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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz
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Unbelieveable. Tuesday morning, Mika Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough's liberal co-host and foil on MSNBC's Morning Joe, repeated a piece of conservative propaganda as if it were the gospel. She read from a Wall Street Journal article that called out President Obama for supposedly reversing himself last Friday when he criticized "stand your ground" laws in his speech about race and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, given what the WSJ described as his support for such a law in Illinois a decade ago. Mika then added that the information was "pretty important, given the grand scheme of the conversation." Joe chimed in as well, asking “why [Obama] supported the Stand Your Ground laws in 2004.”

Problem is, the entire claim amounts to a load of hooey.

The WSJ article, and others, like this one from the right-wing Washington Times, draw extensively on a post at the Illinois Review, which identifies itself as "conservative":

This past week President Obama publicly urged the reexamination of state self-defense laws (see remarks below). However, nine years ago then-State Sen. Barack Obama actually co-sponsored a bill that strengthened Illinois’ 1961 “stand your ground” law.

The Obama-sponsored bill (SB 2386) enlarged the state’s 1961 law by shielding the person who was attacked from being sued in civil court by perpetrators or their estates when a “stand your ground” defense is used in protecting his or her person, dwelling or other property.

At Mediaite, Tommy Christopher described the Illinois Review post as "an almost-fair reading of the situation, which then got oversold, and eventually distorted into a smear." Christopher continues:
I say “almost fair” because even Illinois Review’s take relies on a pair of false premises, the first of which is that the bill that Obama supported specifically dealt with “Stand Your Ground” claims. It did not. The bill revised the law for all self-defense claims. Illinois Review’s assertion is like saying that because the President likes baseball, he’s a Cubs fan.
Christopher also quotes from Shaun Zinck, over at the Chicago Law Bulletin, whose article makes clear that Illinois' law bears little resemblance to Florida's "stand your ground" law or those of the other 30 states that the NRA recognizes as having a real version of that law, which they call the "Castle Doctrine." Zinck cites Matthew P. Jones, associate director for administration at the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's Office, who says that, in Illinois, "You can't bring a gun to a fist fight. You can't use deadly force when there is no deadly force being used against you."

Slate's David Weigel noted that the claim made in the Illinois Review made no sense on its face, thus "alarm bells should be ringing" in one's ears after reading it.

But, of course, conservative ideologues like those at the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal have no alarm bells, at least none that ring when they have to shred the truth to smear a president they hope to defeat.

Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz
Cartoon by Jen Sorensen - Fat Cat
Led by Obama recess appointee Richard Cordray, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced that, under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, it has the authority to regulate the shady tactics used by lenders to collect debts directly owed to them by consumers.

The problem is that the existing law on debt collection, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (first passed in 1977 and since amended) has a loophole big enough to drive a Mitt Romney campaign bus through. Unless the CFPB takes this action, if a consumer owes a debt directly to a lender (as opposed to simply owing money to a company for a purchase), the law's protections do not apply and the lender can, for example, harangue a borrower with phone call after phone call. The CFPB is planning to take a number of other steps as well to curb abuses relating to this kind of debt collection.

As Cordray explained in a statement: “It doesn’t matter who is collecting the debt — unfair, deceptive or abusive practices are illegal." He further added: "While many debt collectors play by the rules and treat customers fairly and respectfully, others try to get ahead by flouting the rules....Our job is to root out bad actors and protect consumers against unfair, deceptive or abusive practices and other legal violations."
I respectfully submit this as another of the quite numerous progressive accomplishments (h/t joelgp) this administration has had.

Even when we focus solely on economic matters, the reality is that the Republican opposition has stood opposed to Obama across the board. He hasn't even always had unanimous support from Democrats who, in the Senate, could and did thwart his policies even when there was, in theory, a filibuster-proof majority. The recess appointment of Richard Cordray and the strong, repeated backing provided to him and to the CFPB represent some of the many fundamentally important progressive steps this President has taken on behalf of consumers, i.e., regular Americans, against the interests of large corporations and Wall Street.

Please follow me beyond the fold.

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

The Voting Rights Act has been gutted.

I'll leave the legal analysis to others who are far more expert than I on that matter.

My point is this: for all those people on this site and elsewhere who may have, temporarily let's say, forgotten or even denied that there is any substantive difference between the Democratic and Republican parties -- and thus there's no reason to vote for the former over the latter -- this decision should remind of you of exactly what those differences are.

The decision was 5-4. The justices who voted to declare the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional were all appointed by Republican presidents, including two by George W. Bush, who took in office in 2001.

Do you think Al Gore would have appointed Justices Roberts and Alito?

Do you still think there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats?

Look, this has not been a good couple of weeks for our government, and it's been a tough couple of weeks on this site, which exists to promote more and better Democrats.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, criticize President Obama all you like, and criticize the Democratic Party or various figures for whatever you think needs criticizing. Speaking out is important, and can help move our party and the President in the right direction.

But don't forget that there are real, substantive differences between the two parties. They are not the same. The Democratic Party is better than the Republican Party for our country, for our economy, for justice, for equality, and yes, for liberty. Barack Obama is better than Mitt Romney or John McCain would have been on all those counts as well.

We should all feel free to say what we like. But to deny those facts is to deny reality. Furthermore, denying those facts makes it more difficult to motivate this community to do what needs to be done to achieve the broad, progressive goals we share.

The two parties are not the same.

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

I am not here to defend the surveillance programs our government has been operating.  In fact, I have serious qualms about them. I need to know more, and from different kinds of sources, before I form my final opinion. I also recognize no one is actually waiting for me to issue that opinion before doing, well, anything.

What I'm focused on here is the claim that -- now that the curtain has been pulled back -- we can see that President Barack Obama is essentially no different from President George W. Bush on the matter of surveillance. Well, in the words of Mitt Romney:

The most important distinction between the surveillance programs operating now and those operating under the previous administration is this: President George W. Bush claimed absolute power, and did so in an area where a duly enacted law specifically limited presidential authority. Bush claimed that -- even though the law required him to get warrants from the FISA court before wiretapping or eavesdropping on communication --  the Constitution gives him essentially unchecked authority on matters of national security. According to the Washington Post, the Bush Administration argued that:
The inherent presidential powers in Article II of the Constitution -- to wage war -- cannot be abridged or impended in the context of a global terrorism fight. Justice lawyers say they believe that the president's powers are consistent with FISA but that if there is any question of a conflict, the president's powers trump FISA.
This argument, the so-called Unitary Executive Theory, was linked most often to John Yoo, a Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel in Bush's Department of Justice. It means that the President can operate essentially by decree on matters of national security, with the President himself defining what falls under "national security." Barack Obama has not claimed nor has he sought any such power for the office of the President.

That matters.

The surveillance programs operating under President Obama are being supervised by the courts as called for by law. The administration also has been briefing Congress, as called for by law. The administration has not claimed any special authority to go outside the existing FISA law, which has been amended a number of times. Of course, just because something is legal doesn't make it right. But it matters that President Obama followed the law and President Bush did not.

If you want to argue that the kind of surveillance being done under President Obama is very similar to or even more extensive than that done under President Bush, then fine, make that argument. The changes to the FISA law have broadened the scope of what is allowed, without question. If you want to argue that these surveillance programs are a disastrous invasion of privacy, then fine, make that argument. Those are questions worth debating. Let's have a vigorous debate about privacy and surveillance and the role of government.

However, you cannot argue that there is no difference between the two Presidents on this matter. The claim that the President can ignore the law -- that his authority when it comes to defending the country is unchecked -- makes a mockery of our centuries-old tradition of separation of powers and makes the President virtually an elected dictator. By claiming such authority as justification for his surveillance programs, George W. Bush pointed a dagger at the heart of democracy. Barack Obama did no such thing.

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Sat Jun 08, 2013 at 06:42 AM PDT

Time To Go Nuclear.

by Ian Reifowitz

Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

Republicans in the U.S. Senate have routinely used the filibuster — and the threat of the filibuster — to deny President Obama and the Democrats their legislative agenda. In their defense, Republicans point out that the use of this parliamentary method of blocking votes is nothing new. Democrats filibustered some of George W. Bush's appointees. Southern Dixiecrats used it in spectacular fashion to block civil rights legislation for decades.

But now there is evidence that the filibuster has flourished uniquely under the Republican Senate minority of recent years. Professor Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, found that in the current Congress, Obama's nominees have faced a level of obstruction that is "the highest that’s ever been recorded.… In this last Congress it approached total obstruction or delay.”

Goldman concludes that the level of obstruction since 2010 is significantly higher than in any of the years Bush was president and Democrats were a minority in the Senate — the parallel to the current situation. Furthermore, from the Alliance for Justice:

During President Obama’s first term, current vacancies [in the judicial branch] have risen by 51%.  This trend stands in stark contrast to President Clinton and President [George W.] Bush’s first four years, when vacancies declined by 65% and 34%, respectively.

Today's partisan maneuvering is far more vicious than what happened under the previous Democratic minority. Back then, Democrats blocked a few individuals here and there, such as when they filibustered Miguel Estrada, Bush's nominee to the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (they did eventually allow a vote on the confirmation of Thomas B. Griffith to the same seat). Nowadays, the Senate minority is seeking to block as many nominees as possible in order to prevent Obama from moving the judiciary in a direction that fits with his thinking. Republican senators don't even have the votes to defeat these nominees because voters elected a Democratic Senate majority as well as a Democratic president.

And the filibuster is not just being used with judicial nominees. Republicans are determined to  stop two major government agencies from being able to function: the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Board. The NLRB goes back to legislation passed in 1935, but Republicans have decided that they will filibuster the nomination of any new members, effectively incapacitating the board now that the terms of three of its five members have expired.

As for the CFPB, Republicans plan to filibuster the nomination of anyone to be its director, in hopes of denying the agency certain powers that can only be exercised by someone holding that title. Liberal blogger Kevin Drum, writing in The Nation, has argued that the GOP's actions here are "explicitly aimed at shutting down these agencies," and called them an attempt at "nullification." In other words, if you don't like a law, use the filibuster to neutralize it. If you don't like the results of an election, use the filibuster to sabotage the other side's agenda. It does not matter that Obama has been elected and reelected president. Republicans have made a decision that they will use the filibuster, the hold, and other tactics to ensure that he is simply unable to place people into the judiciary and various executive-branch positions.

Goldman's analysis gives statistical backing to the claims of many Washington insiders, who acknowledge the ways that Democrats have contributed to political gridlock and yet are increasingly unwilling or unable to defend the scorched-earth tactics of Republicans. In a recent book, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein — well-respected voices in the Beltway crowd — argue that Congressional dysfunction has reached a dangerous level, thanks in large part to the extremism of Republicans, whom Mann and Ornstein characterize as "dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

At last, Obama has decided to push back. He recently nominated three people to the D.C. Circuit, the same federal court that Estrada was nominated for, considered the second-highest court in the land and a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court. It is worth noting that — despite Republican claims that there's no need to fill the three openings on that court because it is "underworked" — there are now 188 pending cases per judge, up from 119 in 2005. Clearly, those openings need to be filled.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), Majority Leader, official photo
There is talk that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will consider doing away with the filibuster for all nominations to the judiciary or executive branch if this obstruction continues. Obama has told Reid he supports such a move. Reid can do so with the assent of a simple majority of senators, but such an action is so controversial that pundits have taken to calling it the "nuclear option."

It's time to go nuclear. The facts that Goldman's study lays out make it clear that Senate Republicans don't believe Democrats, even when they win an election, should be allowed to govern. After the last election, Reid agreed to modest measures of "filibuster reform" that Republicans promptly ignored. Now it's time to call out their strategy of blanket obstruction for what it is: the subversion of democracy.

Cross posted at In The Fray.

And kudos to our own Joan McCarter for her terrific coverage of this issue.

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

The middle class did great in the 1920s, says Amity Shlaes. Yeah, right. Until about October 1929 that is (hint: that's when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began). Who is Amity Shlaes? She's the writer that UC-Davis historian Eric Rauchway, in an article in Dissent (it's the second item on the search list), tagged a "New Deal Denialist" as he took apart her "analysis" of the New Deal. Just one example among many: Rauchway noted that Shlaes used an older, out-of-date measure of the unemployment rate, one that just happens to count people who worked for New Deal programs like the W.P.A. as unemployed (!), thus adding an extra 5% on top of the real unemployment rate. Rauchway's article is a superb resource for anyone looking to counter New Deal deniers like Shlaes with actual, you know, facts.

But back to Ms. Shlaes most recent piece, titled "The Myth of Gatsby's Suffering Middle Class." The novel, she argues, presents a false picture of the 1920s by arguing that the wealthiest Americans achieved great increases in their wealth only at significant cost to the middle class. This is inaccurate, Shlaes argues, as is much of the "economic history" presented in Gatsby. She begins by pointing out the supposed historical inaccuracies regarding the stock market presented by Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel. Funny, I never thought of Carraway as an important source for economic history, but that's ok, let's see where Shlaes goes with this:

"Nick Carraway informs us that the stock market is hitting extraordinary levels. But in the early 1920s stocks did not roar ahead like Gatsby’s car. In the summer of 1922, around the time when the heroine Daisy visits Gatsby in West Egg, the Dow Jones industrial average actually stood lower than it had in the summer of 1919."
Wow. She's got a point there, right? But wait a minute. The Roaring Twenties didn't actually begin on January 1, 1920. As Shlaes knows well, there was a very real recession which bottomed out in 1921 and was caused largely by a post-World War I inflationary spike in prices.

So, in her assault on (not a) Professor Nick Carraway, Shlaes picked a time when the stock market was high i.e., right before a recession, to make a misleading argument that ignores the larger picture of the stock market in the Roaring Twenties. The reality is that the Dow went up six-fold, that's 600%, over eight years from its low in 1921 to its high point in October 1929.

Dow Jones Industrial Average, 1900-present (monthly)
So yes, Ms. Shlaes, even by the summer of 1922, the market was already off to the races, having gone up significantly from where it stood one year earlier. Given that this is the only economic "fact" in Gatsby that Shlaes challenges, you'd think she'd have been able to do better (and Daisy isn't the "heroine" either, by the way). But Shlaes used the data with a very specific purpose in mind, to get readers drawn to an article with a box-office smash in the title thinking that, hey, maybe everything I've learned about the 1920s is wrong, and that this person has got the truth.

But Shlaes' real debate isn't with Nick Carraway, it's with Paul Krugman and, well, most of the economics discipline over whether laissez-faire economics or Keynesian economics is the better approach to achieving long-lasting, sustainable economic growth, and in particular which is the better approach to take after a significant economic crash of the kind experienced in 1929 or 2008.

Shlaes, after the first bit about Gatsby, then cites a litany of statistics about how middle-class and working-class life improved during the 1920s. By this point, after hoodwinking readers about Gatsby and the stock market, and bolstering her credibility as someone concerned about those in the middle -- and, by highlighting the decline in lynchings and in Klan activity as prosperity continued into the late twenties, maybe even her credibility among the Americans of color that conservatives are desperate to reach  -- she delivers the point she's been priming her readers to accept, lock, stock, and barrel.

The larger argument is about conservative economic policy. Shlaes approvingly cites the idea that "if the rich prospered, the rest might do better than before." Classic trickle-down economics. The thing is, it's bunk. Economic inequality isn't a problem just because of the growing gap between the rich and the rest by itself, but because massive inequality is the sign of an unhealthy economy, one on the brink of collapse.

Inequality reached a new high on the eve of the Great Depression before falling and remaining relatively constant until the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan moved our economic policies hard to the right. Inequality then grew again, rapidly, peaking just before the most recent crash, the Great Recession of 2008, one that, like the Great Depression, followed a sustained period of Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Do we learn nothing from history? Apparently, that's what Amity Shlaes thinks.

But back to the 1920s. Shlaes asserted that all the wonderful improvements in middle-class life she cited in her article happened because of tax cuts and other policies that allowed the rich to get richer, because of which "good ideas found the capital needed to finance them." In conclusion, Shlaes modestly suggested "it might be useful to take some of the policies of the 1920s as models for today."

Yeah, maybe we should. Conservative, laissez-faire, "pro-business" Republicans held the White House from 1921 to 1933 (and held both houses of Congress from 1921 to 1931). Having ten years to fully implement their vision, these Republicans did great for middle-class Americans, right? Again, only if we pretend that history ended in October 1929.  

USA GDP annual pattern and long-term trend, 1920-40, in billions of constant dollars, based on data in Susan Carter, ed. Historical Statistics of America: Millennial Edition (2006) series Ca9.
The above graph of Gross Domestic Product in the U.S. shows that by the time the Republican reign was finally over in 1933, and FDR began ushering in the New Deal, all of the gains brought about by -- in Shlaes' words -- "the policies of the 1920s" were gone, drowned like the Great Gatsby in the pool of the Great Depression (sorry, couldn't resist). In fact, our GDP by the time FDR took office was, wait for it, just about right back down to where it was in the summer of 1922, the summer when Daisy visited Gatsby over in West Egg.

What was that, Ms. Shlaes, about economic myths and the 1920s?

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

In a recent email exchange, an acquaintance wrote, “I’ve got nothing but love for my culture and my people.” As someone who writes about ethnic and national identity, this statement immediately piqued my interest.

When spoken by a person of color, as it was in this case, this sentiment comes across as an uncomplicated and straightforward expression of ethnic and cultural pride. America has seen progress recently, but negative depictions of people of color have permeated U.S. history. As a result, some Americans from groups that have faced discrimination push back against these negative depictions by expressing strong feelings of pride and solidarity. As a white, Jewish American, I considered how I express my relationship to my own culture, ethnicity, and national identity.

I benefit in countless ways from being seen as white, no matter my self-identification or feelings of affinity with white people as a group. My whiteness is complicated by the fact that I’m Jewish, which means many racist white nationalists don’t see me as white. And my Jewishness is qualified by my nonconformity to Hasidic tradition, which would clearly mark me as such were I to follow it.

I identify with Jewish history in a personal way, but would I say Jews are “my people,” and that I love their/our/my Jewish culture? I certainly feel more connection to the American Jewish community than I do to whites in general because of our shared history and cultural similarities. When I think of American Jews, and even Jews worldwide, I think in terms of “us.”

Ultimately, being an American is my primary group identity. I strongly identify as a part of this group whose shared, multifaceted history is defined by cultural, religious, ethnic, sexual, and ideological diversity and a commitment to democratic principles. I can’t say I love American culture in its entirety, but I believe Americans have an obligation to one another to contribute to a common good. I believe in a culture that demands respect for our differences of opinion and desire for freedom. This isn’t love in the way I love my family and closest friends, but it is a meaningful feeling of community and national pride.

Loving my fellow Americans doesn’t mean I feel negatively toward people from other countries, and it doesn’t mean I think America is perfect. I’m fully aware of this country’s strengths and its flaws, of the tremendously positive and the terribly harmful treatment America has shown to Americans and foreigners alike. Taken as a whole, I identify with American history much like Michael Lind: “Even if our genetic grandparents came from Finland or Indonesia, as Americans, we are all descendants of George Washington—and his slaves.”

Feeling connected to my country and to all its citizens is consistent with my progressive beliefs, in particular because Americanness can be — even though it hasn’t always been — an inclusive form of national identity. Americanness can offer a model whereby people of every imaginable background see themselves as part of a single community, a model that stands in powerful contrast to fundamentalism and hate. That’s the kind of identity that builds bridges rather than walls. And that’s the kind of America I can wholeheartedly love.

Cross-posted at In The Fray.

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

President Obama gave an absolutely terrific speech yesterday in Israel. ProgressiveLiberal's post from yesterday was on the front page for 24 hours, and with very good reason.

The key section of the speech occurred when the President declared that Israelis need to truly understand how Palestinians see the conflict differently than they do. Obama urged them to "put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes."

I don't want to go over the same ground as ProgressiveLiberal has already covered so well. Instead, I'll point out that this concept of putting oneself in the shoes of one's opponent or even just someone different from oneself, i.e., empathy, is at the heart of Obama's entire worldview. He has drawn on the idea of empathy repeatedly as part of his push to encourage and invigorate ties across lines of race, culture, religion, region, etc. in this country. As I've written in my book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, empathy is thus central to his call to strengthen our sense of being one American people.

In The Audacity of Hope Obama spoke of empathy as being “at the heart of my moral code” and defined it as “a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”

In a commencement speech at Southern New Hampshire University in 2007, Obama lamented:

“our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room." (These remarks appear in a number of other speeches as well, including commencement addresses at Xavier and Northwestern.)

Obama addressed empathy and the importance of understanding the perspective of others once again at the University of Michigan's commencement in 2010, where he called on Americans to engage:

"in different experiences with different kinds of people. If you grew up in a
big city, spend some time with some who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself
only hanging around with people of your race or your ethnicity or your religion,
broaden your circle to include people who’ve had different backgrounds and life
experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and in the process, you’ll help make this democracy work."
So now the President has spoken to Israelis and Palestinians, and I hope he has achieved his goal of increasing empathy for those on the other side of the conflict. It is a worthy goal and one that can help push the two sides closer to peace. At this point, I want to pivot to what comes next. The next move has to come from the leaders in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Currently, the two leaders and their respective governments are not engaged in direct negotiations. I would argue that instead they are engaged in a contest to see which one can be more stupid. At this point, it's a tie. Abbas has refused to negotiate until Israel stops building new settlements on disputed land in the West Bank. Netanyahu has refused to stop building settlements as a precondition to negotiations. As I said, a stupidity contest.

I should note that there was an Israeli halt in settlements (there are far too many qualifications to discuss in detail here, the main one being settlement building in disputed East Jerusalem) for 10 months in 2010-11, and Abbas only came to the table to begin direct negotiations after 9 months had elapsed. When the halt period ended, Israel refused to extend it and resumed building settlements, and Abbas walked away from the negotiations. Wikipedia covers this with a well-sourced entry here.

I'd consider both of those moves incredibly stupid. Either way, the easiest way to achieve a halt in the building of new settlements is to start and achieve progress in the negotiations. The Israeli move to continue building new settlements was obviously motivated by a narrow (and stupid) definition of self-interest. The Palestinian refusal to negotiate while settlements are being built doesn't make strategic sense to me, but now Abbas has backed himself into a corner of his own making. Irrespective of that, he needs a way out that doesn't undercut his position among his own people.

Can something be done to cut this Gordian knot? A NYT article from Wednesday offered the possibility of doing so. Apparently, Abbas is going to propose to Obama that Netanyahu:

"Can pledge to you secretly that he will stop settlement activities during the period of negotiations...(He does not have to announce it.)”
Netanyahu must realize that Abbas needs to be able to show his people that his renunciation of violence can bring about results, which include a halt to settlements in the near term and a real solution to the problem, meaning a viable Palestinian state. For Israel, a solution means a final and full peace agreement signed that ends the conflict.

Netanyahu needs to respond in a positive way to the quite reasonable scenario laid out in the above document. Abbas has to realize, and it's clear from these documents that he already does, that getting back to the negotiations is the quickest (and maybe only) way to get a settlement freeze. I'm not interested in debates over the legality or morality of the settlements, I'm interested in finding a solution both sides can accept.

President Obama has already played a very positive public role, through his speech, in encouraging a settlement. It looks like now it's time for him to play a private, out of the spotlight role as well. But ultimately it's going to be the two peoples and the two leaders who have to make peace.

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz
Dare we dream? After seeing his conservative party alliance shrink from forty-two to thirty-one seats in last month’s elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now trying to put together a parliamentary majority. Did these losses chasten him? Will they lead to a real change in his policies? He has certainly made a splash with his first move. His selection of long-time political foe Tzipi Livni as justice minister and, more importantly, as head of the government’s official negotiating team (should negotiations ever resume) with the Palestinians, is being praised by some as a potentially important shift and dismissed by others as window dressing.

Livni began her career on the right, in Netanyahu’s Likud party, but moved leftward on the Palestinian issue and became one of the founding members of the centrist Kadima party in 2005, serving as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she headed the team that negotiated directly with the Palestinian Authority and, while it did not succeed, her team came far closer to a final peace agreement than Netanyahu’s government has thus far. Later Livni became head of Kadima before being ousted and leaving in 2012.

Last November she formed Hatnuah, another centrist party that included some from Kadima as well as two former leaders of the Labor Party. Hatnuah won six seats in the January election and has now become the first party to join Netanyahu’s coalition government. Upon her selection, Livni said that she wouldn’t be joining the government if she didn’t “trust” that Netanyahu was serious in his “commitment to the peace process.”

There are few issues more gut-wrenching to follow than the matter of Israel-Palestine. As a Jew, I feel a personal stake in Israel’s survival. As a historian (who teaches a class on the topic), I am well aware of the deeply held beliefs, opportunities for peace missed, and, yes, immoral actions taken by both sides. As an American, I know how important it would be for my country’s interests and security if the Israelis and Palestinians could come to a final peace agreement. And as a human being, I want suffering reduced whereever possible, and for people to be able to live their lives with dignity, justice, freedom, and security wherever possible.

Watching events unfold in Israel-Palestine in recent years has not given me much hope. Yet even after the anguish I felt hearing about Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, and after the Camp David talks in 2000 failed to produce an agreement, and after countless other disappointments and tragedies, I still can’t give up on the idea that these two peoples can make peace.

So that’s where I’m at when I think about what it means that the ultra-hawkish Netanyahu has turned over the “peace portfolio” to someone like Livni, who most observers see as far more committed to pursuing a peace treaty than the Netanyahu of recent years. Apparently, leaders of the Israeli settler movement think that Livni’s new position in the cabinet is a bad thing for their interests, and for Israel’s, as they define them. The far-right Jewish Home party — which rejects the idea of a Palestinian state — also hates Livni’s appointment. As someone who cares about that country, my thinking is that anything the settler leaders or the hard-right parties think is bad has a pretty good chance of being good for Israel. The reaction from Palestinian leaders to Livni’s appointment has been essentially mute, as they are clearly waiting to see the whole of Netanyahu’s coalition.

In Israel-Palestine, predicting the failure of peace talks has always been a safe bet. My head tells me that this is unlikely to change anytime soon, despite what I believe is Livni’s serious desire for a real deal, a desire I also believe is matched by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and moderate colleagues like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. As for my heart — well, it’s been broken enough times on this issue that I should know better. But despite this, and despite the fact that Livni joining the Israeli cabinet doesn’t change the fact that the Palestinians also bear responsibility for previous failures as well as the current stalemate, I have some rational basis for my hopes.

Perhaps Netanyahu has enough credibility on the right to actually bring reasonable hawks around to supporting the concessions necessary to make peace, to do what Nixon did in going to China and meeting with Chairman Mao. Netanyahu’s appointment of Livni to lead his negotiating team is at least a signal that he intends to make a serious effort on that front. By no means am I deeply optimistic. But at least I’m less pessimistic than I was before the elections. At this point, that’s real progress.

Cross-posted at In The Fray

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

What's a 'skeeter'? If you loved 'birthers' and 'truthers', well I've got a new one for you. Read on:

So, is there nothing left for right-wingers to deny about President Obama? Apparently not.

You see, Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, spoke out this week and expressed her doubts regarding the veracity of President Obama's recent statements that, not only does he respect the rights of gun owners, he has in fact himself enjoyed skeet shooting with friends occasionally during visits to the presidential retreat at Camp David. In fact, Rep. Blackburn is actually part of a "chorus of skeptics" -- I've dubbed them 'skeeters' -- who are questioning whether the President has ever really participated in skeet shooting. We definitely need a hearing. Maybe Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul want to participate. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Back to Rep. Blackburn.

"If he is a skeet shooter, why have we not heard of this? Why have we not seen photos? Why hasn't he referenced this at any point in time?" Blackburn said Monday on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."

(snip) "We had this debate that is ongoing," Blackburn said. "You would have thought it would have been a point of reference."

Rep. Blackburn and other "conservative blogs and news outlets" obviously think that Obama is, well, lying about the whole skeet shooting thing because it will help him pass gun control legislation. Seriously? Seriously.

But let's take Rep. Blackburn's concerns to heart for a minute (please try to stop laughing). Why haven't we heard of this whole skeet shooting thing before? Where are the photographs?

"Because when he goes to Camp David, he goes to spend time with his family and friends and relax, not to produce photographs, [White House press secretary Jay] Carney said."

Do you think such an explanation will satisfy this "chorus of skeptics"? Doubtful. I wonder if Rep. Blackburn will call Sheriff Joe Arpaio and see if he can take time off from investigating the President's birth certificate to look into this pressing matter.

I'm hoping #skeeters will soon be trending on Twitter, but in any case this 'incident' shows just how nuts right-wing nuts really are.

PS-I'm appearing on "The Real Side" with Joe Messina today (Friday), 2:30PM Pacific/5:30PM Eastern time. You can listen live here, or on terrestrial radio at: KHTS: AM 1220 in Santa Clarita, CA, or KCAA: 1050 AM in Loma Linda/Inland Empire, CA.

You can call in at: 855-REAL-JOE (855-735-5563)

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

First of all, nowhere in Barack Obama's Inaugural Address, which I've written about here (thanks to Greg Dworkin for including that article in today's Pundit Roundup), did the President use the words "un-American" to describe his opponents.

Obama did, however, ground his inclusive conception of our national identity and, yes, his progressive political philosophy securely in our American traditions and history going back two centuries. Mr. Hazelwood takes umbrage? Fine. I could point out something about the pot calling the kettle black, and discuss the innumerable examples where conservatives have claimed that they are the "true" Americans and that anyone who disagrees on, say, I don't know, the Iraq War, are "unpatriotic."

But I'd rather take the high road. Barack Obama in his Inaugural Address did something that great American speeches have long done. Let's look at the most important speech in American history, for one: The Gettysburg Address.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

In other words, Lincoln explained that our definition of America requires an end to slavery and acceptance of equality. Those who disagree don't get America, don't get American values. This speech changed fundamentally changed how we understand our national identity, as historian Garry Wills demonstrated.

Let's also look at Martin Luther King Jr., who always knew how to wrap the American flag around his ideas. In his classic Letter From A Birmingham Jail, he declared:

“The goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”
And in his "I Have A Dream" speech, one that rivals the Gettysburg Address in importance, he called on America to support the movement for Civil Rights because that movement is consistent with America's values:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

Clearly, Rev. King is saying: My side is the "American" side, and Bull Connor is on the, well, "un-American" side. Same thing Lincoln said at Gettysburg.

Now, if Mr. Hazelwood is accusing President Obama of doing that, well, guilty as charged.

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Reposted from Ian Reifowitz by Ian Reifowitz

Phil Mickelson is one of the top golfers in the world. He's also now saying this:

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Phil Mickelson said he will make "drastic changes" because of federal and California state tax increases.
Mickelson says he might retire or move from California.
"I'm not sure what exactly, you know, I'm going to do yet," Mickelson said. "I'll probably talk about it more in depth next week. I'm not going to jump the gun, but there are going to be some. There are going to be some drastic changes for me because I happen to be in that zone that has been targeted both federally and by the state and, you know, it doesn't work for me right now. So I'm going to have to make some changes."
Conservative bloggers are already gloating about how this is some kind of sign that Obama, the big meanie who loves to stick it rich people (even though he is one of them), is going to destroy capitalism or some other such nonsense.

Of course, Mickelson, who is a Republican according to a number of sites that list "Republican Celebrities," describes his tax situation in notably false terms.

"If you add up all the federal and you look at the disability and the unemployment and the Social Security and the state, my tax rate's 62, 63 percent,"
Whoa there! We're all entitled to our own opinion, but not our own facts, as the late Sen. Moynihan once said.

Mickelson, according to the New York Times article on this same subject, earned $47.8 million last year, $43 million of which came from endorsements, ranking him 7th among all athletes.

So, let's do some math. Mickelson mentions Social Security, but of course people only pay Social Security taxes on the first $110,000 of earnings. With earnings of $47.8 million in 2012, Mickelson pays essentially 0% toward Social Security. His California income tax rates did go up retroactive to 1/1/12, and his rate is 13.3% on income over $1 million, up from 10.3% before the tax increases. The California increases sunset after 7 years, it is worth noting. Medicare taxes (which are not capped and apply to the whole of one's income) will be 2.35% (or 3.8% if he is considered self-employed, which he may well be) for Mickelson in 2013, 0.9% of which is an increase kicking in on 1/1/13.  Add the new federal rate of 39.5% (up 4.5% for income over $450,000 for a family) for the top bracket (most of Mickelson's income falls into the top bracket for state and federal purposes), his actual income tax rate on income over $1 million would be about 55% -- or 57% if he is self-employed -- and lower on the rest of the income. Nothing to sneeze at, but not the 62 or 63% he claimed. (Note: there are some other increases on federal capital gains taxes, which nonetheless remain taxed at a much lower rate than ordinary income, so any capital gains earnings would bring his income tax rate down).

Plus, of course, any accountant who can spell R-O-M-N-E-Y can get Mickelson's effective tax rate, i.e., what he actually pays, down significantly from that 55 or 57% rate.

Would Mickelson actually retire from golf because of an 8.4% increase in his federal plus state income tax rate plus Medicare rate? Maybe. But who cares? Some other golfer will simply earn the money he'd have earned. Are we saying that to avoid "losing" Phil Mickelson's golf career we shouldn't raise those taxes on high incomes and instead cut more from schools or roads or health care? Because it is either/or folks, especially thanks to the deficit scolds out there.

And remember, only 10% of Mickelson's income is from playing golf, the rest is from endorsements. He'd still likely get plenty of those for years to come. Arnold Palmer (age 83) is still raking in endorsement money from his golf playing days. And would Mickelson move from California to avoid the lousy 3% in state tax increases? He has three daughters under the age of 14. Is he going to move them out of school to another state to avoid paying 3 lousy percent more in taxes? If so, I can think of a few choice adjectives I'd call him. Come on.

But Mickelson's entire statement on this matter is part of a larger conservative meme about tax hikes and people going Galt. If taxes are too high, we supermen just won't work anymore. We'll take our ball and go home, or just move to another state, crippling any state government that raises taxes.

Here's what actual research shows:

Opponents of raising tax rates on high-income households often argue that sensitivity to marginal tax rates is so extreme that those affected will vote with their feet and depart for states where they would pay lower income taxes or none at all. The result, they contend, is to diminish, or even eliminate, the revenue potential of such tax increases.

This argument is highly exaggerated and not based on real-world evidence. Research in New Jersey and California shows conclusively that tax rate increases for high-income residents in fact raise significant amounts of revenue. And recent analysis also shows that tax increases have, at most, only a small impact on interstate migration patterns.

In fact, attempts to measure the relationship between interstate migration and tax progressivity have yielded mixed results. The most recent studies have found that higher marginal income tax rates have a very small impact on where people decide to live. Other factors such as crime rates and the natural environment play a very significant role.

For example, a September 2008 Princeton University study concluded, “the ‘half-millionaire tax,’ at least in New Jersey, appears to be an effective and efficient revenue-generation mechanism, having little impact on migration patterns among half-millionaire households.” The study estimated that New Jersey lost $37.7 million a year from people leaving the state because of the 2004 tax increase. They called this “a small opportunity cost of a tax policy that generated more than $1 billion for Tax Year 2006.” Furthermore, the study found that household income has grown rapidly among wealthy New Jerseyans in recent years despite the tax. From 2002 to 2006, the number of New Jersey households with incomes of $500,000 or more grew to 44,000 from 26,000, an increase of 70 percent.a

Similarly, an analysis by the California Budget Project found that the number of high-income households in that state has grown substantially during periods in which higher top income tax rates were in effect. According to CBP’s findings, “the number of California’s joint personal income tax filers with incomes of $200,000 or more rose by 33.4 percent between 1991 and 1995 — a period in which California temporarily imposed 10 percent and 11 percent tax rates on high income earners.” More recently, California enacted a 1 percentage point increase on income over $1 million. The tax generated new revenue totaling about $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2008 alone. Much like the pattern observed following the tax increases of the early 1990s, the CBP analysis showed the number of taxpayers with incomes over $1 million increased — by 37.8 percent from 2004 to 2006.b

An analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in May 2009 calls into question the claim that the higher tax rates passed in Maryland in 2007 and 2008 have caused millionaires to leave the state. It suggests, rather, that a drop in the number of tax returns with income greater than $1 million was due to the recession’s impact on people’s holdings. Using data from the state Comptroller’s office, ITEP found that the second highest tax bracket -- for incomes between $500,000 and $999,999 – saw a rise in returns, as did the bracket immediately below it. Since tax rates were raised on all three of these tax brackets in 2007 and 2008, ITEP states: “a far more likely explanation for the alleged disappearance of Maryland’s millionaires is that, for 2008 at least, they are no longer millionaires. Instead, their incomes may now fall in lower ranges of the distribution, thus potentially accounting for some portion of the increase in the number of returns in those ranges.” c

Other research suggests that tax changes alone have little, if any, impact on interstate migration trends. A recent study by the Harvard-trained economist Andrew Leigh, now a professor of economics at the Australian National University, found no significant relationship between income tax changes and migration patterns among U.S. states. According to Leigh, “…tax changes do not impact interstate population flows, nor do they affect the relative wages of movers.” As part of a broader examination of wage inequality and the extent to which tax structures are based on the ability to pay, Leigh analyzed migration patterns of workers along all points of the income scale. Published in the March 2008 edition of the National Tax Journal, his work concluded that people are not deterred from moving to states with tax systems under which upper-income residents pay more.d

Other studies have found that factors ranging from crime to climate play key roles in explaining state-to-state migration. For instance, Richard J. Cebula found that “non-economic factors play a very significant role in determining migration patterns.” Cebula examined the effect of both economic and non-economic conditions on interstate migration. According to his study, non-economic or “quality-of-life factors” explain much of the recent trends in cross-state migration. Recent migrants were shown to be attracted to states with large amounts of sunshine, warmer winters, and numerous state parks; the study also found that people were less likely to move to states where there are many hazardous waste sites and higher rates of violent crime.e

a Cristobal Young, Charles Varner, and Douglas S. Massey, “Trends in New Jersey Migration: Housing, Employment, and Taxation,” Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Policy Research Institute for the Region, September, 2008. Available on-line at

b The California Budget Project, “The Number of High-Income Taxpayers Increased Significantly During a Period With 10 Percent and 11 Percent Tax Rates on High-Income Earners,” August 2008. Available on-line at

c The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “Where Have All of Maryland’s Millionaires Gone?,” May 2009.

d Andrew Leigh, “Do Redistributive Taxes Reduce Inequality?” National Tax Journal, Vol. LXI, 1, March 2008.

e Richard J. Cebula, “Internal Migration Determinants: Recent Evidence,” International Advances in Economic Research, 11:267–274, 2005.

Long story short: Phil Mickelson is just another whiny, multi-millionaire Republican who has been paying record low taxes for the past decade and doesn't feel like paying a slightly higher rate now, one that would still be lower than the rate multimillionaires paid in decades past.

But we have to make sure that, whatever Mickelson does, the media remembers that it is a myth, a fantasy, that the U.S. or even individual states are going to lose people moving away to avoid a few percentage points in income taxes. The research shows that such a move is so rare as to be insignificant. The tax increases are necessary and will bring in the revenue needed to close state and federal budget gaps without further gashing needed services, education, or investments in infrastructure.

As on so many other issues, Republicans want to fear-monger the rest of us into doing things their way, to benefit the few at the expense of the many. Their most recent presidential candidate ran on just such an ideology. Thankfully, the American people knew better. That's why Barack Obama is beginning his second term. And on that note, Happy Martin Luther King Day, everyone!

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