More Housekeeping

Sorry about this, but I'm taking another day off. My arm is better, but still sore, and I want to see how it responds to another day of total rest. If that doesn't work, it might be time for the unthinkable: a trip to the doctor. See you tomorrow.

Housekeeping Note

It's obvious that the blogosphere is going to be all Giffords all the time for a while, and I just don't have a lot more to say about this. Besides, my arm is so sore it feels like it's about to fall off. I'm going to go take a handful of Tylenol and stay away from the computer for the rest of the day. See you tomorrow.

From George Packer, who notes (correctly) that he called out the left for its ugly rhetoric in the runup to the Iraq War, on where today's ugly rhetoric mostly comes from:

In fact, there is no balance—none whatsoever. Only one side has made the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement and its midterm campaign. Only one side routinely invokes the Second Amendment as a form of swagger and intimidation, not-so-coyly conflating rights with threats. Only one side’s activists bring guns to democratic political gatherings. Only one side has a popular national TV host who uses his platform to indoctrinate viewers in the conviction that the President is an alien, totalitarian menace to the country. Only one side fills the AM waves with rage and incendiary falsehoods. Only one side has an iconic leader, with a devoted grassroots following, who can’t stop using violent imagery and dividing her countrymen into us and them, real and fake. Any sentient American knows which side that is; to argue otherwise is disingenuous.

This is too obviously true to need much defense. I don't really blame conservatives for being upset at liberals trying pin the blame for the Giffords shooting on them, but the furious defensiveness of their counterattack says all that needs to be said about how uncomfortable they are with their own recent history. The big difference between right and left, as I and others have noted repeatedly, isn't just in the amount of violent rhetoric, but its source. On the liberal side, it only occasionally comes from movement leaders. On the right, it regularly does. It comes from opinion leaders, political leaders, and media leaders, and the more heated they get, the more popular they get. As David Corn says, "Republicans have institutionalized their side's craziness." This is the big difference between the two sides, and the right could really stand to engage in a wee bit of soul searching over this.

Turning It Down a Notch

For the next few days I guess we're going to be talking about political rhetoric and how toxic it's become. And it has! But the problem is still with specifics. Here's First Read, for example:

What was particularly striking to us is how activists, especially on the right, were playing the victim when there are so many actual victims — the deceased, the wounded, the grieving — in Arizona. And here’s our point from yesterday: Although it appears that Jared Lee Loughner had nothing to do with mainstream conservatism or liberalism, can’t we all agree to condemn violent, de-humanizing, or de-legitimizing rhetoric — “2nd Amendment remedies,” “Don’t retreat, instead reload,” “Gather your armies” "facism/socialism," etc. — aimed at our politicians and government institutions?

How many of those examples do you agree are violent or de-humanizing? I'd go along with the first: "2nd Amendment remedies" has a pretty obviously violent connotation. But the second is, to me, just a garden variety political metaphor. The third is even softer. I could imagine it being part of not only a standard stemwinder on the stump, I could imagine it being part of a Sunday sermon. And the fourth? It's stupid, perhaps, but the American right has been calling liberals socialists forever. It's not really de-humanizing or even de-legitimizing. It's just kind of dumb.

So where's the line? It's easy to say that the overall tone of political rhetoric is pretty toxic these days, but it's the sum total of the frenzy that's really the problem, and that's hard to pin down. Sure, specific imagery that uses nooses, guns, knives etc. aimed specifically at a campaign opponent ought to be out of bounds, but even if we got rid of all that it wouldn't change the overall atmosphere more than a trace. Frankly, I think the best advice any of us can give is: don't be an asshole. But that's pretty good advice for all walks of life, and it doesn't seem to do much good, does it?

Unlimited Bonuses for British Banks

News from across the pond:

Britain's banks were given the go-ahead tonight to pay unlimited bonuses, drawing to a close a two-year political battle to rein in the City....Ministers are instead hoping for a face-saving deal in which the banks agree to lending targets and improve the way they disclose their pay deals. One of the options being discussed is releasing information on the five highest paid individuals at each bank.

Britain's banks, of course, received even more taxpayer bailout dough than American banks. But that made no difference. The finance industry is simply unstoppable.

In the meantime, it looks like Portugal is next on the euro-chopping block. Needless to say, the cost of its bailout will be borne by taxpayers, not the finance industry. See above for the reason.

The War Against Public Sector Unions

James Surowiecki writes about the growing resentment toward public sector unions:

There are a couple of reasons for this. In the past, a sizable percentage of American workers belonged to unions, or had family members who did. Then, too, even people who didn’t belong to unions often reaped some benefit from them, because of what economists call the “threat effect”: in heavily unionized industries, non-union employers had to pay their workers better in order to fend off unionization. Finally, benefits that union members won for themselves—like the eight-hour day, or weekends off—often ended up percolating down to other workers. These days, none of those things are true.

....Even though unions remain the loudest political voice for workers’ interests, resentment has replaced solidarity, which helps explain why the bailout of General Motors was almost as unpopular as the bailouts of Wall Street banks. And, at a time when labor is already struggling to organize new workers, this is grim news. In a landmark 1984 study, the economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff showed that there was a strong connection between the public image of unions and how workers voted in union elections: the less popular unions were generally, the harder it was for them to organize. Labor, in other words, may be caught in a vicious cycle, becoming progressively less influential and more unpopular. The Great Depression invigorated the modern American labor movement. The Great Recession has crippled it.

And Felix Salmon asks:

I can’t envisage unions ever getting their mojo back in the US private sector. At the same time, however, I can envisage a world in which the pendulum of power starts swinging back towards labor and away from capital. What I’m very unclear about is how that’s going to happen....If the era of the union is over, as it seems to be, what other countervailing force will work to preserve the value of labor?

Good question! And one that's very much on my mind lately. But not one that I have any answer to.

In any case, the growing Republican crusade against public sector unions bears a very strong resemblance to the tort reform crusade of the 90s. It was a twofer for Republicans: tort reform was already a natural Republican Party issue thanks to its support in the business community, but it only became a big issue when Republicans realized that things like damage caps and mandatory arbitration would seriously eat into the income of trial lawyers, who are big contributors to the Democratic Party. As Grover Norquist put it, "The political implications of defunding the trial lawyers would be staggering."

Public sector unions are a lot like that: conservatives don't like them in the first place, and crippling them would also seriously cut into a major funding source for the Democratic Party. It's another twofer. And as Surowiecki notes, they're a ripe target right now. Conservatives succeeded spectacularly over the past few decades in destroying private sector unions (and doing considerable damage to the Democratic Party in the process), and this means that most people no longer belong to a union or even know anyone who does. Unionism in general, then, simply has very little public support these days. With that as background, it's pretty easy to understand how a recession would fuel growing taxpayer resentment toward public sector union benefits they're paying for. The next few years are going to be rough ones for public sector workers.

Your Government and You

Reading Glenn Greenwald is bad for my health. Here he is on the American government's ongoing campaign to terrorize anyone associated with WikiLeaks:

Jacob Appelbaum was first identified as a WikiLeaks volunteer in the middle of 2010. Almost immediately thereafter, he was subjected to serious harassment and intimidation when, while re-entering the U.S. from a foreign trip, he was detained and interrogated for hours by Homeland Security agents, and had his laptop and cellphones seized — all without a warrant. He was told he'd be subjected to the same treatment every time he tried to re-enter the country.

....Anyone connected to WikiLeaks — even American citizens — are now routinely detained at the airport and have their property seized, their laptops and cellphones taken and searched and retained without a shred of judicial oversight or due process.

I don't always agree with Glenn. He's simply more hardcore on civil liberties than I am and — in my opinion — too unwilling to concede some of the legitimate messiness of trying to deal with modern threats. But anyone who doesn't read him anyway is simply not facing up to the loathesomeness of what our national security state has become. The kind of harassment Appelbaum has received is hardly new, but it's become far more common and far more punitive over the past two decades. Barack Obama should be ashamed of himself for not doing more to hit the reset button on this stuff.

Autism and Birth Order

Here's the conclusion of a new study on the causes of autism:

In a cohort of more than 600,000 sibling pairs, the risk of the second child developing autism was significantly higher if there were fewer than 36 months between the pregnancies, according to Keely Cheslack-Postava, PhD, and colleagues at Columbia University in New York City. The highest risk was associated with pregnancies less than a year apart, Cheslack-Postava and colleagues reported in the February issue of Pediatrics.

Hmmm. I was born 32 months after my sister, right on the edge of the danger zone. I wonder if that explains anything?

The Wages of Sin Are....Nothing Much

Generally speaking, prosecutors are protected from lawsuits even if they break the rules. And generally speaking, this is probably a good thing. The level of prosecutorial abuse that judges routinely tolerate is outrageous, but still, a wave of lawsuits against prosecutors from everyone ever jailed wrongly probably isn't something we need.

But certainly there are limits. How about this, for example?

Prosecutors in the New Orleans district attorney's office had intentionally hidden a blood test that would have unraveled the criminal case against [John] Thompson. By a stroke of luck, a young investigator scouring the crime lab files found a microfiche copy of it. Thompson's blood type did not match. That single piece of evidence led eventually to Thompson being declared innocent of murder.

This came after 14 years on death row and one month before Thompson was scheduled to be executed. A New Orleans jury awarded him $14 million when he sued, but the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. So how did things go?

But oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the fall suggest he may not see a nickel of it. The high court has taken a dim view of suing prosecutors, and in Thompson's case, the court's conservatives led by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. questioned whether the district attorney's office should be held responsible for the misdeeds of a few prosecutors.

This isn't even fancy DNA evidence. Prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence that Thompson had the wrong blood type and blithely sent him to death row. And yet Sam Alito is disturbed at the idea that the district attorney's office should be held responsible for the misdeeds of a few prosecutors. Jesus Christ.

Why He Did It

Why did Jared Lee Loughner target Gabrielle Giffords for assassination? Nick Bauman talked today to a friend of Loughner's, Bryce Tierney, who says that Loughner held a bizarre grudge against her:

He [] describes Loughner as being obsessed with "lucid dreaming"—that is, the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control—and says Loughner became "more interested in this world than our reality."

....Tierney, who's also 22, recalls Loughner complaining about a Giffords event he attended during that period...."He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, 'What is government if words have no meaning?'" Giffords' answer, whatever it was, didn't satisfy Loughner. "He said, 'Can you believe it, they wouldn't answer my question,' and I told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that,'" Tierney recalls. "Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her."

Read the whole thing for more.