Daily Archives: 07 Jan 2015

Sympathy for Bob McDonnell, Not Ruth Marcus

Ruth MarcusIt might surprise you to know that I have great sympathy for Bob McDonnell who was just sentenced to two years in prison. Some people are scoffing at the sentence, but I’d like to see them do two years in federal prison. But more than that, I’ve always seen his crime as indicative of our broken political system. Generally, only rich people become governors of large states. So McDonnell and his wife found themselves in this sea of rich people and they felt like they were out of their depth. Bob McDonnell was governor, after all. And I’m sympathetic to that. What he did was wrong and he shouldn’t have done it. But I’m far more concerned about the fact everyone swimming around our governors are rich. That is the problem we should all be concerned about.

Barring people like the gunmen who murdered the people at Charlie Hebdo, I generally feel sorry for people who go away to prison. People who think of it as “easy” or a “vacation” are completely ignorant of the situation. But that doesn’t mean that I will brook the kind of nonsense that Ruth Marcus dished out last night, For Bob McDonnell, Justice Was Served. It’s not that I necessarily agree or disagree with her conclusion. The problem is her logic.

She noted that Bob McDonnell’s “promising career” is now over. Is that not enough of a punishment?! She went back on this later, claiming that, well, if you follow this logic to its natural conclusion that “prison is never justified in cases of public corruption.” And that can’t be the case. But the truth is that McDonnell’s promising career is not over. He may yet have a career in politics. If not, I’m sure he has enough connections to get a good lobbying job. And at the absolute worst, someone will get him a job in upper management at some corporation. He’ll be fine.

What most definitely will not happen to McDonnell is that he will be working as a busboy at Denny’s or forced into a life of crime because no one will hire him. This, of course, is the fate of most people who do two years in federal prison. In fact, this is what happens to most people who get convicted of felonies and don’t have to serve any time at all. The prison time is, in the long-term, the least of the punishment meted out to convicted felons. Bob McDonnell is far luckier than the Ruth Marcuses of the world could ever know.

Marcus wrote something else that almost gave me a stroke:

Sentencing in white-collar and public-corruption cases presents a puzzle. One chief rationale for incarceration — incapacitating the dangerous offender to protect society — does not apply. White-collar defendants tend to be pillars of the community, not violent criminals who need to be locked away.

Let’s leave aside the preposterous idea that “pillars of the community” cannot also be violent criminals. Apparently, she’s never heard of John Wayne Gacy. And let’s leave aside the implicit plea for leniency for the “right kind of people.” What does Ruth Marcus think are the crimes of people in federal prison? As of 29 November 2014, almost 75% of the people in federal prison were there for clearly non-violent crimes. Almost half (48.7%) where there for drug offenses.

But it all goes together. The people in jail for drug crimes are primarily poor. They are by definition not the “right kind of people.” So it doesn’t matter that they are going to be sentenced to at least three years and often far longer. On the state level, it can be much worse. In Kentucky, “For simple possession, first offenders in Kentucky get two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.”

I’m allowed to say, “For Bob McDonnell, justice was served.” But Ruth Marcus is not. I’ve spent the last two decades of my life pushing for an end to drug criminalization. Ruth Marcus occasionally mentions that mandatory minimum sentences are a bad thing — when it occurs to her. But I can’t find her arguing that the “chief rationale for incarceration — incapacitating the dangerous offender to protect society — does not apply” when it comes to drug “criminals.” Because I’m sure she doesn’t believe that. Growing up in the upper class and studying at Yale didn’t exactly prepare her to empathize with “those kind of people.” She shows a little pity occasionally, but never empathy.

Sharpening the Contradictions

Juan ColeThe horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world…

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination…

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites.

“Sharpening the contradictions” is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.

The only effective response to this manipulative strategy (as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tried to tell the Iraqi Shiites a decade ago) is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals.

—Juan Cole
Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda Attacked Satirists in Paris

H/T: Digby

Maybe It Is Best the CBO Is Now Partisan

Doug ElmendorfPreviously, I’ve been concerned about what the Republicans were doing to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It has long been known that they wanted to turn the nonpartisan organization into something akin to the Heritage Foundation — something that would simply parrot back to them whatever they wanted to hear. And mostly what they wanted to hear was that if you cut taxes on the rich, they will act like the Great Pumpkin and reward the economy with loads of jobs. So in December, I wrote, How Republicans Intend to Destroy Congress. That was in reference to the effective firing of the CBO chief Doug Elmendorf.

Now, Jonathan Chait sounds the next alarm, Why the Republican Congress’s First Act Was to Declare War on Math. The Republicans changed the rules of CBO analysis so that “dynamic scoring” must be used in the analysis of budgetary proposals that are larger than one quarter of a percent of the size of the GDP. Chait is correct that the Republicans are just turning the CBO into a partisan organization. Its good reputation for nonpartisan analysis will be destroyed. And who then will Congress and the rest of the country look to for “the straight dope” on matters economic?

But is it really such a big deal? I’ve really been questioning that. Chait is right that the CBO analyses are “necessarily imperfect” but “arrived at fairly.” But he downplays just now imperfect the CBO is. Here’s an example from his own article:

The CBO forecast that the unemployment rate would fall to 7.6 percent by the end of 2014. If the conservative analysis [with dynamic scoring] was correct, and higher tax rates on job creators were depressing job growth, we might expect the unemployment rate today to be higher than the CBO forecast. Instead it is much lower. Unemployment fell below 6 percent by the third quarter of last year.

So with dynamic scoring, the CBO would have been even further off. But given that it was off by 27%, does it really matter? Would being off by 35% have been significantly worse? I think what this illustrates is that the CBO already has a conservative bias — a much bigger one than dynamic scoring. So the status quo has been that Democrats have dutifully followed the conservative analyses of the CBO, which has forced them to create worse legislation than they normally would have. I’m thinking specifically of the stimulus. If the Democrats had changed the way the CBO operated, we would have gotten a bill with more infrastructure spending and less tax cutting. But because of the way the “objective” CBO scores things, tax cuts for the rich and highway building improve the economy equally. And that’s dead wrong.

The problem with the very notion of anything “nonpartisan” is that people think it means that it is objective. But clearly that is never the case. The CBO is biased in ways that I think are demonstrably wrong. This change by the Republican Congress will make the work of the CBO even worse. But at least everyone will recognize that. People won’t talk about the CBO as though it were some hallowed organization. And it means when the Democrats have control of the CBO, they can change it to something that does a better job of analyzing than it did in the “good old days” when it simply assumed (against all evidence) that infrastructure spending didn’t stimulate growth.

Je Suis Charlie

Charlie Hebdo: Faut Pas Se Moquer - You Must Not MockThis is the cover of 19 September 2012 issue of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was attacked this morning during an editorial meeting. It seems at this point that 12 people were killed — ten at the magazine and two police officers. There were three gunmen who shouted the usual tired Islamic slogans, in particular, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.”

What the Muslim and Jew are saying on the cover of the magazine is, “Faut Pas Se Moquer!” That means roughly, “You must not mock!” The whole thing kind of reminds me of Kirby Delauter who said, “Your rights stop where mine start.” Somehow, reactionaries think their right not to hear or see anything they don’t like trumps everyone else’s right to say and do what they will. I understand this: if my life and ideology where totally vacuous, I too would make a big deal any time someone mocked me.

So there is a sense in which I think it is wrong to pointlessly poke at religious people and their dogma. That’s not a defense of these and many other evil murderers. But there are lots of devout Muslims, Jews, and Christians who get offended when we mock them. If it’s a priest or a mullah or a rabbi, I don’t care. But it is never my wish to make the powerless suffer more. Of course, mostly these people would never see the offensive material. It is usually priests, mullahs, and rabbis who are out fomenting disease, “Look at this thing! Now be outraged!”

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, any outrage is totally unjustified because the magazine took on everyone. Hugh Schofield of the BBC explained the magazine’s history:

Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in French journalism going back to the scandal sheets that denounced Marie-Antoinette in the run-up to the French Revolution.

The tradition combines left-wing radicalism with a provocative scurrility that often borders on the obscene. Its decision to mock the Prophet Muhammad in 2011 was entirely consistent with its historic raison d’être.

And today’s violence is not new to the magazine. Its editor, Stephane Charbonnier, is under police protection following death threats. And the 2011 cartoon of Muhammad titled, “Charia Hebdo” resulted in their office getting fire bombed. The cartoon is, you know, hilarious. But such silliness is apparently forbidden by the true believers who think that God is so great that he needs murdering psychopaths with assault rifles to protect him.

What’s curious about this whole “no representations of Muhammad” is that it is supposedly following from the Fourth Commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” Followers of Islam don’t want people to worship Muhammad — he was a prophet, not a God. But this just shows how religious dogma becomes a muddle. People creating cartoons mocking Muhammad is not going to make anyone worship the prophet. So what’s the big deal? If I were to create a great and reverential stained glass window of Muhammad, that ought to upset the Muslims. If I create a picture of Jesus urinating on Muhammad, it shouldn’t matter at all. Muslims should just write me off as the heathen that I am. God would take care of me!

But the concern about unflattering images of Muhammad have no theological backing. They are instead cultural. I talk a lot about “cultural Christians” here, so let’s extend the concept: these are cultural Muslims. Their complaint is the same as the Christian complaint about businesses saying “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” Their complaint is that non-Muslims aren’t treating their religion as though it has the special status of The Truth™.

I’m not just talking about the normal — non-psychopathic — Muslims who would never think of gunning down a dozen people because they don’t like some cartoons. It’s a continuum. It is part of the same screwed up mentality. It’s also what causes Planned Parenthood clinic bombings and doctor assassinations. And I’ve always thought that if American Christians were a minority and they were being just a tiny bit oppressed, we would see widespread acts of terror.

It’s all just so horrible.

Silly and Petulant Conservative Kirby Delauter

Kirby DelauterMeet Kirby Delauter. He’s a Republican Councilman from District 5 in Frederick County, Maryland. It’s a decent sized place with a population density slightly larger than my own home of Sonoma County, California. I mention this because I don’t want you to get the idea that Delauter is representing some tiny county with a thousand people. His position is one with a fair amount of power. And he could certainly go onto state government directly from this post. Or at least he could if he were smarter than he seems to be.

Bethany RodgersMeet Bethany Rodgers. She’s a reporter for The Frederick News-Post. She had apparently written an article about Delauter last year that he didn’t like. So, according to a recent post on his Facebook page, “I had let her know after her hit piece during the election where she embellished, twisted and downright lied about what we discussed for that article, that she was never to contact me again since she has absolutely no morals or journalistic ability.” I assumed he also un-friended her and refused to eat lunch at the same table as Rodgers and the other mean girls.

Things got very bad last Saturday when Rodgers wrote, Shreve Raises Staffing, Parking Concerns. The article is about parking for the new council members. It has two references to Delauter in an 1,100 word article. Other than the fact Shreve and Delauter come off as self-important, there isn’t much to complain about. After all, it’s about how various people in the local government will share parking!

But Delauter was hopping mad. On his Facebook post he continued (suddenly addressing Rodgers directly):

Bethany, please understand, when you do a hit piece, you need to know who you are dealing with. I have worked very hard to earn an honest reputation in this county. You could have earned my respect, instead you’ve shown that you will sell your soul for the liberal agenda at the FNP. You’re better than that, but you have already sold your credibility and that is something you won’t easily get back.

So let me be clear…………do not contact me and do not use my name or reference me in an unauthorized form in the future.

If only Nixon had come up with this idea, he could have shut down all those Watergate articles. It’s brilliant! “I’m a councilman, but you can’t mention my name anymore!” I have to wonder if it would be okay to describe him, “The silly and petulant Republican Councilman from District 5 in Frederick County”? Rodgers doubtless loves this. She replied:

Wow. Well, just to answer a few of these accusations: First of all, there is no requirement to get a person’s authorization in order to mention them in the paper, particularly if that person is an elected official. It is not just our right but our responsibility to report on people like you, who occupy positions of trust in our government, and I make no apologies for doing that. I am also aware that you asked me not to call you anymore. However, it is a journalistic principle to reach out to individuals who are part of an article. Again, it would be irresponsible for me NOT to do so, and I plan to continue giving you the opportunity to comment on articles that concern you. Whether or not you return my calls is up to you.

Not to be outdone, Delauter threatened legal action, “Use my name again unauthorized and you’ll be paying for an Attorney. Your rights stop where mine start.” The managing editor of the newspaper, Terry Headlee, said, “[T]o threaten to sue a reporter for publishing his name is so ridiculously stupid that I’m speechless.” But apparently, she didn’t remain speechless.

Yesterday, The Frederick News-Post editorial board published, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter. Mostly, it is just an exercise in not using a pronoun when talking about the councilman:

Knowing Councilman Kirby Delauter as we do, we weren’t surprised that he threatened The Frederick News-Post with a lawsuit because we had, he says — and we’re not making this up — been putting Kirby Delauter’s name in the paper without Kirby Delauter’s authorization. Attorneys would be called, Kirby Delauter said.

In fact, we spent quite some time laughing about it. Kirby Delauter, an elected official; Kirby Delauter, a public figure? Surely, Kirby Delauter can’t be serious? Kirby Delauter’s making a joke, right?

You should read the whole thing. It includes a discussion of how they might refer to this nitwit. My favorite was, “The Councilman Formerly Known as Commissioner Kirby Delauter.” There is also quite a bit of serious discussion about the issue. A good picture of Kirby Delauter — and the American conservative movement generally — comes through in this whole episode.

Update (8 January 2015 10:22 am)

From The Frederick News-Post, Delauter: Statement to The News-Post Threatening Legal Action Was “Wrong and Inappropriate”:

“Over my career I have fired off my fair share of angry e-mails, which in hindsight I wish I hadn’t. I can’t think of one that had a positive effect. Usually, they only served to escalate the conflict. I thought I had long ago learned the lesson of waiting 24 hours before I hit the send key, but apparently I didn’t learn that lesson as well as I should have.

“Of course, as I am an elected official, the Frederick News-Post has the right to use my name in any article related to the running of the county — that comes with the job. So yes, my statement to the Frederick News-Post regarding the use of my name was wrong and inappropriate. I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong…”

Mr Delauter, that was a fine apology. I’m impressed.

One Day, Two Great French Musicians

Francis PoulencOn this day in 1899, the great French composer Francis Poulenc. And exactly 23 years later, the great flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal was born. I believe the two were friends. They were certainly colleagues. Poulenc wrote Sonate Pour Flute et Piano specifically for Rampal.

I know what you might think, “Okay, so he wrote a piece of music for Rampal! Who cares?!” When I was seriously studying flute, my teacher often (Too often!) lamented the fact that there was no great music written from the flute after the Baroque Period and before the Modern Period (if we can define that as starting with Debussy). She was pretty much correct. The great Classical composers didn’t seem to care much for the instrument. When Mozart was commissioned to write three flute concertos, he only managed two write two of them, and one was just a slight reworking of an oboe concerto he had written a year earlier. The Romantic Period was even worse with most of the works written for the flute being tiresome — all fireworks.

Jean-Pierre RampalPoulenc’s sonata has rightly become a flute standard. As far as I’m concerned, it is the best piece ever written for the flute. But then, Poulenc is one of my very favorite composers. Part of that is just that he is alternately fun, sad, thrilling, sensuous, you name it. But it is also that I never hear him working. That’s my biggest complaint with modern composers: I too often realize what they are trying to do — it doesn’t sound organic. Poulenc always made it sound easy, even when he was being extremely serious.

I feel much the same way about Rampal. Other unbelievably great flutists like James Galway and William Bennett still seem to me to be working at times. I don’t know what it is. But with Rampal it just sounds easy, like water flowing through a stream.

Anyway, here is Jean-Pierre Rampal playing Francis Poulenc’s Sonate Pour Flute et Piano. It features Rampal’s longtime associate Robert Veyron-Lacroix on piano. It is wonderful:

Happy birthday Jean-Pierre Rampal and Francis Poulenc!