Friday, March 30, 2012

I dunno

I dunno why I thought this was so funny. Maybe the really short skirt helped? :)

The Atheist Experience: kindergarten theology

This is an excerpt from the Atheist Experience TV show, episode #493, with hosts Matt Dillahunty and Don Baker.

It always strikes me as funny that people who really believe tend to know so very little about their own religion.

I mean, supposedly you believe that God created you for a noble purpose - indeed that this whole universe was created just for human beings - and that your entire life is just a preliminary to an eternity of bliss in Heaven (or torture in Hell), yet you can't be bothered to really pay attention to any of this?

Most Christians haven't even read their own Bible, let alone learned anything about the history behind it. And their arguments for the existence of God tend to be elementary in the extreme. There aren't actually any good arguments, but they're not all so completely ridiculous, either.

If you really believed this stuff, why wouldn't you know more about it? Or are you frightened that knowing more about it will show you that it's just not true?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The plant murderer

It's kind of funny, but I hate to kill plants. A few years ago, I dug up some peonies which had been here since before I bought the house, and I felt like a murderer. I'm usually OK pulling weeds, but that's about it. Even my house plants end up feeling like pets. No matter how ratty they get, I don't want to put them down.

But earlier this year, I decided I needed to get rid of a couple of fruit trees. Partly, that was because I've got way too many here - there's more trees, bushes, and vines than I can handle, and it's all over-crowded. But these two trees were really pretty worthless for me, anyway.

One was a Dapple Dandy pluot (pluots are a cross between a plum and an apricot). It was a big, beautiful tree, well-branched, which was always loaded with fruit. Unfortunately, every year, all of the fruit would rot before it got ripe - brown rot, I think. But although I sprayed with various fungicides, it never made the slightest difference. Every day during the summer, I'd go out and pick off the latest rotten fruit, throwing it in the garbage, until it was all gone. I never got a single ripe fruit.

The other tree was a Hosui Asian pear. I've got a couple of other Asian pears which are just wonderful, but I've struggled trying to train this one. But the big problem is that the fruit has been absolutely tasteless. I can eat almost anything, but even I haven't been able to eat this stuff! (It's funny, because my other Asian pears are so good!)

So I haven't gotten useful fruit from either tree - not a single one. It was time they went. But as I was cutting off one limb after another, I just felt like a murderer, slowly dismembering my victims. "Please! Just give me one more chance! I'll be good, I promise."

OK, I'm not quite so far gone that I'm hearing voices, but I just couldn't kill those trees. I cut them way, way back, but I didn't remove them entirely. It's dumb, I know. What can I say?

But the really funny thing is that my pear tree is just a mass of blossoms right now. The only thing left of the tree is a trunk about four or five feet high and three thick, crooked branches, with the ends amputated, all on the west side of the tree. It looks kind of like a short ladder that's been split lengthwise.

But it's just a solid mass of big, beautiful, showy white blossoms. It really is pretty funny. It's the prettiest little tree in my yard, if you don't mind the odd shape of it. (I'd post a picture, if I had a camera.)

(Even funnier, perhaps, is that I apparently pruned off all the flower buds on my European pear trees - and those were ones I did want producing fruit this year. Oh, well, live and learn...)

The pluot is doing pretty well, too, but I left more branches on that one. Not too many more, but at least it still looks like a tree,... kind of. Of course, it's pretty stupid to leave it alive at all. But I really hate to murder my plants, even when I can't hear them scream.

The Reason Rally

This was last Saturday. Apparently, God doesn't like atheists, because it rained. But other than that, it looks like they had a great time.

I didn't see anything on the mainstream news about it, did you? I wonder why it didn't get more attention? But maybe they think that, if they ignore us, we'll go away.

The war on men

Brave freedom-fighters attacking the Death Star

We men thought we had it good, didn't we? Sure, Republicans were waging a war on women, but no one was targeting men, right? Oh, I'm sorry to tell you that the world has just become really scary.

From BuzzFeed, it's the war on men:
Oklahoma state senator Constance Johnson introduced an amendment to that state's Personhood bill, SB 1433, that would essentially outlaw masturbation for men. Johnson's amendment proposed that the legislation include a provision that men ejaculating anywhere outside a woman's vagina be considered "an action against an unborn child."

Johnson wrote about the amendment in the Guardian:
My action to amend the so-called "Personhood" bill – SB 1433, introduced by Senator Brian Crain (Republican, Tulsa) – represents the culmination of my and many other Oklahomans' frustration regarding the ridiculousness of our reproductive policy initiatives in Oklahoma. I have received overwhelmingly positive responses from men and women in Oklahoma – and worldwide. The Personhood bill would potentially allow governmental intrusion into families' personal lives by policing what happens to a woman's eggs without any similar thought to what happens to a man's sperm.

It's not just Oklahoma, either. That's just the first example in this article. Rosie Gray - clearly, BuzzFeed discriminated against men by hiring a woman to write this, huh? - describes six similar pieces of legislation in America.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Catholic bishops lose; America wins

From Mother Jones:
For the past six months, the bishops [the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB] have complained very publicly that the administration is anti-Catholic and biased against religious groups because it refused to renew a contract with the group to provide services to victims of human trafficking. The bishops had been administering virtually all the federal money allocated for such services, about $3 million a year, doling it out to subcontractors who served victims all over the country. The USCCB had prohibited the contractors from using the federal funds to pay for staff time to counsel victims on contraception or abortion, or to refer them for such services. (Federal money can't be used to pay for abortions except in the most extreme instances, but it can pay for contraception.)

In 2009, the ACLU sued the Department of Health and Human Services, arguing that such rules violated constitutional prohibitions on mixing church and state. Last fall, while the case was still pending, the Obama administration decided not to renew the bishops' contract, largely because the bishops refused to provide those key reproductive health services that are frequently needed by victims of trafficking. The decision set off a firestorm in Congress, where House Republicans accused the administration of bid-rigging and violating the bishops' religious freedom during a marathon oversight hearing in December.

But on Friday, a federal judge in Massachusetts essentially validated the Obama administration's position, ruling in favor of the ACLU in the lawsuit over the contract. Even though the bishops no longer have the contract, they had joined with the ACLU in asking the judge to rule in the case to settle the constitutional issues. US District Judge Richard Stearns explained why the bishops were in the wrong. He wrote:
To insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others…This case is about the limits of the government's ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).

Stearns also cited an earlier Supreme Court ruling that found that the framers "did not set up a system of government in which important, discretionary governmental powers would be delegated to or shared with religious institutions." The judge's ruling is potentially a big one: It calls into question the entire basis of the federal faith-based contracting initiative, implemented by George W. Bush, which gave tremendous power to groups like USCCB over taxpayer dollars. Stearns found, in fact, that it was USCCB that was making the decisions about how the federal anti-trafficking law should be administered—a job that properly rests with the government, not the church.

Note that the Catholic Church was getting our tax money and deciding, based on their own religious beliefs, who would get the money and what they could use it for. When the Obama administration decided not to renew their contract - deciding to award the contract elsewhere - Catholic bishops saw the loss of our tax dollars to promote their own beliefs as religious discrimination!

Think about that. According to them, it wasn't religious discrimination to force their own beliefs on victims of human trafficking. No, instead, it was religious discrimination to stop giving them federal funds to do it! Crazy, huh?

No religious group has a right to federal money. Religious organizations, like any other organizations, can bid on federal contracts, but they still have to follow the law. They can't discriminate in hiring and they can't decide on their own what they'll do with that money. If you don't like those requirements, don't bid on the contract.

Judge Richard Stearns was exactly right. The separation of church and state does not discriminate against religion. Instead, it keeps the government from favoring a particular religious belief (or belief over non-belief, even). The Catholic Church is free to spend its own money as it wishes. But it doesn't have the right to spend our tax money, much as it wishes it did.

This is a slam-dunk, constitutionally. But it's still hard to say what will happen if this gets to the Supreme Court, not least because six of the nine justices are Catholic themselves. Certainly, the four Democrats on the court support the separation of church and state. But they're in the minority.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Even Russia thinks Republicans are stuck in the 1970s

From Indecision Forever:
If you watched the season premiere of Mad Men on Sunday, you might be forgiven for mistaking one of its scenes of boys' club back-slapping for a GOP debate. Given their attitudes toward birth control and homosexuality, the Republicans seem to be stuck in the past.

And it's not just Democrats who've noticed
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tweaked Mitt Romney for his characterization of Russia as the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the United States, saying the comments did not reflect the current relationship between the two countries.

"It is very reminiscent of Hollywood and also of a certain phase in Russian-U.S. relations," Medvedev said at the end of the nuclear security summit in South Korea Tuesday…

"My first advice is to listen to reason when they formulate their positions. Reason never harmed a presidential candidate," Medvedev said. "My other advice is to check their watches from time to time: it is 2012, not the mid-1970s."

In post-Soviet Russia, Russia makes fun of you.

Republicans haven't noticed it, not yet, but we won the Cold War. The Soviet Union disintegrated. Russia is still authoritarian, like many of the countries we deal with, but it's not the enemy.

And no, the Dutch aren't the enemy, either. (Is it any wonder that the rest of the world makes fun of us - and, at the same time, fears us?)

In fact, we have a relative scarcity of enemies these days - mostly just rag-tag groups of religious nuts using improvised explosives. Oh, there's Iran, too - the government, not the people. But the eagerness of Republican leaders to start yet a third war in the Middle East - again, without paying for it, I'm sure - is frightening, indeed.

But Republicans love enemies. They love to hate, they love the military - except when it comes to either fighting in it or paying for it, themselves - and they love having enemies. I'm convinced they feel lost without enemies.

And the world is a dangerous place, too. But it's more dangerous when you see everyone as an enemy. We need to be rational about such things.

I don't like Russia's leaders much, but Medvedev is right about this. Republicans need to stop formulating their foreign policy positions from Hollywood movies. And reason never hurt any one.

Well, OK, it's true that reason would make it harder to get nominated in today's Republican Party. That's why Republican politicians have "refudiated" reason just as strongly as they've "refudiated" science.

Barack Obama's gun control conspiracy

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Barack Obama-Gun Control Conspiracy
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This is how we know that Barack Obama is a socialist, too. It's because he hasn't done anything to advance socialism. That's part of the conspiracy, you see. He's just lulling us into complacency.

Clearly, that's why the stock market has been booming since Barack Obama took office. Could you ask for a better sign that he's trying to trick us? After all, why would private investments boom under socialism? Obviously, it must be part of some deep, dark secret plot, huh?

I mean, whatever explanation is there?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What we need is smaller government

From Pete Reynolds at McSweeney's:
On a stage in a great auditorium stood four be-suited men, each vying for the hearts and votes of the people surrounding them. 

And the people, they were angry. 

“Government is too big,” they shouted. “We must make it smaller!”

And so the first man spoke up with great confidence. “I am the leader that you seek, for I am philosophically opposed to big government.  I believe that government should do only that which the people cannot do for themselves. And, frankly, even that seems like a stretch.”

And the people nodded and murmured with approval, for that was exactly the type of philosophical bent they were seeking in a leader.

Check out the rest of it here. It's short, but not quite short enough that I feel I can copy the whole thing, without permission.

Dressed to kill

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Dressed to Kill
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I'm sure it's hard to write humor about such a tragic incident. But Republicans - and I definitely include Fox "News" in that - make it pretty much inevitable, don't you think?

And speaking of Fox, who in the world would ever think of hiring Geraldo Rivera for anything? How does he stay employed? Do they just keep him around for comic relief? I really don't understand why anyone has ever thought he was worth watching.

BTW, in Colbert's next segment, he has a really great comment, one that received cheers from his audience. He shows Rick Santorum claiming that, "My public policy isn't written on an Etch A Sketch. It's written on my heart."

Stephen Colbert: "Of course, the only way to read what's written on Rick Santorum's heart is with a trans-vaginal ultrasound." He followed that up with a few gestures and muttered comments that made it even funnier.

It was a good show.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I haven't been blogging much lately, and that probably won't change right away. I've got a million things to blog about - thanks for the links you've been sending me! - but I'm not sure when, or if, I'll get to them.

I've been pruning my fruit trees, and it's been such an incredibly warm March that everything is bursting out at once. I just can't keep up with it. I've got my trees and bushes pruned, and I'm starting on my grapevines, but they're already starting to leaf out, not just bud out.

And it will be the raspberries after that, and - sometime - get my garden started. (I wanted to plant some cold-weather crops weeks ago, but I just haven't had the time.) The grass is getting long, too, which isn't a big deal, but does take time away from everything else.

Anyway, I'm just behind on everything. (You should see my email Inbox!) But I'll still be blogging. I'll try to post some things without much commentary, because those are quick. As I said, I'll try. You know how hard it is for me to say nothing. :)

And I do want to post my second year in Summitspear, my Dwarf Fortress fort. It's been nearly a month since my first post, but I've had little time to play.

Yeah, I know those aren't popular here, but I have a lot of fun writing them, and my vote trumps yours. Heh,  heh. Frankly, just the fact that they're fun to write probably means I'll get to that before most of the rest of this stuff.

OK, I just thought I'd give you a heads-up. I don't want to lose the readers I've got (each one as precious as rubies, I assure you). I'm not dead and I'm not losing my interest in blogging. But I did say that I'd be slowing down once winter was over, and I'm especially busy right now.

Mitt Romney's lies

Rachel Maddow has a follow-up video clip on this here.

And Steve Benen at the Rachel Maddow Blog has eleven pages of Mitt Romney's lies. (Volume XI is here. There are links to the other ten pages at the bottom of that post.)

Some of these lies are more blatant than others, but many are really obvious lies. Furthermore, you can claim that all political campaigns lie - or, at least, mislead - to some extent. But has there ever been a major candidate for president who's lied as easily, as readily, as often as this?

Mitt Romney lies even when there's no need to lie. I've known people like that, people who would rather lie than tell the truth, even when the truth wouldn't hurt them, people who are so used to lying that they just lie routinely, without even thinking about it.

Everyone knows that Mitt Romney is the flip-flopper to beat all flip-floppers. Romney believes that Mitt Romney should be president, and that's it. Everything else is negotiable. In every single policy position, he swings to the political wind.

But is there more to it than this? Is he actually a pathological liar? Can he simply not distinguish the truth from a lie, anymore? Note that he lies repeatedly, without shame, even after he's been called on the lie. He never apologizes for his lies. Indeed, if they're popular, he just keeps using them.

I know that moderate Republicans - the few remaining moderate Republicans - support Romney because they think he doesn't actually believe all the crazy things he says. He just has to placate the loony Republican base to get the nomination. But how do they really know what he believes?

Or is this just more faith-based thinking? Republicans are faith-based, not evidence-based, so they just believe whatever they want to believe. They know that Romney lies -  how could they not? - but they believe he really sides with whatever they think.

Why do they believe that? Oh, no reason. They just have faith.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Has Newt Gingrich COMPLETELY lost his mind?

OK, yes, Newt Gingrich is batshit crazy. That's been obvious for a long time. But has he completely lost his mind? Has he suffered a stroke or something?

Or is this just pandering to the Republican base, where you simply can't be too crazy? Or too dumb? Is it actually impossible to be too dumb for the Republican base? Or does Newt Gingrich think that, anyway?

I know that nothing should surprise me anymore, but... yes, this surprises me. It's beyond stupid. It's beyond crazy.

For the record, here's that Robert De Niro "controversy":
In introductions to the first lady before she addressed the crowd of about 85 people, De Niro quipped, "Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?" According to a pool report from the evening, the line drew a roar of laughs, and De Niro added, "Too soon, right?"

Anyone want to claim that's racist, or even inappropriate? Or has Newt Gingrich just completely lost his mind?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Atheist Experience: thinking logically

This is an excerpt from the Atheist Experience TV show, episode #439, hosted by Matt Dillahunty and Jeff Dee.

I'm still busy, so I'm posting this partly because it's quick. But I'm also posting it because the caller is such a typical theist. Brandon claims to think logically, but he refuse to follow logic during the discussion.

I mean, he starts out by claiming that God can't provide clear evidence he exists, because that would destroy free will. But when Matt and Jeff demonstrate that's not true, he just skips on to some other argument. He doesn't even listen, let alone acknowledge their point.

That's not thinking logically. It's not even thinking. It's just blindly defending your beliefs. When your argument proves to be indefensible, you just skip to some other argument. And when that one is countered, you ignore that, too, and move on.

Of course, in this case, it's no more "free will" than giving a mugger your wallet when he threatens to blow your head off if you don't. Supposedly, God is threatening you with eternal torture, right? So he's actually far worse than a mugger.

But that's not the point I wanted to make here, especially since some Christians have abandoned hell. Yet they still tend to argue this way, often enough. When you just ignore counter-arguments, instead of acknowledging them - either conceding that they're right or explaining why they're wrong - that's not thinking logically.

I enjoy rational debates, and I value the truth, so I generally want to hear what other people have to say. But this kind of thing just wastes my time. Now, I don't mean to imply that all believers do this, because that's not the case (and I appreciate that). But all too many of them do.

Please, think about this, next time you're trying to persuade me to your way of thinking. I will listen to what you're saying and reply to the point you're trying to make. Please do likewise.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up

Funny, huh?

Oh, and Romney is apparently saying "mass debating," in case you were wondering. :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Obama's spending record

OK, I need to stop posting this stuff. I know I'm just beating a dead horse (see here and here). So I'll just post this chart (click image to embiggen) and the link. OK, here's some commentary, too, if you want.

At least this is quick, and I'm really busy today. I've got lots of stuff I'd like to post, but no time. So we'll see.

Monday, March 19, 2012

His name is Trayvon Martin

This was a kid doing nothing but walking down the street. Well, walking down the street while black.

Some puffed-up, self-important vigilante with a gun thought that he was suspicious and called the police. So far, no problem, not really. You can, and should, call the police when you think you're seeing something suspicious.

But this guy, this George Zimmerman, had a gun. And so he followed Trayvon Martin in his car and ended up shooting him dead. The boy was unarmed.

There was no reason for this, none whatsoever. Did they get into a fight? Maybe, but so what? Martin was unarmed and on foot. Zimmerman was in a car, with a gun. If there was a fight, he had to have instigated it.

But the crazy thing is that he hasn't been arrested for murder. The Florida legislature, like so many Republican legislatures around the country, is making murder legal. Yeah, it's this macho bullshit about "standing your ground." And, of course, everyone needs to be carrying a gun, right?

This is just complete insanity. This is what we've come to - the obsession with guns and gun rights, combined with racism and fear, leading to bloody tragedy yet again. Yes, Zimmerman is at fault here, but so is every Florida legislator who voted for that "stand your ground" law.

There's more at Mother Jones. An excerpt:
Zimmerman told police he'd acted in self-defense. ABC News reports that he had wanted to be a police officer, and Sanford police didn't test him for drugs or alcohol after the shooting (such tests are standard practice in homicide investigations). He was licensed to carry his gun, and police initially told Martin's father that they hadn't pressed charges because Zimmerman was a criminal justice student with a "squeaky clean" record.

That wasn't entirely true, however; in 2005, Zimmerman was arrested for "resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer"; those charges were dropped. Media investigations and Martin family attorneys suggest that Zimmerman was a vigilante with "a false sense of authority" in search of young black men in his neighborhood. Police records show Zimmerman had called 911 a total of 46 times between Jan. 1 and the day he shot Martin. (Florida guidelines for licensed gun owners state: "A license to carry a concealed weapon does not make you a free-lance policeman.") ...

Zimmerman may have benefited from some of the broadest firearms and self-defense regulations in the nation. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) signed Florida's concealed-carry provision into law, which "liberalized the restrictions that previously hindered the citizens of Florida from obtaining concealed weapons permits," according to one legal analyst. This trendsetting "shall-issue" statute triggered a wave of gun-carry laws in other states. (Critics said at the time that Florida would become "Dodge City.") Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period on handgun purchases.

Even though felons and other violent offenders are barred from getting a weapons permit, a 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that licenses had been mistakenly issued to 1,400 felons and hundreds more applicants with warrants, domestic abuse injunctions, or gun violations. (More than 410,000 Floridians have been issued concealed weapons permits.) Since then, Florida also passed a law permitting residents to keep guns in their cars at work, against employers' wishes. The state also nearly allowed guns on college campuses last year, until an influential Republican lawmaker fought the bill after his close friend's daughter was killed by an AK-47 brandished at a Florida State University fraternity party.

Florida also makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state in 2005 passed a broad "stand your ground" law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation. (More stringent self-defense laws state that gun owners have "a duty to retreat" before resorting to killing.) In championing the law, former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer said: "Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you're attacked, you're supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property."

Again, the Sunshine State was the trendsetter: 17 states have since passed "stand your ground" laws, which critics call a "license to kill" or a "shoot first" law.

Popularity in a democracy

In a way, this is a followup to last week's post about Barack Obama's deficits - not because there's really much more to say about that, but because of a couple of new reports.

However, I've got a point I want to make, too - a point about the difficulty of doing what's right, especially compared to how easy it can be to do what's wrong.

But first, from TPM, here's a chart that compares the increase in government spending under Reagan and under Obama, in their first terms when both faced high unemployment:

Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis illustrates a key difference between Reagan’s first term and Obama’s: the pliancy of the Congresses they had to work with. Despite the fact that it was controlled by Democrats, Reagan’s Congress was ultimately accommodative, and the result was significant fiscal expansion, which likely helped bring down the unemployment rate. [Which definitely helped him win re-election, because Reagan wasn't wildly popular his first term, even after surviving an assassination attempt.]

Despite presiding over a Democratic Congress, Obama enjoyed no such co-operation. Serial GOP filibusters limited the extent to which he could use deficit spending and temporary tax cuts to hasten economic recovery. Republicans bucked historically bipartisan policies to thwart the president. And when they took over the House in 2011, Republicans pursued an austerity agenda, and, separately, spooked credit markets by taking the government to the brink of default. All of these factors, combined with contraction at the state and local levels, offset the stimulative policies Obama secured at the beginning of his term. And that prefigured a significantly slower labor market recovery than Reagan enjoyed.

As I've pointed out before, Republicans today aren't interested in boosting our weak economy or increasing employment - just the reverse, in fact. Their number one goal from the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency - from before he even took office, in fact - was to ensure his defeat in 2012. They've admitted that many times.

And an improving economy is exactly what they don't want. But what if Democrats had decided the same thing in Reagan's first term? We've always had politics in America, but in the past, both parties put our country first. That's just not the case anymore.

Oh, and note on the above graph what that "big spender" Barack Obama is actually doing. It's no wonder that it's a slow, gradual climb out of this economic collapse.

Here's the other part, also from TPM, about the "spin wars" over Obama's budget:

A new Congressional Budget Office report has reignited the spin wars over President Obama’s budget, and Republicans are eagerly blasting articles to reporters about how the administration would explode deficits and debt if left to its own devices.

But this line of attack is based on a questionable premise, familiar to veterans of the past year’s budget wars.

The key to all of these stories is the CBO baseline. Officially, the budget analysts there use “current law” to gauge the expected impact of policy proposals, whether from the Hill or the White House. But under “current law” all the Bush tax cuts will expire, all of the sequestration spending cuts triggered by the Super Committee’s failure will take effect, and other parts of the budget will tighten automatically, in ways lawmakers and the president are determined to avoid. Relative to all of that austerity under current law, indeed, Obama’s budget blows up the budget. So too does every Republican budget proposal and every proposal put forward by influential outside fiscal policy groups.

CBO also uses an “alternative fiscal scenario” based largely on current policy. And the changes Obama proposes to current policy — the world we currently inhabit where the Bush tax cuts are still in effect, and sequestration hasn’t happened — accomplish one of fiscal policymakers’ key goals: reducing medium-term deficits and stabilizing the debt as a share of GDP over the next several years.

Get that? This is very similar to what I tried to show last week. Republicans are trying to spin Barack Obama as a big spender who's vastly increasing our federal budget deficit. And that tends to work with the average voter, who's woefully ill-informed about these things.

I mean, their claim sounds plausible, doesn't it? After all, they're comparing Obama's proposal with the CBO baseline. But the CBO baseline includes things that aren't going to happen, that no one in Congress is going to let happen.

For example, this assumes that the Bush tax cuts will end as scheduled. I wish they would, but even the Democrats don't want to raise middle-class taxes. And the Republicans have drawn a line in the sand against any tax increases at all, even - or maybe especially - for the wealthy.

I'll get back to this in a minute, but let me first point out another example. Current law has scheduled massive across-the-board spending cuts because of the failure of that "Super Committee" on deficit reduction last fall. Those cuts, to domestic and military spending alike, were supposed to be an incentive for both sides to come to an agreement, but Republicans flatly refused every compromise.

They simply would not raise taxes on the wealthy, under any circumstances (in fact, the Republicans on the committee actually proposed lowering the top tax rate even more).

But Republicans are already saying that they won't cut military spending, either, no matter what they agreed to last year. So those cuts simply aren't going to happen. No matter what, that "baseline" isn't going to happen. Pretending otherwise is just deceitful political spin.

And that brings me to the point I want to make. In a democracy, doing the right thing is often unpopular, while doing the wrong thing can be very popular indeed. And when you've got a political party which cares only for its own political advantage, that can make things exceedingly difficult for our country.

Take the Bush tax cuts, for example. Cutting taxes is always popular. Even when the benefit went overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans, Bush's tax cuts were easy to support and hard to oppose.

This is a democracy, after all. And politicians need to get re-elected. Popularity matters! Bush's tax cuts were absolutely the wrong thing to do, creating massive budget deficits and a bubble in arcane financial instruments, but the most opponents were able to do was make them temporary. They were supposed to expire in ten years.

And they should expire. With deficits screaming higher, the very first thing we should do is end the Bush tax cuts. But tax increases are unpopular. Even just letting them expire as scheduled will have your opponents screaming "tax increase!" Heck, Republicans are already screaming that, even though the Democrats only want to let them expire for the one-percent!

And although the majority of Americans - the majority, even, of Republicans, according to polls - think that taxes should be increased on the wealthy, it's still a very dangerous move in a democracy, because your opponent will attack you for "raising taxes."

Think back to some of the other terrible decisions we've made in recent years - and how difficult it is to undo them. After the 9/11 attacks, war was wildly popular in America. It didn't matter if it made sense, not in our positive orgy of über-patriotism after the attacks. It didn't matter if we had an exit strategy. It didn't even matter that we weren't going to get the man who actually attacked us.

After all, there was no longer a draft, so no one need fear they'd actually have to fight this war. No, we had a volunteer army for that. Certainly, the chickenhawks in the Bush administration, who'd avoided the Vietnam War like the plague, had no reason to worry personally about this one. And, for the first time in our history, we weren't going to raise taxes to actually pay for it, so there was no opposition for that reason, either. Heck, a free war! How could anyone pass that up?

And when Afghanistan got boring, there was Iraq. True, there was even less reason to invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein was actually the enemy of al-Qaeda, and he was certainly no threat to America. But he had all that lovely oil (remember how the war was going to "pay for itself"?) and lots of targets for our high-tech weapons. What fun!

Starting a war is wildly popular among "patriots," especially if no one has to fight it or pay for it - well, no one important. Politically, it's pure gold. George W. Bush got to prance around in a flight suit, playing "Commander-in-Chief" for all he was worth, under a "Mission Accomplished" banner, of all things (no, the mission was not accomplished, not even close). And yeah, it got him re-elected.

But now what? Bush got what he needed, and it's no longer his responsibility, is it? We've got a new president now - of a different political party, even - and the war in Afghanistan has dragged on for more than a decade. It's not popular anymore, but we can't easily get out of it, either. Yeah, that's where that lack of an exit strategy comes in.

When it comes to leaving again, there are two big issues. The first is that we can't just cut and run when things get tough, not and keep any kind of reputation as a reliable ally. We've got people depending on us. We've got young girls going to school despite having acid thrown in their faces! What would happen to them if we just give up?

Afghanistan was never our responsibility, but it is now. We invaded the country. We made it our responsibility. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do, but we can't pretend that it didn't happen.

But there's another issue, the issue of politics in a democracy. Starting the war was popular, politically. But a politically popular option now simply doesn't exist. Sure, the war is unpopular. Staying is unpopular. But if we leave, and the Taliban moves back in, Barack Obama's political enemies will have a heyday. "Barack Obama lost the war!" The attack ads write themselves.

Here's my point: Doing the wrong thing was politically popular, which is one reason, at least, why George W. Bush did it. But now, we're stuck with no good options. When you step into a quagmire, it's going to get messy. There's simply no way around that. Whatever Barack Obama does, short of turning Afghanistan into a 21st Century secular democracy - which isn't going to happen - is going to be unpopular. And doing nothing is also going to be unpopular.

It's the same thing with those tax cuts. Cutting taxes is always popular, even when it's absolutely the wrong thing to do. And although it's the right thing to do to raise them back up now, that's unpopular. (Admittedly, raising taxes on the rich does poll pretty well. But it's hard to tell how that will work out in reality.)

George W. Bush got the advantage of those popular tax cuts, while leaving the disaster they created for his successor. And as the deficit climbs higher and higher, Republicans hammer at Barack Obama on it. Obama didn't do this. He didn't create the deficit. He didn't collapse the economy. He didn't start two wars for no reason, with no exit strategy, and without even paying for them.

But he's the one stuck with the situation. He's the one facing unpopular decisions, whatever he does - and particularly if he does the right thing. And its the Republicans - the people who caused this whole mess in the first place - who will gleefully take advantage of that.

You've seen how Republicans hammer away at Barack Obama's "unprecedented massive deficits." I posted about that last week. Almost entirely, they're taking advantage of problems they themselves created and which they are dragging their feet about fixing.

But it works. It worked when they created those problems, because they took advantage of what was popular then. And it works now, since the Democrats are left to clean up afterwards.

This is the big problem in a democracy. The wrong things are often politically popular, at least in the short term. And the short term is all a politician usually cares about. (Note that all too many Democrats voted for war and for those tax cuts, too. Well, every politician wants to be - needs to be - popular.)

When those popular moves are disastrous in the long-term, as they often are, that's someone else's problem. At that point, doing the right thing is often unpopular. Of course, your political opponent could do the right thing and support what's best for our country. Or,... they could leap to take political advantage of the situation.

For the cynical political machine the Republican Party has become, it's win/win. They win on both sides of this political equation. America loses. Well, that's what has historically kept this tactic in check.

But fanatics tend to think that the end justifies the means. Obviously, it's so very beneficial for America that Republicans retake the presidency, that anything they do, no matter how much it harms America in the short-term, is justified, right?

What's the solution? I don't know. We can't change human nature. We can't magically make people less selfish and less short-sighted, and it's always going to be easy to believe what you want to believe. Sure, this wouldn't work if all citizens were well-informed and active participants in the democratic process. But most people just don't pay much attention.

For their own purposes, cynics have convinced many people that all politicians are alike, that government can't do anything right, and that the whole thing is rigged, anyway. Well, keeping Americans ignorant and passive is also a political tactic. When you want the wealthy to control our country, it's best if ordinary people lose hope.

I'm sure the solution is to have an intelligent, informed, and active citizenry. But that's not what we've got. And I don't know how we get it. Do you?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Atheist Experience: Christian persecution

This is an excerpt from the Atheist Experience TV show, and it's episode #666, so of course I wanted to post it. :)

But it's also because we're seeing this exact same thing today, with the Republican campaign against women's rights. The right-wing sees this issue differently. They see it as persecution of the Catholic Church.

If the Catholic Church can't dictate to women - not just Catholic women, but any woman their hospitals or universities might employ - then we're persecuting them. We're taking their stick away. How can that be fair?

The rest of us see individual rights. We think that people - and yes, women are people - should be allowed to make their own decisions. Catholic women have, indeed, made their own decisions, since they overwhelmingly use birth control themselves, despite church teachings. Well, what Catholic bishops don't know won't hurt them, right?

But Republicans are top-down. They uphold the rights of the wealthy to lord it over the rest of us. They stand up for an employer's right to do anything he wishes, even when it involves snooping into the personal and private lives of his employees. They support the authoritative institution that's the Catholic Church over the rights of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

And all too many Christians buy into this persecution story, because they've never been persecuted, themselves. If you're straight, white, and Christian in America, you've never had to worry about these things. Well, these days, maybe I should add "male" to that. Women are seeing the flip side of this right now.

If you give people the freedom to decide for themselves, some of them are going to make the wrong choices. You, at least, will think that they're wrong, and in many cases, I might agree with you. But if it doesn't harm anyone else, it's their choice. You and I could be wrong. And even if we're not, denying that freedom would be an even worse mistake.

But these are individual freedoms. Institutions have a great deal of power, already. Corporations have an enormous amount of power in America. The Catholic Church is one of the most powerful institutions in the world. When it comes down to protecting freedoms, ordinary people generally need protection from them, not the other way around.

Well, as usual, I'm getting off on a tangent, aren't I? Funny how that keeps happening, huh? Anyway, enjoy the video clip. The hosts are Matt Dillahunty and Jeff Dee.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Outsourcing conservatism

From Corey Robin, at, here's "Outsourcing Conservatism":
Climbing aboard the anti-birth control bandwagon, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to endorse legislation that would: a) give employers the right to deny health insurance coverage to their employees for religious reasons; b) give employers the right to ask their employees whether their birth control prescriptions are for contraception or other purposes (hormone control, for example, or acne treatment).

As I argue in “The Reactionary Mind,” conservatism is dedicated to defending hierarchies of power against democratic movements from below, particularly in the so-called private spheres of the family and the workplace. Conservatism is a defense of what I call “the private life of power.” Less a protection of privacy or property in the abstract, as many conservatives and libertarians like to claim, conservatism is a defense of the rights of bosses and husbands/fathers.

So it’s no surprise that the chief agenda items of the GOP since its string of Tea Party victories in 2010 have been to roll back the rights of workers — not just in the public sector, as this piece by Gordon Lafer makes clear, but also in the private sector — and to roll back the reproductive rights of women, as this chart, which Mike Konczal discusses, makes clear. Often, it’s the same Tea Party-controlled states that are pushing both agendas at the same time.

What I hadn’t predicted was that the GOP would be able to come up with a program, in the form of this anti-birth control employer legislation we’re now seeing everywhere, that would combine both agenda items at the same time.

What's next? This started off as a way to give the Catholic Church special treatment, not in hiring church workers, which they already had, but in all of their businesses. And now, thanks to Republicans getting crazier by the minute, it's evolved into letting any employer invade your privacy for pretty much any reason?

This Arizona bill is actually going to let employers get between a woman and her doctor. You know, since we've already got insurance companies there, it's going to get pretty crowded, don't you think? I hope your gynecologist has really big examination rooms!

But that's not the only thing. Robin makes a very interesting point about the history behind this:
Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While fewer than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as two out of every five American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.

Recall this fascinating exchange between an American physician and Tocqueville during the latter’s travels to the United States in the early 1830s. Passing through Baltimore, Tocqueville asked the doctor why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.
If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

While all of us rightly value the Bill of Rights, it’s important to note that these amendments are limitations on government action. As a result, the tasks of political repression and coercion can often be — and are — simply outsourced to the private sector.

That's not surprising. To this day, many atheists stay in the closet because it would be dangerous to be known as an unbeliever. Oh, they don't fear the government. What they fear is losing their business or their chance at promotion.

And frankly, the only reason more of us don't worry about this is that it rarely occurs to most people that their employees or their business associates might be atheists in the first place. We're almost mythical to most people.

But to get back to the subject:
Let’s come back now to the birth control employer question. Thanks to the gains of the feminist movement and Griswold v. Connecticut, we now understand the Constitution to prohibit the government from imposing restrictions on access to birth control. Even most Republicans, I think, accept that. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.

And here’s where the McCarthy specter becomes particularly troubling. Notice the second provision of the Arizona legislation: Employers will now have the right to question their employees about what they plan to do with their birth-control prescriptions. Not only is this a violation of the right to privacy — again, not a right our Constitution currently recognizes in the workplace — but it obviously can give employers the necessary information they need to fire an employee. If a women admits to using contraception in order to not get pregnant, there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop an anti-birth control employer from firing her.

During the McCarthy years, here were some of the questions employers asked their employees: What is your opinion of the Marshall Plan? What do you think about NATO? The Korean War? Reconciliation with the Soviet Union? These questions were directly related to U.S. foreign policy, the assumption being that Communist Party members or sympathizers would offer pro-Soviet answers to them (i.e., against NATO and the Korean War). But many of the questions were more domestic in nature: What do you think of civil rights? Do you own Paul Robeson records? What do you think about segregating the Red Cross blood supply? The Communist Party had taken strong positions on civil rights, including desegregating the Red Cross blood supply, and as one questioner put it, “The fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.”

Are we on the verge of new McCarthy Era witch-hunts in America, only about contraception, rather than Communism? That's hard to imagine, considering that 98% of Americans use or have used contraception, when necessary for family planning. Well, that's why Republicans are trying desperately to frame it as an issue of religious freedom.

But more to the point, perhaps, Republicans seem determined to give employers vast new powers to invade the private lives of their employees. And you know, this fits with their "job creator" rhetoric, trying to convince Americans that we need to be so grateful to the rich for giving us a job that we should keep cutting their taxes.

It also fits with Republican attacks on unions, nationwide. And remember when Ron Paul stated that the solution to sexual harassment in the workplace wasn't government regulation, but just to quit your job if you didn't like being harassed regularly? These are people who want to give more and more and more power to employers, and less and less to workers.

Robin makes yet another good point:
The standard line from Republicans and some libertarians is that requiring religious or religion-related employers (like the hospitals and universities that are funded by the Catholic Church) to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control is a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. ...

There are many reasons to be wary of this line of argument, but the history of the Christian right provides perhaps the most important one of all. It’s often forgotten that one of the main catalysts for the rise of the Christian right was not school prayer or abortion but the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave the donors to these schools tax exemptions. And it was none other than Richard Viguerie, founder of the New Right and pioneer of its use of direct-mail tactics, who said that the attack on these public subsidies by the civil rights movement and liberal courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”

According to historian Joseph Crespino, whose essay “Civil Rights and the Religious Right” in “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s“ is must reading, the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools.” Even so, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities — and religious beliefs — rather than white supremacy. (Initially nonsectarian, most of these schools became evangelical over time.) Their cause, in other words, was freedom, not inequality; not the freedom of whites to associate with other whites (and thereby lord their status and power over blacks), as the previous generation of massive resisters had foolishly and openly admitted, but the freedom of believers to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.

So it is today. Rather than openly pursue their agenda of restricting the rights of women, the GOP claims to be defending the rights of religious dissenters. Instead of powerful employers — for that is what many of these Catholic hospitals and universities are — we have persecuted sects.

Knowing the history of the rise of the Christian right doesn’t resolve this debate, but it certainly does make you look twice, doesn’t it?

It does, indeed. There's a lot to think about there, don't you think?

Rick Santorum: a case for militant atheism

I thought this was an interesting essay by Colby Hess on why Rick Santorum makes a strong case for militant atheism.  (Thanks to Jeff for the link.)

Keep in mind that "militant atheism" isn't a term commonly used by atheists. Indeed, it's far more often used by opponents of atheism, and it's usually meant to imply that atheists want to use force, even actual violence, to get their way.

That's quite rare among atheists, although - people being people - not completely absent. Still, our opponents are frequently willing to label as "militant" any atheist who speaks his mind. And in return, some atheists - like Hess, apparently - are willing to embrace the term as describing their active hostility to religion, defining "militant" as "aggressive," not "warlike."

At any rate, it's just a label, and labels are always subject to misinterpretation and even deliberate misuse. It's not actually important here, but I figured I needed to mention it. To get back to the essay, here's an excerpt:
The ongoing circus act that is the Republican primaries are an excellent case study in personification, for the ringmaster of the moment is the very embodiment of all that atheists despise about religion. Rick Santorum is so ignorant, so bigoted and hypocritical, so authoritarian, theocratic, shortsighted, and so out of touch with facts and with reality in general, that if he did not happen to exist already, it would almost be necessary to invent him in order to serve as the poster child for everything that’s wrong with religion – especially when it gets mixed up with politics.

Rick Santorum hates nearly every societal advance that has been achieved since the Dark Ages – in short, everything that we refer to as “progress.” He hates the growing secularization of society and the implementing of laws based on things like equality, fairness, justice, and reason instead of blind deference to imaginary authority. He hates the empowerment of women and their having control over their own bodies instead of being merely meek and obedient baby-making machines. He even hates the Earth itself, which he looks at as some kind of vassal state to be plundered at will.

It would be easy to write off all of his fanatical policy positions as merely one asshole’s eccentricities, but that would be disingenuous, for he gets his ideas from a source far older and far more widely respected than any washed-up former senator from Pennsylvania could dream up on his own; his ideas come straight out of the Bible. ...

Republicans love talking about “freedom of religion,” and that’s fine – it’s clearly spelled out in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The problem is, to those on the far right who wield it like a machete, it only applies to their own religion. They’re all about prayer in schools so long as that means Christian prayer. They’re all about freedom of conscience when that means the freedom to deny medical care to those they disagree with. Furthermore, they live in a complete fantasyland regarding the founders of our nation and their intentions to maintain a “wall of separation between church and state” in order to have a government both free from religious control, and limited in its control over religion.

To atheists, people like Rick Santorum make it abundantly clear why religion has become a danger to free society and to the survival of the human species. There’s no point in beating around the burning bush in trying to identify the root of the problem. If you want to see what a religion-controlled government looks like, you only have to look to Afghanistan, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Enlightenment. We’ve seen it; we’ve been there, and it’s not pretty.

Yes, that's exactly why I'm a "militant atheist." :) Oh, for me, it started during the Bush Administration, but it's only gotten worse and worse since then. Rick Santorum and the Taliban are both perfect examples of why faith-based thinking is wrong and, especially, why we need the strict separation of church and state.

Yes, most Christians in America do support freedom of religion and the separation of church and state - although they tend to be very fuzzy on the details - but it's always easy to want an exemption for your own beliefs. After all, your beliefs are true, right? And you just want what is best for our country...

Well, we all do. Rick Santorum, too. Just as the Taliban only want what is best for their country (and for ours, if we'd only just embrace Islam). And for all of these people - "militant" atheists, too - it's easy to think that the end justifies the means. What you want is so beneficial to everyone that it justifies almost anything in order to get there, right?

But that's not true. The end does not justify the means. In fact, in most cases, the means is far, far more important than the desired end. After all, you can never be completely sure that you'll actually get to that end, can you? That may be your goal, but you could always end up somewhere you really don't want to go - especially if you're willing to use any means to get there!

OK, I don't want to get off on a tangent here. Yes, Rick Santorum is a poster child for everything that's wrong with religion. And he's as good a reason as any for atheists to speak up. In fact, maybe, just maybe, you theists might start to sympathize with us a bit, if you really look at Rick Santorum - and the whole Republican Party these days.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What good is common sense?

Actually, common sense is quite useful, at least in ordinary situations. But it's not as useful as evidence, and when it comes to the very small, the very large, or very long timescales, it fails completely.

Common sense is only valid in everyday situations, those we have some familiarity with, and only for things at normal human scales of size and time. So, for the most part, it's not useful at all in science.

And this is why I rarely talk about reason, preferring to promote evidence-based thinking, instead. Reason is fine, but many things can seem reasonable but still be wrong. After all, does it seem reasonable that we're standing on the surface of a rapidly-spinning ball, floating in empty space?

Evidence keeps reason grounded in the real world. It keeps us from constructing logical flights of fancy. And it allows us to discover the truth, even when it violates our common sense.

This is what it means to be faith-based

Keep in mind that Rick Santorum is the guy the Republican base wants to be President of the United States. Think about that. He just won the primary elections in Mississippi and Alabama, and he's giving Mitt Romney a run for his money - literally! - everywhere.

This is what it means to be faith-based. What's real isn't what's, you know, real, but only what you feel in your heart.

If I had to pick out the one thing that's gone most horribly wrong in the GOP in recent years, it would be this faith-based thinking. Republicans have abandoned science, which is backed up by evidence, in favor of whatever they want to be true.

But it's not just science they've abandoned, but rational thinking altogether. For Republicans - for the Republican base and Republican leaders, at least - the truth is whatever they want it to be.

The Dutch don't really execute the elderly, but that's the Republican truth. There's not really a federal law that requires states to adopt English as their official language, but that's what Republicans feel in their heart.

Republicans still believe that cutting taxes on the rich will "pay for itself," despite the complete and utter failure of that during the Bush administration, because they simply believe what they believe. They don't accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming, or even on evolution, because that's not what they feel must be true, despite the evidence.

It was faith-based thinking that got us to invade an innocent country for no reason. But we'd be greeted as liberators, right? And the war would "pay for itself," right? If you really, really believe it, then it must be true.

Only... not for the people who believe differently. Muslims believe in their heart that Islam must be true, but they're just wrong. Christians, though, who believe in their heart that Christianity is true, well, they're obviously right - unless, of course, they belong to some mainstream Protestant denomination, since Satan has gotten his claws into them. (And yes, that's what Santorum has said.)

Faith-based thinking is invalid. Even if you happened to get the right answer, the process is wrong. It's like guessing the answer to a test. You might happen to get the answer right by guessing, but that's not going to help you on the next question, or to understand the real world at all.

There's a reason why science progresses. Science is the purest expression of evidence-based thinking. But it's far from the only place where we can use evidence-based thinking. In fact, we should use it everywhere. We sure as hell should want our president to use it!

Of course, you can still be wrong if you use evidence-based thinking. It's not magic. Evidence-based thinkers can and do make mistakes, just like everyone else. But just because it's not infallible doesn't mean it's not far and away the best method we've ever discovered of determining the truth - and especially of distinguishing the truth from wishful thinking.

Forget that conservative vs liberal divide. Where the Republican Party has gone horribly, horribly wrong in recent years is to adopt faith-based, rather than evidence-based, thinking - for everything. Their ideology, their faith, is everything, and evidence is nothing. Forget about looking at the results of their policies, because their faith is still unshakeable.

And this means that Republicans don't learn from their mistakes. Invading Afghanistan and Iraq were mistakes, but now they're clamoring for war with Iran. Tax cuts for the rich gave us record-breaking budget deficits and a bubble in arcane financial instruments which collapsed our whole economy, but that's still Republican dogma. Regulations were supposed to be unnecessary, because corporations would just naturally do the right thing. Well, the economic collapse showed the opposite of that, but that hasn't changed their faith.

Republicans claimed that Bill Clinton's tax increases would cause a recession, and instead, we got a booming economy and budget surpluses. It doesn't matter. They don't believe in evidence. The scientific consensus about global warming just gets stronger and stronger, but fewer and fewer Republicans believe it. Well, they have faith. And God promised that he wouldn't create another Flood, right? Abstinence-only sex education doesn't work - there's abundant evidence of that - but Republicans still have faith.

I don't mean to imply that there isn't any faith-based thinking on the left, not at all. But faith-based thinking doesn't control the Democratic Party. (Neither does the left, for that matter.)

Reality isn't just what you want it to be. Evidence is the way we find out we've been wrong. Or right, too, but that's not so important. It's not easy for any human being to admit that he was wrong, but it's impossible if you refuse to recognize the evidence - or prefer faith to evidence, anyway.

This is where the Republican Party has gone most wrong. Almost everything else stems from this. The Republicans' notorious "Southern strategy" filled the party with faith-based thinkers. Since they had plenty of them already, faith-based thinking captured the party.

You can be rational and still be a conservative. What you can't be, not today, is rational and a Republican. Today's Republican Party has simply abandoned rational, evidence-based thinking.

And if you think that Mitt Romney isn't as bad as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, well, he probably doesn't actually believe what he says, true. Then again, it's really hard to know what Romney does believe, except that he clearly believes Mitt Romney should be president. When it comes to everything else, is he lying now, or was he lying as governor of Massachusetts?

And either way, he's a Republican, so he has to kowtow to the Republican base. That won't stop once he wins the nomination, or even if he gets elected, even if he doesn't believe all that stuff. A politician has to keep the base happy. And he has to work with his own party in Congress.

Romney could be perfectly sane and just faking it for all he's worth, but it wouldn't make much difference. He still has to dance with the one that brung him, no matter how crazy they might get.

The army is pulling out of Rush

"Come on! What do you take me for, a girl?" Heh, heh. That tote bag was pretty funny, too, wasn't it?

But the most hilarious thing about this is also the scariest, that conspiracy theory thinking from the right-wing. Yeah, this was all a setup to make Rush Limbaugh say crazy, sexist stuff on national radio.

Honestly, how can you think something like that and still keep yourself out of an insane asylum? Is nothing too crazy for these people? Is there no limit to their gullibility?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I didn't f*ck it up

Please note that this is not safe for work, but it's pretty darned funny!

I was going to post her "Probably Gay, the Homophobia Song," but then I started browsing her other videos. Well, you know how that goes, I'm sure.

Obama's "unprecedented massive deficits"

I received the link to the above graph, which is courtesy of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think-tank, from a commenter on a previous post, where I'd discussed the consequences of the Republicans' "Southern strategy" of deliberately wooing white racists.

We had an interesting discussion there, so I thought I'd take this link and his argument seriously and write a follow-up post. His idea, much of which is taken from that Heritage Foundation post, is that Barack Obama promised to cut the deficit in half, instead quadrupled it, that he's vastly increased spending, and that, basically, "it really comes down to Republicans wanting small government and Democrats wanting large government."

OK, that's a lot to investigate. I'm no expert, and I'm particularly short of time right now. Plus, it's hard - without making this my life's work - to find exactly comparable data online. But I think I can at least raise a few questions about this.

First, let's look at that Heritage Foundation article, Bush Deficit vs Obama Deficit in Pictures. The article was published March 24, 2009. Barack Obama had been in office two months. Yes, two months! And the Heritage Foundation was already complaining about "Obama's unprecedented massive deficits."

You don't think this was all about politics? We weren't even halfway through fiscal year 2009 yet, the year which started before Obama took office, the last year budgeted by Bush. Barack Obama's first budget was for FY 2010. That graph above (which is three years old now) was deliberately misleading. It was partisan politics and nothing but partisan politics.

So let's look at the big picture, shall we?

That's the gross national debt, as percent of GDP, since 1929. This had risen during the Great Depression, then skyrocketed in World War II, reasonably enough, but afterward, both political parties had been prudent. Of course, note that America's GDP was growing strongly, too. There are two sides to that equation.

But look what happened starting in the Reagan years. That was when supply-side (aka "trickle-down" or "voodoo") economics became Republican Party dogma. According to supply-siders, tax cuts were all that mattered. Specifically, as Dick Cheney famously said in 2002, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." (Oddly enough, you don't hear that so much from the right-wing these days, now that a Democrat is in the White House, do you?)

George H.W. Bush briefly tried to fight it, labeling it "voodoo economics" before surrendering to it himself, as he saw which way the wind was blowing in the GOP. As the above graph shows, only the Democrats worried about the deficit, with Bill Clinton actually giving us budget surpluses, before turning the country over to Bush, Jr.  (Note that 2001 was Clinton's last budget, and our last surplus.)

Lest you think it was just Clinton, Congressional Democrats also showed a concern about the deficit which Republicans dismissed. When Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2007, they adopted "Paygo" rules which required that new spending or tax cuts not add to the federal budget deficit. (Those rules had been in existence previously, but Republicans had ended them early during the Bush years.)

But those "Paygo" rules were why the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - "Obamacare" - was designed from the start to reduce the deficit - by $143 billion in the first ten years and $1.2 trillion in the second, according to CBO estimates. (Note that some of that savings was later eliminated after objections from Republican leaders, since they wanted to campaign on it costing America.)

When Republicans took control of the House again in January, 2011, they immediately canceled "Paygo" - just as they had during the Bush years - replacing it with "Cutgo," which exempted tax cuts. Here's how Washington Monthly put it:
The "Paygo" policies of the 1990s proved to be pretty popular and effective. It's a basic idea -- in a nutshell, if policymakers want to increase spending or cut taxes, they have to figure out a way to pay for it. The point is to prevent increases to the deficit by telling officials to "pay as you go." It helped Clinton eliminate the deficit altogether and deliver some of the largest surpluses ever.

Republicans of the Bush era didn't care for the policy, and quickly scrapped it. The GOP couldn't pay for massive tax breaks, or two wars, or Medicare expansion, or No Child Left Behind, but they passed them all anyway, each time just throwing the costs onto the deficit. It's how Republicans managed to add $5 trillion to the national debt in just eight years.

Last year, Democrats brought Paygo back, though they waived it for emergency spending. When Dems took up health care reform, for example, they made sure it was paid for. Indeed, all of the major Democratic initiatives considered in this Congress, other than the Recovery Act, were careful not to add to the deficit at all. (When Senate Dems voted to bring back Paygo, literally all of the Republicans balked -- including the Republicans who claimed to support it.)

With Republicans apparently poised to regain power -- ironically while talking about fiscal responsibility -- the GOP is once again poised to scrap Paygo, but Boehner & Co. intend to replace it. The new plan is to go with something called "Cutgo."

And what's Cutgo all about? Instead of paying for new initiatives as they're considered, Republicans want to cut existing spending to offset the costs of any new spending.

If this sounds dubious to you, there's a good reason. Jon Chait explains:
Looking ahead to controlling Congress, Republicans again propose to eliminate Paygo, as they did under Bush. But this time they propose to replace it with a different rule, Cutgo, which would require that new spending be offset with spending cuts. That would indeed be an effective way to limit new spending programs. Of course, it would retain the ability to pass tax cuts with no offsets whatsoever. The decision once again reflects the core Republican belief that tax revenues do not need to bear any relationship to expenditures.

Right. This is precisely the kind of shell game one expects from politicians who don't take policy or fiscal responsibility seriously.

So, for 30 years, the  Democratic Party has been the only political party in America which was actually concerned about budget deficits. Are you really telling me that completely turned around with Barack Obama? Well, the right-wing Heritage Foundation waited a whopping two months before accusing the new president of that. But since Republicans went ahead and eliminated those "Paygo" rules just as quickly as they could, it's a little hard to take their complaints seriously, don't you think?

So what happened? Well, take a look at this graph:

That shows federal receipts (in red) and expenditures (in blue). Note how the brief 2001 recession and Bush's tax cuts lowered receipts so dramatically during his administration, while spending rose steadily. Now look at the economic collapse at the end of the Bush years. Tax receipts dropped off a cliff.

When Barack Obama took office, all of that was already happening. Tax receipts were plummeting, both because the stock market was crashing and because people were losing their jobs. Expenditures rose - again, most of it automatically, as people without work qualified for unemployment benefits, food stamps, and other welfare. There was nothing Barack Obama could do about that, certainly not without making the recession even worse (and it was already being compared to the Great Depression).

Now, true, Obama added to the spending with his stimulus package. But the point of that, which we had clearly learned during the 1930s, was to prime the pump. In a severe recession, we suffer from a lack of demand. People losing their jobs - even just worried about losing their jobs - stop spending, and that causes more companies to cut back, which just causes demand to drop even more, which causes companies to cut back further, etc.

It's not just private companies, either, since lower tax receipts cause state governments to cut spending and to cut payrolls, which has the same ripple-effect throughout the economy. These circumstances are when we need deficit spending. Deficit spending in good economic times just gives us bubbles and creates debt for nothing (especially when it's not invested in America, but only spent for political gain). But deficit spending during economic slumps is Economics 101.

Well, today's Republicans don't believe in Keynesian economics. They stick to their "voodoo economics" dogma, no matter what. And in order to get that first stimulus package through Congress, Obama had to make all too much of it tax cuts. At the same time, it was too small to make up for what the states were doing, slashing their own payrolls as the federal government was desperately trying to keep people working.

Still, it worked. It stopped the economic collapse in its tracks, and unemployment - a lagging economic indicator - is improving, too, if slowly:

The change in private sector jobs, by month. Red is Bush, blue Obama.

But what about those massive budget deficits under Obama? Remember how the Heritage Foundation jumped the gun, complaining about the deficit after Barack Obama had been president for only two months? Guess how they knew that the deficit would be so bad? Yeah, almost all of it was built in before Obama was even elected, let alone took office. It had nothing to do with him.

There are a couple of things to note about this. First, the biggest part of our deficit, by far, is the Bush tax cuts. Remember when Barack Obama planned to cut the deficit in half? Well, most of that was going to come from ending the Bush tax cuts, which were scheduled to expire after ten years, anyway.

So far, that has proved to be impossible, because Republicans have absolutely refused to raise taxes on the wealthy. In fact, Obama had to give them a two-year extension on tax cuts for the rich just to get anything at all accomplished. So yes, they're right, Obama won't accomplish his pledge. But look at why he won't accomplish it.

The other two big components of our projected deficit? The Bush wars, waged - for the first time in our history - without raising taxes to actually pay for them, and the economic collapse itself, which also happened before Barack Obama took office. (Forget about whether the wars were right. Why did we not pay for them?)

Neither of these things are easy or quick to fix. It's a lot easier to start a war than to end it, at least without leaving a complete disaster behind. And the world's largest economy doesn't pivot on a dime. Bush's economic collapse would be slow to repair even if Republicans weren't dragging their feet and even actively sabotaging the recovery. (Remember that debt ceiling debacle last summer, which set the recovery back months and, for the first time in our history, lost America our top credit rating, for no reason but political gamesmanship?)

Here are a couple more charts which make similar points in different ways:

The first shows how one little change - very simple, very easy - would stop the rise in government debt in its tracks. Just eliminating the Bush tax cuts would do it. But Republicans refuse to even consider it, not even as part of a compromise package that would also slash spending.

During negotiations last year, Barack Obama bent over backward trying to compromise. In fact, I would have been furious with him if he'd succeeded, because he was willing to accept massive cuts in domestic spending for very little increase in revenue. (He really does seem to be a terrible negotiator.) But Republicans refused even that. No tax increases, especially on the wealthy, no matter what. Period.

During one of the early Republican presidential debates, the candidates were asked about this. Would they accept a compromise with the Democrats, where they'd get ten times what the Democrats got out of the deal? Not one of the candidates would go for that. Even a 10 to 1 compromise was anathema. They want everything, or they'll bring America crashing down under crushing debt.

These aren't people who actually care about the deficit. These aren't even people who care about government spending (especially since they're all eagerly promoting yet a third war, with Iran). They care only about tax cuts for the rich. It's a faith-based dogma as extreme as anything America has ever seen.

This second chart compares new policy initiatives under Bush and Obama (click the image to enlarge it):

Now sure, you might point out that Obama has only had three years, while Bush added all those extra expenses over eight years. And that's true. But you need to look at those policies more closely.

We're still trying to get out of Bush's wars. We're still suffering from the Bush tax cuts, even though they were supposed to expire after ten years. And the Medicare drug benefit is permanent. But Obama's big policy expenditures are overwhelmingly short-term stimulus, expenses that are strictly temporary and quite brief. They're designed to get our economy humming again as soon as possible, while adding nothing to our long-term costs.

And health care reform was designed to save money. Originally, "Obamacare" would have saved hundreds of billions of dollars over the long-term. But some of that savings was lost when Republicans objected. Well, it's not as easy politically to increase revenue - even when it comes from cutting waste in Medicare - and Republicans have no shame when it comes to taking advantage of that.

Of course, why should they, when they're never penalized for it? Either through ignorance or ideology, their supporters give Republican politicians a free pass on these things. As long as they claim to be concerned about the deficit, they can continue increasing the deficit and blame it on the Democrats. After all, they have a whole chorus of cheerleaders, from Fox "News" on down (and yes, that includes the Heritage Foundation).

Well, what do you think? I must say that it's pretty clear to me who's concerned about the deficit and who isn't.*  It's pretty clear to me who's actually responsible for our record-breaking budget deficits. (Though I certainly don't absolve those Democrats who went along with the worst excesses of the Bush administration, they didn't lead us into this mess. They were just too eager to go along with it, especially when Bush was popular.)

And it's pretty clear to me that this right-wing foundation, which was hammering Barack Obama about budget deficits after he'd been in office only two months, while simultaneously trying to absolve George W. Bush of any responsibility for eight disastrous years, is not an organization we can trust to be anything but purely partisan. But you can believe whomever you want.

* OK, it's long after midnight, and I'd really like to get to bed, but I know I haven't touched on that whole "Republicans want small government and Democrats want large government" stuff. Well, let me just say that I think that's a bunch of crap. Whatever you hear now, George W. Bush was the darling of the right-wing, and he did nothing but continue to grow government. He just didn't want to pay for it.

Democrats, on the other hand, have been quite willing to cut unnecessary government. They don't, as a rule, want to shrink America's government down to where "we can drown it in the bathtub," to use Grover Norquist's immortal phrase, but they don't want big government for the sake of big government, either.

Note, for example, this comparison of budget deals under two Republican and two Democratic presidents:

Democrats actually seem to be more eager to cut spending than Republicans. Of course, Republican rhetoric is completely the opposite. But maybe you should watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say.

For example, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives last year, one of the first things they did was to demand spending cuts. They nearly shut down the government, in fact, until they got exactly what they wanted. And what they got was... an increase in spending. Yeah, after all that talk, they actually increased military spending more than they cut domestic spending!

But, of course, they're the party that wants smaller government, right? I mean, just listen to them. :)

Now me, I don't want smaller government, necessarily, but I don't want larger government, either. I want a government that's the size it needs to be. Government is necessary. We have a federal government for good reason. And we need a larger government these days than we had a century ago. That's just a fact. How big is too big? I have no idea.

But the right-wing loons who are willing to bankrupt America, just to force smaller government on us, well, I think that's treason. Grover Norquist and his pals may want to drown America in a bathtub, but I'll defend my country from fanatics like that. And so should any reasonable person.

Unfortunately, ill-informed people listen to Fox "News" and believe whatever they hear. I hate to break it to you, but Fox lies. Republican leaders lie. They may think they have a good reason to lie, because they really, really want to put Republicans back in power again, but it's still a lie. (This is that whole idea that the end justifies the means. Well, it doesn't. Most of the time, in fact, the means is far more important than the end.)

And these are the same people who have nearly destroyed our country in recent years. They're the same people who got us into two unnecessary wars, one against a completely innocent country, for no reason whatsoever. (Barack Obama showed us how we should have gone after Osama bin Laden in the first place.)

They're the same people who gave us record-breaking budget deficits, not to invest in America, not to invest in education, research and development, or infrastructure, but simply to give tax cuts to the wealthy. They're the reason why American workers had it better in the 1970s than today. They're the reason why wealth and income inequality have skyrocketed. They're anti-science. Heck, they're anti-education.

Don't get me started. :)  Listen to them if you wish. But for chrissake, don't listen just to them, no matter how plausible they sound.