Category: Politics

No Freedom to Discriminate

The US Supreme Court seems poised to end state bans on gay marriage in the few states that still do not permit it. Under the 14th amendment, states are not allowed to deny “equal protection of the laws” to any person. As distinctions between traditional marriage and same-sex marriage wither under scrutiny, state bans on same-sex marriage become ever more apparently a bald denial of equal protection, and will very likely be declared unconstitutional by the Court when it renders its decision in the coming months.

But just as one form of discrimination is about to be stamped out, another is trying to emerge. Such discrimination occurs in a commercial setting – when, for instance, a gay couple goes to a baker for a wedding cake, and the baker refuses. (This is analogous to racial discrimination from the Jim Crow era, when a black person seeking a room in a whites-only hotel could be turned away by the manager.) Unlike bans on gay marriage, which are perpetrated by the government, this form of discrimination is committed by private citizens – and there’s no federal law against it.

While the Bill of Rights and the 14th amendment secure individual rights against federal, state and local governments, they are generally inapplicable to the rights we hold with respect to each other. That’s why the US needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end apartheid. Under federal law, before the Civil Rights Act, the proprietor of a shop could turn away any prospective customer or employee for any reason whatsoever. One could choose to serve and-or hire blacks only, whites only, Catholics only, Jews only, etc. – and the US Constitution had (and still has) nothing to say about it. While the Constitution forbids governments from maintaining whites-only buses, or blacks-only universities, it allows private parties to do as their conscience (or lack thereof) dictates. It is because of the Civil Rights Act – not the Constitution – that private parties cannot discriminate on the basis of “race, color or creed” in the course of operating a business.

While red states lag far behind blue states in virtually every socioeconomic measure, they are great innovators of bigotry and intolerance. The Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision in Hobby Lobby gave conservatives a new not-so-bright idea. The Court held that closely-held corporations can refuse to provide their employees with health insurance coverage for birth control, if doing so ran afoul of their “religious beliefs.” In other words, a corporation’s Constitutional “religious freedom” takes precedence over a federal law requiring them to provide insurance coverage for family planning.

Enter the “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs) now working their way through state legislatures across the country. On their face, they seem innocent – as was the original RFRA passed by Congress in 1993, and signed into law by Bill Clinton. The idea was to give people the right to refuse certain impositions on the part of the government, when they conflicted with their religious beliefs. But a few red states got the notion to expand the application of these laws to private parties as well. And so if a gay couple asks a baker to bake them a cake, the baker might be able to rely on a state RFRA to refuse. The analog to Hobby Lobby is unmistakable, as it should be. Conservatives thought they found a new lipstick for their pig: by dressing up bigotry in the garb of religious freedom, maybe they could sneak it past the courts, and engender a whole new era of discrimination.

Indiana and Arkansas seemed bent on passing RFRAs that facilitated this new form of discrimination. And then something remarkable happened: corporate America rose up in opposition, and the GOP in both states were cowed into amending their laws so that bigots could not rely on them to discriminate.

The US Supreme Court has yet to hear a case on whether one can invoke ones religious beliefs to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many states afford no protections for gays from discrimination. And Congress has thus far failed to pass a Civil Rights Act for gays. But it is heartening to see this new form of bigotry beaten back by public opinion. The LGBT community assuredly needs a federal Civil Rights Act affording them full protection from commercial discrimination, nationwide. And the road to that destination just got a bit smoother.

 

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Refs:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_Freedom_Restoration_Act

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employment_Non-Discrimination_Act

4 articles with comprehensive coverage of RFRAs: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2015/04/01/the-twisted-history-of-how-religious-freedom-laws-confused-everybody/

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2015/04/02/arkansas-religious-freedom-bill/70831330/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/02/asa-hutchinson-arkansas-rfra_n_6995826.html

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/02/indiana-religious-freedom-law-deal-gay-discrimination/70819106/

http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/employment-non-discrimination-act

 

Nuts over Water in California

California’s worsening drought has gained national and international attention. But what most reporting fails to convey is that California has the all water it needs for double, if not triple, its present population of 40 million – even in the worst drought in recorded history. That’s because the water shortage is not driven by the demands of the resident population, nor by industry generally. California’s water problem is an agriculture problem. Parsing it further, it is an almond and alfalfa problem.

As a matter of economics, the government is treating water like a public good, instead of like the commodity and production factor it truly is. Though water in California is getting scarcer, the price farmers pay for it is holding steady. And so instead of adapting to less water-intensive crops, they have gone right on producing the most water-intensive crops on the planet, planting more and more acres of them.

California’s 40 million people and non-farm businesses combined consume just 20% of the state’s water supply. The rest goes to agriculture. 10% of the entire California water supply goes to almonds alone. Another 10-15% goes to alfalfa. The math could not be weirder: alfalfa and almond production use more water than all of California’s residents and non-farm businesses combined. If Sacramento passed a law that made it illegal to water almond orchards or alfalfa fields, the water crisis would end that same day. You could double the size of Los Angeles too, and you’d still have enough water for every other purpose.

The problem with almond trees is that they are especially thirsty: it takes about 2100 gallons to make a pound of shelled almonds. By comparison, it takes just 300 gallons to get a pound of chicken, or 160 gallons for a pound of corn. In a healthy market economy, as water becomes more scarce, it will also get more expensive. Almond production should become less and less profitable, and shift to locales with cheaper water supplies. Water-stressed areas will adapt by planting crops that need less water. But California farmers are not asked to pay market prices for the water they consume. When deciding which crop to plant on a given field, the price of water simply doesnt factor in. And so, perversely, as the drought has worsened, almond production has increased – to nearly double what it was 20 years ago.

The State Water Project (SWP) is a massive state-run complex of reservoirs, aqueducts and dams that distributes water throughout the state, to cities and farmers alike. Its pricing scheme tells the whole story. Farmers in the central valley pay SWP about $50 per acre-foot of water. (3 acre feet are about one million gallons.) As water becomes more scarce, SWP does not auction it off to ensure that it goes to its most productive use. Instead, farmers either get water at a fixed price, or they dont, based on seniority. And so farmers keep on planting almond trees because they yield the best return per acre – because SWP makes water cheap for them. By comparison, Los Angeles pays SWP about $300 per acre-foot of water out of the same system. At that price, almonds cannot be grown. Desalinization plants produce water for about $2000 per acre-foot. At that price, farming is impossible.

It is fairly observed that almonds are California’s top agricultural export, more than double wine by gross sales. But agriculture is a very small part of a large, diverse state economy, accounting for less than 2% of California’s gross state product (GSP). Almond production itself is just 0.2% of GSP. But politicians are timid in their dealings with the powerful agribusiness lobby. People on the coasts are instead asked to conserve and pay for outrageously expensive desal projects and-or environmentally messy new dams and reservoirs, simply because politicians are afraid to ask farmers to pay the true price of the water they are using.

Agriculture in the Central Valley doesnt need to come to a dramatic end. But it does need to change, simply because the present practice is unsustainable. Taking shorter showers and washing your car less often is not going to do it. Spending billions on desal so that farmers can send almonds to China and alfalfa to Japan is sheer foolishness. We can be heartened that even in the worst drought in California history, there is still plenty of water to go around. It seems almost too obvious to observe that, particularly in California, water has value – and the state must let the markets reflect that value, to let economic actors make decisions based on real-world scarcities. Water welfare for farmers must end.

 

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Refs:

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/05/_10_percent_of_california_s_water_goes_to_almond_farming.html

http://www.ecology.com/2014/08/29/water-intensive-food-impact-california-drought/

http://westernfarmpress.com/bullish-almond-market-reflects-concerns-over-crop-size-water

http://westernfarmpress.com/tree-nuts/almond-supplies-will-continue-tight-even-big-2013-crop

http://westernfarmpress.com/tree-nuts/growers-balance-record-high-price-2014-harvest-against-uncertain-water-prospects-next-year

http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25859513/nations-largest-ocean-desalination-plant-goes-up-near

http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_State_Water_Project#Controversy_and_modern_issues

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-california-almonds-20140112-story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/wests-historic-drought-stokes-fears-of-water-crisis/2014/08/17/d5c84934-240c-11e4-958c-268a320a60ce_story.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_California#/media/File:Gross_Domestic_Product_of_California_2008_%28millions_of_current_dollars%29.svg

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/magazine/californias-central-valley-land-of-a-billion-vegetables.html

 

The Grand Old Hostage Party

The nation’s creditworthiness isnt a partisan issue. No one – save perhaps a few tea party crackpots – wants to see the US default on its statutory obligations to its creditors, most of whom are American citizens and corporations. But in 2011, and again in 2013, that didnt prevent the GOP from threatening to force a default if its demands werent met.

These were particularly bizarre episodes in American politics. The two major parties agree on many fundamental matters of governance, covering the vast majority of public spending: education, social security, defense, medicare, highways, agriculture, etc. Debate primarily occurs on smaller spending issues. And resolution usually involves compromise, where each party gets some of its desires met and concedes some to the other party.

The debt-ceiling crises of the recent past were different. Instead of the usual “give us this in exchange for that”, the GOP tried “give us this or else.” Specifically, the GOP threatened to force the US to default if its demands werent met. To be clear: default is not a GOP policy goal. It’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. In fact, there’s nothing preventing Democrats from using exactly the same tactic: e.g., give us a public option for health insurance, or we’ll make the US default; raise taxes on investors, or we’ll refuse to fund the Pentagon. Easy-peazy.

Even though the debt-ceiling crises were resolved before the US defaulted, the GOP ploy imposed real harm on the US, which saw its creditworthiness downgraded for the first time in history. Estimates of the costs to the country as a consequence run into the billions.

Analogies to hostage-taking are apt. Hostage takers commonly have no desire to harm their hostages. Rather, they use the credible threat of harm to extort what they can from the people who do care. This leads us to the most remarkable insight to come out of the debt ceiling crises: The GOP would only use such tactics because they believe Democrats care more about the nation’s well-being than they do. Try imagining a disagreement between two parents, in which one parent threatens to drown a child in the bathtub if they dont get their way. It’s the same tactic in a different setting, and, again, it only makes sense if the parent making the threat believes the other parent to be more concerned about the child.

Today the GOP is trying the same ploy with a new hostage – threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unless their demands are met. Again, shutting down DHS is not a policy goal – it’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. A shutdown would compromise the safety and security of ordinary Americans, impairing the Department’s ability to control the borders and prevent domestic terrorism. And of course any would-be terrorist can time their plans to exploit the situation.

The GOP’s venality cannot be overstated. Keeping in mind that Democrats are entirely able to use the same strategy – meet our demands, or else – the reason why one party has done it 3 times in 4 years, while the other party hasnt tried once, shows that the GOP itself believes Democrats to be more committed to the nation’s well-being than are they. Many of us have long suspected that conservatives had greater fealty to their empty, half-understood ideals than to the country those ideals were meant to serve. But now we know conservatives think so too.

 

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Colbert’s Last Report

The Field Guide acknowledges with regret the passing of the Colbert Report, a fine, rare, intelligent satire, which ended its ten year run yesterday. Stephen Colbert, the show’s host and creator, is departing to take over for David Letterman as host of the Late Show. While we’re sure that Colbert’s satirical wit will carry over, and look forward to enjoying its new facets and forms, the end of the Report all but surely closes the book on the character Colbert has played to perfection for a decade: the quintessentially obtuse, self-righteous and self-satisfied cable-news conservative.

It is not often enough observed that among pundits, liberals and conservatives are readily distinguished by their tone alone. There has never been a conservative equivalent to Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher or Al Franken – nor could there ever be. Conservatism is tedious business, and is as much defined by its monotonous, pseduo-religious humorlessness and fury, as liberalism is defined by wit and nuance. Though in fairness to conservatives, it isnt easy to tell a joke while wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross….

Take away the pompous self-righteousness, anger and indignation of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and little is left behind but a wool suit. Conservative national candidates are worse: the likes of Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Santorum are too shallow and slow-witted to deliver a punchline, much less blow a sax or croon a few bars of Barry White. When one comes across the similitude of actual intelligence among conservatives – in Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gingrich, Will or Krauthammer – invariably is it tinged with what one can only describe as “evil” – because, we infer, one who knows much must also know better.

Most conservatives lack the sensibility to be properly envious and bemoan the fact that great political satirists have always been liberals. Those of today build on the groundbreaking work of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior and George Carlin, among others, who opened up new realms to commentary, using humor as a subterfuge to draw attention to issues that the public would be happier to ignore. To appreciate an irreverent approach to matters delicate and-or contentious, one must have a certain remove and an intelligence that, frankly, is rarely seen among conservatives, for whom taking things too seriously is seen as a virtue. However their knitted brows are a poor substitute for genuine seriousness, which brings with it the patient diligence needed to push inquiries beyond the easy and superficial.

Conservative pundits offer excesses of solemness and anger in place of real perspicacity, and as well a fog in which to hide the internal inconsistencies of their beliefs and the mutual antagonisms of their policy positions. Likewise does the humor and irony common to so many liberal commentators flow from a common source: they are the hallmarks of intelligence itself, which readily perceives the contradiction in all things, and humanity’s manifold imperfections. With those recognitions, compassion and comprehension naturally displace anger, and the intellect is freed to enjoy the variety, for good and bad, that is the spice of life.

And so we wish Stephen Colbert success as he moves on, mournful for the close of a splendid chapter, hopeful for one he begins anew on a bigger stage.

 

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Editor’s note: the winter holidays are upon us, and the Field Guide will only be posting intermittently between now and early January. We wish you a Merry and a Happy, and hope you’ll check in with us now and again.

A Big Deal on Climate

The details are barely in, but it seems, at long, long last, that the number 1 and number 2 world economies – also the number 2 and number 1 world polluters – have finally come to an agreement on carbon emissions. This is such a big deal, and such good news, that conservatives are tripping over themselves to take a giant dump on it – as a preemptive first strike, since this deal is poised to take a giant dump on them.

That’s because conservatives for years have used China as a shield to avoid serious discussion of the issues related to climate change. Cap and trade, the subsidization of renewable energy sources, new EPA standards on greenhouse gases: name a climate-change initiative, and you can line up conservatives around the block to oppose it, with China the first and last word they utter. They’ve been telling us for years that the US would be a sucker to work toward any reduction in emissions, because the US would merely be encouraging Chinese polluters – with the logic that whatever the US doesnt pump into the atmosphere, the Chinese will pump extra to compensate, taking American jobs and profits along the way.

China, for their part, have long opposed adhering to a common set of standards with the developed West, reasonably asserting that (1) present atmospheric CO2 levels are chiefly attributable to the past activity of Western economies, not China; and (2) unfettered Chinese development has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and promises to lift hundreds of millions more – just as it did in the West over the past two centuries.

The rest of the world has thus been held hostage to the intransigence of the world’s two largest economies and polluters. After all, any deal on climate change that doesnt include the US and China leaves out nearly half the world’s emissions and half the world’s economy.

But everything changed when US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that they reached agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. China has finally agreed to capping emissions, while the US has agreed to steeper reductions. And now there is every reason to be optimistic that the US, China, and the rest of the world can hash out the deal that has long eluded them, when the climate summit meets in Paris in late 2015.

Obama seems ready to do an end-run around the US Senate, which is now controlled by conservatives, and headed by Mr. Coal himself, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. Any further international deals on climate are likely to be styled as “Agreements” – as opposed to “Treaties” – further to a 1992 treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Treaties require 67 votes in the Senate, where even 50 are now impossible. In past decades, what was once the world’s preeminent deliberative body could have been relied upon to see past partisan posturing on the most critical issues of the day, to at least have an intelligent debate. No more: the cancer that is conservatism has made the US Senate so dysfunctional that it cannot even meaningfully address matters concerning the planet’s long-term ability to support life.

 

Refs:

http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/11/awkward-supercut-republicans-using-china-excuse-climate-inaction?utm_source=huffingtonpost.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=pubexchange_article

http://news.yahoo.com/angry-gop-backlash-obamas-historic-climate-accord-171428262.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/us/politics/obama-pursuing-climate-accord-in-lieu-of-treaty.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/13/world/asia/deal-on-carbon-emissions-by-obama-and-xi-jinping-raises-hopes-for-upcoming-paris-climate-talks.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/13/opinion/climate-change-breakthrough-in-beijing.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Framework_Convention_on_Climate_Change

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto_Protocol

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post%E2%80%93Kyoto_Protocol_negotiations_on_greenhouse_gas_emissions

 

 

 

 

 

Quit Sulking and Party Like It’s 2016

There comes a time when circumstances demand a people, party or ideology to pull back and reconsider its premises and positions. For liberals, this is not that time. The so-called Republican Wave of 2014 was a perfect storm that is not likely to be repeated anytime soon. In fact, 2016 stands to be a Liberal Wave of even greater magnitude. So quit sulking, and get ready to fight the family fascists over Thanksgiving dinner. The election past was disappointing, but many of its specifics point to good things ahead.

We begin by observing that the change in Senate leadership changes nothing. Before the election, the two parties had to compromise to pass any legislation. Since legislation requires the president’s signature, that has not changed. Looking at the individual Senate seats that went red, surely the losses in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado are a concern, because they are swing states. But when you step back to consider that North Carolina and Colorado only became swing states in the past decade, you realize that the long-term strongly favors liberals. That’s why the fight occurs primarily in conservative country, as states in traditionally conservative areas trend toward liberalism. Democrats held onto seats in Virginia and New Hampshire, for example, which used to be reliably conservative.

Then you have Arkansas, South Dakota and Nebraska: all of whom went strongly for conservative candidates, but nonetheless passed ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage, which would surely be opposed by the conservative candidates on the same ballot! This schizophrenia drives home the longstanding point that conservatives fundamentally fail to recognize the candidates who support their self-interest. The electorate’s backing of conservatives is significantly based on ignorance and misapprehension, and as such it can be readily turned.

Other liberal ballot initiatives also succeeded, including the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Oregon and Alaska, as well as the legalization of marijuana possession in DC. Another measure in Florida that would have legalized medical cannabis received 57% of the vote, though it ultimately failed, since Florida requires 60%. In California, where Jerry Brown was reelected by a wide margin, a ballot initiative changed several non-violent crimes from felonies into misdemeanors, including possession of most kinds of illegal drugs. It’s expected to help ease the incarceration rate.

Liberals should look forward to 2016, where a disproportionate number of vulnerable Senate Republicans come up for reelection (Iowa, North Carolina, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin), during a presidential election cycle when turnout among traditional Democratic voters (minorities and young people) typically surges. Further, as the GOP continues to rely more and more heavily on white male voters, that demographic is shrinking as a share of the electorate. In 2014 the GOP got 35% of the Latino vote – less than the 38% it got in the 2010 midterms.

But the 800 pound gorilla for conservatives is the electoral math for presidential elections. Since 1992, of the 50 states and DC, 19 have voted every time for the Democratic candidate, and 13 for the GOP candidate. The problem for the GOP is that those 19 solidly Democratic states contain 242 electoral votes – while the 13 GOP states contain only 102. Putting aside the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote in 5 of the past 6 presidential elections, a Democratic presidential candidate may need just 28 electoral votes in swing states to win – while the Republican needs practically every swing state. A Democratic victory in Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, may by itself be enough to secure the presidency.

So, fellow liberals, get up off the mat, and get ready for the big stakes game just around the corner. In the long-term, the 2014 midterms will be looked back upon as a statistical blip in a trend that will, inevitably, bring liberalism to every corner of the US.

 

Refs:

http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2013/nov/10/george-will/george-will-paints-dire-electoral-picture-gop-says/

http://news.yahoo.com/how-hillary-clinton-won-the-2014-midterms-075943434.html

http://ballotpedia.org/2014_ballot_measures

 

Hope on Election Day

Conservatives have spent the past 6 years doing everything they could to wreck the US economy – from obstructing stimulus programs, to slashing valuable government services and education at the state and local level, to opting out of Medicaid expansion, to delaying appointments to crucial executive branch positions, to hamstringing Congress on critically needed pieces of legislation, like immigration – even when there was strong bipartisan support for a solution. And now instead of receiving the electoral flogging they’ve earned, they are almost certain to gain seats in the House and Senate, and perhaps even win a majority in the upper chamber.

Obama stands to reap a whirlwind not of his making – and that’s because the great swath of America’s electorate that stumbles, misinformed, into voting booths on Election Day is sometimes large enough to carry the day. This is why it’s critical that liberals turn out and vote, to ensure that the voice of reason is heard above the din of ignorance.

In the end, a lot of good may come out of it. Several truly nasty GOP governors may be shown the door, paving the way for new states to expand Medicaid, which will be of enormous benefit to millions of working poor.

In Florida, the defeat of incumbent Republican Rick Scott will likely lead to a change in Florida’s absurd, regressive and anachronistic felony disenfranchisement law, which currently prevents about one-third of adult black men in Florida from voting in state or federal elections. Such a change would transform Florida overnight from a swing state to one that is solidly democratic, just in time for the 2016 presidential election.

Four years ago Sam Brownback became governor of Kansas with more than 63% of the vote. But in his campaign for reelection, he’s trailing Democratic challenger Paul Davis – and rightly so. Brownback’s massive tax cuts for the rich have forced the state to reduce public services, including deep cuts in public education. The state’s fiscal crisis is so bad that Kansas has seen its credit-rating downgraded, with red ink projected far into the future. Many Kansas Republicans have come out in support of Davis, whose election would be a big win for Kansans, but perhaps an even bigger win for sanity.

People in Wisconsin have grown disaffected with the extremist right wing policies of Governor Scott Walker, and the deficits that follow conservative policies whenever and wherever they’re put into effect. His defeat by Democrat Mary Burke would be a big win for Wisconsin’s working poor, who might at last gain access to Medicaid; and as well to Wisconsin families who stand to see reductions in education spending reversed.

While Brownback, Walker and Scott have all earned voters’ scorn through their terrible policies, Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett is simply a poor politician. While he holds a conservatives’ typically medieval views on gay marriage and marijuana legalization, his administration has not been very effective at doing much of anything, good or bad – his reelection campaign’s failure is part of Corbett’s larger ineffectiveness. Heading into Election Day down double-digits, Corbett will almost surely lose to Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, to become the first incumbent Pennsylvanian Governor to lose a reelection bid since 1854.

On the Congressional level, winner-take-all elections suck because they diminish the marginal value of each individual vote. Imagine if a party gaining n% of the vote for Congress actually got n% of the seats. That style of election obviously correlates with much higher turnouts, because every last vote – and failure to vote – makes a difference. But whether you’re in a state or district that’s close or not: please, if you’re a liberal, get out today and make yourself heard. At least you can spend the next two years reminding everyone you know that at least you tried.

The Liberal Field Guide eschews the politically correct position that everyone should vote. Surely everyone reading this post should vote – such people are almost surely much better informed than the ordinary voter. The unfortunate fact is that the price of careless, uninformed voting falls on everyone equally – if its effects were concentrated on the individual malfeasor, people might be more diligent about researching candidates and issues. And so if a conservative asks you today – do your nation a favor and tell them that the election is next week. They’ll believe anything.

 

This is a special Election Day dispatch – the Field Guide will return on Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

Texas Needs UN Observers

A newly released UN report expresses concern over the high number of executions being carried out in Iraq. The report found implementation of the death penalty in Iraq to be particularly problematic because “many… convictions are based on questionable evidence and systemic failures in the administration of justice.”

You must be thinking – wow, the Iraqi Government must be offing folks left and right to be the target of this kind of UN criticism. After all, conditions in Iraq are dire. There’s a civil war, headed by an armed insurgency, now ongoing across much of the country. Terrorist bombings in Baghdad have become so commonplace that they frequently go unreported. So how many people has Iraq put to death so far in 2014? Answer: 60.

Hmmm. Iraq has a population of 33 million. Assuming Iraq continues on its execution-rampage, they will have put 80 people to death by year’s end, making for an execution rate of 2.4 per million. Texas, by comparison, has a population of 26 million, and has put 39 people to death so far this year, putting them on track for about 42 by year’s end. That gives Texas an execution rate of 1.6 per million. Not sure whether congratulations are due – Texas has managed to be only two-thirds as brutal to its peacetime population compared to wartime Iraq.

Iraq may be bad now, but it’s much improved much since when Saddam Hussein was in power. However you can say the same about Texas, which has also come a long way since the dark days of Governor Bush Duh, who in 1999 oversaw 98 executions for a population of 20 million, for an execution rate of nearly 5 per million, double that of present day Iraq. Bush Duh’s Texas had no civil war and no terrorist bombings – it was just folks killin’ folks, Texas style – with nary a UN monitor in sight.

As the UN report points out, the problem in Iraq isnt just the sheer number of executions – it’s the shoddy system of justice that produces them. The Texas comparison is here, again, unavoidable, where people are put to death without competent legal representation, and where many have been found to be innocent while on death row – others, after their execution has been carried out.

All modern, civilized people should oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. In fact, the reason why it’s virtually disappeared in the West is that it is inconsistent with all modern political ideologies – except fascism. The comparison with war-torn Iraq serves to show just how backwards are certain parts of the US, where an extraordinary degree of barbarism is brought into higher relief when it occurs in a relatively affluent, peacetime population – without enough of an outcry from human rights organizations, foreign or domestic.

 

 

 

 

Kansas Voodoo

Perhaps even conservatives can only be fooled so many times before they get wise. In Kansas, Democrat Paul Davis has pulled even with Republican incumbent Sam Brownback in the race for governor. Davis has even received the endorsement of numerous Republican officials across Kansas, who find Brownback’s dalliance with Voodoo Economics too spooky for their taste.

Credit for the term “Voodoo Economics” goes to George Bush. While he was competing for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination, he applied it to describe Ronald Reagan’s economic proposals, which relied on the notion that tax cuts pay for themselves. To George Bush, and to most of us, Reagan’s policies seemed like a crackpot idea at the time. Our experience over the past 30 years have borne out Bush’s skepticism.

Fiscally, the US never recovered from Reagan’s tax cuts. Deficits remained sky high for twelve years, right through the departure of his successor from the White House in 1993. That not-so-grand experiment only ended with Clinton’s tax increases, which, instead of bringing the disasters predicted by conservatives, delivered the longest economic expansion in US history, and replaced Reagan and Bush’s deficits with surpluses projected far into the future.

Under Bush Duh, the US again endured the folly of Voodoo Economics. His tax cuts gave away the surplus to the very rich, and left the country’s fiscal health permanently compromised. The cure only came via Obama’s tax increases on the wealthy – and the sustained economic recovery that’s (again) happened with conservatives (again) predicting gloom and doom.

But these experiences werent enough to deter Kansas from embarking on the very same, failed supply-side Voodoo. Conservative Sam Brownback was elected governor in 2011, and in 2012 pushed through a massive tax cut, slashing the top income tax rate by 25%, and eliminating income taxes on small businesses entirely. Brownback was hoping for a little of that ol’ black magic: to see state tax revenue grow, even though almost all Kansans were going to be paying a lower tax rate.

For all its voodoo, Kansas is now in deep budgetary doo-doo – because Voodoo Economics has failed Kansas too. With tax receipts falling short of expenses by hundreds of millions of dollars, education, along with other government services have been slashed, and the state’s credit rating has been downgraded. And in addition to all that red ink, Kansas is adding jobs at a slower pace than the national average. With inept governance, deficits, and weak job growth, one might regard today’s Kansas as a time capsule of the Bush Duh years – from which even Kansas Republicans seem eager to escape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voter ID Laws: More Conservative Shenanigans

No sooner do conservatives come to power, but they begin chipping away at voting rights. What choice do they have, after all, given their lack of electoral support. Democrats consistently win more votes than Republicans in congressional elections – the Republican House majority is a creature of gerrymandered districts, and nothing more – it is not the result of greater popularity.

Preventing votes has long been a favorite conservative pastime, going back to Reconstruction, when black men had only recently secured the right to vote through the 15th amendment. The US South had a 100 year tradition of denying suffrage to blacks when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. That law created a special class of states, which were to be subject to special scrutiny because of their poor record of voting rights abuses.

In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court’s four other conservatives decided that the South had grown up, and no longer needed special oversight to ensure that they would not mistreat minorities. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg predicted that abuses would immediately resume. She thought the majority’s reasoning was foolish, and asserted that close scrutiny was precisely what kept miscreant states in line – that getting rid of “preclearance” (their special statutory regime) was akin to throwing away an umbrella in a thunderstorm because you werent getting wet.

As if it were a scripted comedy routine, Texas and Mississippi responded within hours by implementing voter ID laws that adversely impacted minority voting. In the year since that decision, voter ID laws have multiplied. And the Supreme Court has decided to leave the Texas law in place for the coming election.

Voter ID laws invariably function as a poll tax. Such laws take away your constitutional right to vote, and substitute it with a limited right, conditioned upon obtaining particular documents – a process that’s never free, and whose costs tend to be greater for the young, poor, elderly and minorities because they are less likely to have the needed documents readily at hand, and because they are more burdened by efforts to obtain them.

These laws are offered as a means of protecting society from the crime of voter impersonation. However numerous investigations have found that crime to occur so infrequently that it has virtually no chance of impacting an election, even if it were to somehow spike in frequency by a factor of one hundred! On the other hand, voter ID laws powerfully reduce the turnout of legitimate voters. It’s sort of like adopting a new police procedure to reduce homicides – which has the side-effect of killing one thousand people for every homicide it prevents.

And that is precisely why these laws exist, and why they are almost always passed by Republican legislatures and signed into effect by Republican governors. Voter ID laws serve no purpose other than to prevent the young, poor, elderly and minorities from voting – all of whom are more likely to vote democratic. You’d think these laws might set off conservative alarm bells, because they require ordinary citizens to obtain government-issued ID cards as a prerequisite to voting – conservatives, after all, are prone to whining and complaining about the threat posed by Big Government. But lacking any principles whatsoever, conservatives are content to expand government power whenever its convenient.