Saturday, April 30, 2005

Victim's Rights, as Seen from the Right

Earlier this week, I wrote about Rush Limbaugh's twisting of the numbers to build his antitax case. Although his hypocrisy represents a target balloon of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade proportions, one feature of a civil conversation is not to use someone's personal travails as an excuse to attack their ideas.

But when the someone has been so scornful of the rights he now claims, only a saint would not take aim. Over at Whiskey Bar, Rush to Judgment simply lays out the contradictions and contortions of Limbaugh's indignant scramble to avoid prosecution related to his acquisition of pain killers.

In his own words, via Whiskey Bar:

Now they need my medical records, my private medical records to find out if I've committed a crime called doctor shopping? . . . But the question is this: Why would any of us want such records made public, even if they prove our innocence? It's not up to me to prove my innocence by giving up my right to privacy.

Rush Limbaugh
Radio Show
December 22, 2003

I warned you about this ever-broadening interpretation of the so-called right to privacy. It’s not a ‘right’ specifically enumerated in the Constitution or Bill of Rights.

Rush Limbaugh
August 22nd, 2003

Friday, April 29, 2005

Finding the Crooked Finger

We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.
–Anais Nin

When the news of the Wendy's chili finger hit the news, I waded in like everyone else — not going for the easy laugh, though. I went for the exploited labor angle as an explanation for the floating digit.

One commenter was more judicious, saying, "This screams 'set-up for a million-dollar lawsuit' to me."

Now, the woman who found the finger has been arrested. It appears she was a serial hoaxter. Still, human flesh in fast food keeps turning up.

Talk show hosts see fingers in chili as a source of laffs. Bleeding hearts see them as evidence of exploited workers. Skeptics see them as scams, and torts attorneys see them as a chance to recover damages. Cops may see it one way, too, but they reserve judgment and plug away after the facts.

Cops 1, Blogger 0.

Why Stop at Intelligent Design?

Let's compromise. We open up the science classroom to intelligent design, creationism, monotheism, voodoo and Rastafarianism. Admit witchcraft, astrology and alien abduction. The more students learn about the Demon-Haunted World, the better.

If these other systems can call into question certain holes in scientific theory, so what? Admit that science continues to evolve, with each discovery building on previous learning and even reversing previous assumptions. Use belief to discuss how assumptions are formed, proven or disproven. And if science can submit to religious skepticism, let religion submit to scientific proof. Teach kids how to design experiments and test hypotheses using this rich new material.

Whaddya say?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Only Tyrants Bat 1.000

I was looking for this short piece where I had channeled that pure white righteousness of road rage. A man works himself into a testosterone froth over another driver who cuts him off and doesn't show remorse. Fueled by his adrenaline drip, feeling himself the most fearsome and indestructible man on the planet, he wrenches the car to the shoulder, only to meet the most fearsome and indestructible man in the solar system.

In case you missed it, Florida has passed a stand your ground bill that "lets people use guns or other deadly force to defend themselves in public places without first trying to escape."

And this civilization-building bill from the same crowd who brings you the amendment to ban gay marriage. How scared and repressed do you have to be to get elected these days?

Just this week, I read about a former crack addict who had turned her life around after dodging death a number times, including once when she pulled a BB gun on a police officer "who didn't shoot only because he knew me. He'd picked me up so many times."

Good thing she confronted a cop instead of a righteous citizen on the prowl for a hooker.

I didn't find what I was looking for, but I salvaged this note.

Media and political scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson [I believe is the source, though I couldn't find a reference for this] says that American presidents — regardless of party or mandate — only get about 60-65% of their agenda passed. Our legislative system seems designed to allow only part of any party's platform to become reality. What she doesn't explain is on what basis they filter out the other 40%.

In these dark days, when the lunatics seem to be in charge, we should take some comfort in the history of our democracy. Only tyrants bat 1.000.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

It's Not the Money, It's the Principle of the Thing!

Compared to many other taxes we tolerate, the estate tax has several important distinguishing features. It represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, give or take. Regardless of who you think is paying it, the amount can be large enough to get your attention. And the tab arrives at the table when people are already upset.

I have groggily supported sports stadiums when paying a bar tab. Sent troops and tanks to Iraq almost before my paycheck cleared the bank. Routinely paid for schools and snowplowing and county hospitals through escrows attached invisibly to my mortgage payment. Funded godknowswhat in other cities when renting a car or settling a hotel bill. Laid a stretch of asphalt with each squeeze at the gas pump. And made deposits like clockwork without so much as a nickel trickling through my fingers on its way to the Social Security trust fund.

But consideration of the estate tax almost always comes at an inopportune time: When reflecting on one's mortality, accompanied by a sizable attorney's bill, or at the settlement of a loved one's estate, accompanied by unresolved guilt and recrimination.

It's tempting to put down the estate tax repealers as greed heads, but I believe family stuff is what really colors one's view of this tax. Did the old man live a good and honorable life and raise you to be your own person? Or did he ignore your real needs for 50 years while he built his fortune? Did mom scrimp and sacrifice, putting the family at the core of her life? Or did she substitute spending for love? Does the inheritance consist of securities and the Aspen chalet built with golden parachute money? Or is it tied up in ranchland that great grandad homesteaded, now escalating in value as the Hollywood stars and corporate titans buy up the county for their cowboy fantasies?

In this context, how easy it is for someone receiving a long-awaited bequest to feel they are hemorrhaging money to the government. How hard for one who expected to exert a controlling hand beyond the grave to see one's grip loosened. How reasonable to think the dearly beloved's cash has been twice taxed because it was first taxed when transferred from an employer or a stock redemption. How human to quake at the prospect of leaving only half a legacy, courtesy of the grim-reaping tax code. How understandable to think a parent's lifetime of selfless sacrifice for family has been for naught, if so much of the result ends up in government coffers. How natural for the dutiful child to be pissed, after dreaming she would rule at last, only to come away with Miss Congeniality.

Still, I have a hard time empathizing with repeal advocates who get all weepy over the rare offspring foiled from picking up dad's pig farm or dry cleaners free and clear — and then stand by approvingly as Wal-Mart decimates another smalltown business district or as corporations throw thousands out of work in the name of shareholder value. It's possible to doubt the sincerity of advocates who decry entitlements for those born American, while supporting them for those born Mellon.

But that is the stand taken by the Wall Street Journal: "[T]he death tax isn't just about economics. It's about justice, and no policy that penalizes the thrifty and busts up family businesses belongs in our tax code, whatever its effects on Paris Hilton."

It ain't the money, see, it's the principle of the thing.

O.W. Shaddock, the steroid-addled lineman played by John Matuszak in North Dalls Forty, cries out in frustration at being whipsawed by his coaches and the owners of his football team: “Every time I call it a game, you say it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you call it a game!”

When it comes to taxes, every time we say it’s the principle, they say it’s about the money. "Early childhood education? Can't afford it." And every time we say it’s about the money, they say it’s the principle.

I'm all for taking principled stands. White civil rights workers who registered voters in Mississippi during the 1960s were working on behalf of a principle. Curt Flood gave up his All-Star career to oppose baseball's reserve clause. Marla Ruzicka, killed by a suicide bomb in Iraq, was devoted to the principle that Iraqi civilian war casualties should not remain invisible.

The Mars candy family stands up for the principle of passing wealth to the next generation however they see fit. And it just happens that instead of facing harassment, unemployment or death as a consequence, members will receive many millions more of the family's $4-billion-plus estate.

Some proponents of the estate tax may be self-righteous, unionized, rich-hating, socialistic, risk-averse, non-job-creating slackers. But what do they personally gain, beyond a couple points off the federal deficit, better funded environmental enforcement, or a few more bucks to HeadStart?

The estate tax can be complicated, but who benefits on behalf of principle is usually a pretty simple calculation.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Tax Hate Speech

"For almost a century, the estate tax affected only the richest 1 or 2 percent of citizens, encouraged charity, and placed no burden on the vast majority of Americans," [Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro in "Death By A Thousand Cuts"] wrote. "A law that constituted the blandest kind of common sense for most of the twentieth century was transformed, in the space of little more than a decade, into the supposed enemy of hardworking citizens all over this country."

The secret of the repeal movement's success has been its appeal to principle over economics. While repeal opponents bellowed that only the richest of the rich would ever pay the estate tax, proponents appealed to Americans' sense of fairness, that individuals have the natural right to pass on their wealth to their children.
– Erosion of Estate Tax Is a Lesson in Politics: A Break for the Well-to-Do Becomes an Everyman Issue

A favorite tactic of the tax hate speech movement is to lump upper crust interests with middle class aspirations, as if everyone belonged to the same country club.

The Party in Power uses this technique to stoke outrage over the injustice of the so-called death tax when it ropes Idaho ranch families into fronting for the heirs of the Mars and Gallo fortunes.

You can also see this at its most base and simplistic on Rush Limbaugh's site, where the headline proclaimsOnly the Rich Pay Taxes: Top 50% of Wage Earners Pay 96.03% of Income Taxes.

Before long, in bold red letters, we get to the real nubbin of his case: "The top 1% is paying more than ten times the federal income taxes than the bottom 50%!"

Sound outrageous? Let's unravel this brotherhood of the tax burdened. (For illustrations that follow, I'm relying on state income data from the Minnesota Department of Revenue, rather than federal 2001 data used by Limbaugh. I don't think national wealth distribution should be wildly different.)

Only the rich pay taxes. This isn't close to true, a topic for another post. He's talking about income taxes here, conflating one tax into all taxes.

Top 50%. Since most people consider themselves above average, the top 50% aggregation neatly allows almost all his audience to include themselves among the rich. Using Minnesota data for 2002, the top 50% of household incomes started at $35.6k — just a bit short of rich, don't you think?

Wage Earners. Just as "taxes" transformed into income taxes, "the rich" are now humble wage earners like Rush, taking home their shrinking pay checks and hoping there's enough left to get through the week.

96.03% of Income Taxes. The top half of earners in 2001 did pay more federal income tax dollars than the bottom half. A whole lot more. To which I say, good for us. This shouldn't be surprising, because we're talking about tax dollars paid by half the taxpayers, not paid on half the nation's taxable income.

For a sense of the difference, let's look at the Minnesota data. The bottom 50% of households earned incomes between zero and about $35k, while an equal number of people earned incomes from $35k well into the stratosphere.

Minnesota's population of 2,340,070 households can be divided into 10 groups of 234,007 households each. The lowest-earning households are in the first decile. The highest-earning are in the tenth. The amounts in the right column show the total income earned by that 10% of the population.

First Decile: $ 8,354 & under — $1.235B
Fifth Decile: $ 27,704 - $35,683 — $7.369B
Tenth Decile: $102,427 & over — $49.428B

But we don't get to the real rich until we slice into the top 10%:

Top 5%: $139,652 & over — $35.715B
Top 1%: $323,340 & over — $17.636B

The total income earned by Minnesota's bottom 50% was just under $21 billion, nearly $15B less than the top 5% earned. Income for the top 1% was roughly 8.5 times what the bottom 50% earned. So while the rich did pay more income tax, the actual proportions of taxes paid as a percent of income are far from the "ten times" Limbaugh's statement implies. And once we take into account all forms of taxation, which fall disproportionately on lower income families, the difference evaporates. Unfortunately, the claim is what sticks.

If you can handle one more set of data, look at the numbers when the state's income is divided into deciles:

Income by Income Decile (2002)
This table divides Minnesota's total household 2002 income of $127.3B into 10 equal amounts and shows the number of household incomes required to earn one-tenth of the total.

First Decile: $ 26,678 & under — 903,829 Households
Fifth Decile: $ 66,742 - $80,745 — 173,233 Households
Tenth Decile: $ 494,094 & over — 10,874 Households

Top 5%: $ 1,271,104 & over — 1,979 Households
Top 1%: $11,393,133 & over — 52 Households

It takes nearly a million of the lowest-earning households to come up with the first $12.7B, and just under 11,000 of the highest earners to account for a tenth. To put the "ain't it awful for the rich" talk in perspective, it took only 0.008% (1,979) of Minnesota households to account for 5% of the state's income. My calculator resorts to exponents when I try to figure the percentage of households that earn 1% of the total, but you get the idea.

The good folks in the $35k bracket might have different economic interests than other club members in the top 50%, but using percentages fuzzes things up nicely.

Next time: "It's Not the Money, It's the Principle of the Thing"

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Let's Put More Faces on the Estate Tax

In Putting a Face on the Estate Taxpayer, the pseudonymous Douglas MacLean writes about the impact — or lack thereof — of the estate tax on his family's relatively privileged economic standing.

His example leads me to challenge those urging its permanent repeal: Let's renounce arguing the estate tax based on theoretical and exceptional circumstances. Don't try to sway me with the supposed impact on mythical Iowa farm families, and I won't throw Paris Hilton back at you.

Instead, let's talk specifically about actual multi-million-dollar estates and the underlying values that guide decisions about passing wealth along — to family members or to community or governmental institutions. This bulletin just in: You still can't take it with you.

Let's accumulate as many personal stories like MacLean's as we can, from any side of the issue. In a future post, I'll contribute one. Our discomfort about discussing personal finances or embarrassment over personal wealth gives cover to those who will truly benefit from a repeal of the estate tax. Right now, the very, very rich are able to hide behind paid lobbyists and apologists who cite principles designed to resonate with, but not benefit, the middle class.

Let's talk about who really benefits from repeal, and let's detail the actual benefits. Let's put more faces on the estate tax.

Stay tuned.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Hole in the Ranch House Door

Tombstone got most of the datelines when the Minutemen hit Arizona on April Fool's Day to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants, but the border's well south of there. Tombstone had the proper cowboy mythos to resonate with geography-challenged Americans, but the real action is down by Douglas, which straddles the border with Agua Prieta.

Right about where the Quarter-Circle-L ranch used to be.

My grandparents' ranch was 40 bone-jarring miles east of Douglas, over a road you'd give up on unless you truly knew where you were going. They ran cattle on land that was as dry, barren and godforsaken as any in the country. Just the kind of acreage a man who'd always run other people's spreads could afford.

This was simply not a place where you expected to run into strangers.

In the '50s when my family made the pilgrimage from Colorado, Douglas was not yet the gateway to the Maquiladoras and the ranch was exotic as, well, parts of Mexico. Outhouse, kerosene lamps and water from a windmill-driven pump that was so full of carbonates it had to be set aside for a few days to let the three inches of sediment settle out. You bathed in cold water straight out of the ground, in a burlap-bag shower enclosure wrapped inside the legs of the windmill. Or in a little stock tank warmed with water boiled on the stove.

The screen door off the back of the small adobe house had a finger-tip-sized hole, about the height of a man's belly. We were told that's where granny shot "the wetback," a more concise, derogatory term for illegal alien.

You might reasonably think this was a story the big kids told the little kids, to make them afraid to walk to the outhouse after dark. But you would have to know my granny. You would have to take the long ride out there and see no mark of civilization in any direction outside the corral. You would have to see how meat came to the table. How a man would no sooner leave the house without his gun than people today would leave their cellphone behind. And it was another time of border hysteria.

You could bury a man out there, and not take much trouble, knowing no one would likely come by to look.

I'm not saying it happened, but I'm saying I understand how it could have happened. And I know that electricity and running water and other creature comforts don't change people's hearts. Better highways and cell phone towers and satellite TV may seem to bring us closer together, but not really to our opinions and our ideals and our refined, educated urban sensibilities.

Some of the Minutemen may be clowns and lunatics, but society has ways of keeping tabs on those boys. Others are trained in law enforcement, and though they may be too right wing for my taste, I don't expect them to be shooting people in the desert. It's the secret hearts I'm worried about, because I kissed my granny's cheek and smelled her perfume, and for the life of me, I still don't know for sure how that hole got in her screen door.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Culture of Life Meets Death on Different Terms

One subtheme during the quieter moments of the Schiavo saga was that, every day, families across the country were facing similarly hard choices. Several figures in the drama — Robert Schindler, Tom DeLay and the ubiquitous Franciscan Brothers — had previously decided to let terminal loved ones go. No doubt before the year is out, someone among those who kept the vigil outside the hospice will themselves hear said of a family member, "I'm sorry, but there's nothing more to be done."

For all those who persisted in believing they were fighting a spiritual battle against a Culture of Death, the outcome of the Schiavo case must represent a terrible letdown. They must be hankering for another go at the forces of evil and activism.

So suppose the entire cast were transported to another bedside, with different set of circumstances?

Suppose a young teen is diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer. She has one tumor removed, then with the help of anticoagulant drugs, she dodges a clot thrown to her heart from the site of her IV line. Next, she endures two rounds of chemotherapy, which deplete her body's ability to produce red blood cells. A second surgery causes some blood loss. Her doctor warns she could die unless she has a transfusion.

The girl refuses. Blood transfusions are against her religious beliefs. She is 14 years old. She has not even lived as long as Terri Schiavo persisted in her bed, and now she is willing to stop living.

"It's no different than somebody getting sexually assaulted or raped or robbed or something," says the girl. "You'd feel violated because it's not anybody else's property, it's you."

This from a girl who has ingested drugs, had chemo, gotten through two surgeries and accepted the possibility of having her leg amputated. Lifesaving blood is different because the Bible says so. I might differ on that point, but not with her position that having something inserted in your body against your will is like rape.

Her parents, Jehovah's Witnesses, are not fighting to preserve her every breath. They don't ask for a tube to be inserted. They raised her to think this way. So they will watch their otherwise lucid daughter perish over what some would consider an ancient rule of hygiene mistakenly elevated to a religious principle.

Then the courts get involved because the oncologist believes the child is being endangered. A judge rules that a transfusion may be permitted. "Ultimately, her religious beliefs don't override her right to life and health," the judge says.

As you may have guessed, this isn't a hypothetical case. It has unfolded in British Columbia since December, and a judge made her ruling just this week.

Ironically, if the girl were 16 or lived in a different province, the Canadian courts might have rendered a different decision.

You can imagine why there were no red-taped mouths outside the courtroom. What would be the demand — Death? Would Dr. Frist have dared a diagnosis and pronounced there was nothing medicine could do for her? Would Rep. DeLay go after activist doctors and activist judges for denying religious rights — or for denying one's right to a preventable death? And how about those who said Terri Schiavo's less-than-clearly-articulated wishes should be respected? There is nothing at all ambiguous about the wishes of this girl. Are we going to respect them?

Millions of words and trillions of brain cells were expended on the Schiavo case, and what did we learn, besides to get it in writing and do it now? And that both sides believed they were on the side of compassion and morally rectitude.

This case seems to have potential for stirring up those sides a bit.

Ten years from now, had Terri been kept alive, her situation would not have changed. But for many former Witnesses, ten years gave them enough time to escape indoctrination and abuse to live full lives. If this girl were to survive, would she ultimately be grateful?

At what age is it appropriate to let a child choose death? When parents allow their children to die, when is it child abuse, and what is the state's obligation to intervene before the abuse occurs?

Would those who held the Florida courts were wrong not to intervene support the decision of the B.C. courts to step in? Is the issue in both cases saving a life? Or would they say this time the courts are infringing on religious practice?

Religion is closely bound up with thinking about what constitutes a good death. Should medical professionals acquiesce to religious beliefs in cases where they consider death to be preventable?

Should individual states have different right-to-die laws, as they have different positions on the death penalty? Or should enforcement be nationwide? How would former Attorney General Ashcroft — who attempted to circumvent Oregon's assisted suicide law — approach this case?

Since there are no votes to be picked up in Canada, and since this story lacks the Shakespearean struggle between Schiavo's husband and parents, we won't have a national discussion like this. Which is too bad. It would've been interesting to see if the two ranks shouting at each other got a little scrambled this time.

The Beating of the Toms

Despite the Party in Power's vaunted direct marketing prowess — and through no effort of my own — I am a card-carrying (well, card-holding) member of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Bush-Cheney '04. I've got the Charter Member of the Minnesota Campaign photo of W and Laura. I used to get regular phone invitations from Tom DeLay to join the president for dinner in Washington, but I just couldn't tear myself away from the Kerry phone bank.

Since the calls and letters come to the office, I have to assume it's my status as a businessowner that keeps them coming. How could I possibly pay big taxes and suffer under onerous regulation and be anywhere to the left of Arlen Specter?

Contrary to what it took to get on the lists, I gave it my best efforts to get kicked off. After ignoring four or five calls, I gave very explicit career advice to Tom DeLay through an NRCC telemarketer. After considering several appropriate responses to the direct mail appeals — a ton of bricks attached to the postage-paid reply envelope, for example — I sent a precious 9-11 dollar to cover my membership.


Then came the election and things quieted down. I thought I was free and clear.

Today, Stephanie called and went directly to voice mail. She was inviting me to Washington on behalf of the NRCC (or was it the Business Advisory Council?) and Rep. Tom... who? Tom Reynolds? Where's my buddy the Hammer? Could this be a sign DeLay is truly on the way down, if even the Republicans won't dangle him in front of the faithful?

As my wife says whenever I start raving, "I thought you were crossing the great divide."

So I'm calling back, and this time, I plan to be nice.

Stay tuned.

Torts of Different Color

There are so many examples of Endtimes for civil society in the news today, I just can't decide which tank to throw myself in front of.

Rosa Parks Settles Her Suit With OutKast.
In case you're one of those sensitive types who'd rather listen to a stranger's cell phone conversations than to rap lyrics, you may have missed the legal flap over the OutKast song, "Rosa Parks." And if you read about the suit that was settled yesterday, you might wonder why the 92-year-old icon of the civil rights movement would get her undies bunched over song that invokes her name only in the title, and contains this allusion in the hook: "Ah ha, hush that fuss/Everybody move to the back of the bus."

Will they be rounding up Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds next for singing a song that's now marketed on a kid's album?

If you miss me at the back of the bus
You can't find me no-where
Come on over to the front of the bus
I'll be riding up there

Read the typically obscure OutKast lyrics, which a literate person should only do in extremis, and you might be able to divine that the song is about the music industry. Remarkably, it only refers to "hoes" once, and that to make a false rhyme with Georgetown Hoyas. It also mentions both hemispheres of the brain and reflective thought. As rap songs go, it's pretty high-toned.

So how did this work of art — like it or not — defame Parks and violate her right to privacy? And why would an ancient and revered public figure go after black artists on such a slim pretext? Why would a woman who wants privacy accept a settlement that includes a tribute CD and a television special? And why would a 92-year-old who suffers from dementia give a rip one way or the other?

Well, chances are, as I hope I can say without hearing from Bob Seger's or Johnny Mathis's lawyers, she didn't really initiate the suit and was too feeble to understand what was going on. But some lawyers sure did.

Where's Congressional outrage against frivolous lawsuits like this one? Well, see, this was against a record company, not an insuror, pharma or bank. And it would be unreasonable to expect Congress to craft a law that would prevent this kind conduct by attorneys who see a chance for a buck. That's what courts are for — to sort out the specific merits of a particular case and throw out the grafters and charlatans. And that's another reason we need a qualified and independent judiciary.

Bankruptcy Bill Goes to Bush

I won't get into the details of how most bankruptcies are attributable to job loss, divorce and uncovered medical costs — not to unworthy consumers scamming banks to fund lavish lifestyles — but you can find that and more at Talking Points Memo's special bankruptcy edition.

I just have two questions...

1. Why are obligations of the U.S. government to the Social Security Trust Fund "worthless IOUs," while a credit card agreement is a sacred document?

2. Will the credit card companies be hiring? Surely there will be lots of new collection and litigation work for all those trial lawyers throttled back by Congress's tort reform.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Awful Roving Toward God

But I will conquer them all
and build a whole nation of God
in me - but united,
build a new soul,
dress it with skin
and then put on my shirt
and sing an anthem,
a song of myself.

– Anne Sexton, "The Civil War," from The Awful Rowing Toward God

"The Architect," Tuesday's Frontline portrait of Karl Rove, was disappointing, largely for its lack of Rove, who declined to participate. An hour consisting mostly of narrative-linked flip-flopping between journalist talking heads and Republican campaign consultant talking heads, it resembled a soft version of FoxSports' Beyond the Glory, without the poignant bits. Except Rove is still in his glory, and we never saw anything but, as the program mapped his rise from Salt Lake City geek to drop-out leader of the College Republicans to Bush's Brain and now, right hand.

We got only a few glimpses at his history of dirty tricks, and none of the really nasty stuff, like the push-polling in South Carolina that suggested John McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his own black child, fathered out of wedlock. But of course, nobody could pin that on the Bush campaign, since one of Rove's well-honed techniques is to use surrogates for the dirty work, as the documentary did point out.

Another interesting point was how Rove attacks an opponent's strength during the campaign, and John Kerry meets the Swift Boat Veterans was Exhibit A. The few Rove clips showed him clowning for the media — Yoda, not Darth Vader.

You'd think Rove was one of the most powerful men in Washington and Frontline was on a public-funded television network or something. Read the transcript of questions posed to the program's producer Michael Kirk for a flavor of the care with which Rove was handled.

Most disappointing was the program's failure to penetrate Rove's belief system — beyond the importance of creating a permanent conservative Party in Power — especially since he is now White House deputy chief of staff in charge of coordinating domestic policy, economic policy, national security and homeland security.

Then there was life
with its cruel houses
and people who seldom touched —
though touch is all —
but I grew,
like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew...
– Anne Sexton, "Rowing," from The Awful Rowing Toward God

We saw film of Barry Goldwater famously intoning that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," and a comment that Goldwater's cowboy libertarianism no doubt shaped a young Rove, but no analysis of its relationship to policy initiatives.

We heard David Broder say Rove has a very keen grasp of the forces at play in the nation during the Civil War, but nothing about his views of race or states' rights. We heard a former Log Cabin Republican fund raiser for W — who felt betrayed by Bush's support of the "marriage amendment" — describe the repressed role accepted by gays in the White House, but nothing concrete about Rove's tolerance or lack thereof.

The program alluded to Rove's skill at manipulating fundamentalist Christians for political ends despite his own lack of apparent religious conviction, but didn't interview anyone who could comment from a religious perspective, unless you count Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, and a career manipulator himself.

We heard a passing comment that Rove has no personal life, yet you wouldn't know from the program that he is married and has a school-age child.

Producer Kirk would say: Not enough time to cover everything.

He also said, "When we make one of our political biographies we try to interview primary sources close to the subject in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the motivations and actions of the subject. Interviewing political opponents would reveal, from my perspective, less useful information of a partisan nature." Doesn't he see the possibility of partisanship when relying on primary sources who are Republican campaign consultants dependent on continued good party relations?

Kirk concludes his online chat with "we exist to provide serious journalism at a time when that is in short supply."

I didn't expect or want a hatchet job, but I already knew Rove is brilliant at simplifying and formulating issues, and defining and reaching target audiences. The Architect seems to have built a reflective wall around himself, and Frontline couldn't get through the door.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Dying on the Job

Being a soldier or a sandhog is dangerous work, but there are few occupations in which you are routinely expected to die on the job. Cops, cab drivers and drug dealers accept some risks, but not a 'til-death-do-us-part employment contract. Mob capos plan to retire, perhaps only stepping back once in awhile to settle a dispute. Even dictators for life leave an escape hatch and fund their future with foreign bank accounts.

No, it's a very short list: Slave laborer and Pope. At an age well past when many Americans dream of kicking back, cardinals are lining up for the one last job interview.

You may sense a certain irreverence toward institutionalized religion here. It's irreverence of the sort that can only be shaped by long exposure to nuns and cemented by sufficient repetition of the Confiteor so that it can still be recited four decades after the end of the Latin mass. Because it can be mistaken for hostility to all religion, it is usually only hauled out for those with similar experience.

But the death of a long-serving Pope is a special occasion, and you want to set out the good china.

So there we were, two strong-minded and unchurched friends, arguing about the Pope. It was the sort of contretemps that occurs after too much wine and before actually knowing someone as well as you imagined.

She, a Canadian whose father emigrated from Poland, was crediting John Paul II for the downfall of communism and bettering the lives of her Russian and Polish relatives. I took up the side of the global environment, African AIDS victims and women and poor everywhere. I got a bit carried away questioning the redemptive power of a papal stand against communism, and overplayed my point that communism never truly threatened the wellbeing of the planet the way consumptive capitalism does. The Pope spent his time preaching to the poor, not persuading the captains of industry to share the wealth or reduce exploitation of the planet.

Even without the That's Enough rays emanting from a spouse just out of kicking range, I should have realized this was not simple after-dinner bantering. I was arguing against a local hero, which always trumps the starving childen in Africa angle. Tossing in the Pope's tacit support of pedophilia would not help my case that his moral leadership credentials were rather ambiguous. Instead, it would be seen as trying to avoid the main point: The Pope defeated communism, and my relatives say life is better.

Impossible to contradict that, but still, I pressed on.

Yes, it was important for the anti-leftist leader of the Church to encourage Solidarity's strike against the communist masters. However, without the Reagan defense build-up and continuing pressure on the "evil empire," the Poles might well have ended up like the Kurds after the first Gulf War, or the Czechs in 1968. The Pope gave hope and encouragement, but that is what leaders are supposed to do. It is not the same thing as being courageous, and for this reason, I gave more credit to the Gdansk shipyard workers than to the head of one of the world's largest and most powerful institutions.

The Pope's moral leadership helped shore up opposition to a corrupt and weakening communist regime, but toppling it required men and women willing to risk everything for the cause. We saw the limits of morality without action by how far the Pope's opposition to the Iraq invasion got against the good Christians in the White House.

The real measure of courageous moral leadership is not simply doing your job. It is taking a stand where there's a real chance you might lose your job, your wellbeing or your life. On this score, the record is mixed, and for every Russian who can buy toilet paper without standing in line, there will be a child in a Third World country who will never have a chance.

Now the cardinals convene to elect a new Pope. Rome is Washington squared, with its provincialism and insiderhood unmitigated by democratic elections and new, outside influences. Under John Paul II, the Church accomplished much of what our own Party in Power aspires to — one world of red states, where progressive voices are silent and the ballots go up in smoke.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Framing Lakoff

As I worked on this piece out on my back porch, a fox came into the yard. We eyed each other, and I continued furtive typing. A careless click sent me irrecoverably away from the page, deleting a draft 90% complete. (The server was busy and nothing was saved.) I thought about giving it up. The world doesn't need more deep thoughts from me today. It needs to see more foxes.

I've watched them enough to know a fox's day mostly consists of dealing with things getting away. Time to get started....

George Lakoff has said that contemporary American politics is about worldview, and of the two prevailing views, conservatives have done a better job of defining the frames within which we discuss the day's political issues.

Frames are conceptual structures, often expressed as metaphors, that shape the way we see the world. A frame only allows you to accept facts that fit within it. Thus, who succeeds in framing an issue will be difficult to beat in subsequent debate.

Lakoff is a progressive who mainly calls attention to frames and how they operate. He helps us understand how language is, as Edward T. Hall put it, "a system for organizing information and releasing thoughts and responses in other organisms," not for implanting thoughts or transferring meaning from one brain to another. In other words, the meaning contained within metaphors is already in us, just awaiting the words to call it forth.

"When you think you lack words, what you really lack are ideas. Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily... A conservative on TV uses two words, like tax relief. And the progressive has to go into a paragraph-long discussion of his own view. The conservative can appeal to an established frame, that taxation is an affliction or burden, which allows for the two-word phrase, tax relief. But there is not established frame on the other side. You can talk about it, but it takes some doing because there is no established frame, no fixed idea already out there."
—Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff

Lakoff's work is based in cognitive science, and as you can imagine, most political minds would prefer to get right to the short version, which has become this set of metaphors: The Nation is a Family. Conservatives favor a family led by a Strict Father worldview and progressives prefer a Nurturant Parent. The worldviews of both sides align with or can be explained by these two parental models. Ezra Klein explains why Daddy polls better than Mommy.

There's a discussion going on at Majikthise that focuses on this aspect of Lakoff's central metaphor. But there's more to Lakoff and Strict Fatherhood than dad coming home to lay down the law and haul out the belt. Lakoff helps you understand the conservative moral system and how that affects views of individual responsibility and the government's role.

Here's a sampling:

The World is a Dangerous Place. Living is about survival, and a responsible parent's first priority is to protect the family and prepare the young to survive on their own. This requires instilling fear, especially of those different from your kind. You must be able to quickly determine who is good and worthy of trust, and who is evil and might harm you. Preemptive violence against evildoers is prudent and justified.

Winners are Moral. In the struggle for survival, the fit will prevail. This competition wil produce winners and losers as part of the natural order. The top dogs deserve their rewards because they have disciplined themselves, made sacrifices and taken no help from the government. Simply by pursuing their self-interest and investing their wealth, they create jobs and opportunity for others who want to follow their example. It's an abomination when people receive rewards they haven't earned. It makes them weaker and less able to compete.

Morality is Health. Health is strength. Thus, weakness is a sign of immorality. Immorality is a communicable disease. It can spread via contact with the infected and unclean. For example, homosexuality can be caught, so to prevent it, you must be careful not to allow gays and lesbians to come near you or your children. But with the proper treatment, the disease can be cured. Halleluia!

Government is a Business As such, it should operate according to marketplace principles, not moral ones, and its work should be subject to cost-benefit analysis. Taxpayers are consumers of services who only pay for what they use. They have no obligation to do business with the government and have the right to seek the same services from other providers who charge less or provide services more tailored to the individual's taste. If a government does not please its customers, it deserves to go out of business.

....Now, two hundred yards away through woods, a blue TV screen winks back at my laptop. This time next month you won't be able to see across the creek. This time next month, we'll be on to something else and there will be one less squirrel or two around the bird feeder.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A Thousand Cuts

You are making lunch, and a stranger comes in the door and takes half your sandwich. That evening, your kid's birthday, the guy is back. He cleaves the cake down the middle and scoops it into a box, along with four bottles of Yoo Hoo before making an exit with a pint of ice cream.

The next morning, you're on the lookout as you prepare to scramble eggs. He slips in a side door, and before you can stop him, he pulls three uncracked eggs from the carton. "Don't bother fixing any for me," he says, pocketing an English muffin. "I prefer poached."

By the time lunch rolls around again, you're ready. The doors are locked, the windows fastened. You raise a glass of beer in celebration. But before you can tilt it to your lips, it's snatched away, and the stanger drains half in one gulp. "How did you get in here?" you hiss. "Oh, I never left. I was in your bedroom."

This is how a significant number of Americans see their government. Oh, they adore the President, love the troops and tolerate the police, but cannot abide paying taxes. They do not see a connection between their prosperity and a smoothly functioning state with a good public education system, efficient transportation system, protection of their private property, and on and on.

And yet, and yet...

Can't you imagine being just a teenie weenie bit po'd at the stranger who keeps showing up at your house and walking off with half the birthday cake?

Forget your own world for a moment. Forget the people who have no sandwich or only Ramen noodles. Just imagine a small business owner who is fortunate enough to end up in the 33% tax bracket. Add the employer Social Security tax contribution of 7.65% and the state income tax of 8%. We're darn close to half a sandwich disappearing from the table. Every day.

Now, most of us have our taxes withheld as we go, and our salary has never equaled our pay. We may prefer not to do the math, as long as we are reasonably comfortable. But other people do it.

So let's return to the self-employed entrepreneur for a moment. The revenue is in his possession, deposited in his bank account, and he has to write a check to the goverment every quarter. Writing checks with four zeroes on them will capture your attention in a way that steady withholdings won't — even paying the same tax rate.

And so the people writing those checks — and those who, like thousands of ghetto kids dreaming of the NBA, imagine themselves doing it some day — are pissed.

They do not, as some tax critics allege, reduce their productivity so they don't have to pay tax. These aren't folks who will go hungry. They simply make another sandwich, bake a bigger cake. They work harder — or press their employees harder — and meanwhile seek ways to avoid paying taxes, thus providing gainful employment for estate attorneys, tax accountants, insurance salesmen, hedge fund brokers and investment advisors. And enterprising district attorneys.

Plus, in their spare time, they try to bring down the government — by large "tax reforms" and a thousand tiny cuts.

Now that I have tried to build some empathy for the top brackets, let's look at taxes another way — the way the State of Minnesota Department of Revenue does, for example.

The Revenue Department tracks what it calls "tax incidence," a measure of all state and local taxes and government fees (including income taxes after deductions, property taxes, business taxes passed through in higher prices, sales taxes, gas and sin taxes, etc.) as a percent of income. You will be shocked to learn that Minnesota's wealthiest citizens have the lowest tax incidence. (You can trust me, or download the state report from Growth & Justice, see table 3-5.)

Taxes are not starving the wealthy or stealing ice cream from their babies. In fact, their income is advancing at a faster rate than for any other segment of society.

As tax time approaches, let's not deny the power of the single line on the tax return. But let's be sure to talk about the many ways the well-to-do benefit and the poor pay proportionately more to partake of the American dream.

Monday, April 04, 2005

War Comics are No Joke

Despite more than 1500 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, most of us do not know any of them. 1500 out of 295.8 million is long odds. (Though my generation provided the meat of the batting order in Vietnam, I can name only one victim, Mike Gallegos, an extremely remote acquaintance from my high school.) Once again in Iraq, we are insulated from those who serve — by age, by class, by residence and political preference. We may proclaim our empathy, but are likely as ignorant of the kids enlisting in the military today as the right-wingers are ignorant of the real lives of gays and lesbians.

Over the weekend, I was reminded how even the most flattering elegies for the fallen cannot possibly capture the spirit of a living person when I stumbled across C-Span's American Perspectives: Conversations with Soldiers Wounded in Iraq. The three-hour piece features extended interviews with four wounded soldiers getting rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Often, plodding C-Span sends me screaming in search of a soundbite, but these four kept me up well past my bedtime, patiently explaining their rehab, what their units did, how military benefits work, why they hold no bitterness.

Were these amputees hand-picked for their optimism? Certainly. Even C-Span won't televise three hours of sullen psychosis. Was it propaganda for the military? Possibly, but detailing the injuries of a double-amputee woman helicopter pilot is hardly a recruiting pitch for the Army National Guard. Perhaps the program sampled Walter Reed's more photogenic, articulate and patriotic patients, but who else would we — and the soliders still deployed — want to represent America? I couldn't help but be proud.

A week ago, I wrote about the military's program to recruit high schoolers, and based on today's Doonesbury it looks like Gary Trudeau is about to take it on.

Now, Majikthise reports that Unlce Sam wants a few good graphic novelists to produce a middle-east-themed comic.

Visit a good comix store, and you'll find a number of artists taking a swing at war. Here are a few who will not apply for the job, but their works are recommended:

Joe Sacco
Palestine, a Palestinian view of the Israeli occupation.
Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995
The Fixer. Sacco returns to Bosnia 10 years later to find the man who helped him find his stories.
Notes from a Deafeatist, early work which includes "When Good Bombs Happen to Bad People," a history of aerial bombing targeting civilians; "More Women, More Children, More Quickly," about his mother's experiences during World War II in Malta; and "How I Loved the War," Sacco's reflections on being a spectator and commentator on the Gulf War.

Jim Ottaviani
Fallout. Ottaviani and other artists tell the story of "J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb."

Jason Lutes
Berlin: City of Stones, Book One. My only complaint about this work is that it's still being written, serialized in the comic Berlin, and only three episodes have been completed since Book One.

Pascal Croci
Auschwitz. Is it cheating to include holocaust graphic novels? Who cares. Art Spiegelman's Maus belongs here, too, of course.

Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis. There's a P1 and P2, about a girl's coming of age in Iran as the mullahs come to power. This and Sacco's books will probably give you a more memorable feel for what went on in these regions than most "serious: works.

World War 3 Illustrated
I wrote about issue #17 back in February, and there have been twice that many issues published. This zine can be hard to find, although our local Big Brain Comics has a supply. Big Brain and Minnesota Center for Book Arts will host the Minneapolis edition of the international 24 Hour Comics Day in which comic artists give themselves one day to produce a comic.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

I've Never Done This Before

Police here clock a motorcyclist going 150 mph as he tries to elude pursuit. Once arrested, he is discovered to be a volunteer police reserve officer. One of his colleagues professes surprise: "He's an outstanding reserve officer. This is very out of character."

A former national Boy Scouts of America official collects and distributes kiddie porn when he isn't busy chairing the BSA's Youth Protection Task Force. A spokeman expresses shock and dismay. "Smith was employed by the Boy Scouts for 39 years and we had no indication of prior criminal activity."

A trail of computer records implicates a tribal leader's son in planning the shootings at Red Lake. Like thousands of fathers and mothers every year, this father says, "I know my son and he is incapable of committing such an act."

A couple struggles toward divorce. There are no microphones, but if there were, the quote would be: "This isn't like her. She's acting like a different person."

Then there's the alleged Pat O'Brien voice messages, which are easy enough to Google, so let's preserve linkless dignity here and go to the Cliff's Notes. In what appears to be a series of short drunken calls to the cell phone of a woman across the bar, O'Brien pleads crudely and repetitiously for the woman to join him and his girlfriend in the usual limited menu of of porn film possibilities.

To those of us who don't go to bars with our girlfriends and try to pick up other women — even women who have shared their cell phone numbers — several aspects of the calls are striking. First is their utter lack of persuasiveness or imagination. Apparently Pat needs a scriptwriter even in real life. Second is this odd aside: "I don't do this for a living. It's like new to me."

This time the disclaimer comes from the transgressor's mouth, as he pretends to examine his behavior and portray himself as momentarily and uncharacteristically overcome — overcome, I say — by the object of his passion.

Of course, it is a lie. It is the lie told by the steroid-bulked sports stars and the ones with the women on the side. By Sandy Berger caught destroying secret documents and by intelligence bureaucrats ignoring them. By Michael Jackson and by people trying to get Michael Jackson's money. By every politician and CEO who says what he knows his constituencies expect to hear, instead of what he knows is true.

Everyone has told a lie or three, but at some point you cross from telling a lie to living one. At some point, the person only you know can become the one the world knows, and the "I've never done this before" defense won't get you off. It starts with the lies you tell yourself.

So though I rail at hypocrites and take some satisfaction in their exposure, their downfall reminds me to nudge my own inner demon. Still sleeping?