Archive for the ‘Credit Where Credit is Due’ category

My New Favorite Judge

July 7, 2014

Would be Bush 41 appointee Richard Kopf*, a member of the Federal District Court bench for in Nebraska.

Why?

Because of this:

In the Hobby Lobby cases, five male Justices of the Supreme Court, who are all members of the Catholic faith and who each were appointed by a President who hailed from the Republican party, decided that a huge corporation, with thousands of employees and gargantuan revenues, was a “person” entitled to assert a religious objection to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate because that corporation was “closely held” by family members. To the average person, the result looks stupid and smells worse.

[h/t Talking Points Memo]

William_Hogarth_004

Judge Kopf elaborates:

To most people, the decision looks stupid ’cause corporations are not persons, all the legal mumbo jumbo notwithstanding. The decision looks misogynist because the majority were all men. It looks partisan because all were appointed by a Republican. The decision looks religiously motivated because each member of the majority belongs to the Catholic church, and that religious organization is opposed to contraception.

Kopf adds both in a disclaimer both truthful and politic that he is not saying that the majority in the Hobby Lobby decision were actually driven by the considerations that it really really looks like they were. But the point is made — and he adds the equally valid observation that there was no actual necessity for the Supremes to take the case in the first place. Such judicial passivism, he says, would have been better than this result.

In that context, the good jurist has the temerity to offer advice to his betters:

Next term is the time for the Supreme Court to go quiescent–this term and several past terms has proven that the Court is now causing more harm (division) to our democracy than good by deciding hot button cases that the Court has the power to avoid. As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu**

To which I say, Amen and Amen.

*As the TPM piece linked above reports, Kopf achieved a measure of — fame is not quite the word — notice for an earlier blog post advising young women lawyers how to dress for court.

**I do love the link that Judge Kopf kindly provided for his less internet-meme-familiar readers to that last term.

Image: William Hogarth, The Court, c. 1758. You’ve seen this one before, I know. I generally try to find a new image for every post, but this one so perfectly captures the contempt I feel for the current Court that I just keep coming back to it. Sorry.

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You Don’t Need A Weatherman…

October 13, 2011

…to tell which which way the wind blows.  Not when even Marty Feldstein marches in with a more aggressive mortgage forgiveness plan than we’ve seen out of either Congress or the administration.

I don’t love the plan as offered, to the extent that an 800 word op-ed. offers much in the way of a fine-grained proposal.  Feldstein, Ronald Reagan’s head of the Council of Economic Advisors, calls for forgiving out-of-the-money mortgages down to 110% of the homes’ value — a threshold that would touch 11 million out of the 15 million  homes in the United States.  Lenders would absorb half the loss and the government would cover the other half, at a cost Feldstein asserts would be less than $350 billion.

I don’t have much to say about that part of the plan.  Why 110%?  Is there any data that suggests that’s the number to encourage underwater mortgagees to stick with the loan?

Or…how much of the current foreclosure crisis is driven by unemployment, and hence at this moment is unlikely to be touched by a payment reduction that still leaves the house underwater?

No clue, here (and no expertise to justify a guess), but these are empirical questions that could be answered…and in any event Feldstein — now at Harvard — is at least trying to come to grips with that insane number of 15 million houses that embody enormous financial loss.

The part of the this proposal that I think is almost certainly a bad deal is the price homeowners would pay to get their mortgage reduction:  Feldstein would transform these loans from non-recourse status —  in which the lender can claim the collateral, the house, but no other assets if the borrower defaults — into an instrument that puts all the borrowers assets are at risk.  To me, taking financially vulnerable people in the midst of  a bad economy and placing them at still greater economic risk seems to me both cruel and stupid.

Much better, in my view, are the proposals that place the government — the taxpayer, you and me, baby — into financial partnership with both the borrower and lender.  In these approaches, the borrower who gets mortgage relief has to share with the lender (and/or the Feds) any gain made from an ultimate sale of the property.  Everybody’s incentives align, and the borrower is not one layoff away from utter ruin, as he or she would be in the Feldstein scheme.

But what really stood out for me is not that Feldstein has come up with the least middle-class-friendly version of mortgage relief out there — that’s how he rolls — but that even such an old Reagan hand has driven to the core of the matter:

…As costly as it will be to permanently write down mortgages, it will be even costlier to do nothing and run the risk of another recession.

Yup, Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore — or perhaps, pace  Thomas Frank, even in Kansas they’ve starting to grasp the most brutish of brute fact.

Yes, it sucks that the taxpayer must bail out over-extended borrowers and the reckless (criminal) financial institutions that placed those loans.  But life does blow sometimes — as most actual grown-ups understand.  Increasingly, those able to recognize the difference between ought and is accept that it’s better to deal with that fact than to watch the entire fiscal structure of our economy swirl down the toilet of whinging infant Congressional Republican orthodoxy.

Feldstein concludes by restating that same message.  Better the nation take its medicine than seek to extract the pleasure of righteousness amidst the rubble:

I cannot agree with those who say we should just let house prices continue to fall until they stop by themselves. Although some forest fires are allowed to burn out naturally, no one lets those fires continue to burn when they threaten residential neighborhoods. The fall in house prices is not just a decline in wealth but a decline that depresses consumer spending, making the economy weaker and the loss of jobs much greater. We all have a stake in preventing that.

That’s DFH talk, of course.  Without quite saying it out loud Feldstein here offers the suggestion that society has both values and obligations that trump the every-man-a-wolf-to-his-fellow-man cult of the individual that passes for  contemporary GOP “thought” on the social compact.

When you’ve lost Marty…

Image:  John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

Sitting Republican Senators Who Voted to “Raise” Taxes for Next Year

July 21, 2010

I started this post yesterday, put it aside to listen to some very loud, very find jazz last night, and got up this morning to find that Paul Krugman got there first (as usual).

But just to amplify the point:

As you listen to Republican officeholders and their co-conspirators  complain that allowing the middle-to-rich-redistributive Bush tax cuts to lapse on schedule amounts to an Obama/Democratic tax increase, please remember those current members of the Grand Old Party’s delegation in the United States Senate who voted in favor of this “increase.”

They are:

Lamar Alexander, TN

Robert Bennett, UT

Kit Bond, MO

Sam Brownback, KS

Jim Bunning, KY

Saxby Chambliss, GA

Thad Cochran, MS

Susan Collins, ME

John Coryn, TX

Mike Crapo, ID

John Ensign, NV

Mike Enzi, WY

Lindsay Graham, NC

Chuck Grassley, IA

Judd Gregg, NH

Orrin Hatch, UT

Kay Bailey Hutchinson, TX

Jim Inhofe, OK

Jon Kyl, AZ

Richard Lugar, IN

Mitch McConnell, KY

Lisa Murkowski, AK

Pat Roberts, KS

Jeff Sessions, AL

Richard Shelby, AL

Olympia Snowe, ME

Arlen Spector then R, now D-PA

George Voinovich, OH

Twenty eight of the 50 “aye” votes on H.R. 2, the Bush tax death warrant on the Federal budget, remain in the US Senate.  27 of them are still Republicans, including all six of the current Republican leadership team. You will hear repeatedly over the next few days and weeks from them about the horrors of “increasing taxes” in a recession — and how once again it is the Democratic party seeking to worsen the tax burden Americans must bear.

But never forget:  each one of them voted for a bill that said very clearly that the Bush era tax reductions were temporary, by law set to expire this year.  Not one Democrat then, and only one new Democrat, Arlen Spector, voted for that tax “increase.”  The Republicans did.  Every last one of them sitting in the Senate that year.  It’s their fault, and their responsibility.

Of course, as Ezra Klein points out, the real issue is that the GOP then was doing what the GOP does a lot these days.  Lying about what they are doing, lying about fiscal matters, lying about the implications and the consequences of their actions.  There was never any intention to allow these taxes to lapse.  The expiration date made it into the bill to reduce the apparent cost of this enormous transfer of wealth from the American middle and working classes to the rich. If the tax rate changes had been made permanent, the pricetag would –might — have been too much even for the habitual economical recklessness that defines the contemporary Republican party.

There was an assumption hidden within all that, of course, which was that the GOP was on its way to building a lasting majority, however precarious it may have been in that 50-50 divided Senate.  But it didn’t work out that way, in large part because the Republican elite has shown itself to be hugely successful as an opposition force, but a disaster as a governing body. So now faced with the blunt fact that the exact bill they voted for is in fact the law of the land, they do the only thing they know how to do:  pretend it didn’t turn out as badly as it did, and blame the Democrats for trying to address the reality of the situation.

Makes for great Fox soundbites and Serious People™ appearances on NPR.  But to get there you have to lie, distort your own complicity, and, along the way, double down on a policy whose failure is obvious now even to some of its former architects.

All this is a long winded way of saying that the deceptive GOP debating tactics on the fate of the Bush tax cuts is just one more reminder of why these people cannot be trusted with actual power, certainly no more of it than they already abuse.

Image:  Marinus Claesz van Reymerswaele, “Two Tax Collectors,” c. 1540

Marc Ambinder, General McChrystal, My Uncle, and Gays in the Military

June 26, 2010

American policy on gays in the military has been a self inflicted wound for years now.  The loss of Arabic (and Farsi) language specialists at just this moment in our strategic history was an own goal if ever there was one.  But the firing of General Stanley McChrystal has brought into sharp relief another truth about the chicken hawk quality of arguments against an end to the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” farce.

Marc Ambinder, continuing in a really sterling transformation of his work from that of being a villager in training to a serious, independent reporter, wrote about the McChrystal connection and the implications of military reality (and or closeness or distance to the sharp end) on assessments of the ability for gays to perform in the armed forces (and for those forces to perform with gays openly in their ranks).

(I’ve harshly criticized Ambinder in the past, and stopped reading him after what was for me one too many retellings of conventional wisdom; picking up on cues from the folks at Balloon Juice who are much more conscientious than I in following folks through their twists and turns, I’ve started up again, and it is as if there is a whole new Marc reporting, rather than retelling what his sources feed him.  To be acknowledged and encouraged.)

The short form of Ambinder’s story is that (a) McChrystal is genuinely a social liberal, untroubled by (among other things) gays in the military, and that (b) the special forces he used to command are much more focused on the job that their fellow soldiers, gay or straight, actually do than on who they happen to sleep with.  Money quote:

As one former member of a special missions unit put it to me recently, “It’s really about competence. If you’re competent, it doesn’t matter who you are.”  And then, switching instantly from an analytical posture to a machismo mode, he said, “If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it.”

Exactly so.  The folks who worry most about gays in the military are chickenhawks, those who never get close to the real work of an army:  fighting the enemy, supporting your comrades.*

This struck home in a deep way recently as I helped my family mourn the death of the senior surviving male member of our parent’s generation, my beloved and much missed Uncle David, who, among much else in a life well-lived, served as a career officer in the Royal Artillery, fighting the United Kingdom’s wars from 1943 to the early nineteen sixties, retiring at the rank of Major and having served as a battery commander.

Long ago, in the early eighties, I visited David after I’d finished my college degree, hanging out mostly.  For some reason the issue of gays in the military came up (maybe the Dutch had just opened up their ranks — I don’t really recall).

David surprised me.  He was, after all, an Eton-educated former career officer (and the son of a Colonel) — not obviously the sort of person who would readily dissent from what remained then the British military norm.

What came next was another in a long series of lessons in the risks of assuming individual qualities from group characteristics.  David told me two things, one an observation in principle and the other a specific story, both with the same point.

Principle first:  David told me that his objection to gays in the military had been based on the notion that the potential for relationships to form between different ranks in the same units raised the possibility that a commander would be faced with an impossible command dilemma if he had to assign hazardous or likely fatal tasks to members of the unit.

But, he said, once women were admitted to the military, that objection failed…or rather it seemed that the military had decided it could manage that potential problem, and there was no reason other than bigotry to assert that gay soldiers would be more likely to fall afoul of such a dilemma than straight ones.

The story was more direct, and more on the point that Ambinder made in his story.  One afternoon, relaxing after a day’s work on the farm that was his second career, he told me about an experience he had just after he joined his battery in northern Europe in late 1944.  Then nineteen, and a newly minted junior officer, he commanded a towed gun — a 155mm howitzer, I think, though don’t quote me on that.

One day he sought out the battery adjutant.

What was the problem? the adjutant asked.

Well, said David, it seems that my loader and my driver are sharing the same sleeping bag.  What should I do?

How does the lorry run?

Fine — perfect; starts every time, is maintained and fueled each night (not morning … crucial under the circumstances — ed.); shines as much as can be expected under the conditions.

How is the gun?

No problems, none at all.  The ammunition is in good order, the gun never jams, everything works as it should.

And what was the problem you wished to discuss, Lt. S-M?

Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.

Which is to say exactly what Ambinder’s sources told him:  what matters in combat is what you do in combat.  Wasting time, and worse, depriving yourself of good soldiers, is worse than bigoted.  It is stupid, and it costs the most at the very point where we can afford it least.

Did I mention I revere and hugely miss my uncle?

*It is true, as Ambinder points out that there are plenty of serving military who oppose gays in uniform who are not chickenhawks; I’m referring here to the much larger number of those who never wore the uniform, or did so always at many safe removes from combat who stand shoulder to shoulder to prevent some Americans from serving their country.  For these, the full measure of contempt is not enough.

Image: Dying Achilles at Achilleion, Corfu. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884.

The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy.

January 5, 2010

Read this article in the New York Times.*

Here’s the gist of what it’s talking about in this effort to piggy back on national technical intelligence gathering tools (satellites, remote sensing, etc.):

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests….In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The investigators tout the access to data that can be acquired in no other way; they note its economic significance (ice forecasts, aids to oil and gas exploration; and the article also notes that the CIA itself has perceived a national security concern in the prospect of climate change.

And with that, here’s the gist of what I want to talk about:

In October, days after the C.I.A. opened a small unit to assess the security implications of climate change, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said the agency should be fighting terrorists, “not spying on sea lions.”

and

The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

It is unclear why Medea died in the early days of the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives. Officials said the new body was taking on the same mandate and activities, as well as the name.

Perhaps the problem is that the scientific opportunity was and is immense.  Among the most difficult elements of the climate system to study is the cryosphere — the ice covered portions of the earth’s surface.

Understanding ice dynamics, especially those of sea and polar pack ice, is an essential component in coming to grips with a whole range of important issues in climate change:  the rate at which it is occurirng, the sensitivity of the climate system to various forcings, the risk of rapid alteration in parts or the whole of the global climate system.  (See as one example among a ton of such research, this paper picked up at random through the magic of teh google.)

If therefore, your political advantage rests (a) with a denial of the usefulness of expertise, of verifiable knowledge combined with the training and skill needed to interpret the data and (b) with economic interests for whom the reality of climate change is costly, what should one do but shut down a cash and risk-free program that would help us grasp the predicament of the planet.  Better a joke about sea lions than inconvenient truths.

And by the way: for all those who say Obama is no different from the guy, consider this:

The Obama administration has said little about the effort publicly but has backed it internally, officials said. In November, the scientists met with Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director.

“Director Panetta believes it is crucial to examine the potential national security implications of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels and population shifts,” Paula Weiss, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Elections matter.  They matter in this country now more than ever.  And if you care about science — and I don’t mean just funding levels, but rather the ideal of science, the notion that living a good life includes notion that it is better to know what’s going on than to dream of sugar plum fairies — then the difference between the two parties in their approach to science is existential.

None of this “they’re all alike…I’ll vote for Nader” sh*t, in other words.  We have work to do this and every year.

*I dump on the MSM with reasonable regularity.  I’m working on one of my several thousand word screeds about the Times’ own David Brooks right now.  But it’s important to remember how big media institutions matter — and encourage them to do more of what the informal media can’t.  This is an example.  The article turned on a reporter’s ability to access both very high level science sources (Ralph Cicerone is a seriously good get, for those of you without scorecards handy) and with at least some kind of hook into the intelligence community.  That takes institutional support to develop sources and an understanding of your beat.  So kudos to reporter Bill Broad, one of the Times’ long lasting good ones, and to the great grey lady formerly of 43rd St. herself.

That kind of knowledge/access can be acquired from an independent base — but it’s very hard and it is what the big media at its best distinguishes itself by achieving.  If only places like the Times, and even the Post, long since returned to its roots as the house organ/gossip rag for DC, understood that the one real unique asset they have is reporting other people can’t do because they lack the scale and institutional memory to do so.  That’s a barrier to entry no amount of internet servers can bridge.  Go there, my friends.  We need you to do so, and you can make money there.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wreck in the Ice Pack” 1798.