who call for change, but such calls are always met with resistance from people who cannot tolerate any change in our gun laws. Lawmakers are forever paralyzed by the gun lobbyists and the fear-mongers.

Freedom or Fear?

Why are our representatives unable to put a stop to gun violence? If the people had their way, universal background checks would be implemented and assault weapons would be banned tomorrow. The sad fact is, however, that our people seem to be too fearful to consider a peaceful society. We say that we are honoring the Second Amendment to the Constitution – that we hold the Bill of Rights to ensure our freedom – but the truth is, we live in fear. Why else would we be so powerless to stop our current practice of sacrificing children to the fires of gun violence?

Ben Carson: Gravity, boy I dunno Thu, 01 Oct 2015 21:42:35 +0000 Ben Carson has some questions for all you elitist science nerds out there: If you’re so smart, how come you don’t know how gravity works?


Answering a question about climate change, Carson spun off into a discussion of why he isn’t an atheist, and how he doesn’t have to accept climate science or astrophysics in order to be a good neurosurgeon.

To the extent that Carson did answer the climate change question, it was with a patronizing non-sequitur, saying, “Is there climate change? Of course there’s climate change. Any point in time, temperatures are going up or temperatures are going down. Of course that’s happening. When that stops happening, that’s when we’re in big trouble.” He did then say that it was important to take care of our environment, but not as a “political issue,” ignoring the fact that he is running for the nomination of a party that is uniformly of the political belief that the environment should be secondary to the market. As The New Republics’ Rebecca Leber rhetorically asked, “If we don’t use politics to protect the environment, who will? The Earth itself? God?”

But then things got weird.

Spinning off into a discussion of his personal religious beliefs, like how his young-Earth creationism is perfectly compatible with evolutionary biology:

As far as evolution is concerned, you know, I do believe in micro-evolution, or natural selection, but I believe that God gave the creatures he made the ability to adapt to their environment. Because he’s very smart and he didn’t want to start over every 50 years.

And, later, a selection of open questions about sciences great mysteries:

Just the way the Earth rotates on its axis, how far away it is from the sun. These are all very complex things. Gravity, where did it come from?

Yes, Dr. Carson, where did gravity come from??? And while you’re at it, how’d the moon get there?

Can’t explain that!

Except we can. As it turns out, we know where gravity comes from. And we’re pretty sure how the moon got there. And we are one thousand percent sure that life on this planet took longer than six thousand years to evolve into what it is today.

We’re lucky that gravity and evolution aren’t political issues that Ben Carson would have to deal with if elected president, but that doesn’t let him off the hook here. These kinds of unscientific beliefs should — and yet somehow don’t — disqualify you in the minds of the American electorate. As I wrote back in February:

None of the issues that fall under the umbrella of “science” should be partisan issues at all. Analytical thinking may correlate with liberal ideology, but that doesn’t mean that facts themselves are biased. A presidential candidate’s position on evolution is as important as their position on vaccines because both speak to that person’s respect for and ability to understand evidence. So evolution doesn’t need to serve as a proxy for the current scientific issues of the day; on the policy side alone, it serves as a proxy for the next issues of the day.

Ben Carson is sure that the world was created in six days, but he isn’t sure that we can explain one of its most basic governing principles — even though he could have Googled it. That he’s considered the intellectual, smart candidate in the Republican primary is even scarier than the fact that Donald Trump is leading it.

Another mass shooting. You know the drill. Thu, 01 Oct 2015 20:28:15 +0000 Earlier today, someone took a killing machine and loads of ammunition into a heavily-trafficked area and opened fire, killing some and wounding more. The shooter may have a history of mental health problems; they may be a militant racist; they may be a Men’s Rights Activist; they may be a religious extremist; they may have just gotten laid off from work. Whatever their motive, they will almost certainly have obtained their killing machine legally.

You’ve probably read the details elsewhere by now, but at the end of the day, they don’t matter. This story isn’t all that different from the many that came before and are sure to come after. America averages one shooting of at least four fatalities per day, with one shooting per week at schools. These shootings are happening faster than we can meme them. The routine is familiar, and we already know how the next few days are going to play out:

First, we will be reminded that this is definitely not the time to discuss ways that we could have prevented this shooting, along with tomorrow’s and next week’s and the ones to follow. At times like these, a bad reading of the Second Amendment is more important than a basic understanding of the First:

Instead, it would be much more productive for all of us to quietly appeal to a higher power — one that has pretty clearly signaled to us that they’re agnostic when it comes to American gun policy:

Second, we will be reminded that although America’s homicide rates are practically off the charts compared to other countries, now is definitely not the time to second-guess our borderline religious commitment to the killing machines that make it way easier to kill a bunch of people at once:


After all, don’t you know we might need to revolt against the government some day?

Third, someone from the NRA will say that the real solution that would have prevented all of this is more guns. Most of America will find this ridiculous. Congress will find this reasonable. President Obama will scold them.

Fourth, there will be a new round of public opinion polling showing broad support for public policies that could have prevented the shooting, ranging from universal background checks to a ban on high-capacity magazines. We will flash a momentary glance at Congress to see if they will pass any of these policies, and then remember how unbothered they were by what that guy from the NRA said.

Fifth, gun sales will go through the god damn roof.

Sixth, this video will go viral:

Seventh, another mass shooting will take place. We will go back to step one.

See you next week.

Iowa judge rules against voting rights for felons, state Supreme Court expected to weigh in Thu, 01 Oct 2015 17:56:15 +0000 An Iowa judge ruled earlier this week in favor of strictly curtailed voting rights for ex-felons in the state.

The case was brought as a challenge to the state’s ill-defined constitutional ban on felons convicted of “infamous crimes” from voting, as well as an attempt to reconcile conflicting statutes relating to when and how ex-felons have their rights restored once they are no longer under state supervision.

Some background:

In 2005, then-Governor Tom Vilsack signed a law that automatically restored felons’ voting rights after they left state supervision. In 2011, current Governor Terry Brandstad signed an executive order requiring them to petition his office in order to take advantage of those restored rights. According to the Des Moines Register, “The Branstad process requires ex-felons to complete a detailed application, submit proof that court costs have been paid and provide a detailed criminal history.” Only Kentucky and Florida have similarly strict requirements.

Brandstad’s executive order threw the status of ex-felons like Kelli Jo Griffin into question. Griffin, who completed her parole for a cocaine conviction in 2008, registered to vote under the assumption that her rights had been restored under the old law, when in fact they had since been revoked. She was then charged with perjury for registering to vote. A jury acquitted her, agreeing that she had made an honest mistake. After all, there are two conflicting statutes on the books.

Griffin, represented by the ACLU, then sued the state to challenge its automatic disqualification process. Again from the Register:

Terry Brandstad, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Terry Brandstad, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Iowa’s constitution says conviction of an infamous crime automatically strips citizens of the voting right; however, an “infamous crime” has never been well defined. A divided Iowa Supreme Court last year concluded that not all felonies are infamous crimes and that it would define in future cases which felonies qualify.

Griffin’s challenge said her low-level, nonviolent drug conviction is not an infamous crime and she should not have been disenfranchised.

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis expects the case to wind up before the Iowa Supreme Court.

There are two separate issues at hand here. First, how much ground does the word “infamous” cover in the state constitution? Broadly defined, it can be read as covering all felonies, but if it is interpreted to mean, say, only violent offenses, then Griffin’s voting rights should never have been taken away in the first place. Second, how is the state supposed to handle the ex-felons who registered and voted in between Vilsack’s law and Brandstad’s executive order? Is it fair, or even legal, to retroactively take voting rights away from someone who has had them restored automatically and committed no subsequent crimes? Did the Brandstad administration make any attempt to notify the felons whose rights were un-restored that they would have to actively petition the state for a right they already had? If not, did they really expect them all to just understand, by some form of civic osmosis, that they weren’t allowed to register to vote anymore?

All this is to say that if denying voting rights to ex-felons wasn’t enough of an undemocratic, immoral policy to being with, the way in which Iowa’s gone about implementing said policy is beyond confusing.


Messy voter rolls are a ballot access issue, not an election integrity issue Thu, 01 Oct 2015 16:24:11 +0000 True the Vote, a Tea Party group that runs keep-in-the-vote programs across the country, has asked North Carolina to conduct a purge of the state’s voter rolls, targeting possible duplicate records, in an effort it hopes to expand to other swing states across the country. From MSNBC‘s Zachary Roth:

True the Vote said it sent each of North Carolina’s 10 largest counties lists of potential duplicate registrations, based on similarities in the names, ages or addresses listed. It said five of the counties have told them they’re processing the data, and one, Guilford, has already removed 655 names from its rolls.

True the Vote said it’s currently compiling similar data for the 10 largest counties in two other 2016 swing states, Ohio and Colorado.

At least one county registrar has already used True the Vote’s list as a resource to conduct their requested purge. That registrar, in Guilford county, told Roth that they erred on the side of leaving records as-is if they found any reason to believe the record wasn’t duplicated. Still, that county still found 655 duplicates to remove from its voting lists.

And if you checked registrars across the country, you’d likely find similar rates of duplicate records. As the Pew Center on the States has found, we simply aren’t very good at storing and updating records of who is registered to vote where. As of 2012, approximately 24 million (one in eight) voter registrations were invalid or inaccurate, with 1.8 million deceased 2.75 million dual-state registrations.

The high number of people registered in more than one state is due to the fact that we don’t have one voter registration system; we have 51 (including DC) systems, and they often rely on snail mail and the honor system to talk to each other. This doesn’t work in a country where one in eight people — including one in four young people — move every year. Myself included: When I registered to vote in Cambridge last year, I filled out a change of address that the Cambridge registrar should have mailed to my registrar in Virginia, where I registered previously, alerting them to un-register me there. They didn’t. Some months later, I got an angry letter from my old registrar not-so-subtly wondering if I was registered in two places (I was moving back anyway, so I simply re-did the process once I returned to Charlottesville).

And while organizations like True the Vote freak out over dual registrations because they’re convinced there’s a far-reaching conspiracy on the part of Democrats to stuff ballot boxes, in reality these bureaucratic oversights, if anything, suppress turnout by making voting more complicated. Case in point: over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign, a majority of Kenyon College students registered to vote, and voted, at the one precinct in Gambier, Ohio that covered the college’s roughly 1650 students (the town’s overall population is just over 2000, including students). However, in the years that followed, students graduated and their registrations weren’t updated. As of last year, there were 2623 registered voters in Gambier, Ohio — nearly a thousand more registered voters than there are students at the college and definitely greater than the village’s actual population. While there is obviously no coordinated effort to get those graduates to keep voting on campus — they either haven’t registered elsewhere or, like me, didn’t have their changes of address go through —  the accumulation of voter registrations forced the state to split Gambier into two precincts — there were more registered voters than legally allowed for one precinct. This confuses students as to where they are supposed to vote. And as prior research has shown, policies that confuse voters can do more to suppress turnout than active attempts at voter suppression.

Register, via Shutterstock

Register, via Shutterstock

All this is to say that cleaning up voter registration is a ballot access issue as much as if not more than it is an election integrity issue.

What’s more, there are better resources available for cleaning up our voter registration databses than on activist organizations and relatives of presidential candidates. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), established by the Pew Charitable Trusts and IBM, runs an opt-in database that states can use to match voter registration records across state lines. ERIC also helps states identify eligible voters who have not yet registered. The program was endorsed by the 2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration as a best practice for states’ efforts to maintain clean lists of eligible and active voters.

Currently, eleven states and Washington, DC have opted in to use the system — North Carolina has passed legislation to do so, but has not begun using it. Of course, systems like these become far more useful as they get closer to full participation; tracking registered voter mobility between eleven states and DC is great, but it misses voters that move to or from the other 38 states.

So, rather than scouring voter rolls for slight misspellings and other minor errors in an attempt to make the electoral process like “driving and seeing the police following you,” organizations like True the Vote would be better served campaigning to get more states on board with ERIC and other cooperative efforts between the states to centralize a process that’s inherently inefficient and error-prone as a result of our country’s dogged commitment to decentralized federalism. That’d be a much more efficient (or “true,” if you will) way to ensure that voter registration records accurately reflect who is eligible to vote where.

That is, if they actually cared about open, representative elections.



Bipartisan sentencing reform bill to be introduced in the Senate today Thu, 01 Oct 2015 14:12:13 +0000 Don’t look now, but the Senate might be about to commit an act of governing.

According to the Associated Press, a bipartisan group of Senators is set to introduce a bill today that would give judges discretion to give sentences below mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders and allow some current prisoners to reduce their sentences through rehabilitation.

The deal was reached between some of the Senate’s most diehard partisans on both sides of the aisle, bringing together Chuck Schumer and John Cornyn; Cory Booker and Mike Lee; Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham; Pat Leahy and Chuck Grassley. And with good reason: there are liberal and conservative cases to be made that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent (usually drug-related) offenses are nonsensical and counterproductive. As the AP reported:

The package was years in the making, the result of negotiations among some of the most powerful members of the Senate. Among their goals: make the sentencing system more fair, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs.

Since 1980, the federal prison population has exploded, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

Mandatory minimums, in particular have been a particular focus of criminal justice reform advocates for quite some time. As John Oliver breaks down here, they make absolutely no sense:

Which is why the Obama administration issued guidelines for reduced mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders in 2013. President Obama has since called for ending mandatory minimum sentencing entirely.

It’ll be interesting to see if the bill is able to cobble together a coalition of enough Democrats and Republicans to get it over the line. Assuming there aren’t any thorny riders (a big assumption, but still), one would expect the libertarian wing of the Republican caucus to support the general framework of this sentencing reform package as proposed, as would most Democrats. That should be enough to get 50 or even 60 votes.

Granted, sentencing reform is one small piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle. But it’s an important one. And in today’s Senate, having enough votes to take action on any issue of substance is nothing short of amazing.

Alabama closes nearly half of its drivers license bureaus, complicating photo ID requirement Thu, 01 Oct 2015 12:00:32 +0000 Alabama requires a photo ID in order to vote. For nearly everyone, that means a drivers license.

Which is why it’s a major deal, to say the least, that the state just cut the number of locations where citizens can get drivers licenses in half — a move that disproportionately affects low-income and African-American residents.

Red counties will now be devoid of drivers license bureaus, via Kyle Whitmire /

Red counties will now be devoid of drivers license bureaus, via Kyle Whitmire /

According to Kyle Whitmire at, the state Law Enforcement Agency announced yesterday that, after a series of closures of drivers license bureaus, 29 of Alabama’s 67 counties will be without an office where citizens can obtain a drivers license. As Whitmire’s colleague, John Archibald, adds, eight of the ten counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters in the state will be without a drivers license bureau and every resident of a county that is at least 75 percent African-American will have go to another county to obtain their drivers license.

State officials are citing budgetary constraints for the bureau closings, which isn’t all that absurd of a claim. Facing budget shortfalls, all kinds of public services in Alabama are either being cut back or eliminated. But the demographics of counties in the state that are seeing their drivers license bureaus go, as compared to the counties that are keeping them, suggests that Governor Robert Bentley’s administration didn’t miss an opportunity to turn a budgetary shortfall into a political gain. And as both Whitmire and Archibald note, the resulting disparity in the effects of these bureau closing are all but inviting a civil rights suit.

Because even if the decision to close the bureaus in question was racially and politically neutral (a generous assumption, but let’s grant it for a moment), its effects aren’t. By Archibald’s tally, eight of the fifteen counties in Alabama that voted for President Obama in 2012, along with the five most Democratic counties in the state, are seeing their drivers license bureaus close. According to Whitmire, between twelve and fifteen counties in the state’s “Black Belt” will be without a bureau.

This would be bad enough in any other state, but in Alabama it serves as yet another reminder as to why pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act was so necessary before the Supreme Court gutted it. As Archibald wrote:

So roll out the welcome wagon to the Justice Department, and tell the world what it already so desperately wants to hear.

That Alabama is exactly what they always thought she was.

That Alabama refuses to pay for its own government, and used it as an excuse to keep black people from the polls. That Alabama hasn’t changed a bit.

You can’t on the one hand require a form of ID in order to vote while at the same time curtailing access to that form of ID. If anything, you’re supposed to make that form of ID easier to obtain, or completely free.

Enough Alabamans have already been denied access to the ballot over the state’s photo ID requirements. Ridiculousness like this is why we need a constitutional right to vote.

As America’s infrastructure crumbles, water privatization becomes more likely Wed, 30 Sep 2015 17:59:24 +0000 America is literally falling apart. Our bridges and roads are crumbling; our airports, railroads, and ports are disintegrating. Things aren’t looking good. And by far the most troubled area of U.S. infrastructure is also probably the most indispensable: water. All across the country, states are struggling to fund, manage, and repair their ancient, disintegrating systems–many of which hemorrhage ungodly amounts of water on an annual basis.

The raw data for water loss is really quite shocking:

  • In most cities, infrastructure is in such a state of disrepair that breakdowns occur daily. Houston, TX, for instance, saw an estimated 700 water main breaks every single day in 2011.
  • Those leaking pipes lose untold billions of gallons of water annually. In the city of San Jose alone, it’s estimated that the city’s systems lose 23 billion gallons of water every year.
  • To put these figures into perspective, Next City reports that national water leakage is enough to drown both Manhattan and Chicago on an annual basis.

Clearly that’s a lot of precious cargo lost. Yet if everybody agrees this is a huge problem, critics remain divided on how best to remedy the situation. The trending solution also tends to be the most contentious, and (many agree) dangerous: privatization.

The Push for Privatization 

For many years there has been an organized effort by private actors to move America’s water systems towards privatization.

Some of the biggest players advocating for water privatization in the U.S. are corporate advocacy groups.

Other cheerleaders for the initiative include the poster-boys for the 1%, the billionaire Koch Brothers — who, in 1980, called for “the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households,” along with practically every other major infrastructural element of American society.

Over the years, a plurality of Koch-related organizations have pushed water privatization as part of a wider agenda of supposedly “libertarian” policies.

In 2012, the Competitive Enterprise Institutea think tank backed by the Kochs, wrote a long report arguing that “competitive bidding” offers a “way out” for American infrastructural decline. “As decay takes hold of one water network after another, it becomes clear that the old ways of doing things are inadequate to the task at hand,” proclaims the report. “By opening up the bidding process…municipalities can let competition decide the future of their underground water networks.”

In 2013, another Koch backed think tank, the Cato Instituteoffered a summary of why private ownership is superior to public ownership:

Federal agencies don’t have the strong incentives that businesses do to ensure that infrastructure projects are constructed and operated efficiently…when Washington makes mistakes it replicates them across the nation…federal infrastructure…usually comes part and parcel with piles of regulations…

This is the standard frame used time and again as the rationale for privatization: government is inept, wasteful and incapable of properly managing public resources, while private industry is competent, efficient and responsible.

Why, exactly? In the logic of capital, the profit-motive is often touted as the indispensable carrot that fuels corporate efficiency, which is sorely lacking in state and federal governments. Private industry (so argues private industry) is better than government because public officials have no proper motivation (i.e., money) to efficiently manage public resources.

Yet based on the track record of companies like American Water and Nestle shamelessly screwing over their customers in the pursuit of higher returns, one might argue that that same profit-motive is the very element that makes private ownership a terribly inefficient alternative to government — especially when it comes to managing a resource with perfectly inelastic demand, like water.

The Many Failures of Private Water Stewardship 

In Crumbling Infrastructure, Crumbling Democracy, academic Ellen Dannin lays out her argument for how privatization contracts are endangering democratic institutions:

  • Privatization allows companies to assume the power of local government, while avoiding all of the transparency. Dannin notes that key provisions in privatization contracts give “private contractors power over decisions that affect the public interest and are normally made by public officials and subject to oversight, disclosure, and accountability—none of which apply to private contractors.”
  • Privatization deals often make government “the insurer of the private contractor’s financial success,” meaning that if the company experiences unforeseen financial losses, it can hold the local community accountable for these losses. So called “compensation events” are written into most privatization contracts, and are exactly what they sound like: guarantees of a certain amount of income for the company investing in the community in question. This essentially makes communities indentured to the corporation for its own resources.
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis doesn’t really factor into most decisions to privatize. Dannin notes that most legislators decisions to privatize don’t consider the long-term. Due to compensation events, or other unforeseen externalities, the decision to privatize may, and often does, come with unforeseen financial costs.

Despite warnings like these from academics and public advocacy groups, the overwhelming push seen in the U.S. is to trend water management towards private power. Support for these initiatives comes from the highest levels of government.

The WRRDA: Saving U.S. Water or Ushering in a New Age of Privatization? 

In 2014, a federal bill, The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), seemed to offer the beginnings of a solution to the U.S. water predicament. Hailed as the “first step” towards repairing infrastructure, the bill promised to reform unnecessary government bureaucracy and mainline new water projects. The bill was pushed hard by Republicans in the senate, but also garnered enough Democratic support to be billed as strongly bipartisan legislation. President Obama signed the bill into law on June 10th, 2014, saying that the WRRDA would “put Americans to work modernizing our water infrastructure and restoring some of our most vital ecosystems.”

Yet advocacy groups have protested certain clauses within the bill that they say further legitimize public-private agreements, which they warn effectively “opens the door for privatization” on a national scale. Following the bill’s passage, Corporate Accountability International’s Public Water Works! issued a statement, saying “We are alarmed by the implications of this bill, which would open the doors to an increase in water public-private partnerships in the U.S. and effectively subsidize water privatization.”

Public-private relationships have been flagged by many progressives as a means of paving the road to full privatization of public institutions. Reportedly, the bill:

…seeks to encourage public private partnerships, under the idea that public funding alone can’t fill the gap. A project carried out by a private entity is eligible for WIFIA financing, but the project must be publicly sponsored, and the local public agency must support the project.

Additionally, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), the amendment that allows for this, allows private actors to put their own money into public infrastructure projects, which means they get partial legal claim to public domains.

David Vitter, via Wikimedia Commons

David Vitter, via Wikimedia Commons

While the idea of the public and private sectors working together to solve problems sounds great on its face, there’s every reason to believe that the politicians who crafted WRRDA had less noble goals in mind. Many of the congressional leaders who pushed it through not only are going to be given the boon of local district projects (Republicans overwhelmingly benefited), but also have strong ties to industries that stand to benefit from further privatization. Republican David Vitterwho said that the bill is “a jobs bill that is very much needed in our weak economy,” has large ties to industrial construction corporations that will likely see business in conjunction with new private infrastructure projects. Vitter, who has accosted Obama in the past for attempting to pass climate change reform (a look at his healthy campaign subsidies from the oil and gas industries shows why), isn’t exactly the type of person you’d hope would be shepherding legislation related to natural resources and the public interest.

Yet the WRRDA essentially conforms to his worldview — the kind of worldview that sees Nestle selling your own water back to you at $5 a gallon and chalks it up to the invisible hand of the market. The bill enables companies and private actors to cash in on public infrastructure in a big way, subjecting taxpayers to the whims of corporate power instead of local government. And if there’s some promise of more expedience and efficiency than the lumbering groups like the Army Corps of Engineers, then we’re yet to see whether those promises will be kept.

Clearly America’s water systems are in dire need of a fix-up. Yet given all the evidence of the potential dangers of privatized water, it bears some consideration whether the public-private friendliness of bills like WRRDA are the right path to take.

Refugees, then and now Wed, 30 Sep 2015 16:00:21 +0000 Addressing Congress last week, Pope Francis, like the most inveterate American politician, invoked his immigrant past. And he urged America not to fear welcoming new “pilgrims,” a word whose resonance I’m sure he well understood. He may have been speaking about the current US debate about illegal immigrants from Latin America, but it was inevitable that his words would also be linked to other waves of “pilgrims” across the sea– Syrian pilgrims. As if in response, the Administration quickly announced that the quota for refugees admitted would be increased to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 the following year.

The gesture was not universally embraced. While the Pope invoked the Golden Rule, Congress invoked questions about resources and national security.

There is an existential crisis upon us today, not only on America, but on Europe and much of the rest of the world. People are on the move, the largest number of displaced persons since the end of World War II. Europe is inundated with millions fleeing the madness in Syria and the Middle East. In speaking recently to a meeting of EU presidents, European Council President Donald Trask claimed that there are currently eight million displaced persons in Syria, while four million more have fled the country, mostly for Europe. In discussing the crisis, he promised only one thing: the problem will not end “anytime soon.”

While the loudest headlines may be coming from Europe, there is hardly a continent not somehow embroiled in a refugee crisis today. Across the Mediterranean, refugees from Africa and West Asia are braving the sea in suicidal flotillas seeking sanctuary in Greece, Italy and Spain. The rest of Africa is a Rubik’s Cube of displaced populations festering in camps having fled wars, ethnic cleansing and persecutions in their home countries. In addition to the millions of refugees from wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen there are other Muslims in camps in Bangladesh– Rohingya, fleeing Myanmar and what has been called “one of the worst persecutions in the world.” Mass graves of Rohingya have been found over the border from Myanmar in Thailand. Those who have succeeded in “escaping” are warehoused by the thousands by human traffickers in boat camps, rusting offshore hulks. And of course, in the Western Hemisphere Mexicans and other Latinos are headed north to the United States and an increasingly hostile reception, intensified now by the heated rhetoric of a presidential campaign.

Welcome, as John Cleese famously quipped, to 430AD.

Cleese was referring to history’s cyclic nature and the fact that traumatic mass migrations like these are nothing new. They have rarely been peaceful, and in the resulting clash of cultures the newcomers frequently win, destroying established societies and uprooting those who had been there before them.

Cleese’s particular reference is to what is oft called the Migration Period, 4th through 9th centuries AD, a time of intense barbarian movement into and through Europe, when such tribes as the Goths, Vandals, Anglos, Saxons and Lombards were pouring into a declining Roman Empire from one direction, while Huns, Slavs, Bulgars and others were pushing in from another. In the mix, the Roman Empire ceased to exist, while the names of many of the newcomers remain emblazoned on the maps.

Two thousand years earlier, around the 12th century BC, what was arguably the world’s first internationalized society of Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites and Minoans crumbled under the onslaught of mysterious strangers, who remained to build a new civilization on the ruins of the Late Bronze Age.

But history also has its stories of less ruinous outcomes. Huguenots fleeing persecution in 17th century France resettled peacefully and prosperously in surrounding European nations. 18th century Turkey welcomed – and was transformed by – the assimilation of from five to seven million Muslims from the Caucasus, Crimea, Croatia, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia. The 19th century found populations fleeing the potato famines of Ireland and the pogroms of Russia finding new and successful lives in Europe or the United States. Examples extend throughout history and geography.

But today isn’t the 17th, 18th or even the 20th century. Today’s crises move quickly and forcefully across the globe and leave little time for reflection. Even where good intentions exist, they aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of the refugee populations.

Syrian Syria

Syria via Shutterestock

Under the Common European Asylum System, every refugee is entitled to asylum in Europe. Last week, EU Interior Ministers voted to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers in Europe, a well-intentioned effort that was already impracticable when adopted: nearly half a million refugees have already arrived in Europe so far this year. Nearly 9,000 entered Croatia in a single day. Last week Slovakia announced that they will sue the EU over the quota plan, which was also appealed by Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic. Hungary, the scene of massive recent refugee disturbances, last week passed laws giving draconian new powers to the military to help contain the situation. Even Germany, which had initially put out the welcome mat for refugees (with, of all places, Buchenwald as the welcome center) has suspended the agreement that allows for free movement across Europe’s borders. With Germany’s withdrawal from what is called the Schengen Agreement, there is the possibility of reversing decades of European integration.

The Gulf States are providing plenty of cash for humanitarian relief – $700 million from Saudi Arabia alone – and are housing plenty of refugees of their own (even if the West refuses to call them refugees). Nevertheless, the situation is complicated for the Gulf States. The Saudi air force has been bombing parts of Syria held by the Islamic State. Are these refugees fleeing the Islamic State (good), or fleeing the bombing (bad)?

Which, while harsh, is instructive of why today’s crisis differs from refugee crises of the past. Even granting history’s migratory success stories, the game in 2015 is radically different, the cost of mobility are much lower and the stakes much higher.

At what point does humanitarian action become a national suicide pact? When does decent humanitarian behavior court the ultimate destruction of the humanitarian?

Forget Donald Trump’s rants about Mexican murderers and rapists. Are we in danger of opening our doors to the next generation of extremist proselytizers and terrorists? Today’s land of opportunity could become tomorrow’s target of opportunity. There has been no shortage of news stories in recent years of terrorist acts, actual or contemplated, by displaced, new-grown radicals from abroad.

But the photograph of a dead boy awash on a Turkish beach becomes the iconic image for this latest humanitarian crisis, and comes to haunt us. Pope Francis, in his remarks to Congress, said, “You must … view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

And so we are left with the horrific images of despair and unimaginable chaos, to ponder our own part in ameliorating this crisis that is upon us, in no small part of our own making.

Answer, anyone?


House Republicans have created their own ideological spectrum Wed, 30 Sep 2015 16:00:10 +0000 As Nate Silver pointed out yesterday, John Boehner’s resignation exposes a seeming contradiction for House Republicans, who are at once as united as they ever have been in opposition to Democrats and yet remain fiercely divided internally. No caucus has ever voted unanimously against their opposition as frequently as House Republicans under Boehner, yet the soon-to-be former Speaker was constantly fending off (incompetently) rebellious members of its more conservative wing.

This would seemingly make him at once remarkably successful and remarkably unsuccessful as Speaker at the same time.

Silver explains the latter phenomenon — conservative dissatisfaction with Boehner — with the following chart, which shows that there is more ideological diversity in the House Republican caucus than there has been for at least the last century:

As far as relative conservatism goes, the 90th percentile Republican is more more conservative than the 10th percentile Republican today than they were at other times when the party controlled the House. That’s a big tent to hold together, and it’s no wonder that there were divisions within the party as to which fights to prioritize, how to approach the Obama administration, whether to concede the point on immigration reform and so on.

In other words, Peter King (DW-Nominate: .283) and Justin Amash (DW-Nominate: .898) are both fine with voting to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood a kajillion times, but only one of them wants to repeal and defund the entire government, and both of them are representative of sizable chunks of the Republican caucus.

But that’s not all. As I hope you noticed at first glance, the chart also shows just how unprecedented House Republicans’ conservatism is. The 10th percentile Republican today is more conservative, as measured by DW-Nominate, than the 90th percentile Republican was under Reagan. As Silver adds:

John Boehner, via Wikimedia Commons

John Boehner, via Wikimedia Commons

GOP lawmakers have steadily become more conservative, according to the system. DW-Nominate scores run on a scale from roughly -1 (extremely liberal) to +1 (extremely conservative), where 0 represents a centrist, and the median House Republican in the 92nd Congress, which served from 1971 to 1973 under President Richard Nixon, had a DW-Nominate score of +0.193, only very slightly to the right of center. By the 113th Congress, the median score had increased to +0.732, which is extremely conservative. The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now, says DW-Nominate.

Taken together, the data show that House Republicans cover more ideological ground than they have in at least a century, and all of that ground is to the right of where their most conservative members have sat since the Great Depression. They aren’t just on the right side of the American ideological spectrum; they’ve essentially created an entirely new spectrum.

Having convinced themselves that Democrats are wrong and bad and evil about literally everything, the only debates Republicans still feel are worth having are amongst themselves. They aren’t just on the other side of the ideological playing field; they’ve picked up their ball and moved a few fields over.

But sure, tell me more about how “both sides” are to blame for our historic levels of polarization.

Soon-to-be Speaker McCarthy drops the act, confirms Benghazi Committee is just about taking Hillary down Wed, 30 Sep 2015 14:37:42 +0000 As majority leader, Kevin McCarthy is the odds-on favorite to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House when Boehner resigns at the end of next month. As someone who had a front row seat to Boehner losing his grip on his historically conservative caucus (more on that later today), it looks like he’s preparing to spend this month reassuring conservatives that he won’t just manage the House; he’ll punch Democrats in the mouth while he does it.

In an interview on Hannity last night, McCarthy gave Boehner’s speakership a grade of B- (Style: D+, Substance: B) and assured Hannity that he, too, felt “betrayed” by Republican leadership — odd, given that he’s #2 in said leadership.

However, the most consequential moment in the interview came when McCarthy highlighted the House Select Committee on Benghazi as a reason why when it comes to taking on the Democrats, he means business. As he said, quoted by Roll Call:

Kevin McCarthy, via Wikimedia Commons

Kevin McCarthy, via Wikimedia Commons

What you’re going to see is a conservative speaker, that takes a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win.

And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?

But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.

To date, the Republican obsession with Benghazi has been couched in concern for the four Americans who died — we need to find out what happened — despite their shoulder-shrugging in the face of similar attacks that occurred under George Bush. And all this time, it’s been patently obvious that their concern has very little to do with American lives and very much to do with making it look like Hillary Clinton was on the one hand totally incompetent and on the other hand engaged in a far-reaching, detailed conspiracy to undermine American interests. The steady drip of hearings and investigations aren’t designed to find wrongdoing; they’re designed to simply raise the possibility that there’s something there.

As Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said in a statement:

…this stunning concession from Rep. McCarthy reveals the truth that Republicans never dared admit in public: the core Republican goal in establishing the Benghazi Committee was always to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and never to conduct an even-handed search for the facts.

Hillary Clinton will testify before the Benghazi Committee later next month in what we already know amounts to a show trial — a fact laid even more bare by McCarthy’s admission that the committee exists for the sole purpose of taking her down.

If the Republicans are as ready for her hearing as they were for Cecile Richards yesterday, it’ll be an absolute train wreck.

Carly Fiorina’s fake Planned Parenthood claims are even faker than their previously-known fakeness Wed, 30 Sep 2015 13:00:04 +0000 One of the reasons Carly Fiorina is currently in the top tier of Republican primary polling is that, during the last debate, she went on a sound bite-worthy tirade against Planned Parenthood and all who would defend them:

Here’s the punch line:

I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes,…Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, “We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”

It was one of the biggest applause lines of the night. The only problem was that it was almost entirely false. The clip Fiorina’s referring to was a segment of stock footage that played over an audio clip of a former employee of StemExpress (a company that until recently partnered with Planned Parenthood) describing an abortion procedure. The fetus shown was not confirmed to have been an aborted fetus, and the footage was not said to have been filmed at Planned Parenthood.

Her claim was so false, in fact, that her super PAC had to step in to make its own video that squared with Fiorina’s account.

Yesterday, the full video of the clip Fiorina described was released, which again confirmed precisely nothing in Fiorina’s claims and subsequent double-downs. As TIME reported:

[Center for Bio-Ethical Reform founder Gregg] Cunningham, an anti-abortion activist, declined to identify the date, location or authors of the video in an interview with TIME Monday night, saying his group makes agreements of confidentiality in an effort to acquire images of abortions. He also made no claim that the images shown in the video had anything to do with Planned Parenthood, the organization that Fiorina and others have targeted for federal defunding. “I am neither confirming or denying the affiliation of the clinic who did this abortion,” Cunningham said.

The full source video, which is extremely graphic, lasts about 13 minutes, and shows a fetus being extracted from the mother, placed in a metal bowl, prodded with medical instruments and handled by someone in the room. At times the fetus appears to move, and at other times it appears to have a pulse. There are no images on the full video of any attempt to harvest the brain of the fetus, and there is no sound. Cunningham said the jump cuts in the video are the result of the camera being turned off and on.

Cunningham also did not confirm that the procedure in the video was an abortion instead of a miscarriage, saying only that he was “confident” it was the former.

As Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum quipped, “So there you have it. The video was not taken at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The fetus shows some reflexive movement, but that’s all. No one says the fetus has to be kept alive. No one harvests the brain. But other than that, Fiorina was 100 percent correct!”

But Fiorina’s (and now Cunningham’s) claims weren’t done unraveling. Later in the day, Fusion reported that not only were the pictures of aborted fetuses in the videos not taken at Planned Parenthood, but in at least one case the picture isn’t of an aborted fetus in the first place; its of a stillborn fetus. What’s more, the Center for Medical Progress did not have permission to use the photo in question, which has apparently been circulated widely in the anti-abortion community

screen-shot-2015-08-21-at-11-57-00-am 2

Lexi Oliver Fretz has since granted CMP and Carly Fiorina permission to use the photos, which originally appeared on her blog while she was mourning her loss. Which is fine, if odd given that she never had an abortion (she is a committed Christian), and that the photos aren’t depicting what CMP and Fiorina are insisting they depict.

Every day, it seems like the conservative push to defund (let’s be honest, eliminate) Planned Parenthood intensifies, and every day it seems like a new lie emerges that directly undercuts their central claims about the organization. First it was deceptively edited videos. Yesterday it was deliberately nonsensical charts and misappropriated photos.

What’s next?

Kim Davis claims she met with Pope Francis. Would it matter? Wed, 30 Sep 2015 12:00:15 +0000 Last night, Inside the Vatican reported that Kim Davis held a secret meeting with Pope Francis last weekend at the Vatican’s embassy in Washington, D.C., before Davis’s appearance at the Values Voter Summit to receive their Cost of Discipleship award:

“The Pope spoke in English,” she told [reporter Robert Moynihan]. “There was no interpreter. ‘Thank you for your courage,’ Pope Francis said to me. I said, ‘Thank you, Holy Father.’ I had asked a monsignor earlier what was the proper way to greet the Pope, and whether it would be appropriate for me to embrace him, and I had been told it would be okay to hug him. So I hugged him, and he hugged me back. It was an extraordinary moment. ‘Stay strong,’ he said to me. Then he gave me a rosary as a gift, and he gave one also to my husband, Joe. I broke into tears. I was deeply moved.”

Liberty Counsel, the group representing Davis, was quick to jump on the report, publishing a press release touting the Pope’s endorsement as yet another badge of honor for Davis. In addition, they claimed that the meeting was the Vatican’s idea, not theirs or any American officials':

The Vatican has not yet confirmed the meeting, and Davis herself is the only source cited in the Inside the Vatican article, which is in turn the only source for Liberty Counsel’s press release (ItV is not an official Vatican site). This is significant given that Kim Davis and Liberty Counsel have proven to be unreliable sources insofar as Davis’s international appeal is concerned. So until the Vatican weighs in, it’s probably best to take the entire account with a full shaker of salt.

That said, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the meeting did happen. For one thing, we already know that Francis gave Davis’s stand against the government’s requirement that she do her job a full-throated endorsement as he was leaving the country. Second, Francis had a very public meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the group of nuns at the center of the legal battle over the Obama administration’s contraception mandate fix in a case that’s about as one-sided as Kim Davis’s. And, finally, this is a big claim to have made up. It’s one thing to appropriate a picture from a prayer rally that wasn’t praying for what you said it was for; it’s another thing entirely to claim you met with the Vicar of Christ on Earth and dare him to call you a liar. That’s probably a bit too bold, even for Kim Davis and Liberty Counsel.

So let’s grant that the meeting happened. Why is everyone freaking out about it?

Again, we already know how the Vatican feels about LGBT people. We already know how Pope Francis feels about religion’s relationship with secular liberal democracy. We already know that he didn’t have any problem holding politically-charged meetings with self-professed religious activists while he was in the United States. And we already know that when he was asked about Kim Davis’s situation, he took her side.

Why should the maybe-fact that he told her so in person change how I feel about either of them?

If anything, all this means is that the Pope took fifteen minutes out of his historically busy schedule to grant an audience — something that for many Catholics would be the experience of a lifetime — to the most newsworthy (and non-Catholic!) anti-gay crusader in the United States. In secret, because he knew it would look bad.

So shame on Pope Francis, but keep in mind that going out of his way to stick up for anti-gay religious activists doesn’t make him a bad pope.

It makes him Pope.

UPDATE: The Vatican has confirmed that the meeting did take place.

This chart shows how little Republicans care about accurately portraying Planned Parenthood Tue, 29 Sep 2015 20:49:33 +0000 House Republicans spent the better part of the afternoon trying to shame Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards into admitting that she is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person. She wasn’t having it. Check out this exchange with House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz:

Chaffetz was particularly interested in getting Richards’s take on a chart that used data he claimed to have pulled straight from Planned Parenthood’s corporate records, purporting to show that between 2006 and 2013, Planned Parenthood’s abortion services overtook its non-abortive services as a share of their overall care, undercutting their claim that the majority of the work they do is for medical services that have nothing to do with abortion.

From a distance it looks pretty damning. That is, if you have no idea how charts work:


See that? Pink arrow going down BAD. Red arrow going up WORSE. This is apparently what counts as data in the anti-abortion movement. The chart, put together by Americans United for Life, lacks basic features that one expects in a chart. Like a Y-axis, which would help clear up the fact that 935,573 is in fact a much larger number than 327,000.

In an effort to clean up this affront to everything you learned in middle school math, Vox’s Timothy Lee and Javier Zarracina retooled the AUL’s chart to make it fit its own numbers. Here’s what the original chart should have looked like:


But that’s not all. If one assumes that abortions and cancer screenings are all that Planned Parenthood does, even this chart makes it look like Planned Parenthood is performing more abortions as a share of the overall number of patients it sees. But if one adds in STD/STI testing and treatment, along with contraceptive services, that claim goes out the window, too:



Notice how that Y-axis keeps extending upward? Those things are pretty useful when measuring dependent variables (and since it’s apparently safe to assume that AUL doesn’t know what a dependent variable is, in this case it’s the volume of yearly abortive and non-abortive procedures as a function of time).

Taken together, Planned Parenthood performed nearly identical numbers of non-abortive procedures like cancer screenings and STD treatments in 2013 as they did in 2006 — 10.26 million and 10.29 million, respectively — while performing only slightly more abortions. In other words, their ratio of abortive to non-abortive care hasn’t changed in any significant way.

But none of that matters to Representative Chaffetz. This push to defund Planned Parenthood was started on a lie, so why not keep it going on lies?

As long as the fundraising dollars keep pouring in, who cares if the broader public thinks your lies are a big waste of time?

Ben Carson downplays the Confederate flag Tue, 29 Sep 2015 18:43:07 +0000 At the 2013 Republican state convention, Virginia Republicans nominated African-American reverend E.W. Jackson as their candidate for Lieutenant Governor. When one (white) supporter was asked why he liked Jackson, the man replied, “He doesn’t see race.”

As opposed to all of those black Democrats, who did see race…the wrong way.

This kind of racial subtext was baked into Reverend Jackson’s campaign. He built his state profile by campaigning hard against the social safety net and abortion, which he wove into the increasingly-familiar narrative asserting that the “Democrat Party” has been using the tools of government to oppress black people — not through the police state, the War on Drugs and the denial of access to housing and the ballot, but rather through welfare dependency and outright genocide. It’s an ugly trick, but it’s a neat one if you want to convince a big group of pasty-white Republicans that they aren’t racist.

Fast forward to 2015, and you see Ben Carson is doing the same thing. He just doesn’t yell into the camera as loudly as Jackson did.

Asked about Richard Petty’s description of the summer’s debate over the Confederate flag as a “passing fancy” while appearing with the former NASCAR star in North Carolina yesterday, Carson compared the flag to the Swastika…by downplaying the significance of both.

From TalkingPointsMemo:

“Swastikas are a symbol of hate for some people, too. And yet they still exist in museums and places like that,” Carson said, describing the decision about flying the flag “a local issue.” ”If it’s a majority of people in that area who want it to fly, I certainly wouldn’t take it down.”

Carson wasn’t asked the followup question as to whether he would be fine with a community’s decision so fly the Nazi flag if a majority of that community’s residents wanted to.

Either way, the signal there is clear: To the white Republican worried about “heritage” and “states’ rights,” Ben Carson “doesn’t see race.”

Just ask this one maybe-Carson supporter (again from TPM, emphasis added):

Julie Lopp, whose family owns Lexington Barbecue, where Carson and his team stopped for lunch Monday, said Trump is “a little bit too extreme.”

She said she was still learning about Carson, but would likely support him or former technology executive Carly Fiorina in the Republican primary. “I just think he’s honest,” she said of Carson.

She also suggested there were white southerners who probably wouldn’t support Carson because of his race.

“As much as people try to sound like they don’t care, some people think a black president will look out for the black lifestyle,” said Lopp, who worked in Lexington Barbecue for the last 36 years, adding that women like Fiorina would likely face discrimination from some voters as well.

Lopp is presumably unaware of just how abundantly racist her insistence that she isn’t a racist is. She might as well have said, “Not voting for Carson because he’s black? You silly racist. Don’t you know that he doesn’t see race? He won’t just look out for his kind; he’ll be the president for you and me everybody! Not like Barack Hussein Obama, no sir.” If you’re parrying your friends’ concerns about your candidate by telling them not to worry because he’s “one of the good ones,” it’s time to pause and reflect.

But this is exactly the frame Carson is setting by railing against “dependency” while warning that “One of the reasons you find most [Planned Parenthood] clinics in black neighborhoods is so you can find a way to control that population.” Coupled with his “I’m okay if you’re okay” stance on the Confederate flag, it appears that a large part of Carson’s appeal is his subtle reassurances to Republicans that all of their racial talking points aren’t actually that racist.

Unless we’re talking about Muslims. Then a bit of overt bigotry is totally fine: