If we are not part of the solution…

After a wave of anti-refugee sentiment from governors around the country, Congress today passed a veto-proof bill that would effectively cut off the ability of the United States to help refugees of the Syrian civil war.

In times of particular struggle, uncertainty, and fear we look to our leaders. We need them to display the wisdom and bravery that are required in trying times, when most people have difficulty meeting that need.

Today our leaders have done the opposite. Rather than showing us wisdom and bravery, they have succumbed to fear, or worse, embraced it as a tool for political gain. They have rejected our self-appointed place as a world power and left other countries already doing more than us to deal with the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.

Congress is not acting as a body of leaders. They are embracing the irrational fear that so many Americans feel in response to the terrorism ISIS engages in. How is it that our bravery can so easily falter in the face of an attack on France, especially when France holds strong in their support for the victims of ISIS?

We are failing to learn the lessons of history, preferring to relive our most shameful failures of World War II. We must not turn away refugees as we did Jews. We must not treat Muslims, Middle Easterners, or even Syrians as suspect. If we refuse to accept refugees we not only fail to live up to our values, we create enemies where we could have allies.

Rejecting the Syrian refugees may feel like keeping the conflict away. It may feel safer. It is not. It strengthens the position of ISIS and it helps them to harm more people. We cannot let ourselves do that again.


On torture

I don’t know what’s worst about this: that the US engaged in torture, that we lied about its effectiveness, that we kept doing it once it became obvious it wasn’t effective, that once it came to light the public defended it, or now that we know just how bad it was we’re still arguing over whether we should even be talking about it.

We do know it happened. We know it got very bad. We know it was done poorly. We know that the people doing it wanted to stop. We know the people doing it didn’t think it was working.

A lot has been said about all of this. I’m kind of at a loss as to what to highlight. What’s the best response to this? What do we do now? I don’t know. One thing is glaringly obvious to me: we cannot continue to defend it. Over the years many people have tried to sweep it under the rug. Sometimes by saying it was necessary, or that we didn’t know enough about it, or that it wasn’t all that bad, sometimes by saying that it’s in the past and we need to move on. That needs to stop. The US did things that we cannot excuse. We have to face that fact. We have to do something about it.

But then what do we do? I don’t think we should look to the president. On the one hand, Obama deserves the criticism he’s getting for failing to act. He has been somewhere between complicit and actively involved in helping to hide and excuse these crimes. At the same time, I have to admit that he’s in an impossible situation. By his very existence he is already one of the most divisive presidents in history. For him to be the first president to attempt to charge a past administration with war crimes would have been a disaster. I don’t know what it would have looked like, but I’m confident it would have galvanized his opponents in support of the Bush era CIA, which likely would have been worse than where we are now. What he needs is this issue to have some significant bipartisan support before he joins in. This can’t be a fight.

Maybe that’s what’s most important here. The reaction to this has shown the same party line divide as any other political issue in the last many years. If there was ever going to be a line in the sand, a point at which everyone can set aside politics and say “this is wrong” I would expect it to be this. The CIA tortured its own informants. It literally tortured a man to death. If we can’t all agree that this was too much, that we went too far and need to do something about it, that it can never happen again, then how can anyone expect better of us? How can we?

Doctor Who: Favorites

Since I’ve finally gotten to see the new Doctor, I thought I’d compile a list of my favorite episodes. Kind of in order, although that does tend to change with my mood.

Gallifrey Falls No More

Gallifrey Falls No More

1. Day of the Doctor: The 50th anniversary was easily my favorite Doctor Who episode/special to date. I loved pretty much everything about it, especially John Hurt. I think the only thing that could have improved it would have been Eccelston joining in for a few scenes.

2. The Girl in the Fireplace: I’ve always been particularly fond of tragedy, so this was up my alley. More than anything else, though, the structure of the story was brilliant. The way they used time and managed to tell the entire story of a life in an episode was amazing.

3. Midnight: I seem to like this one a lot more than most, but I stand by it. I loved pretty much every line in this episode.

4. Blink: Yeah, it’s on everyone’s favorite episodes list, but deservedly so. Good thing, because it was one of the few that made season 3 worth watching.

5. Vincent and the Doctor: This one stands out as one of the few that aren’t creepy or scary, but hopeful and beautiful instead. Bill Nighy’s speech really makes this one.

6. The Lodger: I spend pretty much the entire episode laughing. Brilliant idea, fantastic execution.

7. The Doctor’s Wife: I love that they got Neil Gaiman to write an episode, and he did a great job. It probably doesn’t hurt that he shared my pet theory that the Tardis is bringing the Doctor where he needs to be.

8. The Asylum of the Daleks: I loved Clara in this episode. Was a bit let down when she wasn’t this awesome in her next few appearances.

9. Dalek: Eccelston really hit it out of the park on this one. Not just being afraid of the Dalek, but desperate. And it’s such a great contrast to how he’d been up to that point. Since it was the first time I was introduced to the Daleks it really did a great job of defining both the Daleks and the Doctor for me.

10. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit: I’m combining this into one. Feels more appropriate to judge the story rather than a piece of it. And I really liked this one. It had some execution issues, but the idea was great. And it introduced the Ood, who were really neat.

As to the new Doctor, I’m still a bit behind, but I wasn’t crazy about the first episode. I think he has potential, but he’s also the first regeneration I’ve not been really excited about after the first episode. Also, while I don’t necessarily dislike Vastra and her team, I also haven’t been impressed by any of the episodes that use them, so that might have been part of it.

Obamacare stubbornly not ruining country

Ezra Klein has an article up talking about Obamacare’s surprising success. Not just about the fact that it hasn’t been a disaster yet, but that it’s actually been more successful than even the more optimistic forecasts called for.

A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that in seven major cities that have released data on 2015 premiums, the price of the benchmark Obamacare plan — the second-cheapest silver plan, which the federal government uses to calculate subsidies —  is falling.

There are, of course, some caveats. This is just initial data, and the decrease is incredibly small. And the CBO warns that it doesn’t expect it to continue. None the less, it is part of a trend of data that is better than anticipated.

Krugman weighs in too, and I think he has a really good point. A year ago there was general pessimism about the ACA. The idea that it would be successful was not widely held, and most conservatives would have been incredulous at the mere suggestion. Krugman points to John Cochrane and The Hill, and they were hardly the worst. Yet here we are, with data on the ACA stubbornly refusing to look bad. I wish more conservatives were asking why.

Maybe more importantly, I wish this would be a hit to the credibility of the people who were so frantically warning of disaster. They weren’t just wrong, they were spectacularly wrong. It really should make people wonder what else they’re wrong about.

Because it’s not like this is an isolated issue. Many of the same people who were wrong about this have been wrong about a host of other economic and political issues lately. From the last presidential election when conservatives were surprised by the utterly predictable results, to inflation which has miraculously stayed low, to the ACA which hasn’t ruined healthcare or America yet. Any of these things in a vacuum would be reasonable enough to ignore. But I hope that at some point this pattern of making predictions that turn out to be completely untrue will shake their listeners faith in them. Because at this point it’s clearly not just an isolated mistake, it’s something more fundamental, something about their entire approach that makes them unable to see when they are wrong.

Ferguson, Racism, and Economics

I’ve been following circumstances in Ferguson with a lot of interest, but I’ve been reluctant to comment much on it. Admittedly, this is largely because I’m not comfortable talking about racism. But that discomfort is, in large part, what allows systemic racism to thrive. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

I think it’s worth noting how strong that impulse to slow down is, even now. Maybe especially now. An example from the NYT:

Possibly the most widely held sentiment among whites is the hope that it all simply goes away. “I feel for everyone involved,” said Shannon Shaw, a jeweler in Mehlville. But, she added, “I think the protesters just need to go home.”

In America race and class issues are completely intertwined. Look closely enough and you can see one or the other, but it’s impossible to take a broader look at one without seeing the other. In a recent article in Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote:

Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

Why is that? As the civil rights movement progressed, overt racism became socially unacceptable. But people didn’t change as fast as society, so many people silently held on to racist beliefs, feelings, and attitudes. And of course that racism still came out in public, just more subtly. Racist statements would be vague enough that if challenged there was plausible deniability. Perhaps the least subtle example of this is economics, where the language of race was often simply replaced with class. Instead of talking about black people politicians would talk about the poor, or the inner city, or urban culture.

This had two effects. One is that it created a kind of code. People could once again express overtly racist ideas but still maintain plausible deniability. The other effect was both more subtle and more harmful. People who heard these statements but didn’t recognize their intent took them at face value, sometimes accepting the idea that the poor are, essentially, an inferior race. Even the people who were using class as code started to internalize the idea that race and class were interchangeable.

Lately, looking at the coverage of the events in Ferguson, I think the most striking difference between the protesters and their critics is the scope of the issue. The critics say that we can’t know what happened, that we must wait and find out if the shooting was justified. But this is to entirely misunderstand the protesters. Michael Brown’s death is a symbol to them, and regardless of what happened in the moments before his death they will still feel as powerless and abused as before. The problem isn’t any individual incident, it is the attitudes and the patterns.

If you are unconvinced, look at nearly any decision by the police and government since the shooting. More than a lack of respect, they have shown disdain for the community. From the repeated decision to use tear gas on peaceful protesters to the arrest of journalists to the imposition of curfew, at every turn the police have chosen to treat the community as an enemy.

Which brings me to my final point: escalation. I feel like that is the key theme that runs through all of the problems that have hit the news in Ferguson. Not just since the death of Michael Brown, but before it too. The authorities seem to welcome the chance to escalate situations, to the point that very few of the people in power seem to even see any other options. It creates a cycle of escalation.

tldr: The Pitchforks Are Coming…

This article by Nick Hanauer is pretty cool. Presented as a letter to fellow zillionaires, he talks about wealth and politics and inequality, and he warns that the current situation is unsustainable. He expects that if current trends continue we’re heading for a French style revolution. And he suggests that using the minimum wage as Seattle has, to empower workers and consumers, is the best way to fix the problem. It’s a good read.

It’s also pretty long, so I wanted to highlight a few pieces that caught my eye:

We’ve had 75 years of complaints from big business—when the minimum wage was instituted, when women had to be paid equitable amounts, when child labor laws were created. Every time the capitalists said exactly the same thing in the same way: We’re all going to go bankrupt. I’ll have to close. I’ll have to lay everyone off. It hasn’t happened.

This one struck me for it’s clear (intentional?) similarity to Atlas Shrugged. There are countless examples of the wealthy threatening to “go Galt.” There are few, if any, examples of it actually happening. It’s a fantasy.

The most insidious thing about trickle-down economics isn’t believing that if the rich get richer, it’s good for the economy. It’s believing that if the poor get richer, it’s bad for the economy.

I don’t think I’d ever noticed before that this was an implication of trickle down economics. There’s an implicit claim that when the non-rich succeed (as a class, not as individuals) it is harmful to the economy. Likely most proponents of trickle down economics would object, would say that they don’t mean that. They’re right that they’d never say they want a large class of working poor, but it is an expected, maybe even necessary, element of the economic system they champion.

In order for us to have an economy that works for everyone, we should compel all retailers to pay living wages—not just ask politely.

That the minimum wage exists at all is testament to it’s necessity. Asking isn’t enough, if it were we wouldn’t need a law in the first place. We should spend a lot more time and effort figuring out what the optimal level for it is, and we should be careful not to listen to those who don’t think it should exist in the first place.

The only way to slash government for real is to go back to basic economic principles: You have to reduce the demand for government. If people are getting $15 an hour or more, they don’t need food stamps. They don’t need rent assistance. They don’t need you and me to pay for their medical care.

This is a fantastic way to present this idea. I’m not sure it’s completely new, but I’ve never seen it presented quite this way, and it’s very insightful. And hopefully putting it in those terms will help conservatives to better understand it. Welfare exists, and will exist, as long as there are no alternatives. People will be much less defensive of welfare programs if they actually can get a job that supports their family.

I look at the average Joe on the street, and I say, “There but for the grace of Jeff go I.”

(Jeff, as in Bezos, founder of Amazon) This is one of the big tipping points for me, about capitalism and fairness and taxes and the entire idea of laissez-faire economics. Nick isn’t a billionaire because he worked hard. He did work hard. But he also worked less hard than a lot of people who aren’t rich. And he isn’t a billionaire because of his hard work: he’s a billionaire because of Jeff Bezos.

Are we done separating news from editorial?

The news business has changed a lot in the last decade or two. First, there was the decline of newspapers and print journalism in favor of the internet. That came with the advent of the 24 hour news cycle. More recently, the creation of news sources that intentionally target particular audiences like Fox or MSNBC, and then the rising popularity of fact checking.

Today I saw the announcement for The Upshot, from the New York Times, and I wondered if this wasn’t a new direction. The goal, as described in the link:

We have two main reasons. One, we believe many people don’t understand the news as well as they would like. They want to grasp big, complicated stories — Obamacare, inequality, political campaigns, the real-estate and stock markets — so well that they can explain the whys and hows of those stories to their friends, relatives and colleagues.

I think with the fragmentation of the news, with it being reported by so many sources, each with challenges to its integrity and reliability, many people feel unsure of what to make of it. “Where should I get information from, can I trust it, what does it mean, what should I think of it?” Even if people aren’t consciously aware of these as questions they will run into challenges from others who disagree with everything from general philosophies to which sources are reliable to basic questions of fact.

I think The Upshot, as well as sites like Vox (which I have so far been impressed with), are trying to answer that question. The goal is to provide not only information, but context; to create a framework for the news to be understood in. Because news comes in smaller, more frequent pieces it doesn’t work as well to tell a story in a single article. Instead, these sites try to create a framework, so that each article is a piece of a larger story, and the more you read the better you understand the big picture.

I remember hearing a great deal of criticism of Fox News for blurring the lines between its news programs and opinion programs. I wonder if that won’t prove ironic as news sources intentionally blend journalism with editorial to give not only information, but understanding of the news. Because as much as I admire the journalistic standards of the past, they don’t seem to provide people with what they want. People don’t want the bare facts, they want context. They want a story that tells them what the facts mean, and how they fit into the world around them.