TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in the March to War
When it came to international relations, President Obama had a big job ahead of him. His predecessor had alienated much of the world, even staunch allies, through his combination of "with us or against us" bluster, his general lack of intellectual curiosity and corresponding disinterest in travel to other lands, his blatantly dishonest campaign to get this nation and others involved in a long and pointless war with Iraq, and his willingness to violate long-held norms that prevented Americans from engaging in torture. President Obama and his two Secretaries of State have made huge progress in that arena, with the result that America is once again held in high esteem by people and governments all over the world.
Recently, the president has shown that diplomacy can trump military action, with diplomatic victories in Syria and Iran. The Syrian situation remains chaotic, but at least the country's capability to use nerve gas has been crippled. And the Iranian situation is still in early days. But a bipartisan coalition of US Senators might just destroy any chance at a diplomatic solution and propel us into what would be a devastating war.
As self-styled Iran hawk Jeffrey Goldberg writes, "For years, Iran hawks have argued that only punishing sanctions, combined with the threat of military force, would bring Tehran to the nuclear negotiating table. Finally, Iran is at the table. And for reasons that are alternately inexplicable, presumptuous and bellicose, Iran hawks have decided that now is the moment to slap additional sanctions on the Iranian regime."
This is a serious danger. If the negotiations fail and Iran proceeds with its nuclear program, there'll be time for tougher sanctions then--and military action, if necessary and unavoidable. But there's no reason to impose more sanctions now. We're at the table. Let's talk, and see what benefits diplomacy can reap.
This Week in Unemployment
The Senate tried to vote this week on extending unemployment benefits for the 1.3 million long-term unemployed people whose benefits expired on December 28. Senate Republicans blocked the effort, and there is, unfortunately, no House vote on the horizon. For reasons we've discussed for several weeks now, this is a bad thing for those unemployed folks (and their families; 2.3 million American children live with long-term unemployed parents) and for the nation's economy as a whole, in the immediate sense of less less money moving through the economy, and in the years to come as long term unemployment diminishes the country's productive capacity. The entire country is suffering because Republicans can't bring themselves to not punish people for being unemployed (a situation that just might cost them some votes in the next election, as loyal but out-of-work Republicans rebel against such treatment). As a Bloomberg article explains:
"The view that desperation will force the unemployed to get a job, which seems to drive Republican opposition to extending federal benefits, just isn't supported by the data. And that’s leaving aside the moral problems with starvation as a policy strategy. Moreover, the long-term unemployed who have lost benefits have especially little chance of finding work, research from economist Rand Ghayad shows.
"North Carolina cut benefits last summer, and if the results were replicated nationally, then almost all 1.3 million people whose benefits expired at the start of 2014 will drop out of the labor force within months. That would reduce the labor-force participation rate a full 0.8 percentage points, to 62 percent. And since you have to search for work to count as unemployed, the unemployment rate would fall by the same amount, to 5.9 percent.
"The end of benefits will be bad news for the economy in two more ways. First, unemployment insurance is highly potent as fiscal stimulus. Ending it will slow growth by 0.2 to 0.4 percentage points this year, according to the Council of Economic Advisers.
"Second, the false drop in the unemployment rate will also create a problem for monetary policy. The Federal Reserve has said it won’t consider raising interest rates until inflation rises above 2.5 percent or the unemployment rate dips below 6.5 percent. With November’s labor-force drop and more to come, the U.S. economy will cross the threshold far sooner than the Fed expected -- and because of a measurement problem, not an economic boom."
Side Note: Last week, we wrote this about a statement released by House Speaker John Boehner (R/OH): "The claim in his last line, that the House is 'focused on growing the economy,' is a bitter joke to anyone who knows what House Republicans have actually done to the economy--tried to shrink it at every opportunity. His wish-list here would do the same. And that's the intent--the recovery is starting to pick up steam, and that's the last thing the Republicans want going into the 2014 midterms. Since their only real goal is control of Congress, they have every interest in preventing a strong recovery." Turns out, others are starting to clue in to that conclusion, including the New York Times Editorial Board.
This Week in the Federal Reserve
Libteratian-leaning Republicans like Ron and Senator Rand Paul (R/KY) regularly endorse the idea of abolishing the Federal Reserve System. This position demonstrates how little Ron and Rand Paul understand about the American economy.
This week's Time cover story (subscription required) is on Janet Yellen, the first woman to chair the Fed in its hundred-plus year history. Yellen is ideal for the job--the right person at the right time. As the article says, "Five decades later, as head of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, Yellen would raise concerns about a fledgling bubble in subprime mortgages that would balloon into the worst economic disruption since the Great Depression--the first of the Fed's 19 policymakers to do so. And in 2010, as the Fed's vice chair, Yellen would find herself helping devise the latter stages of a controversial plan to buy trillions of dollars in assets, shoring up the battered economy. For millions of workers in the U.S. economy, that plan--the Fed's so-called quantitative easing--may well have been the difference between losing a job and keeping it, between searching in vain and finding an opportunity."
The piece continues, "But right now, Yellen stresses, her first priority is getting unemployment down from its current 7% level, eventually as far down as the 5.2% to 5.8% that Fed policymakers believe represents full American employment these days. 'I'd like to see real wages going up,' Yellen says, adding that the average American male worker's inflation-adjusted wages have been flat or down for the past 20 years.
"Those words may not sound uncommon, but in an institution where people often speak in algorithms rather than English and live in a statistical bubble, Yellen's focus on the human impact of economics is a true shift. Central bankers have, as she puts it, 'an important role in public policy and a moral responsibility to take part in it.' The job, as she sees it, 'isn't just about fighting inflation or monitoring the financial system. It's about trying to help ordinary households get back on their feet and about creating a labor market where people can feel secure and work and get ahead.'"
During the Great Recession, the Fed has been instrumental in preserving and creating jobs for millions of Americans. Because of their efforts, countless homeowners are no long underwater on their mortgages. Those of us with IRAs or 401(K)s can see the results in our balances. The recovery is slow (in part because of right-wing obstruction), many of the new jobs created aren't paying as well as they should (which is nothing the Fed can control), but we are recovering, and things could have been much, much worse.
If anyone had listened to the Pauls and abolished the Fed, they would have been. We need an active Federal Reserve, and right now we need Janet Yellen--the one who saw the subprime mortgage problem coming--at the head of it.
This Week in Disgraceful
This blog won't mention the name of a certain half-term governor from Alaska and failed vice presidential nominee until she apologizes for the odious, unthinking, horribly offensive comparison of a national debt to slavery. Now there's another name we'll have to bar, that of a certain Republican candidate for the Senate in North Carolina, who this week compared food stamps to slavery. "The answer is the Department of Agriculture should go away at the federal level. And now 80 percent of the farm bill was food stamps. That enslaves people. What you want to do, it's crazy but it's true, teach people to fish instead of giving them fish. When you're at the behest of somebody else, you are actually a slavery to them [sic]. That kind of charity does not make people freer."
We've already written about this deluded individual, because he calls also bipartisan compromise "enslavement," and spoke at a secessionist rally in favor of nullification, and more. Despite these frankly lunatic positions, he's won endorsements from high-profile Republicans like Rand Paul (who has a history of hanging around with neo-Confederate secessionists ), Ann Coulter, and more, and has a reasonable shot at winning a seat in the United States Senate.
We can't quite wrap our heads around the fact that these people have such a flawed understanding of slavery. Slavery was a terrible crime against humanity, an institution in which human beings were bought and sold like property. In most cases, slaves could be raped, whipped, beaten, tortured, executed, or worked to death, without penalty. Unless they realize the egregious nature of these comparisons, and apologize for making them, TWiA will not mention these individual's names (but reserves the right to occasionally remind readers that we're still waiting for their apologies).
This Week in Poverty
According to The Shriver Report, "One out of every three women in America either lives in poverty or on the brink of poverty." Read more about the report at the link, and see images from some of their lives here.
And a new study shows that the poor are most likely to be hospitalized for hypoglycemia at the end of the month. These people are living paycheck to paycheck, and too often, the paycheck (or benefits check) doesn't stretch for the whole month. Poverty is literally making people sick because they don't have enough to eat. But yeah, food stamps are "slavery," so too bad, poor folks.
This Week in Progress
Last week, we reported on the difficulties of extending programs to end military veteran homelessness to vets living on Indian reservations. This week, we're glad to share some good news: Phoenix, AZ, has ended veteran homelessness in that city. Arizona has more homeless veterans than most states--if you were living on the streets, would you rather do it in Arizona or Wisconsin?--which makes the accomplishment that much more noteworthy.
This Week in Health Care
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have opened up a new line of attack: the ACA includes "bailouts" for insurance companies. Senator Marco Rubio penned an op-ed about them this week.
Senator Rubio's mistaken, and here's why. His remedy would threaten the viability of insurance companies, jacking up premiums and putting lives at risk. His preferred approach, repealing the ACA, would snatch away the health insurance that millions of Americans have now even though they could never get it before. Republicans should recognize that the law is the law, that it's already protecting millions, and that they should work on improving it, not trying to destroy it.
Side Note: Here's a healthcare attorney for an insurance company, describing the lengths some conservative states have gone to in order to prevent the ACA from working. And here's why insurance companies are learning to love the law. In a word: profits.
This Week in Yes, We Do Need Environmental Regulations
300,000 West Virginians were unable to use tap water for anything except flushing toilets, for a week. Why? Because the state allowed a chemical storage plant to sit right on the edge of the Elk River, near the state's largest water treatment plant. And the state doesn't regularly inspect chemical storage plants. So when the plant leaked into the river, it exposed residents to chemical pollutants and filled the emergency rooms with exposure cases. West Virginia's "Chemical Valley" has a history of such incidents.
And while we're on the subject, Republicans in the House just passed a bill that would make it more difficult for the government to make companies clean up their own hazardous waste, endanger the health and lives of people living near hazardous waste, and leave taxpayers on the hook for the cleanup the companies didn't do. The bill won't pass the Senate or survive a presidential veto if it did, but at least it lets us know who's on the side of genetic mutations, cancer clusters, and the like. How did the party that passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act become so determined to let corporate interests poison America?
This Week in Climate Change
Between 2005 and 2012, the US reduced its carbon emissions by 12%. That's the good news. The bad news is that in 2013, we bumped it back up by 2%. That's the wrong direction. We're already living with the effects of climate change. It's only going to get worse. Of course, we're not alone in the world, and there are countries that are bigger offenders than we are. But we're a big player, and we should serve as an example for the rest of the world. We have to do better--all of us as individuals, and the nation as a whole. This is not a problem that will go away on its own.
This Week in Can You Blame Him?
This Week in Gun Safety
This is why gun owners shouldn't get to bring a gun with them everywhere they go. We're opposed to texting in movie theaters, but this was during the trailers, and the guy was texting his 3-year-old daughter. If you're so afraid of the world that you have to carry a gun with you everywhere you go, you should really just stay home. The rest of us don't want to be shot to death because you're living in fear.
Also, what's the best way for the Multnomah County (OR) Republican Party to commemorate two civil rights heroes--Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.--who were both assassinated with guns? By raffling off an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, of course. Multnomah County abuts Clackamas County, where in December 2012, a young man opened fire in a crowded mall, killing two and wounding a third before turning his gun on himself. His gun? An AR-15.
This week brought yet another school shooting. This one wasn't as bad as it could have been; two children were hurt, but as of this writing there were no fatalities. The shooter was a 7th grader who brought a shotgun to school, indicating a seriously troubled child. We hope that with treatment and care, his whole life won't have to revolve around this tragic event. The week brought another active shooting situation, at a supermarket in Indiana, at which three people (including the shooter) died.
An article in the Washington Examiner tries to persuade readers that mass shootings are not on the increase in the United States. You can discern the author's intent just by looking at the included photograph of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza and reading the first line of its caption: "All the guns used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting by Adam Lanza were legally purchased." That's true, as far as it goes. But those guns were not legally obtained by Adam Lanza. His mother bought them, and they didn't become weapons of mass murder until after he murdered her and took them. Just because guns are legally purchased doesn't mean they aren't often later stolen and used in crimes.
The article quotes criminologist James Alan Fox as saying, "Without minimizing the pain and suffering of the hundreds of those who have been victimized in recent attacks, the facts clearly say that there has been no increase in mass shootings and certainly no epidemic.”
Fox is a respected criminologist, but he's being misleading. According to an article in the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin, "The dotted trendline shows a definite increase over the past 12 years. In fact, the number of events drastically increased following 2008. The rate at which these events occurred went from approximately 1 every other month between 2000 and 2008 (5 per year) to more than 1 per month between 2009 and 2012 (almost 16 per year). The authors’ tracking also indicates that this increased rate has continued into 2013—more specifically, there were 15 events. While it is possible that this increase is an artifact of the search strategy (perhaps, archiving of the news reports has improved in recent years), the authors believe that the observed rise represents a real increase in the number of events in recent years. Figure 2 shows the number of people shot and the number of people killed for each year. Here again the trend line shows a definite increase. The authors’ tracking indicated that there were 72 people shot and 39 killed in 2013."
To be clear, this is a study of "active shooter events (ASEs)," not mass murders (and Fox's is a study of "mass shootings," not mass murders). The ASEs had to meet these criteria: "The event had to involve one or more persons engaged in killing or attempting to kill multiple people in an area occupied by multiple unrelated individuals—at least one of the victims must be unrelated to the shooter. The primary motive in these incidents appears to be mass murder; that is, the shooting is not a by-product of an attempt to commit another crime."
Here's their Figure 1, showing ASEs by year. The trend line is crystal clear.
Out of the 110 ASEs studied, exactly three were ended by a civilian on the scene shooting the shooter. Throughout the history of American mass shootings, this has happened so seldom that it's statistically negligible. And mass shootings or ASEs are so rare that people who carry their handguns to movie theaters are probably as likely to be attacked by a tiger as they are to be present at the scene of an ASE.
Fox's study includes cases the FBI's doesn't--inter-family killings (which are often, but not always, murder-suicides), shootings committed as part of other crimes, etc. Most Americans are unlikely to be victims of mass shootings that occur during a drug deal gone wrong, a drive-by, or the like. The vast majority of victims in those cases are criminals themselves. (Most American are unlikely, fortunately, to ever be victims of mass shootings under any circumstances). But that sampling difference leads to a significantly different conclusion. According to Fox, mass shootings are stable, but according to the FBI's LEB, the kinds of shootings that occur seemingly randomly, in which anyone might be a victim, are rising fast.
(For a look inside the FBI's own examination of ASEs/mass shootings, visit their website.)
(Thanks to TWiA special FBI correspondent Marcy Rockwell for the tip).
This Week in Hubble
To the people who say government can't do anything right, we say, "Hubble."
This Week in How You Can Help
Since we've been talking about homelessness, here's a charity that tackles that problem head-on (and earns an A+ rating from CharityWatch.org: the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Toss a few bucks their way, volunteer, or at least spread the word about their good work. Thanks.
This Week in Bears
We get to combine two of our favorite things, bears and politics, with this Virginia gubernatorial transition.