Rick Warren at a TED talk in 2006.

I see that fellow Orange Countian Rick Warren — he of Saddleback megachurch and Purpose Driven Life fame — is in the news again. He was on ABC's This Week yesterday, and Jake Tapper asked him what he thought about President Obama's suggestion that God tells us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor....But there's a fundamental question on the meaning of "fairness." Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity.

You know, there's nothing really wrong with a Republican politician saying this. Or a Democratic politician, for that matter. My first preference for helping the poor is indeed to make sure they have decent jobs. Unfortunately, I haven't yet met anyone who has a brilliant plan for making the economy boom on such a sustained basis that jobs are always available for everyone.

But I'm a blogger, not a minister. And while I might not be an expert on the Bible, I've read enough to know that Jesus sure didn't seem to think that helping the poor robbed them of dignity. Can someone help me out here? What part of the gospels do you think Warren is referring to?

Over at the Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein riffs off a White House infographic on judicial appointments to remind us that although the Senate has been pretty obstructionist when it comes to confirming judges, it's also the case that Obama hasn't exactly been a house afire when it comes to nominating judges in the first place. Point taken! But when I clicked the link to take a look at the White House's latest graphic wizardry, I was surprised to learn that one of Obama's Supreme Court nominees was the first ever with a disability to win confirmation. I had no idea. But Google, as always, is my friend, and after first coming up dry on Elena Kagan, I discovered that Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes.

Did I already know this? Maybe. My memory is so bad that I couldn't tell you whether I once knew this and have forgotten, or whether I had never heard this before. In any case, I guess I've added two new bits of knowledge to my brain pan today: (1) Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes, and (2) diabetes is considered a disability. Live and learn.

Paul Krugman is exasperated:

A good article in the Times about the terrible state of Texas schools — followed by a truly awful comment thread, in which many readers rush to blame, you guessed it, teachers’ unions.

Folks, this isn’t an article about New York, where three-quarters of public-sector workers are unionized. It’s about Texas, where only one in five public workers belongs to a union. Blaming unions for the problems of Texas is like, well, blaming Jews for the problems of Japan: there aren’t enough of them to matter.

Actually, it's worse than that. If these guys are to be believed — and they're trying to make look unions look as bad as possible, so I suppose they are — the unionization rate of Texas teachers is 1.8%. Don't any of the folks commenting on this piece remember the boomlet last year in articles comparing California to Texas, all of them claiming that the "Texas miracle" was largely due to its red-blooded, non-unionized workforce?

If you want to have problems with teachers unions, go ahead. They're hardly above criticism. But our educational system isn't any better in states with weak or nonexistent teachers unions. In a lot of cases, it's worse.

The Washington Post has a front-page story today about the dramatic rise in justifiable homicides in Florida since they passed the nation's first Stand Your Ground law in 2005. In the first half of the decade Florida averaged 12 per year; in the second half of the decade it tripled to 36 per year. "It’s almost like we now have to prove a negative," said Steven Jansen, an official with a national association of prosecuting attorneys, "that a person was not acting in self-defense, often on the basis of only one witness, the shooter."

But mostly I was amused by this juxtaposition in the piece, which I think was unintentional:

Florida has been at the forefront of expanding gun rights for decades, ever since an NRA lobbyist named Marion Hammer, the NRA’s first female president, became a force in the state capitol in Tallahassee.

....In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house....Hammer told legislators her bill would protect citizens who simply defended themselves: “You can’t expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself and say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me, or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?’ ”

....Asked about the Martin case last week, former governor Jeb Bush, initially an enthusiastic backer of the legislation, said, “Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.”

Hammer sees no cause to refine or backtrack. Neither she nor NRA officials responded to requests for comment, but Hammer told the Palm Beach Post that officials should not be “stampeded by emotionalism. . . . This law is not about one incident. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law.”

So when it's time to pass pro-gun laws, emotionalism over a single incident is the order of the day. But when those laws go awry, we need to put on our Spock ears and soberly weigh all the facts and evidence in the cold light of day. That's good to know.

A couple of days ago Rachel Maddow highlighted an outrageous abuse of power from Michigan Republicans. Normally, it takes several months for new state laws to take effect, but a two-thirds "immediate effect" vote can cause laws to take effect right away. Lately, however, Republicans have been jamming through every law this way without bothering to actually get a two-thirds majority. They pass the bill, then do a voice vote on immediate effect and quickly announce that it's been approved. Voila. The bill is law as soon as the governor signs it.

When I first heard this, my BS meter tingled pretty hard. Maddow characterized her story as a scoop, but that made no sense. I mean, Michigan still has a Democratic Party. If this were a huge abuse of power, they'd be yelling about it, right? So what's really going on?

Well, Democrats are yelling about it. They've filed suit to halt the practice and demand roll call votes on immediate effect. But that was just recently, and Republicans have been doing this for over a year. Why weren't Democrats screaming about this a year ago?

I'm not sure what's really going on here, and what we really need is for some longtime Michigan reporter to weigh in. None of them seem to have done that yet, though, so here's a crack at figuring this out. It's not definitive by any stretch, and it's long. Sorry about that. But here goes.

First off, here's a paragraph from a Detroit Free Press article on Thursday:

Over the years, as majority control shifted back and forth, both political parties in the state House have ordered immediate effect for legislation without recording a roll call vote. Because immediate effect requires a two-thirds vote majority the practice has often frustrated efforts by the minority party to slow down legislation they oppose.

Hmmm. Let's keep going back in time. Here's the Michigan Citizen last May, back when Michigan Republicans passed a controversial emergency manager bill. It suggests that Democrats opposed immediate effect, but didn't really oppose it all that hard:

“When their own rules say they have a chance, they didn’t try hard enough,” said Henry Teusch, a member of Hood Research....House Democrats say, however, they didn’t have a chance against the Republican-led House and Senate.

....According to House legislators, there is no written rule mandating a roll call vote on immediate effect of bills. The Speaker chairing the session can “gavel through” immediate effect, ignoring a roll call vote. “We yelled against immediate effect and the Republicans put it through,” said Rep. Harvey Santana, District 10. “House rule is the decision of the Speaker to grant or give the vote ... if you control the gavel you control the outcome.”

Let's keep going. This is from an editorial in the Michigan Citizen a few months after the vote:

It is time to kick the donkey.

....Earlier this year, Rep. [John] Olumba recorded his vote against Public Act 4, the Emergency Manager law, in the House Journal. He also opposed the immediate effect of the EM law and requested a roll call vote. Although Democrats voted "no" on PA4, they did not at that time support Olumba's roll call request nor his suggestion to place their "no" vote in the House Journal. They were saving their lack of political might to oppose an issue that would, so far, affect Black cities and school districts.

This makes it sound increasingly like this really is a tradition and Democrats simply didn't object to it very strongly. But wait! Here are a couple of articles from 2007. (From ProQuest, so no links.) The first is a Detroit News piece about a difficult tax bill that passed only because of a deal that required several Democrats and Republicans in swing districts to vote for it:

And then there's Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland, one of two Senate Democrats voting against both tax proposals — the other was Dennis Olshove of Warren. Republicans insisted he vote to give the service tax immediate effect — a motion separate from the actual tax increase itself. That took 90 extra minutes early Monday. 

Anderson, who said he genuinely opposes tax increases because his constituents loath them, finally voted immediate effect for the tax, but only after Republican Sen. Roger Kahn of Saginaw had done the same. Both are in Senate districts where the split between political parties is narrow and an unpopular vote on a big issue could be costly — "vulnerable for vulnerable," he said Tuesday of his vote strategy.

In this case there was no quick gaveling of the question. Several legislators had to be arm-twisted into voting for immediate effect. Here's another Detroit News piece about Democratic efforts to move up their primary date:

With a dozen members absent on an unusual Monday session day — the first work day after the Thanksgiving holiday and deer-hunting break — the House could muster just 61 votes to give the bill immediate effect. That's 13 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed...."I think we'll get that (immediate effect) when the bill comes back to us again from the Senate," said House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, who decided over the weekend to hold Monday's vote.

Again, no quick gaveling of the immediate effect vote.

So what's the story here? If I had to guess, I'd say that gaveling through immediate effect is hardly unprecedented, and Democrats obviously didn't scream very loudly about this when the emergency manager law was passed last year. At the same time, it's also not automatic. Big, controversial bills often require a roll call vote for immediate effect, but Michigan Republicans, imbued with tea party spirit, have decided to ignore this and use it for every bill they pass.

So in some sense this is similar to Republican abuse of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. It's not outrageous in the sense that Republicans are doing something unprecedented and anti-democratic. It's outrageous in the sense that they're playing Calvinball: breaking a norm of governance by taking a tradition that was used occasionally in the past and turning it into a routine part of party politics. That's something they're pretty good at.

UPDATE: Here's another take from Eric Baerren of Michigan Liberal, a blog about politics "from a vaguely leftish point of view." If I'm reading him correctly, he says that (a) "immediate effect" is nothing new; (b) Democrats used it a lot in the previous session; (c) but that was because they negotiated compromise bills with Republicans and actually had two-thirds majorities to gavel them through. Also this:

There isn't much that can be done about the laws passed last year, when the House Democrats should have complained loudly and bitterly about the misuse of Immediate Effect. They didn't, and there's not much to be done about it since the official record makes it look like a proper tally was taken. Now, however, they're doing the right thing and pressing for actual vote tallies, which is what I frankly thought this was all about in the first place (Democrats denied the right to roll call votes, not some new and breathless conspiracy).

If this is correct, then gaveling through approval of immediate effect is no new thing, but roll call votes have always been taken if the minority party demands it. That's not happening this time, and that's what Democrats are complaining about.

UPDATE 2: Jeff Irwin, a Democratic representative from Michigan's 53rd district, responds to a question about whether Democrats did this back when they controlled the legislature:

Has this been done before? Yes. Violating the clear terms of the Constitution has become commonplace in the Michigan House of Representatives. The big difference now is that since the Senate follows the Constitution, there was always one chamber where immediate effect votes would be counted and extremely divisive bills would not earn immediate effect in the Senate.

Today, Michigan Republicans have a 2/3rds majority in the Senate as well as a simple majority in the House. Therefore, House procedure has a real impact on important issues.

Hmmm.

The LA Times reports today that gasoline prices have hit nearly $4 lately but consumers aren't really getting all that exercised about it. They suggest several reasons for this: the increase hasn't been as steep as it was in 2008; prices aren't all that high when you adjust for inflation; and people have more fuel-efficient cars these days, so they're using less gas. Also this:

"I think we all have adjusted," said Lara Clayton of Los Alamitos as she spent nearly $60 recently to fill up her 2008 Lincoln Town Car at a Seal Beach 76 station. "We just don't drive as much and we are careful to combine errands."....Having already seen prices cross the $4 barrier, motorists are less likely to become outraged when they see it happen again, said Michael Sivak, who heads the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

This rings true to me because it's similar to an observation from economist James Hamilton, your go-to guy for all questions about the effect of oil prices on the economy:

One very well-established observation is that although oil price increases were often associated with economic recessions, oil price decreases did not bring about corresponding economic booms....An oil price increase that just reverses a recent price decrease does not seem to have the same economic effects as a price move that establishes new highs....When oil prices are making new highs, we expect slower growth.

Rising oil prices on their own don't cause huge amounts of economic distress. It's only when they break through a previous high and keep on going that we get a substantial reaction. This suggests that there's a fair amount of psychology going on here, not just a pure macroeconomic response to the higher cost of energy inputs.

So what does this tell us? I think that Hamilton is talking about inflation-adjusted highs here, and our previous high (all grades/all formulations) was $4.16 in July 2008. That's equivalent to a price of $4.35 today. Right now we're at $3.99. This suggests (maybe!) that consumer reaction will continue to be "meh" unless the price of gas hits $4.35 and keeps right on going. Until then, it's just another routine headache.

Today's theme was supposed to be catblogging done entirely from an iPad, a task that seems like it ought to be fairly straightforward but decidedly isn't. And I almost did it! But there were a few minor quality control issues last night related to both Photoshop and MoJo web access, and I didn't quite have time to iron them out this morning. So this is old-school catblogging done on my old-school desktop computer. But next week for sure!

I've studiously ignored the pink slime controversy, but now that the whole thing is pretty much over and the slime industry seems to be close to collective bankruptcy, Brad Plumer brings us news that maybe it was all a big mistake. After all, the pink slime processors recover an extra ten pounds of edible beef from each cow, which means we need fewer cows to feed us all. And fewer cows means less global warming:

If those numbers are correct — and, fair warning, they do come straight from the beef industry — then a ban on pink slime would, potentially, require the slaughter of another 1.5 million cows to meet the nation’s beef needs. And, because cows are a major source of heat-trapping methane, that can have a serious global-warming impact.

How much impact, exactly? The average cow emits the equivalent of about four tons of carbon dioxide per year. To put that in perspective, the average car emits about five tons per year. So, in the worst case, a total ban on pink slime would be the equivalent of adding 1.2 million cars to the road, from a climate perspective.

Wait a second. I don't really have an axe to grind here, since pink slime doesn't disgust me much despite everyone's best efforts to activate my gag reflex over the past few weeks. It's a mere drop in the vast ocean of crap that I shovel into my body daily. Still, pink slime only cuts down on carbon if it would otherwise get thown out. But it doesn't, does it? If it doesn't get added to your Big Mac, it will just go back to being used in pet food and cooking oil. I assume that's less lucrative for the cattle industry — though I'm not sure why since cat food costs about as much per ounce as ground beef — but the effect on global warming is zero. One way or another, the stuff is all going to get used.

Or am I off base on this somehow?

UPDATE: Generally speaking, pink slime probably represents a higher value use of the raw ingredients than, say, oil or cat food. And if the industry can squeeze more value out of its cows, that will probably increase demand for cows. I can buy that. However, it's a second order effect and depends very sensitively on actual industry practices and consumer preferences. More data needed! However, if I had to guess, I'd say that the effect of pink slime on overall cow production is fairly small, not the 1.5 million that the industry estimates via simple arithmetic.

UPDATE 2: I am now going to embarrass myself by playing amateur economist. What follows might be totally off base, so real economists are welcome to scoff and tell me what I've done wrong. Here goes:

  • According to this paper, the price elasticity of beef is -0.61. So a 1% increase in the price of beef produces a .61% decrease in the demand for beef.
  • According to this report, pink slime reduces the price of ground beef by about 3 cents per pound. Roughly speaking, that's a decrease of 1%.
  • An average cow produces about 500 pounds of edible meat.
  • Harvesting pink slime increases that by about 10-12 pounds or so. Let's call it 11 pounds.
  • Total beef consumption in the U.S. amounts to about 34 million cows per year, or 17 billion pounds of beef.

So here's what we get:

  • Banning pink slime raises the price of beef 1% and therefore reduces demand by .61%. So demand goes down by 100 million pounds.
  • With pink slime gone, 34 million cows each produce eleven pounds less of edible beef. That amounts to 370 million pounds.
  • To meet demand, we need to increase production by 270 million pounds. That comes to 540,000 cows.

If this is close to right, it means that banning pink slime really does have an effect, but it's maybe a third of what the industry claims. Feel free to contest this conclusion in comments. As always, there are a bunch of additional second and third-order effects, so modeling this with any real precision is very, very hard.

Paul Waldman makes a point about the value of exposing corporate activism:

You may have heard that in response to a campaign by the progressive group Color of Change, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and now Kraft Foods have all withdrawn their support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the group that pushes conservative laws at the state level....Coca-Cola's explanation was that "Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business."

I somehow doubt that the initial decisions to join were made at the highest level....It was probably some vice-president for policy who decided he was being clever by spreading the corporation's money around to groups who would make sure that the high-fructose corn syrup could continue to flow down the gullets of every true American without the impediment of a nickel of extra taxes. But if you want to play in the arena of public policy, you're going to be subject to scrutiny. And it didn't take a boycott or protests outside the corporate offices. All it took was for Color of Change to point out to everyone that these corporations were supporting ALEC, and they went scurrying. There might be a lesson there.

This, of course, is why dark money is so important to modern political campaigns. Most big companies don't want to get a reputation for political activism. They have Democratic customers and Republican customers, and taking sides is almost always a negative sum game. If their money is publicly donated, and it's donated to a group with a clear and wide-ranging political agenda, it's going to get them trouble.

Transparency would hardly solve all the problems caused by our modern-day conservative-industrial complex. But it would help. We have to start constricting the fire hose somehow.

Matt Steinglass says that all the talk about Barack Obama being a socialist or Mitt Romney being a social Darwinist is a "reverse dog whistle." These aren't words with subtle meanings that your own supporters understand but no one else does, they're words designed simply to piss off your opponents. And it works! When you fight back against this stuff, you lose:

What liberals say: Barack Obama is not a socialist! Socialism is government control over the entire economy, not bailouts of private banks and industries that leave them private, like Obama's (which Bush started anyway)! Obamacare isn't a government takeover of health-care, it's based entirely on private insurers! That's less socialist than Medicare!
What voters hear: Obama...socialist....socialism...bailouts...Obama...Obamacare...government takeover...socialist.

What conservatives say: Mitt Romney is not a social Darwinist! He's a middle-of-the-road Wall Street executive! Just because his business success has made him rich doesn't mean he doesn't care about poor people! Social Darwinists believe poor people are inherently inferior to rich people; Romney doesn't believe that, he thinks deregulation and tax cuts will empower the poor to better themselves! Recognising that we need to cut Medicare spending growth doesn't make you a social Darwinist, Romney's just recognising budgetary reality! 
What voters hear: Romney...social Darwinist...Wall Street...rich...social Darwinist...poor people are inferior...cut Medicare...Romney.

As the old saying goes, If you're explaining, you're losing. Or, more pungently, there's the (possibly true!) story about LBJ spreading a rumor that his opponent was a pig-fucker. Aide: "Lyndon, you know he doesn't do that!" Johnson: "I know. I just want to make him deny it." If you're denying, you're losing.

This is, in general, a fraught question. When should you respond to a slur? In the internet age, it's now taken for granted that the answer is always and instantly. And maybe so. But Matt is suggesting that sometimes you're just letting your opponents mess with your head. The people pissed off by the slur are mostly true believers who aren't going to be affected by it in any case, and by fighting it you're doing nothing but bringing it to the attention of people who would otherwise just brush it off and then check to see if NCIS is in reruns tonight.

I don't expect any change to the "always and instantly" rule, but this is worth a thought anyway. Maybe there are times when it really is better to take a deep breath first.