Happy Holy Week! This year, Walker Texas Ranger star and Internet meme Chuck Norris is celebrating things a little differently—by writing a special week-long series at WorldNetDaily on the dangers of creeping Islamic Sharia law in American society. Norris, who wants to make clear that he is absolutely not an Islamophobe, warns that "where Muslim religion and culture has spread, Shariah law has shortly followed":

Of course, many Americans watch on video a Middle Eastern woman allegedly caught in adultery, buried in the ground up to her head and being stoned to death, and think, "That could never happen in America." But they fail to see how Shariah law has already been enabled and subtly invoked in our country, and that any such induction like it is brought about by understated lukewarm changes, like a frog boiled in a kettle by a slow simmer.

As proof of the slow boiling of the American frog, Norris cites three examples: A Florida judge ordering two Muslim parties to settle their dispute through Islamic arbitration, per the terms of their mutually agreed-upon contract; the push by various state legislators to ban Islamic law from state courts; and an Obama adviser telling a British audience that Sharia has been "oversimplified." And that's just in the last few months! Of course, each of these points has its self-refuting flaws. Judges turn cases over to pre-selected religious arbitrators all the time, for instance, and not just for Muslims. None of the state legislators in question have produced a single example of Sharia being forced upon their states. And as for the argument that Sharia has been "oversimplified," I would just point you to the fact that a quasi-mulleted martial arts actor from the mid 1990s feels qualified to explain to a national audience what Sharia is.

Read the full piece here. Norris promises four more articles this week on Sharia (and yes, because it's the Internet, one of those columns will appear in the form of a top-ten list). While you wait patiently for part two, Norris recommends that you read David Gaubatz's novel expose Muslim Mafia, in which he exposes the Muslim Brotherhood's attempt to infiltrate Capitol Hill with interns.

Anyway, this is part of a trend for Norris: In 2009, he challenged President Obama to produce his birth certificate—promising that if he did, the entire birther controversy would "fade away like the pains of childbirth"; he also warned that the Copenhagen Climate Conference was merely an excuse to bring the globe closer to a "one world order." That prophesy came two years after he single-handedly disproved the theory of evolution.

Sharon Jones, the 54-years-strong soul chanteuse of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, has defied so many odds you'd think the band's latest album, I Learned the Hard Way, was about her. Jones swears it's not, though. The Dap Kings write her funk-filled songs. "She Ain't a Child No More," for instance, is about parents coming home, getting drunk, and beating their children. "My parents never did do that to me," the Georgia native says. "But they beat and abused themselves—that's why my mother separated from my father. He used to beat her. Maybe that's one of the reasons I haven't gotten married. I don't even have any children."

Jones is pretty much the most honest person you could hope to interview. She's openly talked about making it in the music industry the hard way. Before the New York Times dubbed her a "timeless soul singer" and Stephen Colbert called her "fierce," the raspy-voiced diva dropped her first album with the Dap Kings when she was in her forties. She tried breaking through in the music industry two decades earlier, she says. "But I didn't have the looks. This Sony guy told me I was too black, too fat, too short, and too old. Told me to go and bleach my skin. Told me to step in the background and just stay back." After getting turned down, Jones worked as a Rikers Island corrections officer, a Wells Fargo security guard, a sanitation officer, in postal offices, and as a wedding singer. "I was still doing the Wells Fargo thing when I met the Dap Kings," she says. For all those years, she knew she could really sing. "I just thought, "One day. One day." And that day came when I met those guys."

All of that hard-luck history can be heard in Jones' untrained brassy vocals. She may not write the songs, but she's grown the soul to sing them, and some other people have noticed, as well. In 2007, she landed a cameo in Denzel Washington's film The Great Debaters and sang most of the soundtrack. More recently, Jones and crew opened for Prince at Madison Square Garden. "I would have loved to have did some of this in my youth," Jones muses. "But that's okay. Probably in my youth, I wouldn't have been able to handle it." Mother Jones spoke with the "Queen of Funk" about becoming famous at middle age, how she shocked Prince, and why Tyler Perry should really put her in one of his movies.

Last week, Southern California's Orange County showed why it's a haven for people who don't find the Old South racist enough. Tea party activist Marilyn Davenport, a member of the central committee of the Orange County Republican Party, sent her fellow conservatives an email that read, "Now you know why no birth certificate." Attached was an image (at left) depicting the Obama family as apes.

"Everybody who knows me knows that I am not a racist," Davenport told the OC Weekly when questioned about the email. "It was a joke. I have friends who are black. Besides, I only sent it to a few people—mostly people I didn't think would be upset by it."

Orange County already sports considerable expertise in birtherism and racist Photoshopping. Its residents include birther queen Orly Taitz and a mayor who gained national infamy in 2009 for sending out a photo showing a watermelon patch in front of the White House. Scott Baugh, the chairman of the OC Republican Party, called Davenport's email "despicable," but added that Davenport would not be ousted from her post. The party's bylaws prevent a vote to force her to resign.


Donald Trump, the would-be Republican presidential candidate, is on a roll lately. Most notably, a recent CNN poll put the New York real estate tycoon atop the field of Republican hopefuls, including former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. But the longer Trump sticks around, the more voters learn about Trump's past—which, from the looks of it, will only hurt his presidential odds.

I reported last week, for instance, that while Trump currently opposes domestic partner benefits for gay couples, he publicly supported them in a 1999 interview with The Advocate, a leading magazine on gay issues. In that interview, Trump, who was then flirting with a presidential run on the Reform Party ticket, also called for stronger protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and said gays would be free to serve in a Trump administration. It's those kinds of positions, said Dave Peterson, an Iowa State political science professor, "that are going to do him in" with Iowa voters.

For Trump it gets worse. As a Center for Responsive Politics analysis revealed, Trump has a history of donating to Democrats. In the past 20 years, six of the top ten recipients of Trump cash were Dems. They include Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and New York's two Democratic senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer.

Here's more the Center for Responsive Politics' analysis:

Trump has also supported other notable politicians, including:

  • $7,000 to former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the "liberal lion of the Senate"
  • $7,500 to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R)
  • $5,500 to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) including $2,000 during his 2004 presidential run
  • $5,000 to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)
  • $4,000 to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD)
  • $2,000 to former President George W. Bush (R)
  • $1,000 to then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.)

Trump's donations to various political action committees and 527 groups also demonstrate his bipartisan checkbook.

During the most recent election cycle, Trump contributed $170,000 to the Republican Governor's Association, $50,000 to the ultra-conservative American Crossroads PAC, $30,400 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and $10,000 to the Democratic Party of New York.

However, of the nearly $420,000 Trump has donated to committees, the largest recipient has been the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with $116,000—or more than one fourth of his total contributions to all party and political action committees.

If Trump is indeed serious about running in 2012 (which remains to be seen), the big question is whether conservatives will forgive him for his past positions and donations to Democrats. I wouldn't bet on it.

On Saturday, right-wing luminaries Sarah Palin and Andrew Breitbart headlined a rally in Madison, Wisconsin, attended by "hundreds" of tea partiers and conservatives that was billed as a push-back against the months of progressive, pro-labor demonstrations at Wisconsin's State Capitol. Bundled up against the wind and snow, Palin defended Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker and his anti-union legislation. "He's trying to save your jobs and your pensions!" she said. "Your governor did the right thing and you won!"

But it was right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart, you could argue, who stole the show. At one point, Breitbart called the tea party "the most peaceful, law-abiding, clean-up-after-themselves group in the history of American protest," a statement met with cheers from supporters and boos from the labor activists who'd surrounded the crowd of tea party faithful. Then Breitbart pointed to those labor folks and condemned them as uncivil, verbally abusive, and liars.

Breitbart's message to them, he went on, was simple: "Go to hell. No serious. Go to hell. Go to hell."

Here's the video:

Because, of course, there's nothing hypocritical about describing a movement as uncivil and then blithely telling it to go to hell.

Apart from the vitriol, Saturday's rally made little splash on the national stage, unlike the massive pro-labor protests, attended by more than 100,000, which gripped the country for nearly a month this winter as unions and progressive groups defended the rights of public workers in the Badger State.

For the time being, the fight over the fate of public-sector unions in Wisconsin remains undecided. Walker's anti-union "budget repair" is in legal limbo, after being successfully challenged by a county district attorney. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to decide the bill's fate in the coming weeks.

U.S. Soldiers with 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division return fire during a firefight with Taliban forces in Barawala Kalay Valley in Kunar province, Afghanistan, March 31, 2011. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Cameron Boyd/Released

Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel, who mentions how cute his bleached skin looks in a recent song.

A Washington Post piece about the growing skin-lightening trend in Jamaica caught my eye last week. Apparently, bleaching is so popular on the island that dancehall stars even sing about it. The Post quotes some great lyrics from singer Vybz Kartel: "Di girl dem love off mi brown cute face, di girl dem love off mi bleach-out face."

But cute as Vybz's face might be, public health officials are not pleased. Skin-lightening products aren't well regulated in Jamaica, and some can contain dangerous ingredients like mercury. Many are made with hydroquinone, an organic compound that can cause ochronosis, a condition where skin becomes tough and, ironically, dark.

The health risks posed by hydroquinone are well known. In fact, it's banned in Japan, the EU, and Australia. But here in the US, it's still available over the counter, and it's on the FDA's list of "generally regarded as safe and effective" (GRASE) ingredients. Strange, considering that the FDA acknowledges that hydroquinone causes ochronosis and even that it's a potential carcinogen. In light of these concerns, the agency proposed taking it off the GRASE list in 2006, but little has happened since then. (Sound familiar?) "In the interim," says the FDA on its hydroquinone website, "we believe that hydroquinone should remain available as an OTC drug product." Naturally, industry groups are downplaying the ingredient's health threat with their usual zeal. For a list of cosmetics that contain hydroquinone, check out the Environmental Working Group's guide here.

If hydroquinone weren't bad enough, some skin lighteners contain mercury. Of course, they're illegal in the US, but they're often smuggled in from other countries. In 2005, a team of NYC researchers found that women with high levels of mercury reported using skin-lightening creams. They then found 12 imported creams containing mercury for sale in NYC stores. (The city has since cracked down on these products.)

Chemical concerns aside, there's a social dimension to all this, too. Check out this Indian commercial for the popular whitener Fair and Lovely (which doesn't contain hydroquinone):

Oof. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to find a culture where messing with natural skin color isn't common practice—consider the popularity of tanning salons in the US and Europe. But what's especially weird about lightening creams is that they're often made by western companies and marketed elsewhere. In this 2008 paper, UC-Berkeley ethnic studies professor Evelyn Nakano Glenn noted that even though sales of products containing hydroquinone are banned in the EU, manufacture for export to other countries is perfectly legal. Awk-ward.

My thanks to Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group for her help with this post.

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If we just left the tax code completely alone, a big chunk of our deficit problem would go away. This is not my preferred policy; I support allowing all the Bush tax cuts to expire, but allowing the Alternative Minimum Tax to blindly hit more and more families over the next couple of decades is a pretty blunt instrument for raising money. I think we can do better.

Still, it would solve a big piece of both our medium-term and long-term deficit problems. Ross Douthat, however, thinks this would be a catastrophe:

Today, for instance, a family of four making the median income — $94,900 — pays 15 percent in federal taxes. By 2035, under the C.B.O. projection, payroll and income taxes would claim 25 percent of that family’s paycheck. The marginal tax rate on labor income would rise from 29 percent to 38 percent. Federal tax revenue, which has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since World War II, would hit 23 percent by the 2030s and climb even higher after that.

Such unprecedented levels of taxation would throw up hurdles to entrepreneurship, family formation and upward mobility. (Or as the C.B.O. puts it, in its understated way, they would “tend to discourage some economic activity,” and “harm the economy through the impact on people’s decisions about how much to work and save.”)

There's a lot of cherry picking going on here designed to make this look as oppressive as possible. For example:

  • That 15% in federal taxes is mostly payroll taxes. Only about 3-4% is federal income taxes. That's pretty low.
  • In fact, it's historically low, as the CBPP chart on the right shows. Far from a higher level being "unprecedented," a higher level would actually do nothing more than get us back to the average rates of the Reagan and Clinton eras.
  • It's true that federal tax revenue has averaged 18% of GDP since World War II. But why stop there? If you looked at average tax revenue since World War I it would look even lower and modern rates would look even worse. But this is a silly game. Average tax revenue over the past 30 years, a far more representative period, has been 21% of GDP.
  • This means that if tax revenue goes up to 23% of GDP by 2030, it's risen above its 30-year average by only two points. That's hardly a catastrophe.

It's easy to play games with this stuff to make it look like it's the end of the world. That's especially true if we resort to blunt comparisons, rather than constructing a tax code that actually makes sense. But we don't have to do that.

The beginning of wisdom here is to accept that taxes are going up. The aughts were a nice holiday from history for us all, but they were an irresponsible one. America is aging, and that's something we knew back in 2000 just as well as we know it now. Even if we do a good job of managing spiraling healthcare costs, this means that our obligations to retirees are going to go up. That's not because of any insidious liberal plot, it's just because there are going to be more of them.

So 21% of GDP isn't going to cut it in the future. I doubt that 23% of GDP will cut it either. More likely, we're looking at 25% of GDP or even a little more by the 2030s. But the fact is that this just isn't that much. It's four points of GDP above our post-Reagan average. We can afford that fairly easily, and if we reform the tax code with common sense in mind the impact will be pretty moderate on everyone. Middle class families will pay a little more in taxes, the upper middle class will pay a little bit more, and the rich, who have been showered with tax cuts over the past 30 years that really are unprecedented, will see theirs go up more than that. But the increase won't be crushing for anyone.

I don't question for a second that we need to do more to rein in spiraling healthcare costs. There's just not enough evidence that we're getting good value for money, and President Obama's goal to keep future increases to GDP + 0.5% is a good one. But it needs to be more than just an aspiration, with seniors paying a crushing price in lost medical care if we don't meet it — as they would under Paul Ryan's flight of fancy. It needs to come with serious, detailed efforts to hold down costs and make sure we're funding medicine that provides real benefits.

But even if we do that, we need to prepare for a world in which we pay upwards of 25% of GDP in taxes. That's not the end of the American dream, as conservatives would have it, it's a modest increase that ensures all of us a decently secure retirement. Letting the Bush tax cuts expire on both the middle class and the rich is a good place to start, and a smart reform of the tax code can pretty easily get us the rest of the way there over the next couple of decades without causing anyone very much pain. It's time to grow up and face this reality.

American Exceptionalism

Europe, it turns out, wasn't really ready for the war in Libya they were so anxious to get into:

Less than a month into the Libyan conflict, NATO is running short of precision bombs, highlighting the limitations of Britain, France and other European countries in sustaining even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time, according to senior NATO and U.S. officials.

....Libya “has not been a very big war. If [the Europeans] would run out of these munitions this early in such a small operation, you have to wonder what kind of war they were planning on fighting,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. “Maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows.”

This kind of mockery is well deserved in one sense, but in another it just highlights the fundamental difference between the United States military and everyone else's. The reason our defense budget is ten or twenty times the size of any other country's isn't literally because our army is ten or twenty times bigger. It's because the American army is designed to project power. Most other national defense forces are designed to work only locally: either to defend against invasions or, at most, to be able to mount offensives across local borders. The only real exceptions are Britain and France, but even they have only a small ability to project power. Nobody else has much at all.

There's a quantum leap between that kind of military and the kind that the United States has. You can't get it by spending just a little more money; you have to spend a lot more money for a whole range of capabilities that local defense forces don't need. That quantum leap is the real reason the U.S. military is so much staggeringly larger than anyone else's.

So in that sense, the mockery is undeserved. Britain and France just aren't set up to project power on a large scale, and we knew that perfectly well going in. They don't have bases all over the world, they don't have heavy lift capacity, they don't have long-range bombers, they don't have a dozen supercarrier groups, they don't have huge arsenals of cruise missiles, they don't have fleets of reconnaissance satellites, and they don't have hundreds of aircraft and trained pilots at their beck and call. In fact, they're only doing as well as they are because Libya is only barely not a next door neighbor.

So sure, maybe Britain and France should have more planes and more bombs. But really, there's not a lot of point to arguing over nits like this. For them to project power effectively, even in nearby Libya, would require not just a bit of shoring up here and there, it would probably require a doubling or tripling of their defense budgets. Likewise, cutting the U.S. defense budget by bits and pieces wouldn't really change our posture. If we want to project power all over the world, it's going to continue costing us roughly what it costs us today. If we don't want to, we could cut our defense budget by two-thirds in a stroke. There's not a lot of room in between.

This is all Defense 101, but we seem to be learning it all over again in Libya. I keep wondering whether one of President Obama's goals in this operation is to somehow rub everyone's noses in this, and I suppose the answer is no. But it's a useful reminder anyway.

The recently passed budget deal includes a bunch of policy riders, including one that defunds several "czar" positions in the White House. Czars have become a tea party hot button for some reason, so I guess a few of them had to get the axe. President Obama, however, thinks that Congress has no right to tell him who he can and can't consult in the Office of the President. So he signed the bill but added a signing statement telling Congress to piss off. Jake Tapper:

“The President has well-established authority to supervise and oversee the executive branch, and to obtain advice in furtherance of this supervisory authority,” he wrote. “The President also has the prerogative to obtain advice that will assist him in carrying out his constitutional responsibilities, and do so not only from executive branch officials and employees outside the White House, but also from advisers within it. Legislative efforts that significantly impede the President's ability to exercise his supervisory and coordinating authorities or to obtain the views of the appropriate senior advisers violate the separation of powers by undermining the President's ability to exercise his constitutional responsibilities and take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Therefore, the president wrote, “the executive branch will construe section 2262 not to abrogate these Presidential prerogatives.”

In other words: we know what you wanted that provision to do, but we don’t think it’s constitutional, so we will interpret it differently than the way you meant it.

Actually, I'm curious about something here. When Congress and the President disagree about something like this, it's up to the Supreme Court to adjudicate. But how does that usually work? Does the president abide by the law but sue in federal court to have it overturned? Or does he break the law and wait for someone to sue him? What's the usual historical precedent?

UPDATE: The aptly named John Whitehouse reviews some history and concludes that Obama is in the right. However, he also says this just isn't going to be resolved by the courts:

Under no realistic scenario is this going to go to the courts, short of someone actually depriving the czars from receiving a paycheck which they then sue for. This is not a problem for the court system. This is for Congress and the executive to work out alone.

I understand that this is a real possibility, since the Supreme Court generally doesn't take sides in purely political disputes like this. That seems pretty unsatisfactory, though.