Eric Holder Cares Too Little Too Late

Eric HolderDon’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Eric Holder has decided that in the fifth year of our cocaine sniffing, cannabis smoking president’s term that he ought to make a policy decision to do less harm to people who are, if anything, victims of our current system. If you haven’t heard, he’s calling for federal prosecutors to not put drug quantities on indictments. This will circumvent the automatic mandatory minimum sentences, which Congress, through years of trying to prove what big dicked tough on crime guys they are, have pushed to levels that make the Salem Witch Trials seem reasonable. So now judges will have discretion. But will they really?

When Chris Hayes was covering this the other day, he noted that it isn’t that the mandatory minimums took away discretion; it is just that they took away discretion from judges and gave it to prosecutors. I don’t see how this new policy really changes anything. After all, Holder has dug out a number of big exceptions to the policy. It can’t be related to gang activity, for instance. The discretion is still all theirs. What I expect to see is the exact same behavior from federal prosecutors with the exception that they will now file paperwork to explain why this case had to be thrown into the mandatory minimum pile.

Another issue is that this is just federal law. Most people serving time for drug charges are not in for a federal crime. It is true that over half of all the inmates in federal prison are there for drug crimes and this is only 20% for state inmates. But there are so many people in state prisons that there are almost three times as many drug felons in the state system. And this says nothing of those in local jails, which amount to about three quarters of a million at any given time.

The biggest problem, however, is that the “felon” label itself is what ruins lives. Being labeled a felon for the rest of your life is a much worse punishment than having to serve 5 years instead of 3 or 1. This is what most people don’t get about the system. There is no such thing as “paying your debt to society.” Our society has decided that a felon never pays his debt to society. That felon is reminded of this every time he fills out a job application or, in some areas, when he applies for food stamps. (And yes, I know that felons can, over time have their charges reduced and eliminated. But that takes time and money—two resources that are usually in short supply to the “ex”-felon.)

As of now, we’ve had three presidents in a row who committed drug felonies. (It doesn’t matter if Clinton inhaled or not.) Yet all of these men have continued the Drug War with great vigor. They’ve destroyed countless lives even as they were lucky enough to avoid prosecution. A felony conviction would have destroyed the lives of Clinton and Obama. Since Bush never needed to work a day in his life (and pretty much hasn’t), he never had anything to fear. But all of these men should have known better. They are all vile hypocrites and they deserve to rot in Hell for this reason alone.

As for the Holder announcement: time will tell. But I’m not too hopeful.

A Question for My Canadian Colleagues

CanadaI have a question for my colleagues in Canada, “Why do you care about the United States?” I understand that it is kind of hard to avoid the United States. For one thing, as a country, we are kind of like evangelical Christians: we get into everyone else’s business. But still, if I lived in Canada, I would be gleeful to not have to think about my southern neighbor. That is assuming that the United States didn’t go all Canadian Bacon on me.

My great fear is that my Canadian friends find the US interesting in the same way that some members of my extended family enjoy The Jerry Springer Show. I fear this because I’m afraid that this is how the rest of the world looks at us. Whenever I travel, I get that idea. When I went to China last year, my host seemed to be making assumptions about me that I didn’t like. He was very nice—they always are! But I really wasn’t one of these guys who thinks that America is this vast bastion of freedom and China is the ultimate in repression. So rather than pregnant girls who don’t know which of 50 guys knocked her up, the United States offers pretentious twats who think we are superior to the rest of the world when we don’t have a clue what’s really going on in our own country.

But mostly, I’m incredibly bored with this country. Remember the article I wrote this morning about the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans think the the federal deficit is increasing? It’s really boring because it is exactly the way things have always been here. I freely admit that we don’t have much of a democracy here. And part of that is due to our political institutions. For example, we make it hard to vote. But mostly, our lack of democracy is the direct result of the people not demanding it. Now, if the people did demand it, maybe the power elite would then push back. That would be interesting. But as it is, it is just as The Class told us back in 1977:

I’m stuck with this country and very probably this government. And it isn’t like I’d be any less of a malcontent if I lived in Canada. But I’d like to think that I would give up on American politics. Unless it is like a drug. Maybe I only think that I’m interested in American politics because it directly affects me. Maybe it is just like I said above: I like the Jerry Springer aspect of it. I really don’t know. And maybe I’m being unfair because I clearly expect better of my Canadian colleagues than I do of myself.

Look: I know you have your Rick Santorums and Sarah Palins. You have your crack smoking mayors. You have your evil oil companies. But are we really the Greatest Freak Show on Earth? Let me check the Magic 8-Ball. Ah yes, “Signs point to yes.”

TV Begins

John Logie BairdThe great Sweedish physicist and one of the founders of the study of spectroscopy Anders Jonas Angstrom was born in 1814. The angstrom is now a standard unit of measure: about the size of a hydrogen atom. Abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone was born in 1814. Physicist George Stokes, known for his work in fluid dynamics, was born in 1819. Sculpter Gleb Derujinsky was born in 1878. “English impressionist” composer John Ireland was born in 1879. Here is his Piano Concerto in E Flat that is representative of his work. It’s very nice:

Actor Bert Lahr was born in 1895. He is best known for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

The great director Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899. I was half inclined to give him the day. But there is a problem. As great as Hitchcock was, he is probably the most overrated director in history. It amazes me how much people over-analyze him. When I was an undergraduate, the TA in my film class was working on her Master’s thesis on Hitchcock. I thought it was pretty cool at the time, but now I look back and think, “Really?!” There are so many films and filmmakers one could study, why Hitchcock? I like his work, but it is all very simple popular entertainment. And the man wasn’t careful. The effects in his films are often pathetic. Consider the airplane crash in North By Northwest or the terrible rear projection in The Birds. Unquestionably his greatest film, Psycho is just his attempt to be like William Castle. Don’t get me wrong, I like his work. But deep it ain’t.

Singer Don Ho was born in 1930. Singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg was born in 1951. Here he is doing a very sentimental but perfect pop song, “Same Old Lang Syne”:

And comedy writer Tom Davis was born in 1952. Here he is in 1987 with Al Franken on Late Night:

Double Nobel Prize winning chemist Frederick Sanger is 95 today. Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro is 87. Director Paul Greengrass is 58. And CIA agent Valerie Plame is 50.

The day, however, belongs to the “father of television” John Logie Baird who was born in 1888. Unlike most inventions, television was one where a lot of different people and groups were trying to make it happen. That doesn’t make Baird especially great, but it does mean that he was the right man at the right time. Here is a brief video about his invention; it is quite amazing:

Happy birthday John Logie Baird!

Most Don’t Know Deficit Is Falling

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman has been wondering what percentage of Americans know that the deficit has been falling fast since 2009. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my father and his girlfriend about five years ago. We were talking about the government and one them said that the federal government would never balance its budget. I noted that it was possible, after all, Clinton had done it. They were stunned. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t believe me (although they didn’t); it was that they had never heard such a thing in their lives.

My point in bring this up is not to mock them. Most people don’t pay attention to politics, although if you had asked them, they would have told you they did. (They watched Fox News every day!) My point is that there is a complete disconnect between what politicians do and what the public sees. Check out this graph of the federal deficit:

Federal Deficit

The key thing to notice is that when Republicans are in the White House, the deficit goes up; when Democrats are in, the deficit go down. But what is the point of a Democrat taking the political and economic hit for all this fiscal rectitude? That brings us back to Krugman.

After Krugman discussed the issue, Hal Varian of Google put together a customer survey, and the results are not good:

Has Deficit Increased or Decreased?

The graph is a bit hard to read, but it indicates that almost 60% of respondents think the deficit has gone up. And 23% think it has stayed the same. So over 80% of respondents are dead wrong. Meanwhile, less than 9% got the question right.

Drilling down into the results, it is more or less what you would expect. Men are more likely to be wrong than women. Although surprisingly, men are also more likely to be right. Women have a strong affinity for the middle position (about the same). People over 65 are the most wrong. Although surprisingly, people between the ages of 55 and 64 are the most right. By region, people in the South are extremely ignorant even by the standards of the ignorant people who took the survey. Of them, 90% thought that the deficit had gotten bigger or stayed the same. People in the Midwest come in at 85%. The West is 80% and the Northeast is 70%. Similarly, people in urban areas are much more likely to be right. The data on incomes is a jumble, but not surprisingly, the wealthiest people are the most misinformed.

The survey is nothing like scientific. What’s more, even with its non-random sample, the error bars are huge because there are so few respondents. But it all makes sense and there is no denying that a huge majority of people think the deficit is rising fast. Part of the problem, of course, is that people are confused about the difference between debt and deficits. And news outlets don’t make the situation any better. But the bigger issue is just that there is a whole industry that pushes the “debt is killing us” line. Those pushing back are the quiet wonks.

The real problem is that liberals are almost as likely to believe this stuff as anyone else. The whole situation leads to the kind of “wise” cynicism that so defines our country’s politics. Liberals don’t defend Obama by pointing out that the deficit is decreasing. They defend him by noting that all presidents explode the debt. Except that they don’t. It is just Republicans. And that is a real problem because Democratic presidents get no credit and Republican presidents get no blame. So tell your friends: the deficit is falling!