Live Blogging the Voters First Forum

Republican Debates

Welcome to the first debate for the Republican presidential nomination! It is the “Voters First Forum” put on by the New Hampshire Union Leader and hosted by Jack Heath of WGIR-AM Radio in Manchester, New Hampshire. But it isn’t on the television machine. You will have to go over to C-SPAN to watch it. Luckily, I’ve provided you with this handy link: 2016 Republican Candidates Voters First Forum.

Sadly, Donald Trump will not be taking part. And Mike Huckabee had a prior engagement to drown some kittens. But 14 of the others will be: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker.

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Jimmy Carter on Citizens United

Jimmy CarterIt violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and US senators and congressmembers. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over… The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody’s who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody’s who’s just a challenger.

—Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter: The US Is an “Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery”

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Economic Mobility and the Genetics Myth

Economic MobilityLast week, I published a quote from an academic paper, Poor Little Rich Kids? The Determinants of the Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth. The researchers looked at the economic standing of adopted children and compared it to that of their adopted parents. The reason they did this was to take genetics out of the equation. A normal thing that apologists for economic inequality claim is, “Of course the children of the rich are also rich; they are smarter and harder working…” The fact that this line of reasoning has a very strong connection to racist arguments over the centuries is generally ignored in polite debate. But if that’s the truth — if it is all about genetics — then adopted children of the rich should not end up rich.

What the researchers found was that environmental factors were far greater than any genetic factors. And this was true before looking at inheritance. It’s even more after inheritance. But the factors of wealth — like not growing up in a stressful environment, having enough to eat, getting a good education — have a huge effect on the children. So it isn’t genetics. And we really need to get past this idea. Like I noted before, it is ultimately a racist argument that one could have heard coming from any eugenicist a hundred years ago.

Given this background, an article by Anne Kim at Washington Monthly has a very big punch, The Myth of Mobility. It summarizes a paper by two Stanford researcher, Pablo Mitnik and David Grusky. They looked at the income of parents back in the late 1980s — when the children were in their late teens. Then they compared these data with the income of the children 20 years later. Their conclusion: “children raised in low-income families will probably have very low incomes as adults, while children raised in high-income families can anticipate very high incomes as adults.” Welcome to the American dream!

Of course, many other people who have looked at the data have found the same thing. And it goes along with our intuitions. The people you went to high school with are doing about as well as you are. You probably work with the kind of people you went to school with. If you grew up poor, you probably aren’t working with many people who grew up rich. And vise versa. In fact, the way our society works is so well known that it is surprising that people even study it. I’m glad they do, of course.

But studies won’t matter. Conservatives are dedicated to maintaining the status quo — as though the way things are is the way that God intended them to be. (It isn’t surprising that modern conservatives are overwhelmingly believers in one of the Abrahamic religions.) The idea that the current ordering of society is more or less random would destroy their view of the world. And they aren’t going to give that up without a major fight. But that’s why I think we need to really focus on the genetics issue. Because no level of inequality is bad if it is the case that the winners are simply that much better than the losers. If Mitt Romney really is 400 times as smart and 400 times as hard working as the average person, then maybe he does deserve to make 400 times as much as the rest of us. But we know that isn’t true. And we have actual data to prove it. Conservatives can ignore it, if they wish. But we should be shoving it in their faces at every opportunity.

Update (2 August 2015 3:52 pm)

That’s right: an update that is before the publication date. I’m three days of publishing ahead. But in the meantime, Mark Thoma came out with a blog post that combined the same two articles. So damn him to hell!

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Harder and Harder to Support Israel

Ali Dawabsheh FuneralI’ve never understood the outrage that erupted over Helen Thomas’ comments about Palestine. That’s not exactly surprising, because I’ve never understood a lot of thing that people get outraged about. I think there is a lot of outrage for its own sake: people wanting to feel outraged so they purposefully misinterpret statements. When asked where the Jewish immigrants to the occupied lands should got, she said back to Russia or wherever they had come from. I think most people took this as some kind of reference to World War II or something. But I’m pretty sure she was referring to the Israeli government’s policy to push recent immigrants into these areas.

At this point, I have to admit to not being sure where I stand on Israel. I greatly admire Max Blumenthal, but I also think he’s a tad naive to think that just because Jews are doing so well in America that there is no need for Israel as a Jewish state. I have no problem at all believing that in ten or twenty years the conservative Christians could turn against American Jews. It could become as uncomfortable a place for Jews as it is for Muslims. So I think that I am still broadly supportive of Zionism.

But I don’t see why Zionism has to involve the oppression of Palestine. What’s more: this isn’t a fair fight. Israel has almost all of the power. So the fact that there hasn’t been a two state solution is because of one thing and one thing only: Israel doesn’t want it. But of course, it keeps a pretense up about it. And here in the United States, it is accepted. The same apologetics for racism here is applied to it there: if only the Palestinians were twice as good, then there would be a deal.

I read a heartbreaking story over the weekend, Ali Dawabsheh Was Killed Too Soon. It’s about an act of terrorism committed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. They set fire to a Palestinian home, resulting in the death of Ali Dawabsheh, an 18-month old boy. Now, of course, everyone is outraged. And obviously, this does not speak to the way that “Jews are” any more than rocket attacks out of Palestine speaks to the way that “Palestinians are.” Just the same, it isn’t getting much coverage in the United States. We have narratives here! Palestinians are terrorists, not Israelis! And Israel is an Ally™. So that’s that.

Over at Vox, Max Fisher wrote, The Murder of Ali Dawabsheh Is a Direct and Predictable Consequence of Israel’s Occupation. He pointed out in his article, it doesn’t much matter that that Israeli government has condemned this attack without reservation. Its policies make this kind of thing inevitable, “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank empowers and abets settler extremists, who have been increasingly violent for years.” To put it bluntly, Israel hates such acts, but not enough to halt its expansion project into the West Bank.

The more I learn about the situation in Palestine, the worse it gets. Yes, the terrorists firing missiles into Israel are horrible. But they are also largely impotent. And the Israeli government is anything but. And so much that it does is designed to make the situation worse. Eventually, I can see myself getting to the point where I say, “Yes, the global Jewish community needs its own place where it can be safe; but just look at what they’ve done with it; it just isn’t worth it.” And I think younger people — like Max Blumenthal — are already there. If I were running Israel, I’d be really worried about that.

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Morning Music: Do the Clam

A Fuller Life - Dolores FullerI promised silly Elvis this week, and I doubt I will be able to top “Do the Clam” from Girl Happy. The song was written by the songwriting team Sid Wayne and Ben Weisman along with Dolores Fuller. You may know her, because I’ve written about her, Why Sarah Jessica Parker is a Bitch. Fuller was Ed Wood’s girlfriend and collaborator in the early days of his career.

Fuller wrote a number of songs for Elvis, starting in 1961 with “Rock-A-Hula Baby” off Blue Hawaii. She wrote for a number of other people, including Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee.

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Anniversary Post: Harvard–Yale Regatta

Harvard–Yale RegattaOn this day in 1852, the first Harvard–Yale Regatta took place. I know: who cares?! I certainly don’t, except for one thing: it was the first intercollegiate sporting event in American history. And I think that’s bad. I know that part of the idea behind sports was to make colleges less insular. The idea isn’t bad: colleges getting together to do things. But the least of the problems at colleges is that people at Harvard don’t interact enough with people at Yale.

The problem is that sports became too big a deal. In fact, for the most part, college athletics now makes students more constrained. But even if the Harvard-Yale Regatta did bring students together, it would just create a different kind of elitism. You may have read about Ted Cruz, “As a law student at Harvard, he refused to study with anyone who hadn’t been an undergrad at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.”

When I was college age, I was extremely naive. I thought that all that really mattered was that you were bright and hardworking. That really isn’t the way the world works. But I doubt that I would recommend that a young person go to Harvard or Yale. They really are filled with the worst people on the planet. They’re committing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But that’s true of the University of Pennsylvania too.

Happy anniversary American intercollegiate sports. Even truly horrible things deserve to be remembered.

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Conservative Christians Love Israel but Hate Jews

Mike HuckabeeLast week at Job’s Anger, Ted McLaughlin wrote, Jewish-Americans Think Iran Deal Should Be Approved. He presented data from a recent Jewish Journal poll of almost 500 American Jews. The results are stark. Approval for the Iran nuclear deal is 53%-35%. The only subcategory that doesn’t approve of the deal is people without college degrees, who disapprove 39%-48%. I commented that it made me think of old line about some people being, “Holier than the Pope.” In this case, we have conservative Christians who are more reflexively pro-Israel than Jews themselves. In fact, I suspect they are more reflexively pro-Israel than Israelis themselves.

This is all in the context of Mike Huckabee’s comments about how this deal will “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” But what’s with that anyway? The vast majority of Americans are pro-Israel because of the Holocaust. But there is a special ferocity among the conservative Christians when it comes to Israel. And that is because they are Christian Zionists: they believe that the Jews must be in charge of Israel before the second coming of Jesus can occur. So the Jews are just a tool for the Christians. If I were an Israeli, I would not consider these people my friends.

It is more than just seeing the Jews as a tool. When Jesus comes back, he’s planning to kill everyone who didn’t believe in him. Apparently he is like Tinker Bell and requires that people “believe” so that he can exist. Historically, Christians have hated the Jews. They are, of course, the people who Jesus specifically came to save and what did they do: deny him. So if the Christians are right, the Jews are screwed. And the Christians think they are right, of course; that’s why they are Christians!

A little less than two years ago, a Pew Research Center poll asked Americans, “Was Israel given to the Jewish people by God?” Only 40% of American Jews said yes. Yet 82% of white evangelical Christians said yes. The only subgroup of Jews who were more in agreement were Modern Orthodox. Even the Ultra-Orthodox were less keen on that idea. Needless to say, this is not a selfless viewpoint. This is what Christians think because it will bring on the party at the end of time — a party that most conservative Christians think will be unsoiled by the presence of Jews.

Also last week, Sarah Posner wrote, Will Huckabee’s Ovens Comment Be the End of His Candidacy? There are those who argue that some evangelicals are getting tired of extremist talk. But Posner is correct, “[I]f you have 20 percent or so of evangelicals supporting Donald Trump, it’s hard to see why they’d be mightily offended by Huckabee’s outrageous comments…” More fundamentally, I’ve been around enough Christians to know that the best you will ever get on the question of whether the Jews are going to hell is, “Who knows?!” It isn’t their place to judge. Except when it is.

But to give you some idea of where Huckabee is coming from, consider what he said after visiting Auschwitz, “If you felt something incredibly powerful at Auschwitz and Birkenau over the 11 million killed worldwide and the 1.5 million killed on those grounds, cannot we feel something extraordinary about 55 million murdered in our own country in the wombs of their mothers?” That sums up where the American conservative Christians are coming from. Whether it is pushing for their policies against abortion or hurrying along Armageddon, the Jews are just tools and props. It’s offensive to non-Jews. It ought to be terrifying to Jews themselves.

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Why We Love Minnesotans

PeppersThe July 23 Taste section article “Some like it hot!” reports on the surging popularity of spicy dishes among the general blandness of Minnesota cookery.

It’s been obvious to anyone who visits restaurants that this has been the case for some time. Spicy food is everywhere. I have no beef with that. I didn’t mind a little of the heat when I was younger. But I’ve gotten to the age where culinary heat is not a matter of taste, but a matter of health. If I eat a spicy dish at dinner time, the heartburn keeps me awake most of the night.

My problem is that restaurants often don’t let me make an informed decision on what to order. I get ambushed by heat where I least expect it — in a tuna salad sandwich, a plate of risotto, a candied pecan atop a muffin or a pork chop doused in black pepper. Young servers especially cannot be trusted to help choose nonspicy dishes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been assured “no heat,” and it still comes on the plate.

My plea to restaurant owners is this: make an objective assay of dishes that are spicy. Let some heat-hater specify what’s hot and what’s not. Then provide the information to heat-hating customers, so that they can avoid that unpleasant burning sensation in their mouths and throats — and a sleepless night.

D R Martin, Minneapolis
Letter to Minneapolis Star Tribune

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Let’s Not Turn Dead Police Officers Into Heroes

Police CryingLast week, in the Bay Area, we have had endless coverage about a certain law enforcement officer who was killed on the job recently. I don’t want to mention his name or put in details. The man is dead and that is sad for his friends and family. But I didn’t know him. I had never heard of him before. And so I don’t care except in the sense that I don’t like to see people murdered. But his death and the preparations for the funeral and then the funeral itself were given blanket coverage. Oh what a great man! Well, maybe.

But here’s the thing: sometimes drug counselors get murdered. But we don’t have week long remembrances of them. We don’t turn them into heroes who make local newscasters tear up on screen. If it isn’t a police officer, it is just news. But if it is a police officer, then we have to pretend that Hector himself was slain out their on the mean streets. And I have a real problem with that. It goes quite a bit beyond the very real problem of minimizing all the other senseless murder victims. It makes the abuse of our criminal justice system that much more acceptable.

While making dinner the night of the funeral, the local news did a segment on all the people — 5,000 of them! — who came to the memorial. The point of it was all the generic people who had been touched by this officer. But there apparently couldn’t find any people who had been touched by him. Instead, it was people who had shown up because the whole thing was getting pushed in the media. And their comments showed this, right up to one guy who talked about how dangerous police work is and how they don’t know if they are coming home alive when they go to work. (This is not true.)

A big part of the problem we have with policing is that the current generation of law enforcement thinking is convinced that protecting the community is a secondary goal of police work. The number one thing that the police must do — as far as they are concerned — is to protect themselves. This is why tasers must be used at the slightest provocation. This is why civilians who don’t show enough “respect” must be arrested — and often brutalized as well. This is why every angry confrontation becomes an opportunity for officers to fear for their lives.

But all week as I have seen the lead-up to this funeral and all the coverage of the great tragedy of his death, I’ve noticed something that no one is covering: it’s unusual. The majority of police officers who die on the job, do so in traffic accidents. Thus far this year, there are almost as many health related deaths (mostly heart attacks) as shooting deaths.

I suspect that this big media deal will be seen by most people as indicative of the wonderfulness of the dead officer. But it is really just that the form of his death is fairly unusual. There have only been 17 shooting deaths of police officers this year. That’s a 0.003% chance of death in any given year — not that much more likely than anyone in the US is to die in a car crash. But the big deal made out of this officer’s death will push the idea that it is common and that police work is very dangerous. And that idea is very dangerous for our society.

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The Controlled Economy of Dentistry

DentistryOver at Wonk Blog, Max Ehrenfreund wrote an article that is close to my heart, Why Dentists Are So Darn Rich. This is following from the lion hunting dentist. But I’ve long been aware of just how much money dentists make. I used to manage a dental office. And actually, I really liked it. I find dentistry fascinating — and it is really important. But it is also a scam.

A big reason that dentists make a lot of money is because they are small business owners. When I was working, a half hour cleaning cost $80, and the hygienists who did all the work got paid $45 per hour or $22.50 per patient — so that’s about one quarter of the cost. Let’s assume an overhead of 100%, which is high. The dentist/owner make $70 for each hour that the hygienist is working. Imagine if the dentist had three hygienists working — as some do.

But it is also true that dentists simply don’t compete with each other. Consider a crown. We charged $850 for a molar crown. The lab charged us $100 for it. The dentist normally had an assistant who made $25 per hour. The dentist needed to do about a half hour of work to prepare for the crown and take the impression. Putting it in could take as long as 15 minutes, but usually took less than five. But let’s make the math easy and say the whole thing took an hour. So the total cost was $125, which we will double with our 100% overhead. So the total cost was $250 for the crown, with a $600 profit. For one hour of work.

Ehrenfreund discussed the effect of insurance on dental costs. But I don’t think this actually has anything to do with it. Insurers pay as much as dentists charge. And dentists charge as much as they do because they are used to a certain standard of living. And that standard is very high. The truth of the matter is that I’ve known a lot of dentists. Some were really good at their jobs. Some I would never let work on me. But none of them was particularly brilliant. I think anyone could be taught to be a decent dentist.

The problem with dentistry is the problem with capitalism. I get so tired of hearing conservatives (libertarians especially) glibly talk about the efficiency of markets. There certainly are such things. I have little doubt that the corn futures market is as close to a Platonic ideal as we are ever going to get. But when we are talking about classes and the people who make them up, it is a very different matter. People often show surprise that billionaires continue to collect money. I’m surprised that they are surprised. Just like most poor people think they deserve to at least not starve to death, the billionaires believe they deserve ever greater wealth. It’s human nature.

So why do dentists make so much money? Because that’s how much money dentists make. The dentist I worked for had a brother who was a dentist. And they both had a father who was a dentist. The father built the practice, and the sons split it between them when he retired. You know: meritocracy! But the point is that no one goes off to dental school without knowing the kind of money that they are going to make. So sure: in an actual competitive market, cleanings could be $40 and crowns could be $300.[1] But they aren’t going to be because all the dentists — not the patients — have decided that they won’t work for that. And they have all kinds of laws and a great big lobbying group to make sure that they don’t have to.


[1] In fact, if you go to Mexico, where you will get US trained dentists, you will pay less than this. They have a far more free market in dental care than we have here in the US.

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Morning Music: Silly Elvis

My Way - ElvisIt’s a new week, and I thought I would do another series: cheesy Elvis songs. But I want to be clear: I love Elvis. He made a lot of great music. But I don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on the silly side of The King. And that means I will probably focus on the movies. But not today.

In the 1970s, when Elvis was at the peak of his Vegas charm, he started to do the song “My Way.” I’m rather found of the song — most especially the Frank Sinatra version, which has a wonderful sadness to it. It is a great song to croon. But Elvis did it straight. There really is no pretense in his version — at least no pretense bearing in mind that it is Elvis. He shows a great deal of confidence in the strength of the song. He largely holds back. It really is a thing of beauty.

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Anniversary Post: Treblinka Revolt

Revolt in TreblinkaOn this day in 1943, after months of preparation, the Jewish prisoners of Treblinka revolted. They staged it for a hot day that many of the guards normally took off. They had made a duplicate key of the armory. So for about a half hour, they battled with the remaining guards. There were 700 men who took part in the uprising. But with the use of machine guns, the Nazis were able to kill the vast majority of them.

Still, roughly 200 of them escaped the camp. The Nazis pursued them in cars and on horses — killing most of them. But at least 70 made it to safety and lived at least until the end of the war. One of them was the 20 year old sculptor Samuel Willenberg — who is alive today.

Treblinka is an unimaginably horrible moment in human history. But it is hard not feel a certain thrill at the oppressed fighting back against their oppressors. Dying was certainly not the worst thing that could have happened to them. And the fact that a good 10% of them managed to escape and survive is a great thing. Not that the whole thing doesn’t make me both sad and angry.

We mark this day of the Treblinka revolt.

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