Court on Death Penalty: Let’s Be “Tough”

What was Samuel Alito Thinking?Over at The Intercept Tuesday, Liliana Segura wrote, What Justice Breyer’s Glossip Dissent Exposes About the Death Penalty. It is about Glossip v Gross, the case that questioned the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection death penalty procedure. On the right, the response was, “Yippee, we get to continue killing people!” On the left, people have been focused more on Justice Alito’s callous comment, “While most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.” It is a shocking statement: people burn to death in fires so we should execute people by burning them alive?

But Stephen Breyer (along with Ginsberg) argued that the entire death penalty is cruel and unusual. This idea was dismissed by the majority, of course. I think there is something fundamental here. There are simply some people who really want to kill other people. It is like Dick Cheney’s idea about having to work the “dark side.” Or Tom Clancy Combat Concepts. It’s about being “hard” and “tough.” Americans — men especially — are terrified to be seen as weak. I’ve always found it bizarre in a country that is so Christian. Americans apparently don’t go in much for sissy Christian concepts like mercy and grace.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that Breyer’s dissent is fact based. He talks about various problems with the death penalty: its racist application; its randomness; prosecutorial misconduct; and the fact that we kill innocent people all the time. The majority brushes all that aside. To them, as long as the states give it the old college try, it doesn’t matter if people are tortured to death or that we kill innocent people. Justice isn’t a matter of something that happens to individual people. It’s really just about the process. If innocent people have to die in the name of Americans feeling tough, well that’s a small price to pay. Besides, that kind of thing would never happen to someone Samuel Alito knows.

What’s notable about all of this is the lack of empathy when it comes to the death penalty. For a long time, I thought that The Mythical Perfect Government Killing Machine would make the death penalty untenable to most Americans. Once people saw that the system wasn’t perfect, they would rebel against it. After all, it would be one thing to be put to death by the government if you were guilty. Most people imagine they would never be in that position because they would never murder anyone. But being put to death when you are innocent? Well, that could happen to anyone.

But it turns out that even an argument based upon self-preservation doesn’t work. They think (rightly) that getting railroaded is something that happens almost exclusively to the poor and those with darker skin. The odds are already relatively low that one will be put to death. It is even lower that one will be innocent. And it is lower still that either of those things would happen to a nice middle class white person. So they just don’t care. The deaths of innocent people are just not that big a deal compared to being “tough.” And apparently, the conservatives on the Court don’t think any more deeply about this than the American people themselves.

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Morning Music: The Surfaris

Wipe Out - The SurfarisI seem to have surf music on my mind a lot these days. Perhaps I will get over it after this heat wave ends (assume it does end). But today, I bring you “Wipe Out” off The Surfaris’ first album, Wipe Out. Nominally written by the four original members of the band, it is almost exactly the same as Barrett Strong’s song “Money (That’s What I Want).” But that’s the way with blues, and you can’t copyright a chord structure.

What’s most notable about “Wipe Out” is the very energetic drumming by Ron Wilson. But I like the whole sound of it. Too often, music gets more boring the more complex it gets. But songs like “Wipe Out” and “Wild Thing” never lose the joyousness of their purity. Here is a video mashup of various live performance, with a single live track behind it. This band includes only one of the original members of the band, Bob Berryhill. That’s his wife on the bass. I’m not sure who the others are.

But see if you don’t find yourself singing, “The best things in life are free…”

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Anniversary Post: Operation Cyclone

Operation CycloneOn this day in 1979, President Carter signed a “presidential finding” that authorized funding the Afghani guerrillas who were fighting the Soviet presence (the invasion didn’t happen until later that year). You know: the same people who would be fighting us just two decades later! The enemy of my enemy is usually not my friend. As a matter of fact, at that time, the Soviet Union was bringing to Afghanistan a whole lot of things that we agreed with. The people who we were funding were not good people and in no way supported what we think of as American or western values. This was the true beginning of the decade long Operation Cyclone.

Of course, the CIA made the decision to back the most militant and backwards of the groups in Afghanistan. This is because the CIA usually doesn’t know what it is doing. It still boggles my mind that the most incompetent parts of our government are the parts that Americans think most highly of. In addition to generally being involved in the most vile of activities, the CIA has shown itself to be hopelessly incompetent in most of what it does. Think: “Bay of Pigs.”

But what’s most amazing me about the CIA is that even what they are capable of doing is fairly minor. It is nothing that any group of people couldn’t put together given the time and resources that the agency has been given. But thanks to spy books and movies, people think it has amazing capabilities. Not really. An ex-CIA agent recorded a commentary for the film RED. He noted two things. First, it is very easy to kill anyone you want to. Second, the most important ability to have if you are a field agent overseas is car stealing. I can well imagine: after you manage to destabilize a country, it is often necessary to get out of them ASAP!

Another thing that is interesting about this is that Carter was a very big Cold War politician — much more so than Reagan was. Yet Republicans have created this mythology of Cater being weak in terms of foreign affairs. I’m not too keen on a lot of Cater’s politics. But this is all very typical of Republicans. Reagan was “strong” because he was bellicose; Carter was weak because he wasn’t. Talk is cheap, but it is all that matters to Republicans.

So 36 years ago, the US government started backing the wrong people in Afghanistan. And 22 years later, we started fighting them. This is because as a nation, we are usually clueless and do things for stupid reasons.

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Publishing Schedules and Lonely RSS Feeds

RSSI’ve gotten into a kind of a work routine around here. In the morning, I get my tea and read through all my standard websites. Then I spend most of the day on my paying work — with plenty of breaks for tea drinking and the occasional food. Then I take a break, cook dinner, and spend the rest of the evening writing for Frankly Curious. It works pretty well, because it gives my subconscious the whole day to think about what I’m going to write. The old way could be frustrating with me thrashing around looking for something to write about.

But I’ve noticed something strange. I have an RSS feed with about a dozen blogs that I follow. Yet through most of the day, all that’s going on is Frankly Curious. I’ll look up and see something has come in, and then be let down, “Oh, it’s only me.” There just aren’t that many people around who are as crazy as I am. But there are some. Ted McLaughlin at Job’s Anger, for example. He generally pumps out six articles per day. He’s a good complement to me. He’s more free-wheeling and more graphics oriented. More and more, I’m just bitter and very wordy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Our nation could use a few more thoughtful scolds.

I’ve added him to my RSS feed, but it won’t help my feelings of screaming alone into the ether. He seems to do a dump of the day’s posts right around midnight each day. I’m not sure why. I used to be pretty constrained myself when I used Nucleus as the CMS here. If I scheduled a post, for example, the automatic twitter alert would go out before the article was up. Thankfully, with WordPress, everything works as it should. And that has allowed me to distribute my wisdom on an orderly schedule.

There are, of course, writers I read regularly, but who I don’t RSS with. One of them is Ed Kilgore at Political Animal. He grinds out 12 posts per day — most of surprisingly high quality. I’d love to get alerts from him throughout the day. But my system requires me to load pages, and his site (Washington Monthly) is such a pig because of the overabundance of advertising. A single page is about 3 megabytes and can take several minutes to load. I don’t think people realize just how much traffic they lose for the sake of squeezing a couple of extra pennies out advertisers. It’s better for me to just wait until the end of the day and check what Kilgore had to say all at once.

Similar to Kilgore is Steve Benen at Maddow Blog. But MSNBC only allows one to sign up for their “latest headlines.” Like I want to be inundated with MSNBC garbage all day long. But I have found some RSS feeds worth adding. P M Carpenter’s Commentary keeps up a good schedule, and posts throughout the day. The same is true of No More Mister Nice Blog. And how about I finish it out with Lawyers, Guns, & Money — even though a lot of people write for it. These should all make me feel less alone. Although they may get in the way of my other work…

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People Like ACA Subsides and Same-Sex Marriage

Ed KilgoreThe first national poll out there measuring reactions to last week’s two big SCOTUS landmark cases is out, from CNN/ORC. Unsurprisingly, it showed a majority of Americans agreeing with Oberkefell v Hodges, though the percentage was higher than one might have guessed, at 59%. But surprisingly, an even higher percentage — 63% — said they agreed with the finding in King v Burwell that “government assistance for lower-income Americans buying health insurance through both state-operated and federally-operated health insurance exchanges is legal…”

Now earlier polling had shown big majorities of the public having no clue that this constitutional challenge to Obamacare was coming. So the numbers CNN/ORC is showing represent another confirmation that the ideas incorporated in Obamacare are a lot more popular than the name, especially among those who are not necessarily responding to partisan cues. This is something Republicans better pay attention to when designing their replace/repeal agenda.

—Ed Kilgore
Obamacare Subsidies More Popular Than Same-Sex Marriage?

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LGBT Rights Movement Isn’t Easily Replicated

Rainbow FlagIn an article last weekend, Jonathan Chait took on Ross Douthat, Same-Sex Marriage Won Because Its Opponents Never Had an Argument. Overall, it is very good; he’s right: Douthat’s argument against same sex marriage is stupid — and he’s the best the conservatives have. But it shocks me that smart people like Chait don’t understand why LGBT rights have made such quick progress in this country. Chait noted, “The movement owes its success to any number of things, but surely preeminent among them is the clarity of its core rationale.” Not really — not a number of things, and the clarity of its core rationale surely doesn’t have much if anything to do with it.

If you want to understand why LGBT rights have had such unbelievably great success compared to other civil rights causes, all you have to do is look at Dick and Lynne Cheney. They are two of the most conservative people on the planet. But they were among the majority of Americans who were happy to see marriage equality be the law of the land. This is not because they are evolved on this particular topic. It is because they have a daughter Mary Cheney, who is a lesbian. It is hard to maintain your hatred for “the other” when that “other” is your own daughter.

The smartest thing the LGBT community ever did was decide that they had to destroy the closet. As long as people thought that “gays” were just horrible men having unprotected sex in the bath houses of San Francisco, it was trivial for people to vilify them. But once the LGBT community was everywhere — our sons and daughters, our friends and acquaintances, our postal delivery people and the bag boy at the supermarket — it was impossible to discount it as “those people” who show up only in our fever dreams.

What’s sad is that most groups do not have the luxury that the LGBT community has. Trans-gender people are born everywhere. But our society has done an outstanding job of keeping African Americans and Latinos cut off — living in their own ghettos. The fact that there is the occasional African American and Latino outside the ghettos only highlights the difference. Unless these outliers knew the “rules” of the ruling class, they wouldn’t be allowed outside the ghettos — even though everyone could learn the “rules” if given the chance.

I’ve said it before a lot, “The Cheneys could never give birth to a poor child.” They will never have direct access to the inequities of poverty. So they will never know what it is like and they will never care to find out. It’s great that the LGBT community has the special attribute of being equally distributed throughout society. That has made the recent search for equality easier. But there is no special lesson to be learned from its success. Other groups — poor groups — must try to engender empathy from afar. And that is a far harder sale. Just look at any of the Republican presidential candidates.

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The Hill: McConnell Reasonable Filibuster Hero

The HillWe don’t hear much about the filibuster these days, because there is nothing to be done about it. There is a Democrat in the White House, the Republicans have control of the Senate. There is nothing to be gained from cutting back on the filibuster. The only question ever was whether Mitch McConnell might make the calculation that the next president will be a Democrat and the Senate might slip back into the hands of the Democrats. In that case, McConnell’s having restored the full filibuster might make it more toxic for the Democrats to again cut it back. But frankly, I don’t think politicians ever think that strategically. And if things go better for the Republicans in 2016, such a move could ties their own hands.

So I wasn’t at all surprised when The Hill reported Monday, Senate Republicans Slam the Door on Scrapping the Filibuster. They have absolutely no incentive to do anything else. If they find themselves in control of the White House and Congress in 2017, they will absolutely get rid of the filibuster. And they will blame it on the Democrats — who did, after all, make it far less powerful. The fact that this was done because the Republicans had abused it so excessively will not matter in the least — especially to our pathetic press corps.

Mitch McConnellLet me explain how this works. The Republicans have become the “by any means necessary” party. That’s why they’ve spent millions of dollars looking for any way available to destroy Obamacare. They’ve always known that as long as Obama is president, they won’t be able to do it legislatively. And so they’ve clogged up the courts with the most ridiculous of attacks. Too many liberals now seem to think that John Roberts is on the right side of history. He clearly isn’t. His decision in King v Burwell was really one of exasperation. He was saying, “Stop bugging me! There are some things that you need to do the old fashioned way. Go out and win some elections.”

So if the Republicans find themselves in control of Washington in 2017, they will not let a little thing like the filibuster — that they have so depended upon for decades — stand in the way of the kind of sweeping changes that they want to make. They will lower the top tax rate to 25%. They will savage safety net programs. They will abolish the estate tax. They will fill our courts with ideologue judges who make Clarence Thomas look reasonable. But all of that is on the table only if they maintain control of the Senate and gain control of the White House. There is absolutely no reason to do anything right now.

What’s sad is that The Hill article makes it like the Republicans in general, and Mitch McConnell in particular, are reasonable when it comes to the filibuster. Back in 2005, McConnell thought that the Democrats were abusing the filibuster. He was also in favor of the “Nuclear Option,” which he has more recently claimed is such a terrible thing. This is not a reasonable man. This is a man who does whatever is in his immediate best interests. Right now, it is in his best interests to claim the high ground. The moment that changes, the filibuster is gone. The Hill and everyone else should know this.

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Morning Music: Anti-Flag

For Blood and Empire - Anti-FlagAnti-Flag is a post-punk band out of Pittsburgh. They are a very tight outfit — great players, but pretty straightforward in what they do. I like them because of there very prominent leftist politics. Their first album was Die for the Government, and the title track contains the refrain, “You gotta die, gotta die, gotta die for the government. Die for your country? That’s shit!”

I come upon them all the time because I just can’t keep in my head the difference between the words “corps” and “corpse.” So I go to Google and search for “press corpse.” That that always brings me to the Anti-Flag song “Press Corpse” off their 2006 major label debut, For Blood and Empire. It’s a great song. And a good way to start a generic Thursday:

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Anniversary Post: Vermont’s Liberal Roots

VermontOn this day in 1777, Vermont became the first US territory to more or less ban slavery. At the same convention, it adopted universal adult male suffrage and dictated support for public schools. I still find it hard to think that Vermont was not one of the original 13 colonies. But it wasn’t. Apparently, in 1764, King George III set up boundaries between New York and New Hampshire. This left the gaping hole that became Vermont. In order to protect what they saw as encroachment from New York, people from New Hampshire settled in Vermont and eventually a state was born.

One interesting thing about this is that reading about native tribes at the time of the first western contact, I hear the same kinds of things. Different groups of humans are always trying to take others’ lands and protect their own. The fact that the natives acted this way is often used as a justification for treating them like savages. But there is literally no difference. And that’s as true today as it ever has been.

Vermont went on to be the 14th United State — on 4 March 1791. But this history explains a few things about modern Vermont. One is that Vermont has the greatest gun ownership of any state in the northeast. The relatively late frontier formation of the state goes along with that. The other thing is that Vermont is a very liberal state. It seemed to get an early start with regard to that.

Happy anniversary Vermont’s second convention. Also: Bernie Sanders 2016!

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The Eccentric Bernhard Goetz’s Squirrel

Glinda's SisterIf you are my age, you know Bernhard Goetz as the “Subway Vigilante.” And that’s about the end of it. At first, he was presented as this guy who acted in self-defense against some thugs on the train. Later he seemed more like and angry guy who used the crime that is everywhere in the big city as a way to legally shoot some people. It is hard to know what to think. The incident itself is one I have actual experience with where some young man will technically be panhandling, but with a clear threat of violence if you don’t hand over some money. And most of the young men involved in the case did not go on to do themselves proud.

But to add to the complexity of the man, the Daily News reported Monday, Subway Vigilante Bernie Goetz Fighting the Possible Eviction of His Pet Squirrel. It seems that for years, Goetz has been involved in squirrel rescue in New York. According to Wikipedia, “He installs squirrel houses, feeds squirrels, and performs first aid.” And he currently has a pet squirrel in his apartment that has been the source of much controversy. It is illegal to keep a squirrel in New York. And the landlord wants it out. Fair enough, but can we at least say that the landlord is a jerk? Yes we can!

The squirrel is named Glinda’s Sister and she is a rescue. She had her back left leg surgically amputated, and her right leg is paralyzed. There was apparently an infestation of moths caused by Glinda’s Sister’s rotting food. But this has now been taken care of. The landlord claims that one of the tenants has complained about “screeching in the walls.” I don’t think this is Glinda’s Sister’s fault. It seems to me she is just going to get blamed for anything any rodent does in a three block radius. I don’t see why they can’t leave this poor squirrel alone.

Regardless, this isn’t the only oddity of our man Bernhard Goetz. He is also a vegetarian and is a big advocate for the practice — trying to get vegetarian meals offered at public schools in the New York area. He’s also a supporter of cannabis legalization and instant runoff elections. Other than his great interest in guns, and paranoia about security, he seems rather like my kind of guy. But really: no one who administers first-aid to squirrels is all bad.

I think that Bernhard Goetz is a classic American crank. And I mean that in a good way. He has those things he’s interested in — squirrels, cannabis, instant runoffs, and shooting thugs on the subway — and he is proudly committed to them. All of this makes him what is most important: interesting. He isn’t just another boring guy. You know who is just another boring guy: George Zimmerman. But then, Zimmerman is no Bernhard Goetz. But it should be clear that no one is. I hope he gets to keep his squirrel.

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The European Union’s Unpleasant Greek Choices

Joseph StiglitzA few years ago, when Greece was still at the start of its slide into an economic depression, the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz remembers discussing the crisis with Greek officials. What they wanted was a stimulus package to boost growth and create jobs, and Stiglitz, who had just produced an influential report for the United Nations on how to deal with the global financial crisis, agreed that this would be the best way forward. Instead, Greece’s foreign creditors imposed a strict program of austerity. The Greek economy has shrunk by about 25% since 2010. The cost-cutting was an enormous mistake, Stiglitz says, and it’s time for the creditors to admit it.

“They have criminal responsibility,” he says of the so-called troika of financial institutions that bailed out the Greek economy in 2010, namely the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. “It’s a kind of criminal responsibility for causing a major recession,” Stiglitz tells TIME in a phone interview…

Over the weekend the prospect of Greece abandoning the euro drew closer than ever, as talks between the Greek government and its creditors broke down. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who was elected in January on a promise to end austerity, announced on Saturday that he could not accept the troika’s “insulting” demands for more tax hikes and pension cuts, and he called a referendum for July 5 to let voters decide how the government should handle the negotiations going forward. If a majority of Greeks vote to reject the troika’s terms for continued assistance, Greece could be forced to default on its debt and pull out of the currency union.

Stiglitz sees two possible outcomes to that scenario — neither of them pleasant for the European Union. If the Greek economy recovers after abandoning the euro, it would “certainly increase the impetus for anti-euro politics,” encouraging other struggling economies to drop the common currency and go it alone. If the Greek economy collapses without the euro, “you have on the edge of Europe a failed state,” Stiglitz says. “That’s when the geopolitics become very ugly.”

—Simon Shuster
Joseph Stiglitz to Greece’s Creditors: Abandon Austerity Or Face Global Fallout

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Does it Matter if Paul LePage Is Impeached?

Paul LePageLast last week, Politicus USA reported, Maine Lawmakers Move to Impeach Republican Governor Paul LePage. It sounds serious, “Governor LePage is accused of blackmailing the Good Will-Hinckley School board by threatening to withhold half a million dollars in funding if they extended a job offer to Democratic House Speaker Mike Eves.” It’s really petty nonsense, so exactly what you would expect from Paul LePage. But what’s most important is that LePage is not popular in his state. He’s been twice elected president because (1) there have been three way races; and (2) they are off year elections when not many Democrats go out to the polls. In 2010, LePage got less than 38% of the votes cast; he did much better in 2014, but still only got 48% of the votes.

What’s more, whenever the people of Maine are asked, they don’t like the job that he’s doing. So sure: impeach him. Throw him out of office! And then what? He’ll just run again and the voters of Maine will re-elect him. Who knows? He might get a full majority in a new election. Clearly, Maine has a screwed up system. But it is hardly unique. I’ve written before about the tendency for blue and swing states to regret their recent governors — and even red states. It doesn’t seem to matter. On the day of the election, it’s a matter that “they’re all the same,” and then a couple months later, it is “I never imagined they’d do that!”

I’d love to see LePage impeached. God knows he deserves it. But ultimately, the people have to take responsibility. What LePage is doing — which he doesn’t deny — is entirely in keeping with what he’s done before. No one can reasonably claim that they are shocked by him. I suspect that the world gets rid of LePage the way that it got rid of Rob Ford. First LePage has to be caught on video tape using an illegal substance. Then his behavior has to get so bad that he checks himself into rehab. But note: Rob Ford may not be mayor, but he’s still on the city council. So maybe there is no way of getting rid of Paul LePage.

This, my friends, is how empires fall. We really do live in a post-truth world. Nothing matters — most of all policy. And on that count, I don’t really blame voters. For a good forty years now, they have watched as they have elected conservatives and “liberals” and nothing especially changes. Yes, things get modestly better under the Democratic Party than under the Republican Party. But it is easy enough to consider that a coincidence. And I really think we are at the point where most of what we once called the middle class look at the increased pain with a sense of schadenfreude — as though the pain of others makes up for their own pain.

So go ahead, Maine: impeach Paul LePage. But even if he is expunged from the good graces of the body politic, the blight he represents will go on. We will still live in a society that doesn’t think things can get better. We live with a system that makes voting difficult, and privileges the rich and the old — just incidentally the base of the conservative movement. We live with media that sees politics as a game devoid of meaning. It would take a kind of revolution of thought for the people to push back against that. I still hope. But I would find it shocking if it ever occurred.

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