2011 - %3, July

Court: Drunken, Racist Call to Murder Obama is Covered by the First Amendment

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 3:22 AM PDT
Barack and Michelle Obama, walking with Secret Service agents on Inauguration Day 2009.

It's like your mom always told you: eat your veggies, finish your homework, make your bed, and do not ever threaten to kill the president because it's a Class D felony and you'll go to jail.

But if you mask your vulgar (or fiercely racist) death threat as a simple suggestion or prediction, you might have some constitutional cover after all.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of Walter Bagdasarian, a Southern California resident arrested over two years ago after posting a late-night tirade against Barack Obama in October 2008 (the law against threatening the president covers presidential candidates, too). According to court documents, Bagdasarian's online comments include gems like "Obama fk the niggar, he will have a 50 cal in the head soon," and "shoot the nig country fkd for another 4 years+, what nig has done ANYTHING right???? long term???? never in history, except sambos."

The defendant claims to have been wasted when he wrote all that on a Yahoo message board at 1:00 in the morning. (As we all know, hard partying has a track record of causing people to suddenly become racists.)

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 22, 2011

Fri Jul. 22, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

US Army 1st Lt. Benjamin Riley (right) and a Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul interpreter (center) meet a villager during a patrol to the Arghandab River, Afghanistan, on July 19, 2011. Riley is a civil affairs officer assigned to the team's security force and is deployed from the Massachusetts National Guard. The team's mission is to conduct civil-military operations in Zabul province to extend the reach and legitimacy of the Afghan government. DoD photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, US Air Force.

Amazon's Scorched-Earth War Against the Rest of Us

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 2:55 AM PDT
How could we NOT use this image?

What is Amazon.com's biggest advantage over its competition? One-click ordering? The ability to go shopping in your pajamas? Its enormous selection? Those all play a role, but Christopher Caldwell thinks the real answer is the fact that Amazon's customers mostly don't have to pay state sales tax:

It is the tax exemption, not the technology, that most distinguishes Amazon from its rivals. Its price advantage is the most important thing about it. The ruthlessness with which Amazon is resisting tax reform might be a measure of the centrality of tax-privilege to its business model. One can look at the collapse of Borders, not to mention independent booksellers, and ask whether government policy has undermined the bricks-and-mortar retail economy to protect a will-o'-the-wisp.

At first glance this seems silly. Can a 5-to-10-percent price difference really be such a deal breaker for Amazon? But Caldwell has a point: Amazon's ferocious response to recent attempts to get it to collect sales taxes suggests a company that thinks its life depends on not paying them. So what's going on here?

The story starts in 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that companies didn't have to collect state sales tax unless they had some kind of physical presence in the state: a warehouse, say, or the company's headquarters. At first this applied only to mail-order houses and nobody cared much. Then online retail started to take off, but as long as it was in its infancy nobody cared too much about that either. But the online world is no baby anymore: It accounts for upwards of $150 billion in sales each year, nearly 10% of the total in the United States.

With that much at stake, and growing fast, states have started to panic. Sales tax revenue is one of their main funding sources, and as more and more business goes online, that revenue starts to dry up. So they've started fighting back, only to run into an implacable buzz saw of opposition from Amazon.

Texas, where Amazon does have a physical presence, billed them for back taxes earlier this year and Amazon promptly announced that it would pull up stakes and leave. When South Carolina voted against giving Amazon a special tax exemption, Amazon announced that it would abandon a new warehouse near Columbia that was already half built. Tennessee is getting the same treatment for refusing to play ball. And when Illinois passed a law demanding tax payments based on the fact that Amazon has thousands of affiliates in the state, Amazon ruthlessly severed every one of its affiliates' contracts. In New York, which also passed a law requiring tax payments based on Amazon's affiliate program, Amazon is paying up, but only so it has standing to sue in federal court.

The latest state to insist that Amazon collect state sales taxes is California. Amazon's response? As in Illinois, they summarily severed the contracts of every one of its affiliates in the Golden State. But that's not all. Like mafia goons going to the mattresses in a gang war, Amazon immediately announced that it would spend millions of dollars to place a referendum on the ballot to nullify the new California law. And in the meantime? Law or no law, they won't be collecting sales tax in California, and that's that. Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik explains why a ballot measure is so alluring to Amazon:

In court, Amazon would have to painstakingly muster credible legal arguments and present them to a judge who, more often than not, is no fool. In a California ballot campaign, one can try to mislead voters by deploying half-truths, outright lies and flagrant deceit. Lie to a judge, and you might end up with a stiff fine for contempt and maybe jail. Lie to the California electorate, and you might win an election. Amazon hasn't ruled out challenging the California law in court, and it might do so if the referendum fails. But is there any mystery why it preferred to start with a ballot measure?

And what is Amazon's response to all this? Their CEO, Jeff Bezos, says that they support a federal law to streamline and harmonize state sales taxes. This is, needless to say, a transparent dodge: Bezos knows perfectly well that a Republican-dominated Congress will never pass such a law. In the meantime, state treasuries are slowly but steadily being bled dry thanks to Amazon's take-no-prisoners approach to paying taxes. With most states still hammered by depressed tax collections thanks to the poor economy, this means that Amazon's remorseless resistance to collecting taxes is in direct conflict with funding for schools, parks, medical care, and street repairs.

Why wage a brutal, unpopular, scorched-earth campaign like this over a few percentage points? Probably because Caldwell is right: For all its talk of technology and convenience and selection, Amazon basically stays in business because it can charge slightly lower prices than brick-and-mortar stores. A level playing field might be good for state coffers and the schools and police officers they support, but to Amazon that doesn't matter. It's nothing personal, mind you. Just business.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell Dies Today (UPDATES)

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 12:01 AM PDT

[UPDATES: For the latest developments, scroll to the bottom.]

It's over.

On Friday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will announce that they're ready to integrate openly gay and lesbian Americans into the armed forces, paving the way for President Obama to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell once and for all.

Since last December, when Obama and the lame-duck Democratic Congress passed legislation to repeal DADT, the ball's been in the Pentagon's court: The defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs were tasked with studying the effects of DADT repeal and certifying to the president that yes, it could be done. Once that were to happen, the president could certify their results, and 60 days later, uniformed service would be open to all. "The troops and their commanders are ready. Our nation's top military leaders have testified that commanders see no significant challenges ahead," Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the anti-discrimination Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said in a statement Thursday night. "The official certification to Congress that the armed forces are prepared for the end of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' should go to Capitol Hill tomorrow with the President's signature."

This Week in National Insecurity: Do Ask, Do Tell Edition

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 9:45 PM PDT
Photo illustration by Adam Weinstein; Civil War by US National Guard/Flickr Commons, flag by obeeah13/Flickr Commons

Got a debt-ceiling migraine, America? Here's your martial medicine: All the latest developments from the national security world, sure to ease your budget deficit hangover.

The sitrep:

  • Not all Republicans are against entitlements. Take Alabama, which still collects a special property tax on behalf of its war veterans. Its Confederate war veterans. ("Broadly speaking, almost all taxes have their start in a war of some sort," a historian explains.)

Money in Politics

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 9:20 PM PDT

Why do tabloid press barons have so much power in Great Britain? The Washington Post offers an explanation that never really occurred to me before:

In Britain, money plays a smaller role in politics than it does in the United States, and politicians have few ways to communicate effectively with the public outside the media filter. Television advertising plays no significant role in campaigns; for the most part, it is not allowed.

An American politician who feels aggrieved by the media can buy television spots to answer them. His British counterparts have no such option. Elected officials must depend on the good graces of newspapers for favorable coverage.

File this under "watch what you wish for," I guess. In America, vast pools of money in politics give the business community enormous power to influence elections. That's bad. But the alternative, apparently, is to get the money out and instead give media moguls enormous power to influence elections. Pick your poison.

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The Hague's Last Yugoslavian Fugitive Gets Nabbed

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 8:45 PM PDT

Last week when I was talking to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, he said, "Guess how many fugitives ICTY has?" ICTY is what cool people call the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. "ICTY has 161 indicted criminals. Guess how many of them are fugitives." I didn't know. "One! It took a long time, but there is one remaining fugitive."

Well, not anymore.

Four Programs

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 3:22 PM PDT

A reader points me to a critic who thinks that in yesterday's post about the debt ceiling I played fast and loose with budget numbers:

To me, the most damning part of this article was what the Author determined that our Government would fund. Mainly, Social Security, Medicare, interest debt, and some defense spending. According to the article, these items would take up the entire revenue stream? Yet, by the design of the programs, Social Security and Medicare are supposed to be self sufficient....The truth of course, is that the left is simply being loose with the facts. Social Security and Medicare do not use up as much revenue as this article would like you to believe.

Actually, they use up more. In fact, this whole post is worth a response since most people don't have a very good understanding of where federal revenue comes from and where it goes. But the basic figures are all easily accessible from the OMB and a few other sources, so here's a quickie summary for 2011:

  • Social Security: Roughly speaking, Social Security is self sufficient. So yes, we can assume that even if the debt ceiling isn't raised, dedicated payroll taxes will be enough to keep the program going.
  • Medicare: Medicare gets about half its financing from dedicated payroll taxes and premiums. However, the non-hospital portion, which costs about $250 billion per year, comes out of the general fund.
  • Defense + Veterans Benefits: Using the narrowest definition of national defense, this costs about $900 billion per year.
  • Interest on the debt: About $200 billion per year.

So excluding the parts of Social Security and Medicare paid for out of dedicated payroll taxes, here's what comes out of the general fund: $250 + $900 + $200 = $1,350 billion.

Now for taxes. Excluding dedicated payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, here's roughly where our money comes from:

  • Individual income taxes: $950 billion.
  • Corporate income taxes: $200 billion
  • Other taxes: $200 billion

That comes to $1,350 billion. In other words, aside from payroll taxes, our entire tax base — income taxes, excise taxes, estate taxes, customs duties, everything — is just barely enough to pay for our military, the non-hospital part of Medicare, and interest on the debt. Finis. If you want to fully fund those parts of government, as most tea partiers do, and if you also want to force an immediate balanced budget by not raising the debt ceiling, as most tea partiers do, you literally have to zero out the entire rest of the federal government. No Medicaid, no FAA, no border patrol, no FBI, no embassies, no highways, no disaster relief, no SEC, no court systems, no prisons, no national parks, no CIA, no school lunches, no medical care for children, no SNAP, no flood control, no student loans, no medical research, no nothing. You get Social Security, Medicare, the military, and interest on the debt. That's it.

Capiche?

In Case You Haven't Noticed, It's Hot

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 1:09 PM PDT

Julia Whitty had a scary post earlier this week about the new climate normal. Basically, we should all get used to the fact that the horrendous heat wave across the Midwest, South, and Mid-Atlantic region is going to be business as usual from here on out. And that includes days like today, where the temperature feels like this outside:

But how "new" is this normal? As Miles Grant points out over on his blog today, using figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's State of the Climate report, we've been dealing with higher-than-average temperatures for decades:

June 2011 was the 316th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985.

I was 8 months old at the time, so from my perspective at least, that's kind of a long time. It's a good reminder that while we are bracing for hotter times ahead, we've been on a consistent upward trend; our climate is warming, not just a few days here and there.

Oddly enough, I haven't seen Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and his family out building an igloo for Al Gore on the Mall this week.

Gridlock on Greece

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 11:46 AM PDT

Tyler Cowen takes a look at the latest European stitch-up for saving Greece:

If you had told me it was an Onion-like satire of all the previous plans, and not an actual serious plan at all, I would have believed you.

And here's Paul Krugman:

The Serious People are determined to destroy all the advanced economies in the name of prudence.

I don't really have the heart right now to go through the entire plan and try to make sense of it. Others can do a better job than me anyway. Broadly speaking, though, it demonstrates yet again that European leaders simply aren't willing or able to deal with the eurozone's problems, and probably won't be until something genuinely catastrophic happens. There's really no partial restructuring that has the slightest chance of helping Greece, but as the difficulty of getting this agreement shows, even partial restructuring is a tough sell. At some point everyone is going to have to come to grips with an all but total default from Greece, but apparently we're still some ways off from that day of reckoning.

Watching both the United States and Europe careen recklessly toward fiscal oblivion simultaneously is not something I thought I'd see in my lifetime. Just goes to show my lack of imagination, I guess.