Some badly-needed historical perspective. By Devin Castles
I’m running a little late because I just had a new refrigerator delivered, and have been squeezing perishables into it.
Speaking of perishables, here are some mid-day items news items freshly thawed:
* Fascinating piece from The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer on the pressures brought to bear on a public television journalist (and station) with respect to Park Avenue, a documentary aired last year that did not please heavy donor David Koch.
* Peter Beinert offers sympathy to the devil, and argues against demonizing the IRS.
* Like me, TAP’s Paul Waldman writing about conservative switching of subject of IRS “investigation” from scrutiny of tax-exempts to non-germane tax audits.
* At Salon, Katie McDonough explores spread of poverty to the suburbs.
* Greg Sargent digs deeper into the stark partisan splits in the new CNN-ORC poll on Benghazi! and the IRS.
And in non-political news:
* Jon Stewart becoming a major celebrity in China.
Back after some chores.
Well, looks like I spoke too soon in suggesting that Republican Members of Congress weren’t interested in a legislative response to the botched IRS scrutiny of organizations applying for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. The Hill’s Pete Kasperowicz has the story:
House Republicans last week proposed legislation that would suspend the ability of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to conduct audits until the IRS itself is audited by Congress.
The bill, from Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), is the latest in a string of measures that have been offered in the wake of the IRS’s admission it applied extra scrutiny to conservative groups over the last few years. Republicans have said those activities were politically motivated and went unreported by senior Obama administration officials in the run-up to the 2012 election.
“We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Fleming said last week. “Tea party groups, conservative professors, opinion makers who dared to speak out against Obama, and even Billy Graham were targeted for interrogations that dug into private records, seeking information on everything from donor names to Facebook posts.
“The IRS has breached the trust of the American people and its misuse of the authority to audit must be stopped while Congress investigates the breadth of this scandal.”
Fleming’s Audit the IRS Act would prevent these sorts of inquiries for 180 days, which would give Congress time to examine “how audits were misused and who is responsible for any criminal actions.”
I hate to keep confusing the “narrative” with facts, but when it comes to the 501(c)(4s), we aren’t talking about tax audits. These were reviews of applications that nobody was required to submit, and that nobody needed to submit unless they were pretty sure they were on the borders of political activities incompatible with tax-exempt status (otherwise, they could just file their tax returns like anyone else and claim tax-exempt status). As for the Graham “charities,” these were 501(c)(3)s that are subject to much stricter scrutiny, and were gearing up for a massive political ad campaign in North Carolina in favor of a same-sex marriage ban. Even then, nobody was kicking down Billy Graham’s door and seizing his files or assets; it was a review of the organizations’ status, which was quickly concluded.
What Fleming is transparently doing is conflating this activity with IRS tax return audits, and suggesting conservatives are in dire danger of all getting hauled into tax court or off to prison (much as is colleague Mike Kelley did in his inflammatory line of questioning—or more accurately speechmaking—in the House Ways & Means Committee on Friday. It’s all based on a lie bordering on a Big Lie. But if Republicans are going to go in that direction, they should at least let us know how they intend to make up the revenue lost if they insist on paralyzing all IRS tax enforcement actions.
Oh, yeah, I forgot: entitlement reform!
In all the furor over who did what when in the botched IRS scrutiny of applications for 501(c)(4) status, which confers very limited benefits on political activity absolutely no one is trying to ban or “chill” or “intimidate,” what keeps getting lost is the question of how to fix the situation. Ezra Klein succinctly summed up the options—other than perpetuating the mess forever—this morning:
We don’t want IRS agents deciding who is and who is not a primarily political group. That is not their core competency. Worse, it necessarily involves the IRS in politics, and the IRS is an agency we want kept far from politics. We either need extremely bright lines that govern the IRS’s judgments on these groups and removes the need for significant discretion or, as tax professor John Colombo argues, we should consider getting rid of the 501(c)(4) designation altogether.
I continue to think the Obama administration and its congressional allies should take the lead in proposing one or the other option, which would also involve public scrutiny of the Big Berthas among 501(c)(4) organizations that the IRS left alone to pour many tens of millions into blatantly partisan campaign ads. There is no constitutional or moral right to a federal tax exemption for political organizations (where is that in the Founding Documents, O Ye Clear Meaning of the Constitution Tea Folk?) If Congress wants to extend a statutory right to such status (as it has done in the past), it needs to justify it and clarify its application so that no IRS official, in Washington or Cincinnati or anywhere else, is exercising any significant discretion. Additional measures to completely insulate the IRS from politics would be welcome as well. But it’s ridiculous to accuse IRS personnel of some sort of political conspiracy when the rules under which they are operating are so exceptionally vague, leaving them to pursue their only real mission, which is to minimize revenue loss. And if Republicans intend to pursue this “scandal” in perpetuity, each and every one of them should be challenged incessantly to tell us how they’d fix the problem. If they don’t think there’s a problem that can’t be solved by Republicans taking over the IRS and “enforcing” the same incoherent rules, then they should tell us that as well. But in truth, there is no “solution” without clarifying the rules.
While folk in the Beltway debate whether the eroding case for a “triple-play” of scandals adds up to a “narrative” that threatens Barack Obama’s presidency, there’s not much evidence so far that all the lurid talk is changing public perceptions. A new CNN-ORC survey taken Friday and Saturday showed Obama’s job approval rating at 53% (with 45% disapproving), which is higher than his standing in April (51/47), March (47-50), or indeed, last November (51/45 in the last poll conducted before Election Day).
It’s always possible the “story” hasn’t yet sunk in, but we are fast approaching the point where Republicans are going to have to decide whether to pursue these “scandals” past the gates of delirium even if it becomes evident only people who don’t like Obama are upset about them. It’s quite possible they’ll push right on in accordance with the theory that in a “base-dominated” midterm election, convincing their own troops that Obama’s deploying the entire federal government to persecute them while protecting Radical Muslims here and abroad will boost GOP turnout. Another possible rationale for this approach is that it would obviate the very difficult task of coming up with an alternative GOP agenda—particularly one that involves anything other than Senate filibusters and House obstructionism. Still another is that they just can’t help themselves, and/or that insufficient focus on Benghazi/IRS (they don’t seem to quite have their hearts into exploitation of the AP “scandal,” since the “victims” so far are for the most part godless liberal reporters) could actually depress GOP turnout in 2014.
Other polls will come out soon, of course, and promoters of the “scandal narrative” will be standing by with bullhorns at the ready to proclaim it’s having an effect. It won’t take much more than a hint of smoke in the wind to convince the already-convinced that a political conflagration is developing (viz. the current banner Politico headline: “Scandal-shocked House Democrats fear for 2014.”).
Once the Massachusetts special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat is over, the main focus of true political junkies will be on Virginia’s highly competitive off-year elections. So this weekend’s Republican State Convention in the Commonwealth, which nominates statewide candidates for the general election (a primary might have given too much influence to “squishes”), was of unusual interest.
Joining the pre-ordained gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the fiery Tea Person, at the top of the ticket was a novice candidate who wowed the delegates with “near-apocalyptic” rhetoric: African-American minister E. W. Jackson. The good reverend bishop is best known for being an abundant contributor to the “Democratic plantation” meme, per this video he made to convince black voters to switch to the GOP in 2012:
Aside from the rather arresting assertion that Planned Parenthood is worse than the KKK, the main theme of Jackson’s video is that the “Democrat Party” represents a “rebellion against God.”
But hey, Virginia Republicans are all “about” jobs and economic policy, according to some hilarious spin coming out of the state convention (per Politico’s Alexander Burns):
A Jackson adviser did not respond to emails seeking comment. Republican Party of Virginia spokesman Garren Shipley defended the candidate as a person of faith and predicted the 2013 elections would not hinge on social issues.
“It is no secret that E.W. Jackson has deeply held Christian conservative beliefs. But the race for lieutenant governor will be fought on economic ground as opposed to social policy. In the weeks and months ahead, Jackson will focus on ideas that produce more quality jobs for Virginians and make life easier for families and workers,” Shipley said in an email.
Yeah, that’s why he won the nomination. And improving Virginia’s economy was clearly the dominant theme of the whole state GOP clambake, as another Politico reporter, Jonathan Martin, noted:
It was as if the candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, nine all told, were running for president and not second-tier state offices. One after the next, they won applause for searing attacks over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, the Department of Justice’s monitoring of the Associated Press’s phone records and the tragedy at the Benghazi consulate in Libya.
Much more than on attacks on McAuliffe or state issues, the Republican audience responded with great enthusiasm to the jeremiads against Obama and affirmations of fealty toward gun rights and the Constitution generally.
It’s appropriate that the third spot on the statewide ticket, the nomination to succeed Cooch as Attorney General, went to state senator Mark Obenshain, son of Richard Obenshain, who initiated the conservative ideological takeover of the Virginia GOP back in the 1970s (he died in a plane crash in 1978 after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate).
It will be quite the spectacle listening to the members of this ticket claiming “social issues” and “national issues” don’t really matter this year. Those delegates in Richmond knew better.
UPDATE: BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski has posted a ten-pack of incendiary statements by Bishop Jackson on homosexuality. If anyone can scare up ten statements by the Bishop on job creation, I’d like to see them.
UPDATE II: Mark Obenshain may not have the culture-war notoriety of his running-mates, but he’s no piker: ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser reports that Obenshain sponsored a bill in 2009 requiring women to report all miscarriages (unless a doctor was present) to the police within 24 hours or face a jail term. This must be an example of what Obenshain’s campaign website means with this statement: “For Mark Obenshain, there can be no higher calling than to defend the liberties of all Virginians.
Looking back on last week’s scandal-frenzy, it’s remarkable how it began with Republicans convinced they’d found the evidence to prove they had not been wasting everyone’s time over Benghazi!for months and months, and ended with that “evidence” proving to be spurious quotes from White House email leaked to ABC’s Jonathan Karl by members of the very political prosecution team that’s promoting this “story” to begin with. Rarely have so many congratulatory cigars exploded so quickly.
Here’s Paul Glastris summing it all up on the McLaughlin Group:
For a catchy tune to start the week, it’s hard to beat this one: Manfred Mann with Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn” on Top of the Pops in 1968.
“If austerity were tested like a medication in a clinical trial, it would have been stopped long ago, given its deadly side effects.”— academics David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, from their New York Times op-ed
In the past week, the academics David Stuckley (an Oxford sociologist) and Sanjay Basu (a Stanford epidemiologist) have published two fascinating and powerful pieces on the relationship between austerity and health. There was the New York Times op-ed from last week and today, there is a Salon essay. Both articles are adapted from their new book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. Stuckley and Basu argue that austerity economics is associated with higher mortality rates and worse health. They look at an array of evidence, including not only the current Greater Recession (or is it a Lesser Depression?), but the Great Depression, the Asian financial crisis, and “shock therapy” in the former Soviet Union and former communist countries in Eastern Europe. They come to the conclusion that the public health consequences of austerity are devastating, and that budget cuts during economic downturns causes countless suicides and other preventable deaths.
The legacy of the late internet activist Aaron Swartz lives on.
Just this past week, Aaron received the ultimate pop culture tribute: he was the answer to a question on Jeopardy. The topic was “Tech Drop-Outs.” Here’s the clue, which was worth $2,000:
This Stanford dropout & RSS pioneer died in 2013 while fighting government charges
Even more impressive is that the contestant who answered the question got it right!
But Jeopardy is far from the only attention, cultural, political, or otherwise, that Aaron has received since his tragic death this past January. Consider the following:
— A Kickstarter for an authorized documentary about Aaron met its goal in a matter of days.
— Posthumously, Aaron won the American Library Association’s prestigious James Madison Award, which honors “individuals or groups who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know at the national level.”
This week, an important committee vote will take place in the U.S. Senate. Senate Republicans have long been filibustering President Obama’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board. As you probably know, the NLRB is a powerful federal agency that oversees elections for labor union representation and makes decisions regarding the unfair labor practice cases that are brought before it. Since its formation in 1934, it has been the single American institution that is most responsible for protecting crucial labor rights. Employees, for example, have the right to organize a union and engage in pro-union activities without suffering discriminatory treatment or retaliation from an employer. Just as importantly, employers are legally required to bargain with the union.
Presidents choose the members of the NLRB, and very rarely have any appointees met serious opposition. But since the right-wing war on labor, and on President Obama, continues to rage, Senate Republicans have for years now been filibustering Obama’s slate of appointees. Obama, in response, made a recess appointment of three people to the NLRB about a year and a half ago. Recess appointments of this nature are common, but earlier this year, G.O.P -appointed judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down those appointments. This week, a brand new Appeals Court decision reaffirmed the original ruling, albeit for different legal reasons.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee met for a hearing on Obama’s five NLRB appointees (a compromise slate composed of three Democrats and two Republicans). Next week, the Committee will vote on whether to send the nominations to the Senate floor. Since it’s a majority Democratic committee, that seems likely to happen. What is far from clear is whether the full Senate will have an up-or-down vote on the nominees. A Republican filibuster may well prevent such a vote from ever happening.
Let’s not put too fine a point on it: a successful filibuster would spell disaster for organized labor. Assuming that the Appeals Courts’ rulings on the alleged unconstitutionality of President Obama’s recess appointments are upheld (and they probably will be, given that we have a very right-wing, majority Republican Supreme Court), the NLRB will be, by late August, left without a quorum of voting members and will be unable to issue rulings on new cases. Employers would then have license to do pretty much whatever they want, so far as organized labor is concerned. As ThinkProgress’s Ian Millhiser reports, without a functioning NLRB
Michael Kinsley has written some unfortunate columns lately. The austerity one drew more attention, but a second column, on gay marriage politics, was also fairly cringe-inducing. In that column, Kinsley strongly sympathized with homophobes whom he claimed were being unfairly attacked; but where actual LGBTQ people who want basic human rights are concerned, his sympathies were far less in evidence. Scott Lemieux did a fine job eviscerating Kinsley’s silly arguments in the gay marriage column, so I won’t address them here.
But I did want to note that Kinsley’s column is symptomatic of a growing tendency I’m witnessing in some elite discourse, which I’ll call homophobia denialism. It seems that, because LGBTQ people have been winning the right to marry in some states, homophobia is no longer a serious problem. Never mind that gay marriage is legal in only twelve states so far; that, barring a favorable Supreme Court decision, it will likely remain illegal in much of the country for years to come; and that the federal Defense of Marriage Act still bars married single-sex couples from many rights heterosexual couples enjoy, such as Social Security survivors’ benefits.
In short, we have a long way to go before same sex marriage becomes a universal right in this country. And even when that happens, it will hardly mean that homophobia is over, any more than passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act meant racism was over.
Here’s what I mean: take these three heartbreaking stories of homophobia in action that have made headlines just in the past day or two:
— In New York City on Friday night, a 32-year old gay man named Mark Carson was shot dead in cold blood in what police are describing as a “hate crime.” The murder took place on a public street just blocks away from the Stonewall Inn, the bar that was ground zero in the modern gay rights struggle. A longtime Greenwich Village resident quoted in the New York Times said, “It’s outrageous. […] They say we’ve worked through homophobia, but it’s not gone away. It’s just not usually as out there in the open like it was this morning.”
Readers, my next couple of posts will be delayed. I was just working on a long one which, sadly, got eaten when my computer suddenly shut down. Normally when that happens the post is saved and can be retrieved, but that didn’t occur this time.
In the meantime, please read Paul Krugman’s superb piece on austerity economics in the current New York Review of Books, and talk amongst yourselves!
Today would have been Joey Ramone’s 62nd birthday. Joey and the rest of the Ramones were one of the most influential bands in rock history. It’s sometimes forgotten, but punk rock proper began at CBGB’s in New York City with the Ramones and other bands. The American bands got there first, and only later did punk spread to England. The Ramones got together in 1974 and released their first album in 1976, while, for example, the seminal English punk bands the Sex Pistols and the Clash each formed in 1976 and released their first albums in 1977.
It’s tragic that the Ramones, in the band’s lifetime, never really got their due. The three core members, Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee all died in the early aughties, just as the band was beginning to accrue some mainstream respect. The Ramones documentary End of the Century, which I strongly recommend, is heartbreaking. It dramatizes the many times when it seemed like the band might finally be on the verge of mainstream success, only to have it cruelly snatched away from them.
But now, at long last, the Ramones are recognized as icons. They’ve been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at least one of their songs (“Blitzkrieg Bop”) has been used in TV commercials and is played at sporting arenas, and in 2011, they even won a Grammy for lifetime achievement (really!).
Joey was always my favorite Ramone. He was the sweetest Ramone, the one with the deepest love for early rock and roll like the 60s girl groups, and the band’s most politically liberal member (Johnny was the Ramones’ resident conservative).
Here is Joey and the band performing one of my all-time favorite Ramones songs, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”:
Now for some good news: according to economic consultant Rick Nevin, this year, the U.S. is on track to experience the lowest murder rate in over 100 years. Nevin reports that, based on preliminary FBI data, the weighted average murder rate in 30 large localities nationwide this year is 18% lower than it was at this time last year. Even in my hometown of Chicago, for example, which has suffered from a sky-high homicide rate, murders have declined by an astonishing 39%, as compared to this time last year. And New Orleans, which in recent years has experienced the nation’s highest murder rate, has seen an 11% decline in homocides this year.
Nevins, like Kevin Drum, believes the decrease in violent crime is attributable to declining rates of lead exposure in childhood. Here’s Drum, referring to curves on a chart which measures the relationship between lead exposure and the murder rate (you’ll have to click on his post to see the chart, because I’m not able to upload it here):
It’s one thing to have two simple curves that match up well. That could just be a coincidence. But to have two unusual double-humped curves that match up well is highly unlikely unless there really is an association. Put that together with all the statistical evidence from other countries; plus the prospective studies that have tracked lead exposure in individual children from birth; plus the MRI scans showing the actual locations of brain damage in adults who were exposed to lead as children—put all that together and you have a pretty compelling set of evidence. Lead exposure doesn’t just lower IQs and hurt educational development. It also increases violent tendencies later in life. If we want less crime 20 years from now, the best thing we can do today is clean up the last of our lead.
Kevin has reported at length on the relationship between lead exposure and violent crime.
The declining murder rate is wonderful news, but it’s no reason to be complacent. Sane gun control laws, of course, would lead to even more significant declines in the rates of homicide and other violent crimes. And unfortunately, a lot of lead is still around. The good news, though, is that lead abatement efforts are wildly cost effective:
Put this all together and the benefits of lead cleanup could be in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. In other words, an annual investment of $20 billion for 20 years could produce returns of 10-to-1 every single year for decades to come. Those are returns that Wall Street hedge funds can only dream of.
As Kevin writes, “If we want less crime 20 years from now, the best thing we can do today is clean up the last of our lead.”
Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on the disturbing case of a Catholic priest who, following his 2003 conviction of the sexual abuse of a young boy, continued to work with children . The priest, a man named Michael Fugee, has been working at New Jersey church where, according to the Times, he has “attended weekend youth retreats, traveled with the church’s youth group to Canada, and heard confessions from minors behind closed doors.”
This is in spite of the fact that in 2007, Fugee and the Archdiocese of Newark signed an agreement with prosecutors in which they agreed that Father Fugee would not be
assigned any tasks that would put him in a position to have unsupervised contact with children, including involvement with youth groups, attending youth retreats or hearing confessions of children.
Fugee voluntarily stepped down from ministry on May 2, and there have been calls for Newark’s archbishop, John J.Myers, to resign as well.
This clear evidence that the Church continues to enable clergy who commit sexual assault is, of course, deeply disturbing. But the main reason I’m citing the article here is to highlight the way the author of the article, Russ Buettner, described Fugee’s crimes:
The priest, Michael Fugee, was convicted in 2003 of criminal sexual conduct stemming from allegations that he had groped a boy’s crotch during several wrestling horseplay encounters when he was associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, N.J. (emphasis mine).
New York Times, seriously? “Horseplay”? That term is a stunningly offensive way to describe the crime of sexual assault. It has the effect of minimizing and excusing what occurred — “oh, we were just ‘horsing around’ and things got out of hand.” Right — and in the midst of these carefree fun and games, the adult priest’s hand just happened to find itself grabbing and fondling the child’s genitals. Sure, happens all the time — who hasn’t experienced this?
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