Are the Rich Above the Law?

Matt YglesiasWhen I was first introduced to the Magna Carta when I was in school, it made no sense to me. I just couldn’t get my head around the idea that at one point, the King of England was literally beyond the law. Because that’s basically all that the Magna Carta says: you can’t just kill us. (“Us,” of course, being the feudal lords, not the “little” people.) This is interesting, because I often argue that today, the United States is moving toward a feudal system. But at least we have rights and no one is above the law, right? Well, maybe not.

After O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, many people I knew groused about how he only got off because of his million dollar legal defense. I was not a fan of Simpson, but I countered this argument. The problem was not that Simpson got a great legal defense; it was that not all defendants get that kind of legal defense. Under normal circumstances, it is the prosecution that basically has unlimited resources. It was really nice to see things evened up and that is the way it should always be.

That subject has come up again in the trial of George Zimmerman. Matt Yglesias wrote a brilliant article, What if George Zimmerman Had a Public Defender? His conclusion is that in that case, Zimmerman wouldn’t have even gone to trial. He would have done as 94% of all those with state charges have done: he would have pleaded down and taken a manslaughter charge. His point is not that justice would have been done in that case or even that it was done with his good defense. No, his point is more general about the state of our justice system.

Yglesias asks the question, “Why has no one been indicted for the financial crisis?” And the answer is basically: because those guys won’t plead. If you thought the defense that Zimmerman bought for $300,000 was good, you ought to see the kind of defense that $10 million would buy. And the truth is that our “justice” system is not set up to deal with defendants who can mount a vigorous defense. On the federal level it is even worse: 97% of the cases are pleaded.

This makes me wonder if we aren’t further toward a feudal system than I had previously thought. It isn’t that the rich can’t be convicted of crimes. It is just that the government doesn’t even much try. Our laws and institutions have grown so long in the tooth that they simply can’t handle prosecuting people who don’t lay down. And the only people who can afford to fight back are the rich. So we are left with a system where we have rights and opportunity in theory. But as a practical matter, we are no better off than we were in the 13th century.

Wikipedia’s Larry Sanger Page Is Unimpressive

Larry SangerBefore getting to the birthdays, we need to stop and note that this is a different kind of birthday. Sixty-eight years ago, the nuclear age started. That happened in the form of Trinity, the first nuclear explosion in the history of the world. I’m not keen on the nuclear age, but I am especially depressed about the role that the United States played in it. The small sliver of goodness is that it is an excellent example of “American know-how” combined with “government will” solving a very difficult problem. But that is a very small sliver indeed compared to all the harm that was done. It was not necessary to drop the two bombs on Japan. Now it seems very clear that the whole purpose was to show the USSR what we could do, and we didn’t care about the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians we killed in the name of sending that “message.” I tend to think that our genocide of the native peoples in America throughout the 19th century is worse; but Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a close second. And 68 years ago, it all started in a real way.

It is a good day for artists. One of the great painters of the High Renaissance Andrea del Sarto was born on this day in 1486. The English sculptor Joseph Wilton was born in 1722. English painter Joshua Reynoldswas born in 1723. And the great French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was born in 1796.

The founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy was born in 1821. God must have been looking out for her health, because she lived to be 89. She was clearly a freak, but I have a great deal of respect for people who take their religion seriously. What really pisses me off is the modern fashion of faux spirituality. I know people who don’t accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection. These opinions are based upon the fact that their pastors have told them that natural selection is incompatible with the Bible. But they don’t doubt all the medical advances that have come about from the the theory that they assume is wrong. These people are willing to accept all the good things that science provides them, but the moment that science requires the smallest rethink of their religious beliefs, they balk at it. If you really think God is so great, let him cure your disease. And don’t be like modern Christian Scientists who run to the doctor with a broken leg as if God can cure cancer but can’t manage to set a broken bone. If you believe, then believe and live with the consequences!

The great and tragic baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson was born in 1887. I don’t know if he was guilty or not. But I think MLB is a hypocritical organization. They allowed some truly vile men to both play and enter the Hall of Fame. For example: Ty Cobb. The truth is that Jackson is one of the great players and he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. The idea that MLB or any professional sporting organization is made up of anything but a bunch of assholes and often even monsters is preposterous. Of course, the fact that I think professional sports is just a bunch of bullshit probably makes my opinion less important than it could be.

Modern classical composer Goffredo Petrassi was born in 1904. His music is very difficult—so difficult that I find most of it impossible to enjoy. But here is a short choir piece that is among his most accessible:

Popcorn king Orville Redenbacher was born in 1907. And they still use him in some of their commercials. Creepy! Hollywood beauty and a damned good actor Barbara Stanwyck was also born in 1907, but died 5 years before Orville. And Dancing legend (And quite a good actor!) Ginger Rogers was born in 1911. Here she is with Fred Astaire in Swing Time. Remember: she’s doing all that in one take with three-inch heals:

The first ever Jewish Miss America (perhaps not coincidentally in 1945), Bess Myerson is 89 today. Representative Barbara Lee is 67. As usual, I have a reason for listing politicians. There is lots nice to say about her, but she’s here today because she was the only person in Congress who voted against the Afghanistan War. And that really says something because a number of good people voted for it, even though at the time it seemed pretty obvious that the country was just lashing out rather than responding appropriately to 9/11. The founder of the band The Police, Stewart Copeland is 61. Screenwriter Tony Kushner is 57. Great poker player and by all accounts horrible human being, Phil Hellmuth is 49. Will Ferrell is 46. Look, none of my friends like him (that’s an understatement), but I’m just going to say it: he is a comedic genius. There are a number of his films that I didn’t like, but it isn’t because of him. I find him funny as hell. I especially recommend the much maligned Semi-Pro. I love that film. Here is one of his many brilliant Old Milwaukee Beer commercials:

The day, however, belongs to Wikipedia founder Larry Sanger who is 45 today. I have more problems with Wikipedia than most people, but it is still a great thing that makes the internet a much better research tool. And in particular, it is responsible for about 80% of all the research that I do for these birthday posts. I always thought he would have more hair, but now that I see him, I think he’s just perfect.

Happy birthday Larry Sanger!

Ed Kilgore and Rational Cynicism

Cynical FaceI have a normal evolution regarding political writers. At first, I am in their thrall. Slowly, I begin to disagree with them more and more. And eventually I reach the point where they annoy me more often than not. The most recent example of this is Greg Sargent. With regards to policy, I think we very much agree. But I just can’t take his optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I first started noticing it with the gun control legislation but it has continued through the debt ceiling (which he claims is solved but is not) and most recently comprehensive immigration reform.

Well, I’ve started a new relationship; this time it is with the Washington Times‘ Ed Kilgore. I can’t say where our relationship will go from here, but I think we are starting at a better place. For one thing, having read him on and off for a long time, I already know that I don’t always agree with him. But when it comes to temperament, we are very much alike. For example, on the issue of filibuster reform, he has wanted to see actual reform the whole time. Early this morning, he published, May Cooler Heads Not Prevail. That was nice to read after so many liberals were gloating that Democrats got what they wanted without actually improving the broken Senate. All morning I’ve been reading slight variants on, “And if the Republicans don’t behave, the Democrats still have the nuclear option!” Yeah, but they could just fix the problem instead. As Kilgore noted, “This is not time for sticky sentimentality about the Senate’s sacred traditions, which (a) are not at all “sacred” and (b) in the case of the filibuster, have been twisted beyond recognition in the last few years.”

The last thing Kilgore wrote today was music to my ears, Uh, Yeah, This Is a Different GOP. In it, he defended himself against other liberal writers who say that he is wrong to constantly be a naysayer about these deals that the Democrats are supposedly going to get with the Republicans. I’ve been hammering this same line since last year’s election when everyone was talking about how the Republicans had to be more reasonable since they lost. How was that? The Republicans still in Congress won their election. How should Obama’s victory change the way they thought? No one really had an answer, but I still hear that kind of logic from people like Steve Benen.

Kilgore noted that the threat of losing presidential elections is not likely to change the Republican Party any time soon. He rightly noted that the anti-choice coalition in the Republican Party thinks that it is doing God’s work. Unborn children are being murdered. If you see it that way, you aren’t going to moderate your opinions for the sake of political expediency. And they are right to act as they do if that’s how they feel.[1] Kilgore completely sums up what is going on:

For one thing, while you might think of politics as a matter of winning the next election so your “team” can implement its immediate agenda, intensely ideological people tend to think of politics as a matter of winning wars rather than battles, and focus on winning elections that put them into the position to radically change history….

So the best way to understand the contemporary conservative movement is as a coalition with an unusually large number of people who either don’t agree with the CV [CW?] on how to win elections, don’t care about short-term political implications, or don’t care about anything other than expressing their opinion about the hellwards direction of the Republic and perhaps of the human race. Mix in another significant number of people with a large pecuniary interest in reactionary politics, and you have a movement that’s not going to turn from its current trajectory with any great speed. You can stamp your feet or call them crazy people or deplore their impact on the level of discourse all you want, but they just aren’t going away, and we might as well get used to it instead of marveling about it as though it came out of nowhere and will soon disappear.

I would go further. The conservatives do think in terms of winning wars. Politics is not about winning elections; it is about getting your policies enacted. The greatest recent conservative victory was the presidency of Bill Clinton. The Democratic Party has done and continues to do most of the work for the conservatives. So who cares if Hillary Clinton is the next president when she is going to push policy that will be well to the right of Ronald Reagan?

I suppose what I like about Kilgore is that he is rationally cynical. This is an infinitely better position than that of the Happy Horseshit Caucus. The problem is that all the happy talk allows people to avoid the reality that we really aren’t making progress. The conservatives are still the ones framing the debate. And we have elected officials who are far more conservative than the people they supposedly serve. It is only with this recognition that we can make any real progress.

[1] It is another matter that these beliefs are based on very technical and uncompelling theological theories about the soul. I doubt one out of one hundred really understands this. So the movement as a whole is a bunch of people who have simply been told God hates it. That makes these people sheep, but not irrational.

Space Garbage Found Orbiting Neptune

Tweety BirdThis morning, NASA announced that another moon was discovered circling Neptune. And that’s cool. But you have to ask, “Didn’t we go there?” Indeed we did. And why didn’t we noticed it? Because it is tiny! This is Neptune’s 14th moon, and just like with each new child Michelle Duggar pops out, you have to ask why we care. At just 20 km across, this moon is roughly the size of Mars’ two spectacularly unimpressive moons. Of course, I’ve always had a problem with moons of these sizes. All planets (And moons!) have space garbage orbiting them. And this new moon—with its romantic name S/2004 N 1—would not even qualify as a significant asteroid.

I understand that this is quite a scientific accomplishment. Detecting a tiny moon orbiting a huge planet is a great accomplishment. Mark Showalter is to be congratulated. He was studying Neptune’s rings when part of it diverged. That says a lot about what a tiny object this moon is: it was obscured by Neptune’s pathetic ring system. By looking at several years of data, he was able to determine orbital parameters like the fact that it is located way out at 100,000 km from Neptune.

According to NPR, many people are are looking to name this glorified piece of space garbage. Some have even suggested that this shriveled orbital should be named—God save me!—Vulcan. Luckily, William Shatner was around to set everyone straight about how these things get named:

The fact remains, there is an endless quantity of cosmic debris floating around the solar system. People discover it all the time. The fact that one managed to get attached to Neptune is about as exciting as the next season of Dancing with the Stars. But that doesn’t mean I’m not keen to enter the name debate. My candidate: Tweety. You see, Tweety Bird is both small and annoying. Plus, Tweet Bird is one of the water deities.

Reid Backs Down from Compromise of Compromise

Slow and MeasuredThis is how Democrats work. First they compromise. Then they back off. Then they come back with more compromises. Then they back off again. Again they come back with yet more compromises. And finally they compromise some more.

And that’s what we’re getting with filibuster reform. We couldn’t have complete filibuster reform. So we talked about just judicial and executive branch nominees. And then just executive branch nominees. That was pretty weak tea from my perspective, but at least it was something—and it was completely justified. And as of last night, it looked like that compromise of a compromise might hold. Mitch McConnell offered to permit all seven of the “test” nominations to go forward if Reid would back off on his use of the so called nuclear option. Reid said no.

This morning, the Boston Globe is reporting that Reid has caved again:

If ratified, the deal would mark a retreat by Reid from his insistence on Monday that all seven of the pending nominees be confirmed.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell privately offered to clear the way for several of the nominees, officials in both parties said.

What’s more, the article says that people worry that the nuclear option would poison relations between the parties. What a joke! Are relations not already poisoned? Then to top off this bit of hand wringing, “But critics say Reid’s plan would be likely to prompt Republicans to retaliate by doing even more to reduce the minority party’s rights if the GOP regains control of the Senate.” As I’ve argued again and again and again: that’s going to happen anyway.

As of this writing, the deal is still not done. But once again it looks like there is nothing the Democrats will do to fix the Senate. We will have to wait for the Republicans to take over the Senate and live through some very unpleasant legislative years before we can see any real reform. Harry Reid and his Democratic caucus are again showing they have no backbone and won’t do even the smallest things for their constituencies.

Update (16 July 2013 9:13 am)

Greg Sargent has posted some details of the deal along with a bunch of hogwash:

This has always been about forcing Republicans to drop their blockade of nominations. The preference of Dem leaders has, from the outset, plainly been to avoid a rules change by simple majority by getting Republicans to cave on just enough nominations to give them the cover not to change the rules. The future of the filibuster aside, Democrats got this, and then some. And, crucially, by standing firm, and escalating the threat level in a way that maintained credibility, they made it clear that there is a marker that Republicans must not cross—there is a point at which Republican obstructionism becomes so undemocratic and intolerable that Democrats will change the rules to put an end to it. That marker remains in place.

Wrong! The time to draw a line in the sad was 2009. Now it just looks weak.

Part of the deal is that the Democrats are backing off on two nominees for the National Labor Relations Board. But the Republicans promise to allow two new nominees picked by labor groups to get a vote by the end of July. I don’t even understand this. What is so wrong with the current people that will be fixed by new nominees? It sounds like a way for the Republicans to save face, but this is a deal that the Democrats need to save face on. Regardless, the deal is not terrible. But you have to ask: why are filibusters allowed on executive branch nominees? In the past they were never used. Everyone agrees that presidents ought to be able to pick their own people. What’s the big deal?

Meanwhile, judges will go unconfirmed until there is a Republican president. Good job, Harry!

Update (16 July 2013 9:50 am)

NBC News is reporting that the deal has been struck. And Steven Benen makes a good point about the deal. It is different from the one that McConnell offered in that the new deal does not taken the nuclear option off the table. Of course, this is all about expectations and that is a game that the Republicans play very well. I can’t help thinking that Mitch McConnell and John McCain are running good cop / bad cop on the Democrats. McConnell does everything to obstruct and even lies about deals. McCain comes riding in to save the day with a deal that in any reasonable world sucks. But it could be worse, because it has. Just the same, the fact that you aren’t being tortured on your birthday doesn’t make up for the fact that no one called.

Update (16 July 2013 10:01 am)

I continue to see loads of happy horseshit coming from the Villagers. Ezra Klein says something I’m not convinced about but which may be true, “This will be the new normal.” But then he notes that the Republicans will also have the same new normal if they are in charge under President Christie. No, no, no! What’s wrong with these people? They are so used to pretending that we are all just a big group committed to working together that they completely miss what’s going on. Every time the Republicans have been in the minority, they have greatly expanded the use of the filibuster. The last time they were in power, they effectively destroyed the filibuster. Once the Republicans hold the White House and the Senate, the Majority Leader will do whatever he likes. If there were no “new normal,” he would just create one. And he will do a hell of a lot more than that. I am so tired of listening to Villagers talk as though the Republicans have just been a bit overzealous recently. This has been going on a long time and nothing is going to stop it.

Update (16 July 2013 11:59 am)

Matt Yglesias is in fine form this morning. He lays it out exactly right. This may be a win for the Democrats:

But is it a win for America? I would say no. The whole reason that this is an issue is that a number of the more senior Democratic Party senators have a fairly deep affection for filibustering. But requiring 60 yes votes for the senate to approve things is not a reasonable decision rule. It undermines democratic accountability and excessively loads the dice against any kind of policy reform. Deals that advance particular substantive goals while leaving a bad procedural framework in place are to be regretted.