Friday, July 29, 2011

Worst. Congress. Ever.

Norm Ornstein of Foreign Policy magazine argues that this is most dysfunctional Congress he's ever seen. The magazine then asks three other experts if they agree.

They all do.

All these experts are of course right about partisanship and the filibuster and teabaggers refusing to govern, but I think we're also seeing something else at work.

We're discovering just how lawless and poorly designed the Madisonian system really is.

For all the rules and regulations in the Constitution about how each branch should conduct its work and what its powers are, the government as designed by the Constitution is easily, and utterly, subverted by even a relatively small opposition. Democratic government in the United States only functions via an elaborate system of gentlemen's agreements not to take full advantage of numerous minor rules that can be used to game the entire system. Until recently, for instance, there was a gentlemen's agreement that the minority party wouldn't filibuster legislation except in extreme circumstances, and that the President would be given broad latitude to appoint judges as he sees fit, and even broader latitude to staff his cabinet. Similarly, there were gentlemen's agreements that the minority can make some political hay out of the debt ceiling, but they wouldn't take the nation's credit rating hostage to extort Democrats into enacting the entire Republican agenda.

Once those agreements are broken, however, they are broken forever, and the government no longer functions. Consider: between this debt ceiling fight, the budget fight after that, the next debt ceiling fight in six months, and the 2012 budget, the Republican Speaker of the House can crowd out the entire remainder of the President's term just holding the country hostage over and over again. If the president wins re-election, he can do the same to Obama's entire second term, denying the President the opportunity to pass any part of his agenda. And the Speaker can do this standing alone; his party controls neither the White House nor the Senate. Not only can the Speaker do it, but 40 rabid members of the majority caucus who believe the government should be nothing more than a Washington tourist bureau with a massive standing army can drive the government to default just so they can watch it burn.

Nor are the Speaker or the teabagger saboteurs even in the strongest position in government. Consider that in the current Senate, being the minority party means your legislation needs 50 votes to pass, while being the ruling party means your legislation requires 60. More to the point, a single senator can put a hold on virtually any vote, preventing it from coming to a floor indefinitely.

Unlike in the House, the Senate can also prevent the White House from even being properly staffed. A single senator can stall dozens of the president's appointees for entire sessions, and then by himself can also prevent the President from using a recess appointment to bring them into the government after the session is over. Last time I checked, the Fed chairman still, in mid-2011, lacks sufficient staff to properly do his work because Mitch McConnell has decided it's politically expedient for the Republicans to have a paralytic Fed through 2012.

It's amazing to think back to 2010, when Democrats held the presidency, a 31 seat majority in the House, and 60 Senators, and was unable to pass an individual mandate that Republicans supported as recently as 2008 without resorting to budget reconciliation. They couldn't pass a totally uncontroversial nuclear arms treaty or the hugely popular repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell without conceding a massive tax cut for the rich, and they couldn't pass the DREAM Act even with that concession.

the herd is scattered

Wow, Boehner failed to get the votes for his bill. That's a pretty strong statement of the lack of confidence in the Speaker. Most of the movement now appears to be going on behind the scenes, so we're not really going to know what's going on until a bill is signed and staffers dropping hints to their sides' blogs and stuff.

If I had to guess, though, I'd say that Obama and Reid are going to publicly announce their opposition to whatever agreement is finally drawn up so Boehner can sell it to his caucus. This is because his caucus is full of complete ruttin' fools who refuse to vote for anything, even their own positions, as soon as Obama signs on.

So some kabuki is in order. It's just hard to tell when Boehner and Obama are really fighting and when they're just playing at it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Oslo and Otoya

(image c/o Tong Shuai Xinhua News Agency/Newscom)

A terrorist who targets civilians is one thing; a terrorist who targets a youth camp is quite another. Our heart goes out to Norway today and to a ton of parents who just suffered the unthinkable.

It's hard not to take it personally as a liberal, to accept the pundit boilerplate in times like this that it wasn't about Breivik's politics, that he was just a crazy person, that this is not reflective of a common (if more controlled) desire among nationalists and right wingers to murder liberals and leftists.

And, apparently, our children.

Liberals are asked to accept that premise every time a federal building is destroyed, an abortion clinic is bombed (or, hey, the Olympics!), an obstetrician is murdered, or a Unitarian Universalist Church is massacred by people quoting Glen Beck or Adolf Hitler or The Turner Diaries.

The simple fact is that, whether or not the right can be "blamed" for most political violence, most of that violence targets liberals or is conducted by shooters and bombers expressing rage at liberals. I know it's "intemperate," perhaps even "shrill," for me to say that, but there it is.

It's dangerous being a liberal, raising your voice against the powerful on behalf of the powerless. It always has been. It's dangerous for you just like it was dangerous for civil rights leaders and Freedom Riders and suffragettes and Populists and union organizers and abolitionists and Diggers and Jesus Christ himself, and it's important to be mindful of that fact. Proud, and mindful.

Friday, July 22, 2011

a demonstrable fact revealed to be a grand illusion

Ta-Nehisi Coates reflecting on reading about the 30 Years War as an African American, demonstrating again why I think he's the best writer on the internet.

A piece:
First, it's really startling to read about the utter barbarism which Europe sank to during the War, and then contrast it with popular images of Africa as "the dark continent." I hope this doesn't sound cold, but immediately it occured to me that all the sins the proto-white racists put on Africa--cannibalism, slavery, wanton rape--were very much known to them. The very Germans who fled from Palantinate to a country that derided Africans as savages, were, themselves, the children of such savages.

From that perspective, racism is again revealed as not simply amoral but as phrenology, as Intelligent Design. Its mission is to evade, or conceal a painful past, and overlay with the legacy of the Greeks or the Romans. But the Moors and Muslims have as much claim to classical civilization as the Germans. Any exploration of Muslim scholarship reveals that not simply to be philosophically true, but tangibly true.

This is not schadenfreude. Much to the contrary, it's the continuous realization that humans are humans.

I don't know how to explain this, but it takes quite a bit of intellectual work, as black person--and probably as a white person--to feel that race really doesn't mean anything; that there really isn't anything wrong with you, and upon figuring that out, that there isn't anything wrong with them; that what feels so deeply like it must have some meaning--my brown skin, the shape of your eyes, their blonde hair--has none.

Do you know what it is, not to just to tell yourself that, not to just repeat it as mantra, not to just think it's true, not even to know it intellectually, but to actually believe it? To feel it? It takes awhile for the thing to set in.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

sucks to be an omnivore and an environmentalist

Sad but true. Ezra Klein:
Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius (PDF). A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. “How convenient for him,” was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “He’s a vegetarian.”

Looking at the chart, there are lessons for the environmentalist meat-eater beyond just "eat less meat." Switching from beef to pork cuts that part of your plate's carbon footprint in half, and switching from pork to chicken cuts it in half again. 2% milk, yogurt, and eggs are all pretty guiltless from an environmental standpoint.

All that said, once again the evidence is in: cutting your consumption of meat in general, and red meat in particular, is good for you, your family, and your planet. I can say, too, that I've significantly decreased the amount of meat I eat over the couple of years, especially beef, and it hasn't been nearly as bad as I thought it would be. A bean and cheese burrito, yogurt with blueberries, and an apple isn't a bad lunch!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Worst president of the 20th century?

[Nota bene: George W. Bush is a 21st century president]

Been reading a lot about American presidents lately, and I found this conversation interesting. Ta-Nehisi finds Tom Ricks claiming the worst president of the 20th century was Kennedy.

Ridiculous. It takes a pretty hostile interpreter of events to conclude that the Bay of Pigs, the brainchild of Eisenhower and Dulles launched all of 3 months into the new administration, is all Kennedy's fault, and yet he deserves no credit for the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Civil Rights Act. The former was a moment of national existential peril unequaled by any other in our history; the latter was perhaps the single most important piece of legislation passed by Congress during that century.

I have a different one in mind. I'd like to nominate Ronald Reagan as the worst president of the 20th century. We have Reagan to thank for everything from soaring deficits to voodoo economics to a bloated, unsustainable military-industrial complex. His economic policies contributed to the Savings and Loan crisis, and he put arch-Randian Alan Greenspan in charge of the Fed. That's all, of course, during the periods when his administration wasn't busy trying to purge disabled people from the Social Security rolls.

(Greenspan, of course, is the guy who told Clinton he had to gut the social safety net to keep the deficit from torpedoing the economy, then turned around and told George W. Bush to cash in all the money Clinton saved on tax cuts for the wealthy.)

The failed Star Wars Defense System? Reagan. Redistributing the tax burden from the rich to the middle class? Reagan again. Iran-Contra? Still Reagan. Mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses? Here's Ronnie!

Guess who deployed the CIA's Special Activities Division to Afghanistan? Reagan. Guess who was among the mujahadeen they trained?

Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court? That was Reagan, too! He also nominated notorious Nixon yes-man Robert Bork, infamous for being Tricky Dick's lucky number 3, the dude finally unscrupulous enough to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox after both of his predecessors resigned rather than commit such a heinous breach of ethics. We can thank Ted Kennedy -- God rest his soul! -- that the man wasn't further rewarded for his treachery.

That's what I call one hellacious legacy right there.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

American politics visualized

Why is that every time there's a showdown the Democrats seem eager to cave and give away the store while the Republicans make totally unreasonable demands? Here's why, c/o Kevin Drum:

I'm gradually coming around to the idea that the problem with our government doesn't lie with parties or politicians or the media. It's the voters. We have the government we voted for.