Conservative Situational Certainty

Samuel AlitoI just came upon an interesting article from last June by Jonathan Zasloff in The Reality-Based Community. It is about Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent in Miller v. Alabama. That was the case where the court found that it was unconstitutional to provide mandatory life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders. Alito wrote, “Nothing in the Constitution supports this arrogation of legislative authority.” In other words, Alito is saying the courts don’t have the constitutional right to usurp the authority of the legislature. Zasloff notes that this is interesting, because Alito didn’t think this when it came to Obamacare.

Alito was so angry about the court’s ruling that he read his dissent from the bench. This is typical of what I find so bothersome about conservatives generally, but especially on the bench. Samuel Alito here is making the case that the law is very clear. It goes right along with John Roberts’ statement that he just “calls balls and strikes.” But somehow, the clarity of the law vanishes the moment they have an opportunity to score a partisan blow. This predates Alito, of course. Just go back to Bush v. Gore, where the conservatives who hated the equal protection clause and interpreted it very narrowly suddenly found that it was very big when it came to the protection of George W. Bush. But even there, they had to add a statement that even though they had ruled for the equal protection of Bush, the ruling could not be used as precedent when it came to the equal rights for anyone else in the future.

When it came to mandatory minimums for juvenile offenders, Alito couldn’t find anything in the Constitution that would allow the Supreme Court to interfere. But when it came to Obamacare, Alito didn’t even think about such limits to its power. Here’s Zasloff:

Alito would no doubt answer that in the health care cases, the issue is whether the federal government has the authority in the first place. You can’t usurp authority from a government that doesn’t have it. But that was also the case with the issue of mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles: if the Eighth Amendment applies, then the state government does not have the authority to impose those sentences. All of which is to say that “judicial activism,” the hobbyhorse that conservatives have used to complain about judicial decisions since Brown v. Board of Education (and yes—they vehemently complained about that one), is essentially a meaningless trope. For Alito to use it so casually shows that he’s almost as bad a judge as Scalia, which is [saying something].

The point is that Alito, like most conservative judges, takes the law very seriously. Until he doesn’t. As Zasloff says, “Cutting 30 million people off of health insurance, however, is just a day at the office.”

Teaching Is Not Testing

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait can be a very annoying person. Today, he wrote an article about the Atlanta school cheating scandal, Teachers Cheating on Tests: Not a Big Deal. His argument is that cheating is found in every area where people wish to excel, therefore we shouldn’t use this scandal as a reason to abandon our test-focused education system. Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But maybe the cheating is a sign of a more fundamental problem with our educational system.

Chait takes specific target at Eugene Robinson’s article in yesterday’s Washington Post, The Racket with Standardized Test Scores. Just in terms of a hit piece, Chait is way off base. He starts by trivializing Robinson’s article. He ends by weaseling out of the argument he made throughout his article, “But minimizing cheating is a terrible top priority. The top priority should be teaching students better.” Oh really?! So he didn’t mean all those words that he wrote about cheating being inevitable and needing to minimize that cheating rather than minimizing the use of standardized tests? He just wants students to be taught better. As opposed to Robinson who, what? Wants students taught worse? This is by far the worst article I have ever read by the generally reliable Jonathan Chait.

As Robinson points out, the problem is that those controlling our education system have become enamored with testing. He even quotes education reporter Valerie Strauss on this subject that we don’t know just how big this kind of cheating is. “What we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.” Listening to Chait, you would think that no such thing exists and that the fact that states can design their own standardized tests means they are somehow tailored to different communities. Think about that for a moment: are the students in East Los Angeles and Palm Springs the same? As I recall, they are not only in the same state, they are located quite near each other.

The emphasis of bureaucrats on test scores a good example of non-leadership. By quantifying something that cannot be easily quantified, using simplistic meters, people can claim to be approaching education in an objective form without doing anything at all. In this case, they create an almost random metric and then dump the task on local schools to improve student scores on the metric. It isn’t fair, but more important, it isn’t effective.

Jonathan Chait seems like someone who has eagerly drunk the education “reform” Kool-Aid. The truth is that whether test scores are going up or going down, educational attainment is not. That’s what we should be worried about. Instead, we place teachers and administrators in a ridiculous situation that does students no good at all. He’s right that these cheating scandals aren’t a reason for abandoning our test-focused educational “reform.” We have plenty of better reasons than that. But his almost hysterical attack on Robinson and lame defense of testing is a perfect example of what is stopping us to genuinely improving education.


I recommend checking out Fair Test, a group that is fighting against our failed test-centered approach to teaching. They have an excellent FAQ, What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests? Check it out; it’s an eye-opener.

Media Accountability

Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized MedicineYesterday, I wrote about Liz Cheney’s insane rant against Obama and Obamacare. The insightful healthcare policy observer Aaron Carroll wrote about the Reagan quote she used that freedom was over because of the evil which Cheney dare not speak its name. That evil, of course, is Medicare. Cheney conveniently left out that context for the quote because it only would have highlighted how wrong Reagan was and Chaney is with their hysterical domino theorizing.

Carroll puts it all into context:

Yes, Medicare was the death of freedom in 1961. It was tyranny.[1] It was the end of America.

Last I checked, Medicare passed, and America is still here. Now it’s Obamacare that will kill freedom, enact tyranny, and end America.

At what point do people who use such hyperbolic rhetoric stop and recognize that their dire warnings never come to pass? One would imagine that people who repeated Reagan’s talking points back in 1961 might find it a bit humbling to see how wrong they were. You’d think they’d shy from repeating those arguments again.

But, no. They get op-ed space on the WSJ.

This, I think, is the real problem. No one ever loses anything because they are shown to be shockingly ignorant. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, no one wants to be around others who make them look bad. So someone like John McLaughlin is not going to fill his panel show with people who were right about the Iraq War or the housing bubble. The mainstream media will continue to be wrong about major policy issues because they don’t want to admit being wrong in the past. Another reason is just that the people on the TV machine and in major newspapers are not there because they are right or smart; they are there because they are friends with with the people who run the TV stations and newspapers.

It frustrates me that such people are allowed to say things that are so obviously wrong—even at the time they say it. But this explains why, say, the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s (CPC) budget gets almost no coverage while Paul Ryan’s fictional budgets get blanket coverage: no one who would be interested in a progressive budget is employed in the mainstream media. It isn’t that they have it out for such ideas; it is just that those kinds of people are not serious, even if they have quite a good record of being, you know, right. Thus: why employ such people?

And so Liz Cheney continues to write Op-Eds and Reagan continues to be treated as though he had ever been a great thinker. There is no solution to be found within the mainstream media itself. Instead, we must look to sources of information that provide voices to a larger selection of thinkers. Despite what conservatives claim, it isn’t necessary on the right. Unless the person is explicitly racist, you will see their ideas presented and even pushed in the mainstream media. For example, the guys who brought us the idiotic Freedom Map occupied an entire feature on “liberal” MSNBC’s prime time coverage. This is about equal to all of the coverage of the CPC’s budget. So it is important to watch shows like Democracy Now! and The Young Turks. And to read this site and the lesser sites such as those listed on the sidebar.

If you stick with the mainstream media (much less the conservative media), all you will get is an endless parade of lies and incompetence with never a whisper of accountability.

[1] This was mistyped “tyrrany” in the original article on Carroll’s blog, The Incidental Economist. That’s understandable; it happens all the time. But then it was picked up by The Washington Monthly—a real publication. But they didn’t catch it. What is wrong with the publishing world? I accept that blogs are going to have a lot of errors because they don’t have editors or pretty much any staff. But why can’t actual newspapers, magazines, and book publishers manage to copy edit their content? This story ran three days before it was published in The Washington Monthly. So time wasn’t the issue. They appear just not to care.

With Friends Like David Sheff…

David SheffDavid Sheff is the author of Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. It only came out today, so I haven’t read it. Of course, I’m not going to. As regular readers could have predicted, I bristled when I heard the title of the book. Who can reasonably say that addiction is “America’s greatest tragedy”? Have we forgotten about slavery? Or the genocide of the Native Americans? Or more recently, what about our drone attacks on civilians in Afghanistan? These strike me as distinctly greater tragedies than addiction. And right on point: what about the tragedy of those who are greatly harmed and even killed by the drug laws?

I understand that Sheff is what we would call a liberal. He wants to limit some of he harm done by our drug laws. But he still buys into the same old lies about drug use being a terrible problem that we must do something about. The book claims to be a myth-shattering look at drug abuse” that is based on the “latest research in psychology, neuroscience, and medicine.” But the latest research on drug use indicates that it is not a disease any more than other human behaviors. What is perhaps most telling is that the book’s description starts with, “Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing.” But the very word “addiction” makes the whole discussion moral. There is a scientific definition of the word “addict,” but the way that Sheff uses the word, all it means is, “Someone who does drugs I don’t approve of in quantities I don’t approve of.”

The author was on The Last Word yesterday. Lawrence O’Donnell made a comment that floored me, “You want marijuana to be legalized. You also think it can be harmful.” This sent Sheff off on a discussion of how children should not use cannabis because it affects their development. I agree with that. Children shouldn’t use drugs, and in fact (Sheff did not mention this), having drugs illegal actually makes them easier for kids to obtain. But my problem with this comment has nothing to do with kids.

All human behaviors are risky. You can die from drinking too much water. It is only in the realm of drugs (because we approach them moralistically) that people expect that behaviors should have no danger before we let others do them. And that is the problem with people like David Sheff. They want drugs to be less dangerous. They want others to be less moralistic about their use. But they can’t get past their belief that drugs are uniquely dangerous because they think drug use is a moral issue. They’ve come to believe that drug addiction is not a moral issue by medicalizing it and turning it into a disease. But they still maintain the moral paradigm of drug use. They’ve just invented a disease that causes people to act “immoral.”

Sometimes, allies are worse than enemies. When it comes to the fight against the drug war, in the long term David Sheff and Lawrence O’Donnell are such allies.


Here is the interview:

What’s Going On This Day in 1939?

Marvin GayeCharlemagne was born on this day back in 742. Certainly, I could have named him the winner of today’s birthday contest, but there is no good video of him. Buddy Ebsen was born in 1908. He only died back in 2003 at 95—outliving Irene Ryan by 25 years! The great actor Alec Guinness was born in 1914. Most people know him from Star Wars. Frankly, I get him confused with John Gielgud, who I like rather more. (And who I will talk more about on his birthday in a couple of weeks.) And Rodney King was born on 1965—not so much a person as an important cultural symbol.

The lovely Gloria Henry is 90 today. Barret Eugene Hansen (Click the link!) is 72. Leon Russell is 71. Diminutive and wonderful actress Linda Hunt is 68. And bad girl philosopher, who I both love and hate, Camille Paglia is 66.

Man of the Day

Just a pop star? I don’t think so. On this day in 1939, a musical genius was born: Marvin Gaye. He died tragically young. And he was still producing great music up to the end. It is sad that he is gone, because I’m sure he would be thrilling us today if he were still around. Just the same, we have the decades of great music he left us.

Here is a live version of “What’s Going On” from the DVD Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing – In Performance 1964-1981. (That’s the great bassist James Jamerson in the band! He sadly died the same year as Gaye.)