Democrats, Media Allow Republicans to Abuse Scandals

Scandal?!Last time I discussed the IRS targeting of Tea Party related groups, I wrote, What If There Was No IRS Scandal? I was especially interested in a comment made by Holly Paz that “tea party” was a generic term for obviously partisan political groups who were trying to get non-profit and non-disclosure statuses. The issue matters to me because I hate the recent rise in the injustices done to people in the political world simply because no one can take the time to figure out what is going on before firing people. We saw this with ACORN and Shirley Sherrod and at the beginning of the IRS scandal with Steven T. Miller.

Today, the Associated Press reported a bombshell: Documents Show IRS Also Screened Liberal Groups. There is no scandal here, not even a little internal IRS scandal:

The Internal Revenue Service’s screening of groups seeking tax-exempt status was broader and lasted longer than has been previously disclosed, the new head of the agency acknowledged Monday. Terms including “Israel,” “Progressive” and “Occupy” were used by agency workers to help pick groups for closer examination, according to an internal IRS document obtained by The Associated Press.

So now what? From my perspective, this is yet another example of our completely dysfunctional political system. We see the same process repeated over and over again. Republicans claim there is some terrible scandal. Democrats freak out, sacrificing their own in the name of limiting the damage. When all the facts come out, there is no scandal. But much damage has been done. The Republicans have flayed the Democrats for months in the media. It doesn’t matter that it all comes to naught; a bad impression is left. What’s more, Democratic allies have been sacrificed, which is not good for morale. Also, it makes related liberal groups far less likely to back Democrats in the future. Can you say Al Gore? And finally, the Republicans pay absolutely no political price for their actions, mostly because the Democrats just drop the issue because they’re so glad it is all over. And the media have nothing to cover other than their own incompetence.

I don’t blame the Republicans. They are doing a great job in getting what they want. I blame the Democrats for doing everything they can to help the Republicans. And I blame the media for treating every Republican scandal like it was something other than yet another power grab. These are our real problems. The Democrats need to grow a soul and the media need to grow a brain. I’m not expecting either.

Immigration Reform Still Loser for Republicans

Scared RepublicansEarlier this month, I asked a rhetorical question, Why Should Republicans Support Immigration Reform? It was rhetorical because I knew there was no answer. As I’ve argued again and again since this silly issue came up on the evening of 6 November 2012: the Latino aversion to the Republican Party is a hell of a lot bigger than immigration reform. Less than a week after the election, I noted that when it comes to Latinos, Ideology is Biggest Republican Problem. And as time has gone by, it has become more and more clear that if the federal government does pass some kind of immigration reform, it will be despite the Republican Party, not because of it.

Still, many political observers who I respect—most notably Greg Sargent—seem to think that Boehner will allow a vote on the immigration bill because a whole bunch of House Republicans who don’t want to vote for it themselves will nonetheless want it passed because it is good for their party. First: really?! I mean, one thing that almost defines the Tea Party caucus is that they don’t give a flying fuck what the party elites think. They believe that the Republican Party has lost its way by being too liberal and too inclusive. According to this line of argument, all the Republican Party needs to do is get more conservative than Hitler and enact a few voter ID laws and they will rule Washington. These are not people who are thinking, “If only we won 45% of the Latino vote, Mitt Romney would be president!”

But there is a bigger issue that Ed Kilgore explained perfectly this evening:

Now if the benefit GOPers are supposed to be getting from the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform is the gratitude of business lobbyists and/or Karl Rove, I suppose this rather Machiavellian argument could make sense. But if the real prize here is a better image among Latino voters, it’s not obvious why Republicans are going to get credit for covertly allowing the enactment of a law mostly supported by Democrats and loudly opposed by a majority of Republicans in both Houses.

What Sargent and company seem to be missing is that the 11 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States is not a huge thorn in the side of the recent immigrant community. True: most of them would like something done about this shadow culture. But they still care most about what everyone cares about: bread and butter issues. And on those issues, the Republican Party has been very clear: they don’t care about helping the poor or giving them a hand up. As I wrote just after last year’s election, It’s the Poor, Stupid. Most immigrants are poor and that is why they vote for the Democratic Party. And no amount of single issue pandering is going to change that.

So I’m with Kilgore. It’s possible that Boehner will bring the immigration bill to a vote. But I don’t see any reason why he would. Politically, it seems like a real loser to me.

Update (24 June 2013 11:11 pm)

Steve Benen is usually an insightful guy, but this morning he offered up the following clip of Lindsey Graham as evidence of reasonableness from a Republican:

The problem is that other than the little words, pretty much everything that Graham says is false. He is pushing this idea that Latinos are really conservative that is simply wrong. Also: if they don’t pass the immigration bill Latinos will not vote for Republicans because of that. In general, Latinos will not vote for Republicans anyway. There are two Republican sides on this. One includes the Republicans who understand where their political fortunes lie. We’ll call them the evil Republicans. And the other includes the Republicans who are deluding themselves about getting Latino votes. We’ll call them the crazy Republicans. It could be that the crazy Republicans will win this fight. But I’m afraid that Benen is letting his desire for an immigration bill cloud his perceptions of what is going on in the Republican Party.

Bierce and Reich

Robert ReichWhen I was first introduced to unix in 1988, a big part of the experience was that whenever I logged in, I got a “message of the day” in the form of a little program, typically named “motd.” All the program did was pick randomly from a text file of quotes. I’m sure it was added to over the years by the various nerdy people who developed the various parts of the operating system. And they were very fond of Ambrose Bierce and his The Devil’s Dictionary. It includes wonderful definitions like:

Actually (adv) Perhaps; possibly.

Conservative (n) A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Religion (n) A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

Brilliant, right? Ambrose Bierce was born on this day in 1842. And then, when he was 71 he disappeared in Mexico. Bierce was a journalist and author and war hero. Here is a French short film based upon Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It is really good:

Irish playwright George Shiels was born in 1886. Boxer Jack Dempsey was born in 1895. Tennis shoe evangelist Chuck Taylor was born in 1901. The great British astronomer Fred Hoyle was born in 1915. And painter Margaret Olley was born in 1923.

Al MolinaroYou probably have never heard of him, but actor Al Molinaro is 94 today. But I know you know him, that’s why I’ve included his picture on the right. He was the owner of Arnold’s on Happy Days and (as in the picture) Murray the Cop on The Odd Couple. And I love this quote from him, “I spent twenty years here before I got anything going, and from that I got lucky. It takes a lot of luck in show business. You’ve just got to be lucky and in the right place at the right time.” I wish more people understood how important luck is to their success. And how can you not love that face?!

Guitarist Jeff Beck is 69. Here he is with The Yardbirds, although for the record, I think Jimmy Page is better:

Drummer Mick Fleetwood is 66. Actor Nancy Allen is 63. Scottish actor Iain Glen is 52. And really vile human being who uses religion to oppress the weak, Ralph Reed is also 52.

The day however, belongs to the great political economist who is there on the right under “Daily Off Sites,” Robert Reich who is 67 today. He has it all. He’s an excellent writer with a good sense of humor. Oh, and he’s one of the most insightful political observers around. Having been on the inside as Labor Secretary under Clinton, he understands the politics as well as the economics that is going on. And most of all, he cares that our society is totally screwed up and is trying to do something about it. Here he is in one of his great videos. This one is on Three Economic Myths:

Happy birthday Robert Reich!

Obama bin Lyin’

Obama bin Lyin'

I just saw this bumper sticker in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s. As you probably know, I have major problems with the “What Do You Think of Obama Now?” bumper stickers. This one is even worse. It goes right to heart of what it means to be the loyal opposition. The conservative movement has long been the disloyal opposition. This is what allows them to think it is right and fitting to block every Obama initiative, not because they disagree with it, but because it comes from Obama. It is also what allowed Obama to endure over four years of claims that he was not a legitimate president because he wasn’t born in the United States. We didn’t hear such hysterics from Democrats about Bush who was actually illegitimate (but only in the sense that he didn’t get the most votes in the country or the state of Florida).

What is the bumper sticker saying? It claims that Obama is a liar. I’m sure that is technically true. But is it more true of him than any other president? I certainly don’t see that. In fact, one of my complaints about Obama is that he is too straightforward. He is not wily. He thinks that the best way to negotiate is to come right out with your best offer. Deceptiveness is just not what is wrong with our current president.

And what exactly is Obama lying about? At first, I thought the sticker was a reference to all the recent real and pretend scandals. But that isn’t it at all. Seth Colter Walls reported seeing such a sign at a McCain rally back in October 2008. And it not only dates back further, it is an evolution of “Bush bin Lyin'” signs as far back as 2004. However, those signs were never popular because, they make no sense. At least “Obama bin Lyin'” scans.

What is most ridiculous, of course, is that Obama killed Osama bin Laden. But I’m sure the point is always just to characterize Obama as the worst enemy of our country. (As though bin Laden was ever even that!) This is not limited to the right. We on the left do it too. But there is a difference. As stupid as “Bush bin Lyin'” is (and it was normally “Bush Bin Lyin” which makes the joke even harder to understand), at least it went along with the narrative that Bush lied us into war. There were no “Bush bin Lyin'” signs even as early as 2003. So the etymology was: (1) Bush lied; (2) “Bush lied” signs. With Obama it is just: (1) “Obama lied” signs. What did Obama lie about? Oh, take your pick! He’s Emmanuel Goldstein: evil, dirty, dishonest. They’ll fill in the details as necessary.

I find these kinds of attacks on Obama most frustrating. There are very real problems with Obama. But with very few exceptions (e.g. Josh Barro, Ramesh Ponnuru), the only people who are acting as the loyal opposition are those of us on the left. What we now have is a political system with one traditional party: the Democrats. And then we have one reactionary party: the Republicans who don’t so much stand for anything but against whatever the Democrats do. That’s not a stable system. And it is particularly bad for the Democratic Party. If we continue this way, we will end up with two parties who only believe that they ought to be in power.


My general belief is that we have reached this state because of the Democrats. By co-opting more and more Republican positions, the Democrats have pushed the Republicans to the extreme right where they are stuck. But we will leave that for another day. The fact remains that the Democrats do still stand for something: what the Republicans used to stand for. The Republicans don’t really stand for anything. I think even they realize what a disaster it would be if they got their way at this point: the conservative alternative to conservative policy? Ouch!

Vague Patent Trolling

Timothy B. LeeTimothy B. Lee has been doing a lot of excellent reporting at Wonk Blog about our broken intellectual property system. At first, I was highly skeptical of Lee. Maybe it was unfair, but he used to work at the Cato Institute and my experience is that most libertarians have a blind spot when it comes to these issues. But he clearly understands the warping effects of these laws. At this point, things are so out of control that the system could be greatly improve before we would disagree on how best to move forward. In the end, I think that a socialistic approach to intellectual property is the best, and I doubt that Lee would agree. However, I’m in favor of a voluntary system; the big Hollywood studios could keep their copyrights. But a good solution to the problem would require that tax dollars go to support the system.

Lee’s latest IP article discussed the outrageous ruling of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—for the second time! As he reported, “A firm called Ultramercial claims to have invented the concept of showing a customer an ad instead of charging for content.” This would be like thousands of years ago someone claiming that he invented the concept of exchanging goods for services and mandating that everyone pay him for his “invention.” Last year, the Appeals Court found the same way and the Supreme Court slapped it down and told it to reconsider the case. And they did: they found that they were right the first time.

Our patent and copyright system has degenerated to a point were it is little more than a legal maneuver. The idea of “showing a customer an ad instead of charging for content” is something we’ve had since at least the invention of newspapers. In this case, the court found that the “invention” wasn’t abstract enough to not qualify for protection. What I don’t understand is how this ruling can be seen as furthering any interests except that of Ultramercial, which is clearly just a patent troll. The justification for patents is that they encourage innovation. This ruling does exactly the opposite.

When I see rulings like this, all I can figure is that the justices are in way over their heads. They really don’t understand how the economy works and they don’t get innovation at all. They must see it as nothing but a legal strategy and may the best lawyer win. But the law is not supposed to be a game. Patents distort the market, but maybe that is okay because the benefits outweigh the deficits. But vague and obvious patents like the idea of advertising on the internet distort the market so much that they encourage litigation and discourage innovation.

The good news is that there is a decent chance that the Supreme Court will hear the case. Lee reported:

And it takes a narrower view of what can be patented than the Federal Circuit does—the last three Supreme Court decisions on the subject all invalidated patents the Federal Circuit had approved. If the appeals court responsible for patent law won’t rein in frivolous patenting, perhaps the Supreme Court will do the job itself.

But it doesn’t make me feel too good that there is so much damaging thinking in our legal system. There is a tendency on the part of conservatives especially to blame our litigious society on the poor. But the real problem we have is in the business community where we have true takers like Ultramercial who add nothing but demand their rents.

Good Change at SEC — Maybe

Mary Jo WhiteMary Jo White, the new chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is urging an end to the practice of settlements with businesses where they admit no wrongdoing. I agree with Matt Yglesias that this is a good change. For too long we’ve allowed companies to avoid any reputational stain for their misbehavior. The fines they paid were just seen as the cost of doing business. And given that the fines are never substantial relative to the size of the businesses, the SEC settlements don’t even amount to a slap on the wrist.

Where I part with Yglesias is in his belief that it really will matter. He says symbols matter and I agree. And it will be a very big deal when the first big company reaches a settlement with the SEC that includes an admission of wrongdoing. There will be a lot of pundit chatter about how important it is. But then it won’t make any real difference to the public. The company will launch a PR campaign and everything will be forgotten. And “admission of wrongdoing” will become the new normal. Business schools will teach classes on how to handle potential fallout from such deals.

What might actually help is holding top executives criminally liable for the wrongdoing of their businesses. But we’re not going to see that. Just like everywhere in the modern world, those at the top get all of the benefits from their position but absolutely none of the responsibilities. All of us scratch our heads when CEOs who have done great damage to their companies are given generous compensation when they are thrown out. This is the same thing. The theory is that the power elite are better than the rest of us and therefore cannot be made to suffer in the slightest. It is our version of aristocracy but without the noblesse oblige.

This decision by White may, however, be a good sign about her. She may be prepared to really face off with these companies. But it is impossible to say. As Yglesias wrote, “In brass tacks terms, one might wonder how much this matters. Is a fine plus an admission of guilt really so much worse than a fine plus a ‘neither admit nor deny’ wrongdoing?” He thinks it is. But to me, this could just be White’s way of mollifying the masses without doing anything that would make the business community unhappy.

Time will tell how good a job Mary Jo White does. I started out being very skeptical of her. This announcement doesn’t really change my position. But if she goes on to make the SEC into an institution that really does the people’s work, we will probably look back at this decision as the start of it all. With all my skepticism, I really do hope that turns out to be true.