"Crumbling roads and bridges": A lesson in finger pointing

After last week’s bridge collapse in Washington State (and the one in Minneapolis before it), the knee jerk reaction is to blame our nation’s “crumbling roads and bridges” on a lack of funding, and by extension miserly Republicans who want to cut spending. And while there is a case to be made that a lot of our highway system needs repair, that is neither because of a lack of funding, nor Republicans standing in the way.

Between 2002 and 2006 when we had a Republican in the White House and Republican majorities in Congress, total public construction spending on roads went from $62,553,000,000 to $78,215,000,000, an increase of 25%. At the same time, we were fighting two wars, creating new national education and Medicare programs, and cutting taxes. Lest anyone think Republicans are anarchistic social Darwinists.

Between 2007 and 2010 the Republican was succeeded by a Democrat in the White House and Democrats took over both houses of Congress. Public spending on roads went from the previous $78,215,000,000 to $80,100,000,000, an increase of…wait for it…2%. Certainly it hasn’t risen anymore since Republicans took back the House at the end of 2010, but if you’re only going to increase it by 5% over 4 straight years of Democratic control, any argument about what the other guys do is hilariously hypocritical.

The really insidious thing about this data is what occurred right in the middle of that second time period: Stimulus! The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February 2009 by the Democrat-led Congress and signed by President Obama was sold as an “emergency” measure designed to jump start our economy primarily by funding “shovel-ready” (HA HA HA HA HA) infrastructure projects and green energy investment. It did neither. The month the stimulus was passed, public spending on roads was $81,762,000,000. One year later it was 5% lower at $77,779,000,000 and didn’t peak until May 2010 at $86,203,000,000.

The main thing the stimulus did (apart from cutting taxes, which I could have sworn was a bad thing…) is create a massive slush fund for public sector unions. At a time when tax revenues were down during and immediately after the recession, states took a hit to their bottom line and faced cutting employees. Given the overwhelmingly Democratic leanings of public employees, that just wasn’t an option. So the stimulus basically propped up state budgets to keep their employees working (and contributing to their unions). That’s why Department of Education appropriations from the stimulus were twice as high as Department of Transportation. Instead of repairing old bridges, we kept school administrators comfortable. Instead of repaving roads, the NEA stayed happy.

There is certainly an argument to be made (though not one I’d agree with) for maintaining state employment during tough economic times with massive infusions of federal tax dollars. But that’s not the argument that was presented to the American people. Instead we were told that all our infrastructure problems would be solved and the economy would bounce back. Neither happened.

New Cynicus Prime policy: Don’t engage bigots and homophobes

Thirteen years after the Supreme Court affirmed the Boy Scouts of America and other private organizations’ right to limit their membership as they choose, delegates of the BSA voted yesterday by 61-39% to allow gay scouts to join (up to age 18). The reaction among the neandercon religious right was predictably swift, vile, and unchristian. Jesus befriended prostitutes, gamblers, and soulless bureaucrats. But you demand the “freedom of association” to not allow teh gheyz in your group? Really?

I’ve tried reasoning with these people in the past on this. I even tried last night in the fury of the immediate aftermath of the BSA decision. It’s beyond futile. With polls rapidly leaving them in the dirt, it is no longer worth anyone’s time to intellectually engage on these issues. They’re wrong, they’ll never accept it, and their hateful, ignorant position will be all but extinct within a decade.

No, an increase in 501c4 applications is not an excuse for IRS targeting

Many Democrats on Congressional committees investigating the IRS discrimination against conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status have used an increase in these applications to excuse the discrimination itself. They suggest that applications “doubled” between 2009 and 2012, over the time the discrimination took place. Some go even further to suggest that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, decided January 2010, led immediately to the doubling of applications. They then ask if the resources allocated to the IRS to handle this “doubled” caseload was correspondingly increased.

This all seems like a reasonable argument, but for one minor detail. The IRS began targeting in March 2010. The cases “doubled” between 2010 and 2012, not 2009 and 2010. They only went up 30% the year after targeting began, and another 48% the year after that.

IRS officials would have had to be able to predict only two months after Citizens United that their caseload was going to increase significantly over the next three years in order for their actions to be even marginally excusable from an efficiency standpoint. But as the Treasury Inspector General has testified, even in that case, the specific targeting of certain types of groups is unacceptable.

A rough timeline of the IRS harassment scandal

5/13/09 – President Obama jokes about using an IRS audit to punish someone over an NCAA basketball tournament bracket.

March 2010 – IRS begins selectively and purposefully stalling hundreds of conservative groups’ applications for non-profit status with prohibitively detailed information requests, while fast-tracking liberal groups’ applications.

9/29/10 – Max Baucus (D-MT) requests IRS investigate political activity by conservative nonprofit groups.

“I request that you and your agency survey major 501(c)(4), (c)(5) and (c)(6) organizations involved in political campaign activity to examine whether they are operated for the organization’s intended tax exempt purpose and to ensure that political campaign activity is not the organization’s primary activity.”

October 2010 – Republicans complain about IRS audits requested by Baucus.

“Leading Republicans are suggesting that a senior official in the Obama administration may have improperly accessed the tax records of Koch Industries, an oil company whose owners are major conservative donors.And the Republicans are also upset about an I.R.S. review requested by Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who leads the Finance Committee, into the political activities of tax-exempt groups. Such a review threatens to “chill the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights,” wrote two Republican senators, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Jon Kylof Arizona, in a letter sent to the I.R.S. on Wednesday.”

10/25/10 – President Obama implores his supporters to “punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends”.

Winter 2012 – Conservative groups complain about IRS selective treatment.

“The Internal Revenue Service is caught in an election-year struggle between Democratic lawmakers pressing for a crackdown on nonprofit political groups and conservative organizations accusing the tax agency of conducting a politically charged witch hunt.”

3/7/12 – New York Times applauds IRS for doing “its job” by harassing conservative groups.

“Taxpayers should be encouraged by complaints from Tea Party chapters applying for nonprofit tax status at being asked by the Internal Revenue Service to prove they are “social welfare” organizations and not the political activists they so obviously are.”

3/12/12 – Chuck Schumer requests more scrutiny of political nonprofits by IRS

“The senators said the lack of clarity in the IRS rules has allowed political groups to improperly claim 501(c)4 status and may even be allowing donors to these groups to wrongly claim tax deductions for their contributions. The senators promised legislation if the IRS failed to act to fix these problems.”

Spring 2012 – Treasury Inspector General begins investigating reports of IRS harassment. Unclear if selective scrutiny actually stopped.

4/22/13 – White House counsel was advised of IG investigation.

5/10/13 – IRS apologizes for specifically targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny in nonprofit applications.

5/14/13 – IRS releases Treasury Inspector General report about abuses.

5/15/13 – President Obama demands/receives resignation of the acting IRS commisioner who was already scheduled to leave in June.

“Miller, a 25-year career IRS employee, was appointed acting commissioner on November 9, 2012. According to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, his 210-day term would have set his last day in that post as June 8.”

Any questions?

Star Trek, Through the Looking Glass

The latest Star Trek movie in JJ Abrams’ rebooted franchise is titled ‘Into Darkness’. It could just as easily be titled ‘Through the Looking Glass’.
I’ll avoid direct spoilers here, but as many production details over the last year suggested, Into Darkness is a remake of sorts of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.  Except after the chronology break that occurred because of the time travel in the last movie, most of the important points are reversed. It’s an innovative, but extremely risky move, especially since Wrath of Khan is viewed by many Trek fans as the best film in the over 30-year franchise. 
The plot of Into Darkness on paper is excellent. Everything fits into place in sequence and with a purpose, but most of it feels like a puzzle that’s been fit together out of lots of shiny pieces rather than a picture that started off whole but made of individual components. Loud chase sequence(s), classic Trek villain, the Enterprise in peril, flagrant violation of Starfleet regulations, logic vs intuition debates, obligatory “GRAB MY HAND!1!!” falling scene, inappropriate one-liners, it’s all there. But it doesn’t feel like it comes together to make one cohesive whole.
The perfect example of this is the opening sequence. The crew of the Enterprise is surveying a primitive alien planet and hides the ship…underwater just offshore of a massive volcano threatening all life on this world. Decisions are made (after much Vulcan protestation, of course), and the Enterprise emerges from the ocean in order to save the life of a crew member (JUST! IN! TIME!, complete with the first of several countdown clocks used in the film), exposing the pre-industrial civilization to the existence of the space ship, violating the Prime Directive of the Federation. It’s done in a way that connects the dots, but it feels like just that. Like they wanted a land-based chase, a scary volcano eruption, the Enterprise floating up out of water, so they wrote a script that included all those things and made it work narratively. I realize that’s probably how most movies are made these days. But the great ones don’t feel like it.
Light spoiler territory below (not about the villain)
In the end, a major problem here is also part of a larger trend in recent big action movies: no one important ever really dies. Sure they might “die”, but, like Monty Python’s plague victims, they get better. Yes, we’re in sci-fi futuristic comic book territory where such things are technically possible, but they’ve been used as a crutch for lazy screenwriters in everything lately. Agent Coulson “died” in the Avengers last year, but he’s coming back for the television series this fall. Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan seem to “die” in Iron Man 3, but both make a miraculous recovery just before the end. Batman sacrifices himself for Gotham at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, but then Bruce Wayne is back at the end. The same happens here. In the “original” Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise. He dies and is fired off the ship in a torpedo casket onto a planet being terraformed. We found out a few years later in The Search for Spock, that the Genesis project at work on that planet when Spock was laid to rest brought him back, in a sense. But at least we had to deal with the finality of his death for a while. That experience never lasts for more than a few minutes within modern sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movies.

Now, there’s plenty of anonymous mortal consequence. Buildings are destroyed, ships crash, terrorism occurs, but, with one relatively inconsequential exception, it’s never anyone we know or care about. Just narrative collateral damage.

Another risk taken in this Star Trek series, having other actors play iconic, stylized characters, is starting to take its toll in this second re-iteration. Some of the portrayals of the main Enterprise crew are becoming little more than impersonations. Kirk’s character is the only one that I think is done properly. He has the same character traits as the original, but Chris Pine doesn’t (or Abrams doesn’t make him) copy William Shatner’s mannerisms and speech patterns. To even attempt to do so after Shatner would be madness, but Abrams maintains it with the rest of the characters. Bones, Checkov, and Scotty are becoming nearly intolerable in their mimicry of the original actors voices and verbal ticks. Most of this is the script attempting to rely on nostalgia with these characters instead of moving them forward, as they do with Kirk and Spock. Uhura and Sulu are both used very well, but partially because they’re both treated like blank slates, keeping almost nothing from their original iterations. If this series is to survive, it must start…boldly going where no one has gone before, rather than mirroring the fondly-remembered past and adding new computer tricks.

Impeachment, the worst idea ever

Stop. Seriously, just stop.

Impeachment is the civil punishment of a public official for “high crimes and misdemeanors”. In the federal government it is voted on by the House of Representatives. The impeachment itself has no significant consequence. It is then followed by a trial in the Senate. If convicted, the possible punishment is removal from office and disqualification from future office. A regular criminal process can then take place.

None of these aspects of the process is advisable right now in relation to the Benghazi, IRS, AP, EPA, or other scandals.

Right now we have no information to show that President Obama was directly involved in any of it. Investigations are still going on, and only Benghazi has had congressional hearings so far. It’s way too early to start drawing up walking papers for the President. Doing so now makes it look like a political vendetta rather than an honest quest for the truth.

The House would vote on impeachment. Republicans control the House. It would probably pass, but with the narrative already in place for the last three years that Congress is engaged in little more than partisan bickering, an impeachment vote would be the massive constitutional cherry on top of the cake.

The Senate would hold the trial. Democrats control the Senate (until maybe 2015). It probably wouldn’t even be initiated. So the impeachment vote in the House would be the end of it. It would accomplish nothing. Obama would still be President, Washington would be even more bitterly divided than it already is, and the public would be annoyed by the whole thing by the end.

Only two Presidents have been impeached in our history: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Even after openly lying under oath, the public didn’t support impeaching Clinton at the time. The GOP-led House went ahead with it and voted 228-206 and 221-212 for two articles of impeachment (two others failed). The GOP-led Senate held the trial and voted 55-45 against and 50-50 on the two counts and acquitted him. President Clinton’s approval rating never got below 53% after impeachment, and he left office at 66%.

I shudder to even mention it, as the thought is too horrifying for words, but there’s one last reason not to impeach and remove President Obama. Two words: President Biden.

Friday, May 10, 2013: The day the Obama administration came crumbling down

In April we had the Worst Week Ever, including the Boston marathon bombing and West TX explosion. For the Obama administration, last Friday was the Worst Day Ever.

The House Oversight Committee’s hearing about the Benghazi terrorist attack was two days prior, and on Friday more details came out about the changes made to the talking points used by various administration officials in the weeks to cover their tracks following the attack.

Later that day, the IRS apologized for specifically targeting “tea party” and “patriot” labeled groups in applying for non-profit status.

Now we learn today that on Friday the AP was notified by the DOJ that they had seized two full months of telephone records for 20 of their reporters’ phone lines.

I don’t think the President will resign over any of this, nor will impeachment proceedings begin, but I think last Friday might actually be the day that the media turned on Obama and finally started treating him like any other President rather than King Barack the Well-intentioned, as they have to date.

What America really thinks about abortion might surprise you

A large portion of the last presidential election cycle was spent talking about abortion. It wasn’t always front and center (the “war on women” was basically a smokescreen for abortion), but it was there. President Obama was obviously on the side of abortion rights, and he won. So it might surprise you to know that a large majority of the country thinks abortion should be illegal under all or almost all circumstances.

According to a new Gallup poll taken over the last week of 1500 adults, 58% of the country thinks abortion should be totally illegal or only legal in “a few circumstances” (presumably the standard exceptions of rape, incest, and life of the mother), essentially the Republican position. Only 39% think it should be legal in all or most cases, the Democrat position. How then was the President able to so effectively demagogue the issue in 2012?

Even more shocking, especially considering the campaign rhetoric last year, is the almost total lack of gender gap on the issue. Conventional wisdom is that women are more pro-choice than men. However, there is only a difference of 2% in the pro-life majority between men and women, with 59% of men and 57% of women opposing abortion in all or most cases.

Just as fascinating is the gender gap. While young voters (under 34) are just as pro-life as the overall population (57% under 34 vs 58% total), they are more polarized on the issue than the other age groups, with 23% opposing abortion in all cases (vs 20%) and 29% supporting it in all cases (vs 26%).

The partisan divide, while unsurprisingly strong, also has an unusual tint. Republicans are far more pro-life than Democrats are pro-choice. A full 78% of Republicans oppose abortion in all or most cases, but only 54% of Democrats support abortion in all or most cases. Actually, 31% of Democrats oppose abortion in most cases. Interesting then that their party holds such a singular and unwavering view on the subject on the national level.

However, as in so many other areas perception does not always equal reality. When asked if they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice, the numbers came out more even, with 48% identifying as pro-life and 45% as pro-choice. So even when 58% hold a pro-life position, 10% of them don’t identify that way. This is frustratingly similar to ongoing identity problems in the GOP, and most likely something that gets worked out organically as society evolves, hopefully by changing the image and not the position.

A progressively gayer flag

I love the American flag. It represents so many wonderful things about our nation – its values, its history, its individual member states’ sovereignty, its unity among those states. Not that it needs to be changed, but I often daydream about ways to represent new ideas on the already powerful image of the flag. Back in my more naively anti-capitalist youth, I thought of replacing the stars on the flag with corporate logos. It turns out someone had already done that.

Just today I thought of a new one while thinking about the ongoing struggle for marriage equality in the various states. There is already a rainbow flag, and an American flag with a rainbow instead of 13 stripes. But what if certain stars were replaced with the rainbow instead, to show which states had legalized gay marriage?

To get the full picture, let’s look at a base version with the rainbow overlaid on all 50 stars, to represent the hopeful future when all 50 states recognize same-sex marriage:

Then we show only those states that recognize full marriage rights, with the states listed in order of admission to the union (DE #1 at top left, HI #50 at bottom right):

Almost as many states recognize roughly equivalent civil unions or domestic partnerships, so I lowered the opacity on their stars to show the partial status of those states:

Like the official flag itself in a more subtle way, this one is a beautiful tapestry showing the diversity of our federalist system. Each state governs these matters for itself, but hopefully they’ll all come to the same conclusion soon, that everyone should have the right to marry, regardless of gender or orientation, and we can get back to that first fully-colored flag (or, really, the original Stars & Stripes itself).

UPDATE: Apparently I screwed up the stars on the last two flags. North Carolina (#12) certainly doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. Edits to come later, also to include the newest member of the rainbow state family, Minnesota.

Chris Broussard: Unknowing bigot or theological outlier?

Yesterday on ESPN, reacting to Jason Collins coming out as the first gay NBA player, analyst and columnist Chris Broussard avoided the cultural and athletic angle and went straight for the theological.
Some called him courageous for his comments. Some demanded his suspension. I don’t think Broussard should be either reprimanded or applauded for his comments. In terms of personal offensiveness, they were pretty tame. However, there are huge theological implications of what he said.

“Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle, or an openly, like, premarital sex between heterosexuals, if you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says ‘you know them by their fruits.’ It says, you know, that that’s a sin. And if you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality; adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God, and to Jesus Christ, so I would not characterize that person as a Christian, because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”

That’s quite a statement. To summarize, anyone living in unrepentant sin can’t be Christian. If that’s true (essentially a theological No True Scotsman fallacy), then based on the statistics about marital infidelity, premarital sex, and other “fornication”, there must not be very many Christians left. Does this also mean that serial liars like politicians, pundits, and car salesmen also can’t be Christian? What about people who openly flaunt their clothing made of mixed fabrics or taste for catfish?

But really, what would prompt a sports writer to go on television and cast rhetorical stones by literally judging the status of someone else’s faith based on his perceived sins? It seems to me that, despite Broussard’s many protestations to the contrary, someone who casts judgment on a person and their faith based on their own interpretation and opinion is quite literally the definition of a bigot. Being nice to that person to their face while judging them behind their back (or on national television) doesn’t make that any less so.

But no, I don’t think he should be suspended. I think bigots should be free to air their opinions as loudly as possible so that we may know them and shame them as necessary.