USA Today runs a stunningly dishonest commentary

A recent commentary in USA Today is one of the most stunningly dishonest opinion pieces I’ve seen in a long time.

Ilya Somin, a law professor at Koch-funded George Mason University, wrote about several recent unanimous Supreme Court decisions that she claims served as a check against overreach by President Obama:

When a president pursues policies that require such expansive federal power that he can’t get a single justice to agree, something is probably amiss.

The problem? Every single case she mentioned, while decided by the Supreme Court in the last couple of years, actually originated during previous administrations. The facts in Horne v. Department of Agriculture date back to the Clinton Administration. Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency and Arkansas Game & Fish Administration v. United States both date back to the Bush administration. A unanimous decision regarding religious employees also dates back to the Bush Administration, as did United States v. Jones, dealing with whether a search warrant is required to place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car.

Every single example, in other words, dealt with a position originally taken by a previous administration then subsequently defended by the Justice Department as the case wound through the court system. Not one of these represented a policy pursued by Obama.

I presume that Somin knew this. If not, she should not be teaching law. If so, she should not be publishing commentaries in national newspapers. The editors at USA Today owe the readers they have allowed to be misinformed an apology. They should have fact-checked this piece before running it. The only ethical recourse left to them now is to retract it. Otherwise, readers will be left to wonder if they can trust the facts in any commentary that appears in the newspaper.

How safe is your marshmallow?

Study reenactment: Evelyn Rose, 4, of Brighton, N.Y. participates in a reenactment of the marshmallow experiment. The study found that children’s decisions to delay gratification is influenced as much by the environment as by their innate capacity for self-control. The study was conducted at the University of Rochester Baby Lab. Photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

The scariest thing I’ve read lately about the future of America was about marshmallows.


In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a Stanford University psychology professor conducted a series of experiments on delayed gratification using 4- to 6-year-olds and marshmallows. In the experiment, the researcher would give a child a marshmallow and a choice: Eat the marshmallow now, or wait 15-minutes before eating it and get a second marshmallow to enjoy.

Fifteen minutes for a 5-year-old with a marshmallow is an eternity. The point of research was to see at what age the ability to delay gratification to receive greater rewards kicked in. Follow-up studies discovered something interesting: Children who were  able to delay gratification and get the second marshmallow tended to do better later in the life, scoring better on SATs, getting further in school, having healthier body-mass index scores. The thought was that an increased ability to exercise self-control at a young age led to better outcomes as the child grew.

But another study last year called that conclusion into question. Self-control, it turns out, isn’t as important as trust when it comes to delaying gratification.

Researchers repeated the marshmallow study, but this time the children were divided into groups: One group had a “reliable” researcher; the other, an “unreliable” researcher. Before the marshmallow study, the children were given used art supplies, but promised that the researcher would return in a bit with newer, better supplies for them to complete a task. In the “unreliable” group, the researcher failed to deliver.

Those children, taught not to trust the word of the researcher, were far more likely to eat the first donut without waiting for the second. They waited a mean time of a little over three minutes, while children in the other group averaged a 12-minute delay.

A recent article in Pricenomics discussed this study in relation to Silicon Valley’s ability to keep pumping out new technologies and new companies, even though they have a high failure rate. But the author, Alex Mayyasi, also hinted at the darker ramifications for the rest of the nation:

This is also why Americans’ pessimism and distrust is of such concern. Every patriotic immigrant story and feel good ode to American identity points to the American Dream: the belief that hard work will be rewarded with a good life. But confidence in the media, government, and financial system are all decreasing (something represented quantitatively in the “Trust in Institutions” barometer) and social mobility is falling. A major premise of Occupy Wall Street was that the rules of capitalism seemed rigged in one group’s favor and President Obama’s “fair shot” speeches during the election played off the idea that people no longer believed in an America “where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried.”

That is dangerous because, as we’ve seen, people decide whether to work hard, take initiative, and invest for the future based on whether they trust that it will be rewarded.

The kids in the group with an unreliable researcher learned not to trust, so they ate the marshmallow they had instead of delaying gratification and waiting for the second marshmallow.

The way things are now, can Americans trust corporate America to give them a promised second marshmallow? Ask Patriot Coal’s retired miners about that. The real question is whether we can trust corporate America not take away the marshmallow we already have.

I came across the Priceonomics article on one of my favorite websites, MetaFilter. Just two posts down from that, I saw this article: “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed.” The ProPublica article details the rise of the use of temp workers by corporate powerhouses such as Wal-mart, Nike and Frito-Lay. These workers, employed indirectly by some of the most profitable corporations in the world, have no job security, no benefits and low pay. According to Labor Department statistics quoted in the article, nearly one-fifth of overall job growth in the economy since the end of the Great Recession has been in temporary employment. America now has more temporary workers — 2.7 million — than ever. And the conditions they work under are worse than ever.

Other low-income workers are being forced to pay fees to get access to their wages, a lucrative arrangement for both banks and employers that can cost workers a significant portion of their already low pay.

The Pricenomics article discussed how cultures Americans once wrote off because of their “lazy” workers — South Korea, China, Japan — were actually just mired in poverty. When those same workers trusted they had the opportunity to succeed, their work ethic improved dramatically.:

All these “lazy” people were perfectly willing to work hard, study long hours, and plan for the future, but only when opportunities existed and they trusted that hard work would pay off. This lesson, that people work hard when they are confident that it will pay off, is simple. But it is one that is often eclipsed behind perceptions of culture, innate ability, or other explanations.

And this is why marshmallows have me worried about the future of America. As corporations shred decades-old social contracts in pursuit of an ever-better bottom line, as corporate profits soar while the median income of Americans stagnates or declines, as promised retirement benefits vanish and those left with few opportunities for stable employment are derided as “takers,” the trust that hard work can pay off is going to evaporate in the light and heat of available evidence. That trust is the core motivator to work hard, better yourself and work for the future. What happens when a broad swath of America decides such trust is misplaced?

Eat your marshmallow now. You know the second one isn’t coming, and you can bet someone in a boardroom somewhere is trying to figure out a way to take a bite out of the first one.

Taranto jumps the shark

I probably spend too much time responding to The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto. But he’s ordinarily an intriguing intellectual opponent, even if Obama’s election and re-election pushed him a bit over the edge.

But with today’s column, Taranto completely jumped the shark. I started to reply by Twitter, but 145 characters just isn’t enough to respond to this column-length bit of lunacy.

So, let’s take it one point out a time.

First, of Benghazi, Taranto says of the now well rehashed rewriting of talking points following the attack: “But if the purpose of that rewriting was, as it appears to have been, to deceive voters and bolster the president’s re-election prospects, then it was a subversion of democracy.”

As it appears to have been? Taranto, unsurprisingly, doesn’t spell out any evidence of that. Unless you live in the right-wing echo chamber, you know, there is no evidence of that. You know that President Obama released more than 100 pages of email that point to a bit of a turf war between the State and CIA in the drafting of the talking points, both aimed at protecting their own images (along with intelligence sources and methods), and no improper political involvement from the White House.

He then goes on to call the minor IRS scandal “a subversion of democracy on a massive scale.”

“The most fearsome and coercive arm of the administrative state embarked on a systematic effort to suppress citizen dissent against the party in power,” he hyperventilated.

Again, unless you solely inhabit the right-wing echo chamber, you know that the “scandal” was centered on one department in Ohio that, overwhelmed by the sudden increase in the number of applications for 501(c)4 organizations, improperly used screening methods that resulted in more tea-party affiliated organizations coming under scrutiny. These are tax-exempt “social welfare” groups. In order to qualify for their tax-exempt status — which, for obvious reasons, is the job of “most fearsome and coercive arm of the administrative state” to determine — their primary purpose cannot be political. However, liberal groups weren’t exempt from the scrutiny, and it’s a simple fact that conservative 501(c)4s were far more politically active than liberal 501(c)4s. (According to Open Secrets, conservative groups outspent liberal groups 34 to 1 in 2010 and 2012.)

Calling such scrutiny “a systematic effort to suppress citizen dissent against the party in power” is ludicrous. For one, these groups don’t need their designation approved by the IRS before beginning operation. And if the designation is rejected (and they rarely have been), the only real penalty is that the organization must pay taxes on its income. No one was silenced.

Glossing over all this, Taranto says this incident means America has become as despotic as China.

Taranto moves onto the “liberal” media, accusing the media of being more in cahoots with Obama than it’s ever been with any other president or political party. This ideological and political alignment, Taranto warns with no hint of irony or self-awareness, has led the media to abdicate “their guiding principles of impartiality, objectivity and sometimes even accuracy.” The man works for a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, and he wants to lectures others about abdicating impartiality, objectivity and accuracy? Never mind that the conservative media that he is part of is far guiltier of abandoning impartiality and objectivity, and has never cared much about accuracy. But how could Taranto miss that the biggest mainstream media blunder in recent weeks — ABC’s reporting on Republican fabrications of those recently released emails as if they had seen the originals — worked against Obama, not in his favor?

In fact, the only example of media bias Taranto presented in his lengthy diatribe was a Washington Post story on the IRS scandal that called Democracy 21, a group that expressly advocates for better government, a “good-government group.” Wow. What a stretch. He then goes even further and accuses Democracy 21, which advocated stricter scrutiny of both Crossroads GPS and the pro-Obama Priorities USA, of encouraging an abuse of government power.

But where Taranto really jumps the shark is when he talks about how the left’s ascendancy in the ’60s and ’70s is responsible for today’s political polarization and institutional left-wing dominance.

It oversimplifies matters only slightly to say the liberal left owes its cultural authority to three events in the 1960s and 1970s. The culmination of the civil-rights movement in 1964-65 established its moral authority. The antiwar movement’s success at securing defeat in Vietnam established its political authority. Watergate discredited the Republican Party. (It also made heroes of journalists and provided impetus for restricting the political speech of those who are not media professionals.)

The political result of all this was more polarization. The ascendant left became dominant in the Democratic Party, driving conservatives into the Republican camp, which in turn encouraged liberal Republicans to become Democrats. The cultural result–the effect on journalistic, educational, charitable and scientific institutions–was both polarization and left-wing domination.

First of all, it was not the liberalization of the Democratic Party that drove conservatives to the Republican camp. It was the Republican Party’s decision to capitalize on passage of the Civil Rights Act, and embrace the shameful “Southern Strategy” that welcomed racist Southern Democrats into the party. The conservative upswing in the Republican Party didn’t “encourage” liberal Republicans to become Democrats. The Republican Party has been undertaking a periodic purge of liberal, moderate and, lately, insufficiently conservative Republicans for years.

And I lived through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. I don’t remember any of those decades as a time of liberal ascendance, culturally or politically. Bill Clinton, don’t forget, was elected as a moderate Democrat.

Taranto does seem to realize that none of the scandals currently consuming the Beltway will amount to much, absent an unlikely direct connection to the White House. So he’s left making an incoherent argument based on a willful inflation of the facts that the fact that these scandals can’t be hung on Obama is actually worse for the nation because it’s “a sign that the government itself has become a threat to the Constitution.”

James Taranto, meet shark. Shark, James Taranto.

Perhaps Taranto needs a vacation. California, maybe. Just leave your leather jacket and water skis at home.

No, Obama isn’t a hypocrite on taxes

Joe Scarborough got his undies in a knot because President Obama’s tax release shows he only paid 18 percent. Scarborough ranted:

“He’s paying a tax rate far lower than what a teacher pays. I’m speaking slowly so this sinks in. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling. This president does class warfare for a year and a half on the campaign trail. He attacks Mitt Romney repeatedly. … And yet this president, after demagoguing this issue for a year and a half, pays an 18 percent tax rate.”

Some people I know agree, but I think they’re missing the point.

Obama hasn’t been going around saying he wants to pay more federal income taxes. He’s been saying the system needs to be changed so that people like him all over the country pay more. If Obama voluntarily paid a higher rate, even a much higher rate, it would add, at best $50,000 or so to federal receipts. Returning the top 2 percent to pre-Bush tax rates, on the other hand, will bring in about $60 billion a year in additional revenue.

There is nothing hypocritical about advocating for a change in the system while still living under the system as it is. Thanks to the fiscal cliff deal Obama insisted on, his taxes will be higher next year, and if he gets his way in other negotiations, loopholes will be closed that will increase his effective rate even more.

This isn’t about what one person pays.

What about Mitt Romney’s tax rates? What about them? He was arguing to keep the status quo. In fact, he was arguing for tax cuts for people in his own bracket. The fact that he already paid less than most what a teacher pays and thought that was too much was why Romney’s tax rate mattered.

Why a ban on high-capacity magazines makes sense

A couple of days ago, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre claimed there was no evidence that smaller magazines would have resulted in fewer deaths at the Newtown shooting. But he’s wrong. There’s substantial evidence that lower capacity magazines would provide more opportunities to stop these shootings sooner.

LaPierre infamously said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But a look at mass shootings shows that in at least a third of a cases, the shooter was stopped by a good person without a gun.

Here’s a good list (compiled by a gun enthusiast, by the way) of mass shootings and how they were ended. Of the 32 mass shootings studied, 15 ended after police arrived — either because they killed or apprehended the killer or because the shooter killed himself when police arrived. In 17 cases, civilians stopped the shootings before police could arrive. In 11 of those 17 cases. the civilians were unarmed. I would bet in nearly every case in which a shooter was apprehended by citizens (as opposed to shot or apprehended by police) that reloading provided the opportunity for that action. It may only take two seconds to change a magazine (or one second, according to LaPierre), but that time can make all the difference.

Congress should be working on passing a ban on magazines above 10 rounds. Some people say the ban would be useless because there are so many high-capacity magazines already out there. That’s why the ban should include both the sale of new magazines and the transfer of existing ones. (Use the ban recently passed in Connecticut as a model.) Most rampage shooters are in their teens or early 20s. They haven’t been collecting arms for years. Most buy their arsenal shortly before they use it. Making it extremely difficult (and illegal) to purchase high-capacity magazines would stop most of these shooters from acquiring them.

An assault weapon ban might be effective, though I understand the argument that there’s little or no functional difference between an assault rifle and most semi-automatic hunting rifles.

Eleven of these shootings in recent years have been stopped by unarmed civilians. Why not give those heroes a little better chance? There is no constitutional right to a high-capacity magazine, and no legitimate need for one.

LaPierre is wrong: There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a ban on high-capacity magazines could have made a difference at Sandy Hook. A ban on high-capacity mags could be effective, if not at deterring these rampages, at least in limiting the carnage.

Looking back on the Iraq War

The 10th anniversary of the beginning of the invasion of Iraq should prompt some serious reflection. Judging by the Dick Cheney documentary, some of those most responsible for that disaster have done little reflection and, indeed, don’t even appear to recognize how much damage that misadventure caused, and continues to perpetuate. Just for fun, I looked up what I wrote when the war started. Unfortunately, more of my fears came true than hopes were realized. But even in my worst imaginings, I don’t think I foresaw just how bad it would be: how long it would last; how many casualties it would cost, how much money we would throw away.

I certainly hope that the next time the nation makes a decision to go to war, as opposed to having one thrust upon us, we’ll give a bit more weight to the dissenters, think a little harder about the “evidence” used to sell the war and question our leaders far more insistently. And I hope this nation never again falls into the trap of a “pre-emptive war” launched before a threat is genuinely identified, much less imminent.

You can read the column after the jump. Read more of this post

Obama’s incompetent because he refused to cave?

I got into another interesting Twitter debate with the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto. In yesterday’s column, he argued that the lack of a deal to avert the sequester was evidence that:

… Obama is not very good at the job of being president. He does not seem able to command the congressional leadership’s respect or trust. Nor does he seem capable of striking fear into them. That needn’t mean ordering his guards to threaten them physically but rather making them feel there will be unpleasant political consequences if they don’t give him a deal.

I suggested that perhaps, instead, it was evidence that the GOP isn’t amenable to reason and unconcerned with “unpleasant political consequences.” Or, given the bubble today’s GOP lives in, completely unaware that those political consequences will fall on them far more heavily than the president. In any case, the GOP clearly wasn’t willing to accept a deal other than one that gave them everything they wanted: A sequester alternative made entirely of cuts, and cuts that fell heavily on domestic spending.

We went back and forth a little, and I finally asked him this: “Serious question: Beyond a complete cave, what could Obama have done to get a deal from GOP that he didn’t try?”

What I got back was very telling: “Your premise is that Obama is competent unless I can instruct him specifically how to do his job?”

I replied: ” If you can’t even envision a scenario in which he could succeed, I’d say that’s indication he’s done what he could do.”

Taranto rather nonsensically replied with: “Which is entirely consistent with what I wrote. His own incapacity limited ‘what he could do.’ ”

I don’t understand that, since it was Republican intransigence, not Obama’s incapacity, that limited what he could do. So I asked Taranto what a president without whatever weakness Taranto ascribed to him — an LBJ, Clinton or Reagan — could have done.

Taranto went silent after that. I engaged with a few of his more reasonable Twitter minions (Twinions?), and Taranto weighed in again hours later, but, again, didn’t answer the question: Other than a complete cave on Obama’s part, what deal would Republicans have accepted? So I asked yet again, and got this telling reply:

“Beats me. But I did not claim I am more competent to do Obama’s job than Obama is.”

This reminded me of Ron Fournier’s  response to the pushback he got to a column he wrote making a similar point to Taranto’s original: The inability to strike a sequester deal with a party that is absolutely unwilling to compromise was somehow Obama’s fault. When Obama adviser David Pfeiffer asked him how he’d deal with the GOP in this situation, Fournier responded, “Very fair point. If I had one, I might be President. Luckily for the nation, I never presumed to lead. Those who did now must.”

In other words, neither man has a clue how Obama could negotiate with a party that refuses compromise, but damn it, it’s his fault for not figuring it out.

No. The fault lies with the party that thinks negotiation involves repeatedly demanding everything you want, repeatedly refusing to offer a single concession and repeatedly lying about the cuts the president has already offered and the cuts that have already been put in place.

Look, both Taranto and Fournier are right in this: They weren’t elected president. It’s Obama’s job to deal with Congress. But the fact that neither one of them can even begin to describe a deal Obama could have reached with the GOP short of complete capitulation doesn’t leave either much room to criticize his performance.

The spending ‘surge’ under Obama

Here’s federal spending during President Obama’s first term.



Here’s federal spending during President Bush’s two terms.



Note the scales on the left are not identical. For Bush’s two terms, the scale covers a range of $1.8 trillion. For Obama’s, it covers just under $400 billion.

Any questions?

A conflict of law, and how to resolve it

Yesterday, I went after Best of the Web columnist James Taranto for what I gathered was him intentionally confusing the debate over the debt ceiling increase, making it appear that President Obama wanted to add to the debt as opposed to ensuring that the United States could pay the obligations Congress had already made on the nation’s behalf.

But there is a point in he makes in the column that is intriguing:

What would happen if Congress failed to raise the debt limit is that the government would be unable both to pay off existing bondholders and to spend all the money Congress has ordered. That would create a conflict of law.

That got me thinking. If the GOP does the unthinkable and refuses to increase the debt ceiling, there will be a conflict of law, as Taranto says. On the one hand, you have the law passed in the early 20th century that set up an arbitrary ceiling on the debt the Treasury Department could hold in order to pay the government’s bills. On the other hand, you have every other single law ever passed that either raised revenue or spent money.

One very awkward solution — though not as awkward as minting a trillion dollar coin or pretending the 14th Amendment says something it does not — would be for the president to go on live TV and say something along these lines:

I have something important to say to my fellow Americans, to the global economic community and to anyone who ever bought a Treasury bond. Because of the gross irresponsibility of congressional Republicans, I am faced with a difficult choice. Either decision I make will break the law and undermine the Constitution. I can either accept the law setting the debt ceiling at the current level, which we have reached, or I can ignore that law.

If I accept that law, I must break literally hundreds of others. I must renege on obligations Congress made to the people of this nation. I must shut down essential services authorized by Congress. I must risk defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States because, frankly, the federal government is an enormous machine and ensuring that some of our creditors get paid while others get stiffed is an order of magnitude more complex than most people appreciate.

Not only that, however, I will be putting the executive branch in the position of making what are clearly legislative branch decisions. I do not have the authority to decide what programs to fund and what programs not to fund. That’s Congress’ job, not mine. By refusing to pass an increase on the debt limit, Republicans in Congress have unconstitutionally shifted that responsibility, that power, to me. I don’t want it, and it is not my power to exercise.

Therefore, I’ve decided that if I must break the law and undermine the Constitution, I will do so in a way that is least disruptive to the global and American economies and to the American people, and in the way that involves less executive overreach: I have instructed my Secretary of the Treasury to ignore the statutory debt limit and to issue bonds in the amount necessary to keep the government functioning and to honor the legislative intent of every other law passed by Congress.

Let me be clear: This is not a choice I make lightly. But it is a decision that has been forced upon me. If Congress does not approve, then it can either cut the spending it has approved, raise more revenue or increase the debt ceiling.

In other words, Congress can do its job.

Thank you, good night, and may God bless America.

Update: Just to be perfectly clear, I realize such an announcement by the president is completely unrealistic. It would roil the bond markets. Who would buy Treasury bills under such a cloud? It’s just a thought I had in reaction to Taranto’s point. If you have conflicting laws, who says the law that causes the most turmoil and destruction ought to win? A constitutional law scholar could probably tell me a dozen ways this scenario is unworkable. Of course, equally unworkable is the Republican willingness to refuse to increase the debt ceiling if they don’t win spending concessions. Unfortunately, that isn’t imaginary.

James Taranto thinks you’re stupid, too

The Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web columnist James Taranto is smarter than this, I thought. From today’s column: “The 14th Amendment clearly does not authorize the executive branch to incur more debt without congressional approval.” The debt ceiling debate is NOT about incurring more debt. It is about paying the debt Congress has already incurred. Taranto knows that. Republican officeholders know that — even if they sometimes pretend they don’t. They just think you’re stupid and don’t know any better.

Speaking of the 14th Amendment gambit he described in the quote above and of another out-there idea — to have the Treasury Secretary take advantage of a poorly written law to mint two $1 trillion coins, deposit them in the Treasury and put that money on the books, thus enabling the United States to continue paying its debts — Taranto also says this: “Democrats, for their part, are again suggesting two ways of working around the debt limit.”

That’s just wrong. Democrats don’t want to work around the debt limit. They want to increase it, as a Republican Congress did without drama 19 times during the Bush administration. It is the Republican refusal to increase the debt limit without onerous preconditions (which they don’t have the votes to win through the normal political process) that’s forcing Democrats and other sane people to think way outside the box. This isn’t, as a friend of mine liked to say, rocket surgery. If Republicans refuse to vote to increase the debt limit unless they get their way on spending cuts and President Obama sticks firm to his vow not to negotiate with terrorists again on the debt ceiling limit, the effects on the global and national economies will be catastrophic.

If minting trillion dollar coins can avoid those consequences, then mint the damn coins.

Even better, slap some sense into those Republicans who believe hostage-taking is a legitimate form of political negotiation. Or arrest them for economic treason and terrorism, which is exactly what they would be committing if, in the end, they actually pull the trigger and refuse to vote for a clean limit on the debt ceiling.