All posts by shekenne

If It Walks Like a Duck, Call it a Turtle

A couple of weeks ago, Catherine Rampell had a must-read column in the Washington Post, beginning with “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that feller behind the tree!”

Rampell focused upon the rampant hypocrisy of the “no tax” ideologues:

Jonathan Gruber has been vilified for (among other things) noting the “tortured” way that sections of the Affordable Care Act were written in order to stay in the good graces of both the Congressional Budget Office and the public. But such budgetary gamesmanship has long been an open, and bipartisan, tactic in Washington. When “spending” became a dirty word, Congress phased out earmarks. In their place, it doled out treats to special interests through the tax code, now awarding more than a trillion dollars each year in federal tax breaks, carve-outs and loopholes. Arithmetically, letting someone pay less in taxes is identical to spending money on them, but voters don’t see things that way….

Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Examples abound. Call it a toll. Call it a fee. Finance local government with smoke and mirrors.

This “no tax” chicanery plays to our worst impulses, the “I’ve got mine, Jack, and piss on the public good” attitudes that have crippled efforts to improve our communities and build a more inclusive, robust public square. But as intellectually dishonest as the “that’s not really a tax” strategies are, they’re a subset of a larger, even more troubling phenomenon: we’ve stripped our language of content.

I’ve frequently noted–in response to overheated rhetoric from the Right–that President Obama really can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi, because those words have meanings, and they are different. (And actually, in a sane world, neither remotely applies to the President, whether you like his policies or hate them.) Science is not a system of “beliefs” equivalent to religion, because falsifiable empirical facts are not matters of “faith.” LGBT folks don’t have “lifestyles,” they have orientations. I could go on and on.

The problem with misuse and abuse of language is that we lose the ability to communicate with each other. When words no longer have generally accepted meanings, we are just making sounds–and when those words are turned into epithets and insults, intelligible conversation comes to a screeching halt.

Language is one of the most important achievements of the human race; it is fundamental to human progress. We jeopardize more than we realize when we debase it.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Gratitude Nazi

My children call me the “gratitude Nazi” because each Thanksgiving, I insist we take some time–before tucking into the turkey–to consider how fortunate we are.

In this blog, I tend to focus on things that distress me, or make me angry (or–increasingly–despondent). On Thanksgiving, however, it’s appropriate to reflect on how much I have to be grateful for.

I’m an incredibly lucky person. I have an intellectually-stimulating job I thoroughly enjoy, a loving and supportive (okay, forbearing!) husband, wonderful children (both biological and acquired), perfect grandchildren and longtime good friends. I’m also not ALICE, for which I am deeply grateful.

I’m privileged, and I know it.

I’m conscious of all my good fortune, but today, I especially want to acknowledge the gratitude I feel for the little community that has developed in the comments section of this blog. It has been a totally unexpected benefit of my foray into cyber “venting,” and one that I have come to value very highly.

I know only two or three of you from the “real world.” The rest of you I know only from our interactions here. I have learned so much from your thoughtful comments, suggestions and reactions, from the sharing of different perspectives, and most of all from the evidence your presence has provided that civil, constructive discussion of even very difficult and sensitive issues is both possible and enlightening.

I am very grateful for all of you who visit and help me make sense of the tumultuous world within which we must all make our ways.

Happy Turkey Day!


Meet Alice

I have a friend who owns a major company, and I periodically receive his company newsletter. He’s a truly good person, philanthropic and civic-minded, so I was startled to read what was surely a throwaway line in the most recent newsletter, in which he wrote that his company had experienced a good year, despite the national administration’s policies favoring “lazy” Americans.

Shades of Mike Pence’s “ennobling” and Mitt Romney’s 47%!

These attitudes toward “the least of us” have long been an indelible part of American culture. When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I traced several ostensibly secular policy preferences back to their religious roots. In the case of poverty policies, I concluded that attitudes toward the poor (beginning with 15th Century English poor laws that forbid giving “alms to the sturdy beggar”) are rooted in a simplified Calvinism: worldly success signals God’s approval; poverty is evidence of moral defect. Originally doctrinal, these attitudes have been absorbed into the popular culture.

The problem is, this easy dismissal of struggling Americans is at odds with reality.

Recently, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it applies to households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report is eye-opening.

Here are some “highlights” (highlights being something of a misnomer here):

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

For families living on the edge, families struggling just to put that dinner on the table, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. So these families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.

The United Way report (which is available online) is intended as an educational tool. Its data rebuts the thoughtless but ingrained caricature so skillfully deployed by President Ronald Reagan: that of the “welfare queen.” Built into that dismissive shorthand is the assumption that poor Americans “play the system,” refuse to work, and spend their days taking advantage of hard-working taxpayers.

A few such people undoubtedly exist, but so do the “captains of industry” who “play the system” by lobbying for subsidies and favorable tax treatment, and companies like Walmart that protect their hefty profits by using the taxpayer-provided safety net to supplement their payment of poverty wages.

Most businesses aren’t like Walmart; most owners are hardworking and honest, just as most Americans who fall below the Alice threshold are hardworking and honest.

As the Executive Director of the Jennings County Economic Development Commission wrote in the introduction to the report:

Alice is the family in Elkhart whose car breaks down, which takes the grocery money, which sends the family to the food pantry. Alice is the family in Terre Haute whose entire economic life comes undone when the breadwinner breaks a leg and loses three weeks wages. Alice is the family in Marion whose 11-year-old watches the 5-year-old because they can’t afford afterschool programs despite both parents working full-time.

Dismissing Alice as lazy is lazy thinking.





Ennobling the Poor

Could Mike Pence be any more embarrassing?

Federal SNAP benefits–food stamps, in everyday parlance–average about 1.40 per meal. Not exactly filet mignon level benefits. But Indiana’s delusional Governor (who is running for President and who will be eviscerated by a national spotlight that doesn’t suffer fools gladly) has announced that he plans to “ennoble” SNAP recipients by cutting off those who can work. As he explained to Faux News

“I’m someone that believes there’s nothing more ennobling to a person than a job,” Pence insisted. “And to make sure that able-bodied adults without dependents at home know that here in the state of Indiana, we want to partner with them in their success.”

“You know, it’s the old story,” he continued. “Give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Where to start?

First of all, SNAP recipients who are “able-bodied adults without dependents at home” are a small percentage of the total.  I’m sure the Governor’s rhetoric plays well with the GOP base he is targeting, but the vast majority of SNAP recipients are elderly, disabled or children–not the “welfare queens” of the Right’s fetid imaginings.

Second, there aren’t jobs available in low-wage Indiana that allow people to put food on the table. If our Pastor Governor wants to “ennoble” Hoosiers, he might consider changing his economic development efforts to concentrate on bringing good jobs to the state, rather than boasting over the poverty-level ones he actually attracts. As the United Ways’ ALICE report (more on that tomorrow) documents, basic household expenses in Indiana cost more than most Hoosier jobs can support.

Third, even poverty-level jobs aren’t widely available. Things are better than they were–thanks primarily to President Obama, not the Governor or our do-nothing Congress–but they’re far from good.

Tell you what, Mike: if you really want to “ennoble” struggling Hoosiers, stay out of Iowa, pass up the cozy get-togethers with the Koch brothers, and start doing the job you were (barely) elected to do. And just as a reminder–that job didn’t include suing the President, harassing the Superintendent of Public Instruction, marginalizing LGBT folks, preaching against reproductive choice or pontificating about the “nobility” of going hungry.

If you want to “teach a man to fish,” maybe you should consider stocking the lake.


Picking and Choosing– Benghazi Edition

Every so often, I’m reminded of an experience I had right after publication of my first  book, What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?  (Republicans were very different back then.) I was on a radio call-in show in South Carolina, and a caller challenged my defense of the Establishment Clause by “quoting” James Madison to the effect that “God gave the Bill of Rights to people who live in accordance with the Ten Commandments.”

When I (very politely) informed him that this quote had been debunked many times, that it was not only bogus but inconsistent with everything Madison did say, he yelled “Well, think it’s true!” and hung up.

Increasingly, it seems, we live in that man’s world.

A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party; one of the guests was a local judge whom I have always admired. The wine flowed, and as it did, she shared her contempt for the President and the “liberal media” which– unlike “real news” sources like the Drudge Report (!)– had failed to tell citizens the truth about…wait for it…Benghazi!

Last Friday, what I believe to be the eighth Congressional investigation of the Benghazi tragedy–an investigation controlled and conducted by Republicans–once again found no cover-up, no administrative bad faith or lying. As CBS reported

WASHINGTON — The CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a Republican-controlled House committee has found. Its report asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration officials.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the two-year investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

It is highly unlikely that this will change the minds of those–like my dinner companion–who prefer to believe in conspiracies. Slate recently reported recent research on the psychology of conspiracy theorists; as the story noted, millions of Americans believed that George W. Bush had engineered 9/11, despite the fact that:

To believe that the U.S. government planned or deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks, you’d have to posit that President Bush intentionally sacrificed 3,000 Americans. To believe that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings, you’d have to imagine an operation large enough to plant the devices without anyone getting caught. To insist that the truth remains hidden, you’d have to assume that everyone who has reviewed the attacks and the events leading up to them—the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scientific organizations, peer-reviewed journals, news organizations, the airlines, and local law enforcement agencies in three states—was incompetent, deceived, or part of the cover-up.

If believing in a conspiracy requires one to accept a long list of highly improbable/practically impossible things, why do so many Americans believe them?

Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations. In this respect, they’re not so different from the rest of us. Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated skepticism.”

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.

I guess that explains my James Madison caller. But it doesn’t make me feel much better about either my dinner companion or the U.S. Representatives (like Indiana’s Susan Brooks) who clearly know better but are willing to play to the paranoia.