Monday, August 29, 2011

Another Country

Those who know me and those who’ve prowled around my little corner of the web are no doubt aware that I have quite a passion for music and several artists in particular. I’m a big fan of Squeeze, New Order, Jethro Tull, a-ha, Midnight Oil, and others. And I like to keep up with newer music, too, and have recently become a fan of Florence & The Machine, Metric, and Foster the People, among others. But there is one band that — at least for me — stands at the pinnacle and has, since 1984 been my favorite band: Big Country.

By the summer of 1984, I was already a fan of Big Country and when I went away to be a summer camp counselor in Michigan, I took a cassette (remember those?) of the band’s first album The Crossing and follow-up EP Wonderland. Listening to those songs as I drove through old pine forests or sat by the lake or took walks along the beach elevated those songs — both words and music — to a special place in my heart. By the time the second album Steeltown came out later in 1984, Big Country had become my favorite band.

Through sheer happenstance, I discovered a record store (remember, this was before CDs…) near Northwestern’s campus that sold records imported from England (who knew…?). And then, I discovered that many bands like Big Country released singles (or 12” records) with songs not found on the albums. For a kid who grew up in Carmel, this was a whole new world. And, thus, over the next few years, part of my weekly routine was to stop by that store to see if they had anything new from Big Country (again, remember that this was all pre-Internet). Most weeks, the answer was “no” but every so often I’d find something new… I can still recall the excitement when I found a 12” single that had on its b-side half of the soundtrack that Big Country recorded for the film Restless Natives (which was only shown in art theaters here in the US). Until the moment that I found that record, I’d never heard of the movie, let alone had any idea that Big Country had recorded this long-form work. After that, it became a bit of a mission to find the other half of that soundtrack (and I was eventually successful).

As time went by, my passion for Big Country’s music didn’t wane, though like any band, new releases became a bit less frequent. But when a new record (or eventually these new-fangled things called CDs) were released, I would rarely listen to much of anything else for several days if not several weeks. And I remember that when I finally shelled out the cash for a CD player (man, they were expensive back then…), the first CD that I purchased was The Crossing. Unfortunately, very few of my friends showed any interest (let alone passion) for the band. My college girlfriend actually disliked Big Country. I still don’t think that I’ve forgiven her for that particular offense…

When I went on my first date with my wife, I happened to have The Crossing in my car’s cassette player (hey, it was a 1988 car, before CDs were standard issue…). Not only did she recognize the band, she said that she owned the album too. Now that was a relationship with potential, I realized (unfortunately, she’s now far too influenced by our pre-teen daughter and spends her music listening moments tuned to Radio Disney…).

Anyway, jump forward a few years to the early days of the web. One of the very first web searches that I can recall doing (in Yahoo or maybe Lycos or Alta Vista?) was for “Big Country”. And imagine my surprise to discover a web-based community of other Big Country fans. There may not have been any other huge fans near me, but through the marvels of the Internet, I could now communicate with fans from across the world. And communicate we did. On a Yahoo group mailing list (still in existence, though relatively quiet) and a smattering of web sites, we shared our passion for the band’s music.

I can remember discussions about rumored hard-to-find tracks. The efforts that we went through in the early days of MP3s to find and share the bits we could were a bit like a Da Vinci Code challenge. I can remember the excitement I felt when I received my first bootleg CD with several tracks that I’d only heard whispers about and which were not officially released until years later. And it was this fan community that pestered the record label repeatedly and mercilessly following the release of a series of remastered CDs in the mid-90s that omitted key and important tracks. Following those efforts, the first of what would eventually turn into a series of nine “rarities” CDs was released (the first of which included that entire soundtrack I mentioned earlier).

One project that arose from this web community became known as the Big Country Book of Lyrics. As I mentioned, Big Country released numerous b-sides (and eventually whole CDs worth of material that had not made it onto their studio albums). Because so many of Big Country’s songs had something to say (be it about politics, society, the environment, or history), deciphering the lyrics became important, but only the studio albums came with printed lyrics. And so the online community worked to try to figure out just what was being said (and what it might mean). The Book of Lyrics was originally compiled, designed, and hosted by Robert Oliver on his excellent Steeltown website. He continued to add to the Book of Lyrics as new releases and live recordings were made available. Eventually, though, Mr. Oliver stepped aside and I (perhaps foolishly) cajoled him into allowing me to take over the project. A year or so later (and after learning how to use Adobe PageMaker) the Big Country Book of Lyrics was reborn. The product of that work can still be found at my Big Country Book of Lyrics page.

Unfortunately, I have not updated the Book of Lyrics since 2007 (and haven’t updated the webpage since 2008); I keep promising to do so, but other things (most notably this blog) have become a larger focus of my time. Thankfully, another online friend and fan, John Gouveia, stepped in with an excellent online html version of the Book of Lyrics that he continues to update regularly. It has become my go-to source.

Big Country released their eighth and final studio album Driving to Damascus in the fall of 1999. I can still remember listening to it as I drove to and from the hospital where my wife was on bed rest for the latter stages of her pregnancy. And I remember listening to that album as I drove to the hospital before dawn after getting the call that her water had broken.

But as good as that album was, it passed by without being noticed by most of the world. And thus, the end of Big Country was in sight. In May 2000, they played their penultimate concert at their “home” venue in Scotland. And then the band members, Stuart Adamson (lead vocals and guitar), Bruce Watson (guitar), Tony Butler (bass), and Mark Brzezicki (drums) went their separate ways.

In December 2001, Adamson’s problems with alcohol caught up with him and he committed suicide in a Hawaiian hotel room.

I never did manage to see Big Country live. I had tickets to see them in early 1984 when they played in Indianapolis, but for the one and only time ever, my parents prohibited me from going to a concert (it was on a school night and I had a test the next day). For our honeymoon, my wife and I went to London. We had our fingers crossed that Big Country might be performing while we were there; alas, it turns out that they were in Chicago while we were in London. I finally had a chance to see Stuart Adamson perform with country artist Marcus Hummon in 1998 in Nashville, Tennessee. I even had a chance to get my picture taken with Adamson (sadly, the photo did not turn out well because the flash didn't work) and had him autograph a copy of the liner notes for the “Through a Big Country” Japanese box set (once a sort of Holy Grail of Big Country CDs). Adamson’s autograph can be seen on the Photo Gallery at my Big Country Book of Lyrics site (along with my name and my kids’ names in the liner notes of a Big Country single).

Though nominated for two Grammy awards, Big Country never achieved the sort of fame and popularity here that they did in the UK and Europe. Why did Big Country never make it big in the United States? I think it can be attributed to three things. First, I think that in the US, the word “country” in the name of the band acted as unfortunate misdirection. I suspect that lots of people presumed from that part of the name that the band was actually a country band. Second, I think that many people who’d only heard the song “In a Big Country” (you know, the song where the guitars sound a bit like bagpipes) thought that the song was some kind of novelty song and never looked past it to the band’s other work. And finally, I blame the movie “Against All Odds”. How’s that? That hugely popular movie spawned a best-selling soundtrack album that featured a chart-topping Phil Collins song. Big Country has a song on that soundtrack. The song was supposed to be “Chance”, one of the band’s best songs and an hugely evocative piece of music and storytelling. It remains one of the two or three songs played in almost every concert and often the fans will sing an extended chorus. But for some reason, at the last minute, “Chance” was replaced on the “Against All Odds” soundtrack by the song “Balcony”, one of the worst songs that Big Country ever recorded. (To be fair, the song can grow on you, especially if you focus on the story it tells of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, but I’m not sure how many listeners are willing to give it that kind of time and attention.) So the millions who bought and listened to that album were treated to probably the only Big Country song other than “In a Big Country” that they’d ever heard (or would ever hear) and it wasn’t a good song.

In the years following Adamson’s death, the band continued to release additional “rarities” and live material (predating Adamson’s death). Both Watson and Butler released solo material and each of the remaining members worked with other artists. Then in 2007, to celebrate Big Country’s 25th anniversary, Watson, Butler, and Brzezicki got together to play some live dates, Watson endeavoring to play both his and Adamson’s guitar parts (and if you’re familiar with Big Country’s music, you’ll recognize what a challenge that was) and Butler singing. They even released an EP with five new songs (though it wasn’t released under the name Big Country). And it’s not that the songs weren’t good … it’s just that something … or actually someone … was missing. I don’t think that any of the remaining band members would disagree with the statement that the loss of Adamson had left a huge hole in the center of the band. And so that EP came … and went.

In the year’s since Adamson’s death, we fans have sometimes fantasized about whether and, if so, who, could take the place behind the microphone for a Big Country revival. For a while, some suggested Adamson’s son or even his daughter. And a few other names were tossed about now and then. But the one name that was consistently mentioned as the only possible viable stand in (never replacement) for Adamson was Mike Peters.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Peters was the lead singer for the band The Alarm. They were another band that I was very fond of, though they never quite grabbed my attention in the way that Big Country did (though I have plenty of The Alarm’s CDs). Peters’ voice is not a clone of Adamson’s, but Peters does sing with the same kind of passion and emotion that was Adamson’s trademark. Moreover, much of Peters’ material tended to focus on issues and themes similar to so much of Big Country’s music. And, throughout the years, Peters and Big Country have been friends. In fact, during Peters’ occasional “Alarm-fest” fan gatherings, Watson would sometimes join him on stage for a set combining The Alarm’s material with Big Country songs. But having Mike Peters step on stage as a part of Big Country was just a fantasy…

Until late 2010, when Big Country announced a set of concert dates in the UK with Mike Peters as the new lead singer (and Watson’s son Jamie joining the band to play guitar with his dad). Those shows were sold out and as both fan and critical praise grew, the band added more and then more shows. And in each of those shows, the band has taken pains to honor Adamson, often leaving an empty microphone stand in the center of the stage.

And then earlier this summer, during one of those shows, the band played the brand new song “Another Country”. As of the time of this writing, they’ve debuted four new songs in their live shows (and yes, I have bootleg copies of those songs…) and Watson has stated that they have three additional songs written. So with the renewed energy from those live dates, Big Country went back into the studio earlier this summer. And joining them in the studio was legendary producer Steve Lillywhite who produced Big Country’s first two albums.

And so today marks the release (in the UK at least) of the first new Big Country single since 2000. My copy is in the mail.

Will this song put Big Country back on the charts? Will the song be enough to make people remember Big Country? Who knows. I do know that for the last week or so, “Another Country” has been at the top of’s singles sales chart. And a concerted effort is underway to try to get UK radio stations to give the song some airplay.

In a few days (hopefully) my CD will arrive in the mail. And then I hope you’ll pardon me if I stop listening to NPR and MSNBC and, for a day or three, just let the sounds of my favorite band fill my commutes.

So now, without any further ado, here is Big Country with their new single “Another Country”.

Update (August 30, 2011): Cleaned up way too many typos.


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Friday, August 26, 2011

Let’s Blame God … Because Surely Science Doesn’t Offer a Good Explanation!

Yesterday on his 700 Club program, longtime anti-everything bigot Pat Robertson blamed this week’s east coast earthquake on G-d because, you know, G-d might be pissed about gays or abortion or something.

Ladies and gentlemen I don’t want to get weird on this so please take it for what it’s worth. But it seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power, it has been the symbol of our great nation, we look at that monument and say this is one nation under God. Now there’s a crack in it, there’s a crack in it and it’s closed up. Is that a sign from the Lord? Is that something that has significance or is it just result of an earthquake? You judge, but I just want to bring that to your attention. It seems to me symbolic. When Jesus was crucified and when he died the curtain in the Temple was rent from top to bottom and there was a tear and it was extremely symbolic, is this symbolic? You judge.

In this particular diatribe, he doesn’t get around to explaining the particular thing that might have pissed off the benevolent deity upstairs. But we know that Robertson has previously blamed natural disasters on America’s tolerance for abortion, homosexuality, and other sins.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of this kind of “G-d is punishing America” bullshit. For one thing, I remain firmly convinced that the earthquake was caused by … wait for it … plate tectonics which is, you known, explainable by science. I don’t think a deity, benevolent or sadistic, had anything to do with it.

But on the off chance that I’m wrong, might there be some other reasons besides Robertson’s usual list for which _____ [insert the identity of your favorite or least favorite deity; for purposes of the rest of this post, let’s just refer to him/her/it as Mr. Deity] might be pissed? I mean, isn’t it possible that Mr. Deity is pissed at America because we allow people to be homeless and sleep in the streets at night? That seems like a worse sin that tolerating homosexuality. Maybe Mr. Deity is pissed because we still allow millions of children to go hungry or without decent healthcare. That seems a worse sin than tolerating abortion. Maybe Mr. Deity was showing his frustration because House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (who is from Virginia where the epicenter of the quake was located) refuses to try to lessen the burdens on the least among us so that he can protect tax breaks and corporate tax loopholes for the richest Americans. If I was a benevolent deity, that would certainly piss me off. Or maybe Mr. Deity was just trying to say “a pox on all your houses” because of the gridlock in Washington. Perhaps, but if Mr. Deity is really supposed to be benevolent, then I’d expect him to at least frown on the GOP’s antics. On that note, it’s probably worth noting that earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry sponsored a three-day prayer for rain to ease the Texas drought (yes, that was a different prayer event than his big Houston shindig). Um, guess what? No rain.

Or maybe the earthquake had nothing to do with politics at all. Maybe Mr. Deity is a Washington Nationals fan and he’s pissed at year after year of bad baseball. If so, I’m glad that Mr. Deity isn’t a Pittsburgh Pirate fan because, if so, that city would have been laid waste years ago. But we know that Mr. Deity must be a sports fans given how many players seem to think that he’s taken an active roll in their success. Maybe Mr. Deity simply got fed up with sitting in Washington DC’s epic traffic jams and the earthquake was a form of road rage. Or maybe, just maybe, Mr. Deity was pissed because McDonald’s couldn’t get his order right; I mean that’s something that we’ve all experienced a bit of rage over, isn’t it? Maybe Mr. Deity has a favored prophet who happens to have a financial stake in the general contractor that would be hired to repair the Washington Monument!

But back to Pat Robertson’s claims. If Mr. Deity is angry about tolerating homosexuality, shouldn’t Iowa be a wasteland and Massachusetts be at the bottom of the Atlantic? And why hit Washington DC instead of New York where same-sex marriage was just legalized? Is Mr. Deity’s earthquake aim that bad or is he just really tardy in setting wrath against wicked cities? If the anger has something to do with abortion, why crack the Washington Monument? After all, the Supreme Court is only about a mile away and it was the Supreme Court that legalized abortion back in 1973. And I note that most of the natural Mr. Deity-caused disasters we’ve seen in the world (earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and Japan; tsunamis in Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan; famine in east Africa) don’t quite seem tied to the sorts of sin that Robertson likes to rant about. Exactly why were those countries and regions punished? Similarly, those countries with more liberal abortion and gay rights policies (I’m looking at you Western Europe and Israel) don’t seem to have suffered many natural Mr. Deity-caused disasters recently. Hmm.

I wonder. Could it be that abortion or homosexuality or generic sin have nothing to do with earthquakes? Might it be best to blame the earthquake on, you known, physics and plate tectonics?

If I turn into a pillar of salt tonight, then maybe I’m wrong; but if not, perhaps I’m on to something?

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Do Republicans Want to Raise Taxes on the Poor and Elderly?

It seems that a relatively frequent refrain from Republicans of late is that we shouldn’t raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans because a big percentage of Americans don’t pay any taxes (the percentage is often said to be in the high 40s or low 50s). First, I want to take a brief look at this claim (without getting all number-crunchy) and then I want to talk about what the argument really means.

One of the things to listen to carefully when you hear a politician (or Faux News host) claim that a majority of Americans don’t pay taxes is to see whether they remember to modify the word taxes with  either “income” or “federal” (or both). Lately, at least some politicians and commentators have begun to get a bit more careful, but many play very fast and loose with the language. And making the claim that a majority of Americans don’t pay tax is a very different claim than saying that a majority of Americans don’t pay federal income tax. Those who make the “no tax” claim are either just stupid or they’re trying to deceive their audience. After all, if you buy a loaf of bread, you pay sales tax (at least in most states); if you buy a gallon of gasoline, you pay an excise tax; when you pay your phone bill, a few cents (or more) are taxes collected by the phone company; and most importantly, if you have a job, you pay federal (and probably state) payroll taxes. There are few, if any, Americans who pay no taxes.

So if the speaker desires any sort of accuracy, the claim must be limited to income taxes and not just taxes, in general. While I don’t dispute that the claim that a majority of Americans don’t pay any income taxes sounds bad, it is far less offensive to the ear than the false claim that a majority of Americans don’t pay any taxes.

But let’s go a step or two further in the analysis. Most, though certainly not all, states impose their own income tax. And, while it may be true that many of those who don’t pay federal income tax also don’t pay state income tax, that is neither clear nor accurately reflected in the claim that a majority don’t pay income taxes. One of the reasons that this distinction is important is that Americans receive a deduction for income taxes paid to the state, thereby lowering the amount that they must pay to the federal government. I have no idea (and I’m not really in the mood to do the research) how many people pay state income tax but don’t pay federal income tax, but I’m guessing that it’s not a completely insignificant amount.

Which dovetails into the next point: A principal reason that many people don’t pay federal income tax is because of the various credits and deductions that we’ve added to the tax code. For example, an for an American family earning less than $110,000 (actually more, but that’s where the “phase out” begins), there is a tax credit of up to $1,000 per child. I’ve italicized the word credit because it’s important. A tax deduction reduces the income on which tax is calculated; a tax credit, on the other hand, reduces the actual amount of tax payable. Thus a family earning $50,000 with three kids would (presumably, as I haven’t read through all of the tax code and done all of the math) be entitled to a credit of $3,000. Now, that family would be in the 15% tax bracket and would owe just under $5,000 in federal income taxes before the child tax credit kicked in and reduced that amount to just $2,000. With a little quick “back of a napkin math,” we can conclude that if that family earned only $26,000, the child tax credit would be enough to wipe out their federal income tax liability (for the sake of comparison, a person working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, at minimum wage [$7.25/hour] would earn about $15,000 per year; the family earning $26,000 a year would be employed at about $12.50 per hour). And that is but one credit available to a taxpayer. Low-income Americans are also eligible for credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (which can be as much as $5,600. And, since the “majority of Americans don’t pay” statistic is of recent vintage, we can’t forget the first time homebuyer credit of $7,500. When all of the various credits that are available are calculated and applied, many Americans who would otherwise pay federal income tax, do not.

Thus, it’s not quite right to suggest that these people are somehow avoiding tax liabilities (and they’re certainly not using offshore or other forms of tax shelters and tax havens for purposes of tax avoidance); rather, we as a country and through our elected legislators have concluded that some conduct is worth rewarding and some people should have their burdens eased.

Keep in mind that there are other sorts of credits and deductions, too. For example, we let people deduct charitable donations from their income; we allow a deduction for the interest paid on a mortgage or home equity loan, and we allow for some deductions (and credits) for medical and educational expenses. Query why, exactly, we allow a tax deduction for charitable giving. After all, if the giving is truly charitable, then why should the giver need a reward in the nature of a tax break?

It is also worth noting that the payroll taxes (for Medicare and Social Security) paid by working Americans amount to a fairly substantial number (and it is also worth noting that the Social Security portion of the payroll tax only applies to the first $120,000 or so of income, so that those earning more than that amount actually pay a smaller portion of their income in Social Security taxes). The temporary reduction of payroll tax rates from about 6% to 4% was of enormous importance to those living from paycheck to paycheck (and note that Republicans now oppose an extension of that reduction…). But working Americans who earn too little to pay federal income taxes (or who are eligible for tax credits that eliminate their income tax burden) still paid more than 4% of their income in the form of federal payroll taxes.

We also need to consider who is not paying federal income taxes and why. By and large, the people who aren’t paying federal income taxes aren’t paying federal income taxes because they don’t have much income. The poor don’t have much in the first place, the unemployed aren’t earning an income, and many elderly are living on their retirement and social security and also have little income. So, perhaps getting upset that a majority of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes is the wrong concern. Shouldn’t we, instead, be more concerned with the fact that a majority of Americans earn so little that they are eligible for enough credits to wipe out their tax liabilities?

So what does all of this mean? Think of it this way: When you hear a Republican tell you that a majority of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes (presuming that they get that statement right in the first place), what they’re really saying is that we need to do one of two things: (a) Remove credits and deductions that allow people to “escape” paying taxes; and/or (b) increase the amount of taxes that those at the lowest income brackets pay. Because only by doing one (or both) of those things do we make the system more “fair” and have more people actually pay federal income taxes. Is that really what Republicans are advocating? At the same time that they are refusing to close loopholes that allow billionaires like Warren Buffet pay lower effective tax rates than their employees (because most of their income is non-payroll and only taxed at the lower capital gains tax rate), do Republicans really want to increase income taxes on the working poor, unemployed, and elderly? Because that’s sure what it sounds like, even if they don’t quite realize that’s what they’re saying.

And, presuming that they really do want to raise taxes on those least able to afford the tax increase, just think what that would mean for the economy. Those people would have less disposable income (after paying more in taxes), so they would be able to purchase fewer goods and services which would drive down demand which would reduce the need for employees which would cause greater unemployment which would further reduce the available income tax base which would, in the end, increase the deficit. But then I guess we could just cut more social services for those that who had been most harmed by those very economic policies. Talk about a vicious circle…

Or, perhaps, if we spent some stimulus money in ways that effectively got people back to work, then the number of Americans earning enough to pay federal income taxes would increase thereby increasing tax revenues. And as those people went back to work, demand for goods and services would increase thereby furthering the need for additional employment which would create still further tax revenues.

Finally, it’s probably worth seeing Jon Stewart’s take on the issue (or at least a related issue). It well-worth watching.

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Friday, August 19, 2011

50 Wealthiest Members of Congress

Roll Call has published a list of the 50 wealthiest members of Congress. The wealthiest member of Congress is Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), with net worth of $294,210,000. Yes, you read that right; over a quarter of a billion dollars. At the bottom of the list, in 50th place is Rep. Rosa DeLaura (D-Connecticut) worth a paltry $6,000,000. Why do I find any of this interesting? Because these are the people who are voting on tax policy, on job creation programs, and on a whole host of other measures that impact the vast majority of Americans who are worth far, far, far less than these members of Congress. So, next time Congress is voting on a measure to raise income taxes for the wealthy or cut benefits or entitlements for the poor, check out this list and see how these folks voted. Did they vote for the benefit of their constituents at large or did they vote their own self-interest?

And, just for fun, I thought it would be interesting to break the list down a bit.


Republicans (9): $104,000,000

Democrats (12): $561,930,000


Republicans (22): $802,460,000

Democrats (7): $150,530,000


Republicans (31): $906,460,000

Democrats (19): $712,460,000

A few other quick observations about this list: 24% of Senate Democrats and 19% of Senate Republicans make the list. In the House, 13% of House Republicans and 4% of House Democrats make the list. Or, said differently, 21% of the Senate is worth a total of $665,930,000 and 7% of the House is worth $952,990,000 (less than $48 million short of the magical $1 billion mark).

Food for thought.


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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Joe Walsh: Quit Lying

This was too good not to share. For those who’ve been paying fairly close attention to the national debate of late, one figure who has become sort of a rock star to the Tea Party is freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Illinois). He famously released a video a few weeks ago in which he accused President Obama of lying. And he’s become a go-to guy for … um … shall we say “combative” interviews (for example, this interview with Chris Matthews on Hardball).

But as people who’ve been paying attention also know, Mr. Fiscal Conservative, No Debt, Family Values Walsh has recently been sued by his ex-wife and former campaign manager. His ex-wife alleges that he owes over $100,000 in back child support and the former campaign manager says that Rep. Walsh owes him more than $20,000. Hence the following video:


I don’t know if this video shows the real ex-Mrs. Walsh. But whether it’s the real thing or just an act, it is both illustrative of Tea Party hypocrisy and damn funny.

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Cognitive Dissonance in Action

Over the last several years, we’ve seen numerous examples of a phenomena sometimes referred to as “cognitive dissonance” or the “belief disconfirmation paradigm”. For example, some people, even though shown President Obama’s birth certificate, continue to believe that he was not born in America. People continue to believe what they want to believe, even when confronted by evidence that contradicts the belief. Over the last few days, I’ve had my own encounter with a case of cognitive dissonance that I thought illustrative and worth sharing.

I subscribe to numerous mailing lists, each focused on a particular interest. One of these mailing lists relates to a board game that I enjoy playing (and that my kids play, though I can’t seem to get them to actually play by, you know, the rules…). Anyway, this list will often go for days or weeks at a time without posts and then there may be a brief flurry when someone has something worth discussing. Last Thursday a post came over the mailing list stating that someone was looking to sell his copy of the game. In response, several other messages were posted. One of these messages caught my eye (and I’m not sure why I took note of the message; I wasn’t interested in the discussion about the sale of the game). Actually, the message itself didn’t catch my eye; rather, the author’s signature caught my eye. Most of you have no doubt seen email and online signatures that include some kind of meaningful or pithy statement. Well, here was the statement that followed this particular author’s name:

“There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one — that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion. It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by ‘religionists’, but by Christians — not on religion, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.” — Patrick Henry

Readers of this blog will know that I spend a lot of time writing about the separation of church and state. It is a subject very important to me. To that end, I’ve also spent quite a bit of time both reading and writing about the framers of the Constitution and some of the arguments that have been put forth to suggest that the United States is a “Christian nation”. In fact, as recently as August 5, 2011, I wrote:

[F]or those interested in learning how to respond to the repeated arguments that the United States is a Christian nation and the attendant “facts” that many, primarily on the evangelical right, like to toss off as “proof”, then I highly recommend Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History. Chris has also posted a series of video takedowns of the right’s favorite “historian” David Barton who never quite manages to let facts get in his way.

One thing that I’ve learned is that many supporters of the “Christian nation” view of history offer up “facts” that have little or no basis in reality. Thus, when I read the foregoing quotation attributed to Patrick Henry, I was at least a bit curious. And so I did this wild newfangled thing: I Googled.

Hmm. Imagine my (not) surprise when I found, quite quickly, that the quotation is misattributed. had an article on symbolism on buildings in Washington, D.C. that included a reference to the supposed Patrick Henry quotation and the claim that the quote was spurious. Unfortunately, the link to the site offering support for claim was dead. And I knew that I couldn’t just respond to the author who utilized the quotation with just a “Snopes said” response and no evidentiary support. Hmm. What to do, what to do.

And then I remembered Chris Rodda (author of Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History). So I emailed Ms. Rodda and asked her if she had any information about the quotation. However, I didn’t want to let this misattributed quotation stay unanswered for too long and I had no idea how long it might take Ms. Rodda to respond (or if she would respond at all).

So I kept searching. To my semi-amazement, I discovered Red Hill – The Patrick Henry National Memorial and home of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation which is “devoted to education and historic preservation” and “promotes educational and research programs about the life, character, times, philosophy and legacy of Patrick Henry”. I prowled around the site for a few minutes; I browsed the pages for students and researchers, but I didn’t find the type of information I was looking for. So I went to the Contact Us page and sent an email with my question about the quotation.

I was surprised when, not more than half an hour later, I received a response from Karen Gorham, Executive Vice President, Red Hill – Patrick Henry National Memorial (and, should Ms. Gorham happen to read this blog, let me again thank her for her prompt response, following which she and I engaged in a brief discussion of the importance of historical accuracy):

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by ‘religionists’ but by Christians…”

Henry did not make this statement, although it has frequently been attributed to him, particularly across the internet.

The quote in question was originally published in April 1956 in The Virginian, Vol. II, No. 3, and then subsequently reprinted in the September 1956 issue of American Mercury, without attribution to Patrick Henry — look closely at the attached image from the American Mercury and you will see it does not reference Henry with regard to the subject quote but in regard to the final paragraph of his will, which IS misquoted (addressed later). David Barton of Wallbuilders, who published in 1988 “The Myth of Separation,” credited Henry with this quote but does make a correction to this misattribution at his website:

Interestingly enough, the American Mercury also contributed to the Henry misquotes by incorrectly citing the nearly final paragraph of Henry’s will, which actually reads:

“This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed.”

Henry is often recognized as the greatest orator in our nation's history and a founding father well worth quoting. There are plenty of widely-recognized contemporary and modern sources on which to rely, some of which can be found in the publications available at our museum shop (currently under reconstruction).

Thank you for taking the time to inquire about this too often misattributed quote.

Best regards,

Karen Gorham

Karen Gorham, Executive Vice President

Red Hill – Patrick Henry National Memorial

1250 Red Hill Rd.

Brookneal, VA 24528

[phone and fax numbers omitted]


Wow! Below is the image from The American Mercury that Ms. Gorham mentioned in her email.

amermerc134 jpg (image)_Page_1 amermerc134 jpg (image)_Page_2

I also followed up on the information that Ms. Gorham presented and looked at David Barton’s Wallbuilder’s website (and I suspect that Barton is the original source from which the author of the email in question got the quotation or, if not directly from Barton, then from someone whose information came originally from Barton). One of the things worth noting about Barton’s own disclaimer regarding the Patrick Henry quotation is the following statement:

The following quotations have been seen and heard in numerous books, periodicals, editorials, speeches, etc. In our research, we have not previously used a quote that was not documented to a source in a manner that would be acceptable in a scholarly work or a university text. However, we strongly believe that the debates surrounding the Founders are too important to apply solely an academic standard. Therefore, we unilaterally initiated within our own works a standard of documentation that would exceed the academic standard and instead would conform to the superior legal standard (i.e., relying solely on primary or original sources, using best evidence, rather than relying on the writings of attorneys, professors, or historians).

It is only in using this much higher standard that we call the following quotes "unconfirmed": that is, while the quotes below have been documented in a completely acceptable fashion for academic works, they are currently "unconfirmed" if relying solely on original sources or sources contemporaneous to the life of the actual individual Founder.

What is truly fascinating about this claim is the extent to which Ms. Rodda has demonstrated, repeatedly, how Barton has fabricated quotations. Moreover, recall Ms. Goram’s statement that Barton “who published in 1988 ‘The Myth of Separation,’ credited Henry with this quote…”. Yet Barton’s website claims that “we have not previously used a quote that was not documented to a source in a manner that would be acceptable in a scholarly work or a university text.” So query on what basis Barton attributed the quotation to Henry in The Myth of Separation if there is no evidence that the quotation is attributable to Henry? Note further the suggestion that the quotations are only unconfirmed when using a “higher standard,” thus implying, even though the existence of contrary evidence, that the quotations are indeed accurate.

Anyway, with regard to the quotation attributed to Henry, Barton does now note that it is unconfirmed. But rather than just saying that, he goes on, at length (including offering five other quotations from or about Henry) and discussing Henry’s religious views, before finally saying:

As a final thought, there is a possibility that the unconfirmed quote came from Henry's uncle, the Reverend Patrick Henry. We find no record of the Reverend's letters or writings. Therefore, until more definitive documentation can be presented, please avoid the words in question.

Interesting, is it not, that under Barton’s “higher standard” there doesn’t seem to be any reason to lay out the evidence of why the quotation is misattributed or to note that the Patrick Henry National Memorial believes the quotation was not uttered by Patrick Henry. Rather, Barton leaves his readers with the possibility that the words are, indeed, Henry’s. One must also wonder what sort of academic or “superior legal standard” research Barton has done to confirm the accuracy of the quotation. Gee, I wonder, if he bothered to talk to the Patrick Henry National Memorial? And if did, and if he received a response similar to what I received from Ms. Gorham, wouldn’t the prudent and “higher standard” response be to print that information, rather than continuing with the fiction that the quotation is merely “unconfirmed”?

So, after receiving Ms. Gorham’s email, I decided to respond to the author of the original message on the mailing list.* Here is what I wrote:

I don't intend to start an argument or flame war … but I don't think that this mailing list is the appropriate forum for the expression of religious or political views. I think that this mailing list is an even less-appropriate forum to express those views in the form of misattributed quotations.
According to Karen Gorham, Executive Vice President, Red Hill – Patrick Henry National Memorial, the quotation beneath your signature was not made by Patrick Henry:

"Henry did not make this statement, although it has frequently been attributed to him, particularly across the internet.

The quote in question was originally published in April 1956 in The Virginian, Vol. II, No. 3, and then subsequently reprinted in the September 1956 issue of American Mercury, without attribution to Patrick Henry .... David Barton of Wallbuilders, who published in 1988 "The Myth of Separation," credited Henry with this quote but does make a correction to this misattribution at his website:"

I contacted Ms. Gorham earlier today after reading that quotation. She was kind enough to reply quite promptly.

Please, let's leave this mailing list for the discussion of [the game].

Ms. Rodda also responded and, like Ms. Gorham, she directed me to David Barton’s list of unconfirmed quotations.

Over the weekend, the author of the original message posted again to the mailing list, though not in response to my post. The same Patrick Henry quotation was still appended to his signature. In response, another subscriber to the mailing list wrote:

Still with this after A) you've been asked to refrain from this kind of incendiary thing, B) it's proven to be a false attribution and C) it's an utter lie?

So, finally, this morning, the author of the original email posted two additional messages to the mailing list:

must have missed the request to stop --- sorry -- I'll provide the accurate reference for the quote if desired

And (emphasis added):

Finally found the email that requested I cease and desist --- I use that quote as my signature for all my out going emails -- when I reply it adds my name and the signature -- it is not just for this forum. Having said that, I shall refrain from using it again on this forum. Please be advised that you believe your sources, I believe mine. The best I can find from the references you provided is that they say it is unconfirmed. C'est le vie. Best of luck and enjoy gaming.

So after this unfortunately lengthy (hey, this is me writing … lengthy is just part of the bargain…) background, I hope that you can finally see the cognitive dissonance. The author will believe his sources (though he doesn’t tell us who they are). He believes those sources even though the information that I’ve provided from the Patrick Henry National Memorial which is dedicated to the “educational and research programs about the life, character, times, philosophy and legacy of Patrick Henry” clearly states that the quotation is misattributed. Who would know better what Henry did or did not say or write than the scholars associated with the Patrick Henry National Memorial? Yet the author is unwilling to “believe” Ms. Gorham’s statement that the quotation is misattributed even with the explanation for how the misattribution came to be. Rather, the author continues to believe the quotation to be accurate based on his “sources”. Query what evidence his sources might have to validate the authenticity of the quotation? Is there some heretofore unknown journal of Patrick Henry’s from which this quotation has been drawn? And what is the likelihood of the existence of such evidentiary material that is completely unknown to the memorial foundation established for education and research about Patrick Henry? Note further that the author claims that the “best [he] can find from the references [I] provided is that they say it is unconfirmed.” The only reference that I provided that says unconfirmed is David Barton; Ms. Gorham and the Patrick Henry National Memorial say, quite specifically:

Henry did not make this statement, although it has frequently been attributed to him, particularly across the internet.

And there you have a fine, shining example of cognitive dissonance. The author wants to believe the quotation is accurate. He is presented with evidence from what should be the most reliable source on the subject that says that the quotation is not accurate. Further, he is presented with evidence from a source that (and I’m speculating here) he does view as credible and that source even says that the quotation is unconfirmed. Yet, even in the face of this evidence, the author has decided to continue to believe that the quotation is accurate (or to continue using an inaccurate quotation until it is somehow confirmed by a source he trusts as inaccurate). Why? Because he likes what it says. If the quotation is inaccurate, the sentiments aren’t lessened any, but the authoritative weight that he can assert from the quotation is eliminated. Were he to “believe” the evidence provided to him, he would have to either: (a) remove the reference to Patrick Henry as the speaker, thus breaking the chain between the ideas expressed in the quotation and a Founding Father or (b) find a different quotation from a Founding Father articulating the same point that he wants to make. Rather than do either, he simply refuses to believe the evidence and continues with his current belief that, evidence or not, Patrick Henry said those words.

With this story in mind, it should be a bit easier to understand why try these two scenarios and see how dangerous cognitive dissonance can really be:

  • You don’t believe in global warming. I present you with scientific evidence from scientist after scientist after scientist demonstrating that global warming is real. You, however, because you don’t believe in global warming — and you don’t want to believe in global warming, do not believe those scientists. Rather, you will believe the handful of scientists that offer a competing view. Moreover, to bolster your belief in the minority viewpoint, you’ll probably also accept as true accusations that the scientists whom you don’t want to believe are bad scientists, manipulated data, or just lied.
  • You believe that the Bible is the literal truth. I present you with evidence of, among other things, evolution. I present you with evidence that the Earth is older than 6,000 years. I present you with evidence that no Ark could have been built that would hold all of the creatures of the land (just how big would an Ark be to hold dinosaurs, anyway?). But because you believe that the Bible is the literal truth, you cannot believe the evidence that I’ve presented concerning evolution. Thus, either evolution (and the scientists who support that theory) are wrong or there must be another explanation that does not conflict with your belief that the Bible is the literal truth (hence, Intelligent Design).

Cognitive dissonance is a problem when it comes to science. It is a problem when it comes to history. And it is really a huge fucking problem when it gets in the way of our political and legal system. How can we have a proper debate about the deficit and debt ceiling if the Tea Party refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that default would be bad? How can we have rational discussions about energy policy if Republicans, despite almost all evidence to the contrary, refuse to believe in global warming? How can we have a discussion about the proper role of religion in the public sphere or the rights of minority religious views if people like the author of the email that prompted this diatribe post continues to believe that the Founding Fathers said things that they simply did not say?

To once again quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan (or maybe James R. Schlesinger, depending on which source you believe):** “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” So long as we, as a society, cannot come to terms with and agree upon certain basic facts, we will have a really hard time making decisions about the best policies for the future of America.

*My wife doesn’t think that I should have responded at all; she’s probably right. Oh, well.

**Yes, I recognize the irony of using a quotation about which attribution is in question. I did that on purpose. Laugh a bit.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Not Really Fair, But…

This probably isn’t really fair. After all, the pose in the picture isn’t really what it looks like. But, even though the picture is probably taken out of context, I think it does help illustrate the point that I was trying to make last week in my post Rick Perry’s Relationship With the Most Extreme Elements of Evangelical Christianity. So, for all my Jewish friends, when you think about the prospect of a Rick Perry presidency, please remember this image:


Look, for the record, I’m not comparing Gov. Perry to Hitler. As a sign I posted a long time ago said, “I may disagree with you, but that doesn’t make you Hitler.” Nor am I suggesting that he is a Nazi. Instead, my purpose in posting this image is to get people, in particular Jews, to simply pay attention to the religious beliefs (and expression of those beliefs) of Gov. Perry (and, for that matter, Michele Bachmann…) and those organizations and religious leaders with whom he (and she) associates. And no, I’m not comparing them to Hitler either. What I am saying, though, is that I think that those religious beliefs and the political ideas likely to flow from them will be “bad for the Jews” (to borrow an old phrase).

To be clear: Gov. Perry isn’t Hitler; Gov. Perry isn’t a Nazi. But Gov. Perry would be bad for the Jews.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Another One Bites the Proverbial Dust

State Rep. Phillip Hinkle, shown speaking on a motion during the recent session, said he is "aware of a shakedown taking place."In light of today’s … um … interesting news (Email rendezvous entangles state Rep. Phillip Hinkle) about Indiana State Rep. Phil Hinkle (R-Indianapolis) allegedly seeking out a male prostitute on craigslist, taking the prostitute to a hotel, trying to prevent the prostitute from leaving, and then trying to bribe the prostitute to not tell the police, I thought it worth re-posting this video from a candidate forum in October 2010 (additional videos and information about the forum can be found in my post When Politicians Are Forced to Answer Yes/No Questions). Rep. Hinkle is the 7th candidate to answer (gray hair and red tie):

I also want to be very clear about two other things: I like Rep. Hinkle and I feel bad for him and his family. I’ve had numerous discussions with Rep. Hinkle on a host of political issues (though never on the issue of civil unions or same-sex marriage) and, though we usually disagree (often quite strongly), I’ve always found him to be one of the legislators most willing to engage in a good, open, honest debate. Never in our discussions did words get heated, even when passions ran high. He commended me and the organization on which I was usually speaking for our civility and I commended him on always being available and willing to participate in the discussion and dialogue.

But I should also point out that Rep. Hinkle is not only opposed to civil unions; he also voted in favor of the proposed amendment to the Indiana constitution that would ban not only same-sex marriage but also civil unions and limit the right of future Indiana General Assemblies to create civil unions or something substantialy similar to marriage for same-sex couples.

I’d also like to go back to the discussion that arose with regard to the “sex scandal” of Rep. Anthony Weiner (you know, the scandal involving pictures but no sex and no illegal conduct) that I discussed in my post Anthony Weiner Is a Lying Ass — So?. Recall how fast calls came in — especially from Republicans — that Rep. Weiner resign. In my post, I noted the hypocrisy of calling for Rep. Weiner’s resignation while not calling for the resignation of Sen. Vitter (who was the client of a prostitute). It will be interesting to watch whether and how quickly Indiana Republicans demand that Rep. Hinkle resigns, especially given that: (a) like Rep. Weiner, apparently there wasn’t any actual sex, though the two men were together and one was naked; and (b) like Sen. Vitter, the act of trading money (or goods) for sex acts is a crime.

So what have some top Indiana Republicans had to say so far?

According to The Indianapolis Star, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said:

Gov. Mitch Daniels this morning called the email rendezvous scandal involving State Rep. Phil Hinkle a “family tragedy.”

But he said that whether Hinkle should resign the legislative seat he has held since 2000 is up to him and his constituents.

“It’s not for me to say. It’s for him and his constituents. It’s just a personal family tragedy,” Daniels said, adding that he was “sad about it.”

Hmm. Well what about Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis)? Again, according to The Indianapolis Star:

Bosma, in a statement, said that “If the circumstances are as reported, it is an extremely sad and disappointing situation for all of us, especially the families involved. Our next step will be to try to discuss this matter with Representative Hinkle and chart a course from there.”

Um. Those don’t really sound like demands for Rep. Hinkle to resign. Nor do they even sound like condemnation of what appears to be clearly illegal conduct. Since when is soliciting, picking up, getting a hotel room for, getting naked in front of, and then refusing to allow a prostitute to leave, merely a “family tragedy” (query which family Gov. Daniels was talking about) or a “sad and disappointing situation”?

However, in all fairness, I should note that late this afternoon The Indianapolis Star was also reporting:

Marion County GOP Chairman Kyle Walker said he would “strongly recommend that Representative Hinkle resign his position so that he can focus on his family and not have this situation detract from that or the work that needs to continue in his legislative district.”

And Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said Hinkle needs to “do the right thing.”

Asked if that meant the six-term lawmaker should resign, Holcomb said that he “would word it differently.”

You know what, though? I’d like to see Rep. Hinkle stay in the Indiana General Assembly. I’d like to see him return to the Statehouse in January and, when the issue of the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage is brought to the floor, I’d like to see him stand up and talk about living in the closet and then talk about the rights of gay Hoosiers, talk about why it is important that our laws show respect for all Hoosiers, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, and then explain why enshrining discrimination into the Constitution is a bad idea. I’d like to see him vote against that proposed Amendment. He should do the right thing by those Hoosiers that his previous votes have hurt. And then he should resign (and note: My call for his resignation has nothing to do with his having an affair, whether straight or gay; my call for his resignation is strictly on the basis of the fact that prostitution is a crime [though whether it should be is a good topic for another post…]).

And for the record, should he ever wish to do so, I remain willing to engage Rep. Hinkle in dialogue and discussion on whatever issues should be of interest.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Rick Perry’s Relationship With the Most Extreme Elements of Evangelical Christianity

So it appears that Texas Governor Rick Perry really does want to be President (of the United States, not an independent nation of Texas, suggestions of Texas secession notwithstanding). This past weekend, a prayer rally that he organized (though apparently turned over operational control of) was held in Houston to an audience of about 30,000 (dwarfed by the poor people that showed up across town to receive free school supplies). Gov. Perry has made his evangelical Christian beliefs a central part of his political persona as reflected in his decision to hold the prayer rally for Americans to pray for G-d to help us solve our problems (but query why he’d want to be President if we Americans can’t solve our problems on our own but, rather, require divine intervention in order to do so; wouldn’t that call for a Head Priest instead of a President?). Anyway, given that Gov. Perry is apparently going to announce his candidacy this weekend, it seems appropriate to look at the views of the evangelical organizations and individuals that he has associated with generally and for his rally in particular.

One brief side note: This is not a case of tarring someone via guilt by association. By giving these speakers a platform, Gov. Perry is at least implicitly (if not explicitly) endorsing those organizations and speakers. If he disagreed with their message, he could have (and should have) left them off the list of invited speakers. This is different than sitting in the pews and not objecting; this is calling these views to the forefront and giving them a platform and the air of respectability.

So, on to Gov. Perry’s evangelical friends. I hope that my non-evangelical Christian readers (not to mention my Jewish and Muslim and atheist readers) will be very wary of Gov. Perry and the views that he either espouses directly or which are held by those with whom he chooses to publicly associate.

First up is the American Family Association, the organization that apparently paid the bill for Gov. Perry’s prayer rally. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the American Family Association as an anti-gay hate group. The American Family Association’s “director of issue analysis for government and public policy” is Bryan Fischer who is also on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate radar. But let’s not just take the word of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Let’s listen to the words of the American Family Association’s director of issue analysis for government and public policy on the American Family Association’s  own radio network. Here’s a “best of” compilation from People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch website (and even if gay rights isn’t a issue that matters much to you, keep listening; Fischer goes after others, too):


For a much more detailed examination of the views expressed by Fischer and the American Family Association, please read Right Wing Watch’s detailed article The GOP's Favorite Hate-Monger: How the Republican Party Came to Embrace Bryan Fischer (the entire article can be download in .pdf form). Oh, and one more Fischer quote that I just couldn’t resist mentioning: “Native Americans Morally Disqualified Themselves From the Land” (that’s the title of an article he penned in response to the Native American prayer that opened the memorial to the victims of the Tucson shooting in January). According to Fischer (and remember, he speaks on behalf of the American Family Association), by refusing to convert to Christianity and giving up their pagan ways, the Native Americans “morally disqualified themselves from the land.” Wow.

This is who Gov. Perry chose to coordinate his prayer rally. If Gov. Perry objects to the views espoused by Fischer and the American Family Association, I’m sure that he could have found another evangelical Christian organization to host his rally. So it is hard to understand how Gov. Perry could choose to be associated with a viewpoint like this, to give the organization with that viewpoint an important role in his prayer rally, but not also be associated with the views of that organization.

Let’s also take a quick look at the purpose of the prayer rally. After the rally was announced, in response to criticism of the involvement of Fischer and the American Family Association (Fischer criticized the critics by going on another rant about gays and Nazis), Gov. Perry’s spokesperson was interviewed:

When asked if Perry agrees with Fischer’s statements, spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said, “Governor Perry is looking forward to the event. AFA is an organization that promotes safe and strong families. These controversies aren’t relevant to the event, Governor Perry is focused on what he is trying to accomplish, which is bringing America together in prayer for the nation.”

Asked again if Perry agrees with Fischer, she said, “This event is about prayer focused on bringing America together for challenges faced, these comments don’t have anything to do with this event.”

She added, “[Perry] is very clear with his faith. His priority with this event is bringing people together.”

She also said, “Those statements and other controversial statements made have nothing to do with what the Governor is trying to promote.”

But shortly thereafter, in an interview on the American Family Association’s radio network, Eric Bearse, the spokesman for the prayer rally and the former Director of Communications for Gov. Perry said:

A lot of people want to criticize what we’re doing, as if we’re somehow being exclusive of other faiths. But anyone who comes to this solemn assembly regardless of their faith tradition or background, will feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ in that assembly hall, in that arena. And that’s what we want to convey, that there’s acceptance and that there’s love and that there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ. And that’s the message we want to spread on August 6th.

You see? The prayer rally for all Americans, as long as they wanted to hear about Jesus Christ. In other words, Gov. Perry wanted to bring people together in order to proselytize. Is that really the role for elected politicians?

But anyway, let’s go back to the other associates of Gov. Perry and speakers at the rally.

One of the featured speakers is Rev. John Hagee. People who were reading this blog during the 2008 election might recall my references to Rev. Hagee when Sen. McCain was forced to reject Rev. Hagee’s endorsement. Why did Sen. McCain reject an endorsement? He was forced to when it came to light that, among other things, Rev. Hagee asserted that the Catholic Church is a "great whore," that Nazis were acting as agents of God to drive Jews out of Europe to Palestine, and that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans because of the amount of sin in that city. Subsequent to that post, I’ve also come across statements by Rev. Hagee claiming that wives must submit themselves to their husbands and that G-d won’t allow America to win wars anymore because we’ve allowed the worship of Satan in the military. For more, including links, please read People for the American Way’s Gov. Rick Perry’s Extremist Allies. Yep. Those are the views of another of Gov. Perry’s associates.

Or we could talk about Pastor Jim Garlow. Here’s a brief excerpt from Right Wing Watch’s review:

Garlow has a long record of extreme rhetoric. He:

We can’t forget Mike Bickle and the International House of Pancakes Prayer. Here’s my favorite Bickle quotation:

The Harlot Babylon is preparing the nations to receive the Antichrist. The Harlot Babylon will b a religion of affirmation, toleration, no absolutes, a counterfeit justice movement. They will feed the poor, have humanitarian projects, inspire acts of compassion for all the wrong reasons. They won’t know it, beloved they will be sincere, many of them, but their sincerity will not in any way lessen the impact of their deception. The fact that they are sincere does not make their deception less damaging. I believe that one of the main pastors, as a forerunner to the Harlot movement, it’s not the Harlot movement yet, is Oprah. She is winsome, she is kind, she is reasonable, she is utterly deceived, utterly deceived. A classy woman, a cool woman, a charming woman, but has a spirit of deception and she is one of the clear pastors, forerunners to the Harlot movement.

That’s right. Oprah Winfrey is an agent of the Antichrist. While he didn’t repeat this claim during the prayer rally, he was quite clear that all other religions in the world are wrong and that the only definition of morality and right and wrong is the word of Jesus (thus, if I’m not mistaken, since Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, then evangelical Christians shouldn’t be spending much time on that particular issue…). Oh, and Bickle’s group? They released a lovely little video encouraging their followers to try to convert Jews to Christianity because “He will return only when Israel is ready and willing to receive Him as their savior and king.” (I hope my Jewish friends who think the Christian Zionist movement is purely benevolent will watch this video and remember this prayer for Jewish conversion…)

For those who like their bigotry with a dose of crazy, we can look to Dr. Cindy Jacobs who suggests that G-d caused thousands of birds to die and fall out of the sky last year because of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Seriously.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention John Benefiel. You just have to listen to this one to believe it (transcript below provided by Right Wing Watch):


Benefiel: Libertas is also called the Freedom Goddess, Lady Freedom, the Goddess of Liberty. You know there’s a statue in New York harbor called the Statue of Liberty. You know where we got it from? French Free Masons. Listen folks that is an idol, a demonic idol, right there in New York harbor. People say, ‘well no it’s patriotic.’ What makes it patriotic? Why is it? It’s a statue of a false goddess, the Queen of Heaven. We don’t get liberty from a false goddess folks, we get our liberty from Jesus Christ and that Statue of Liberty in no way glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no connection whatsoever. So I’m just telling you we practice idolatry in America in ways that we don’t even recognize.

Really. The Statue of Liberty is a demonic idol. And yet people take this crap seriously. And they want our country to operate on the basis of their ideals and biblical teaching.

Finally, for my Jewish readers, the prayer rally even had a prayer for Jews to “come to their Messiah” with the claim that “Tens even hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in the last decades have come to their Messiah”. For my Gentile friends, this prayer is nothing less than a prayer for Jews to convert to Christianity. But reflect back to the statement from Gov. Perry’s spokesperson about the purpose of the prayer rally: “[B]ringing America together in prayer for the nation” (emphasis added). How exactly does a prayer for Jewish conversion fall into the category of prayer “for the nation” unless, in the worldview of those offering and supporting that prayer, the nation needs Jews to convert. I’d like to hear Gov. Perry’s thoughts on that issue…

Incidentally, one of the sponsors of Gov. Perry’s overtly Christian prayer rally was Rabbi Marty Waldman of Baruch HaShem Messianic Synagogue in Dallas. So what is a Rabbi doing in this crowd? Simple. A messianic Jew (as they call themselves) is not a Jew at all; rather, they are very evangelical Christians who have adopted the trappings of Judaism. They claim to be Jews who have adopted Jesus. I’ve had run-ins with groups of messianic Jews (they used to be known as Jews for Jesus) since I was in high school and I’ve watched them prey upon the elderly, kids, and recent immigrants with a limited grasp of English or their own religious beliefs, all while these so-called messianic Jews hold themselves out as “true Jews”. These people are frauds. And Gov. Perry is associating with them, too. I’d compare this relationship to a Catholic politician hanging out with Mel Gibson’s brand of Catholicism … but that’s not a close enough analogy. Perhaps it would be a bit more like Mitt Romney hanging out with Warren Jeffs and his child-molesting polygamist cult…

I could go on. And on. And on. These are the views of Gov. Perry’s allies and chosen associates. Please take a few minutes and read through People for the American Way’s article Gov. Rick Perry’s Extremist Allies. Or, if you’re interested, read Right Wing Watch’s recap of the prayer rally.

If you should have the chance to pose a question to Gov. Perry, ask him to directly repudiate some of these views and the people who hold them. And, when it comes time to go to a ballot box, remember these people and the opinions they espouse. Because should Perry move into the White House, you can bet that these people, and others with similar views, will be on the guest list and will help draft the policies that come from a Perry administration. And you can be certain that these are the views that would form the litmus test for Federal judicial appointments. Can you imagine a Supreme Court Justice that believed, as the American Family Association does, that the First Amendment guaranty of freedom of religion applies only to Christians? I guess that will be great for evangelical Christians, but it won’t be so good for the rest of us.

We cannot allow Rick Perry to get anywhere close to the White House. I’m going to go out on a limb here: Gov. Perry is nothing more (but perhaps far worse) than Sarah Palin without the lipstick.

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Monday, August 8, 2011


As everyone is no doubt aware by now, on Friday, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States from AAA to AA+. As I’m not an economist, I’m not going to try to discuss the ramifications of this downgrade. But I do want to talk about several aspects of how the downgrade was determined, reported, and received.

First, it is worth remembering that Standard & Poor’s also gave AAA credit ratings to investments based on sub-prime mortgages prior to the 2008 economic crisis. How well did that work out? Second, Standard & Poor’s has apparently admitted that it made a slight error in the calculations that led to the downgrade. How slight? Only about $2,000,000,000,000 (yes, that’s $2 trillion). For more details on this little error, please read “Chart of the Day: S&P’s $2 Trillion Error Explained”.

I also want to look at how news of the downgrade has been presented. Here is the entire AP article published by The Indianapolis Star on Saturday, August 6, 2011 (emphasis added):*

The United States has lost its coveted top AAA credit rating.

Credit rating agency Standard & Poor's on Friday downgraded the nation's rating for the first time since the U.S. won the top ranking in 1917. The move came after Congress haggled over budget cuts and the nation's borrowing limit — and failed to cut enough government spending to satisfy S&P.

The drop in the rating by one notch to AA-plus was expected. The three main credit agencies, which also include Moody's Investor Service and Fitch, had warned during the budget fight that if Congress did not cut spending far enough, the country faced a downgrade. Moody's said Friday it was keeping its AAA rating on the nation's debt but that it might still lower it.

One of the biggest questions after the downgrade was what impact it would have on already nervous investors. Some selling was expected when stock trading resumes Monday morning. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 699 points this week, the biggest weekly point drop since October 2008.

One fear in the market has been that a downgrade would scare buyers away from U.S. debt. If that were to happen, the interest raid paid on U.S. bonds, notes and bills would have to rise to attract buyers. However, even without its AAA rating, U.S. debt is seen as one of the safest investments in the world.

S&P said that in addition to the downgrade, it is issuing a negative outlook, meaning there is a chance it will lower the rating further within the next two years.

So, according to The Indianapolis Star and Associated Press, S&P downgraded the US credit rating because Congress “failed to cut enough government spending to satisfy S&P.” Only guess what? Here’s what S&P actually said (emphasis added):

We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently. Republicans and Democrats have only been able to agree to relatively modest savings on discretionary spending while delegating to the Select Committee decisions on more comprehensive measures. It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.

Standard & Poor's takes no position on the mix of spending and revenue measures that Congress and the Administration might conclude is appropriate for putting the U.S.'s finances on a sustainable footing.

In other words, as I read S&P’s statement, US credit was downgraded because of the difficulty that Congress had in negotiating ways to contain the growth in future spending and raising revenues. Hmm. Now unless I’m mistaken, that AP article published by The Indianapolis Star never once, not ever, mentioned revenues and laid the entire blame on the failure to cut government spending. Thus, AP, and by extension, The Indianapolis Star, essentially lied to readers by giving only one-half of the explanation.

As I’ve been saying in relation to this and other subjects, how can the American electorate make any kind of informed decisions when the information that they get is unreliable or false?

Finally, when it comes to deciding who you should blame for the downgrade (and the resultant effects therefrom), remember that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) claimed that the debt deal gave Republicans 98% of what they wanted. Hmm. If they got 98% and the result was a downgrade, then doesn’t that mean…? Or perhaps this video from a Wisconsin tea party rally this past weekend will help illustrate the point:


Did you catch that? The speaker notes that people are blaming the Tea Party for the downgrade … and the audience (well not the old fogies whose backs we see in the video) cheers. I’m thinking that if you’re cheering for the downgrade then you are, essentially, owning it. So remember, if your mortgage rate goes up or your credit card interest rate goes up or anything else becomes more costly or difficult (as I write this, the Dow is down about 350 points today) because of the downgrade: Republicans got 98% of what they wanted … and the Tea Party cheered.

*I cannot confirm that this is the exact format in which the article appeared in the print edition of the newspaper. However, the omissions that I discuss were similarly omitted from the print edition (which is what led me to write this post in the first place).

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Help! We’re Being Oppressed!

I came across this great little graphic in a comment to a bigoted letter to the editor in The Indianapolis Star.

By the way, for those interested in learning how to respond to the repeated arguments that the United States is a Christian nation and the attendant “facts” that many, primarily on the evangelical right, like to toss off as “proof”, then I highly recommend Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History. Chris has also posted a series of video takedowns of the right’s favorite “historian” David Barton who never quite manages to let facts get in his way.

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Congressional Reform Act of 2011

A few months ago, one of my cousins sent me an email in which he expressed frustration with our current political system. One part of his email included something identified as the Congressional Reform Act of 2011:

  1. No Tenure/No  Pension. A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.
  2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.
  3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.
  4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
  5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.
  6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
  7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

Subsequent to that email, I’ve received several other emails or messages about the Congressional Reform Act of 2011. One of the other versions that I’ve seen included the following:

Term Limits. 12 years only, one of the possible options below:

A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

There are two important things to keep in mind here. First, there is no such thing as the Congressional Reform Act of 2011. It is simply another viral chain email. Perhaps the suggestions are a good idea (see below), but in point of fact, this so-called “Act” does not exist (and has not been proposed in Congress).

Second, and perhaps more important, several of the concepts in the “Act” are premised on false claims. When I received the initial email from my cousin, I realized very quickly that the underlying premises were false, but when I got to #4, I realized that the author had no idea what he (or she) was really talking about. Here’s was my original response:

1) Though I like the idea of reducing costs, why shouldn’t we give pensions? I think that the better discussion would be the amount of the pension and under what circumstances, if any, the pension benefit is lost.

2) Congress should participate in Social Security, but I’m pretty sure that they do. But if you and I can have employer-based retirement funds (401k, for example), then why shouldn’t Congress be able to have a similar program? Again, so long as the rules are the same, then it should be OK.

3) I agree with this, but again, to the extent that the rules are the same. Many employers offer retirement plans as part of the compensation package. So again, why shouldn’t Congress be able to have a retirement plan. The better question, I think, is “what is retirement”? If a Congressman is voted out after 1 term, is that a retirement? What if the Congressman resigns in a scandal? Should there be a minimum length of service?

4) This is both bad and unnecessary. First, the 27th Amendment to the Constitution already provides that no Congressional pay raise is effective until after a subsequent election. Thus, if voters don’t approve of a pay raise, they can “vote out the bums”. The “lower of” cap is also a bad idea because it could cause real problems in an inflationary economy. Perhaps the better way to address that would be that salaries can’t increase by more than the COLA adjustment for Social Security (or something similar).

5) This sounds good on its face, but again remember that most Americans that have health insurance receive it through their employer.

6) Generally, they do. This is a common claim, but for the most part it’s bunk.

7) This would violate the Constitution (Article 1, Section 10 [the “Contract Clause”]: “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.” (Emphasis added.)

After I received the subsequent references to this “Act” I decided to look into the proposals (and underlying concepts) in a bit more detail. To that end, I found an excellent analysis from Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Congress has participated in Social Security since 1984.
  • Since  passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995, Congress has been obligated to abide by the same laws as other Americans (prior to that date, 13 civil rights, labor, and workplace safety and health laws didn’t apply to Congress). Note, however, that pursuant to Article I Section 6 of the Constitution, members of Congress do have limited immunity: “They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.” This provision was intended to prevent a member of Congress from being arrested on the basis of viewpoints expressed or on trumped up charges in order to keep that member of Congress from voting on a particular issue. Most states have a similar provision in their state constitutions. (Did you ever wonder why Indiana’s legislators have special license plates? They can’t be fined [i.e., traffic tickets] while on their way to or from the Statehouse during a legislative session.)
  • With regard to pay raises, it turns out that the current law, passed by Congress, does what I suggested above. Pay raises are currently linked to cost of living adjustments. In the last several years, Congress has voted to deny itself pay raises.
  • As to healthcare, members of Congress are eligible to participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program — just like millions of other federal employees. As FactCheck notes, it may be that the author of the “Act” was thinking of the spurious claim that the recent federal healthcare law (note that I continue to refuse to call it “Obamacare”) exempted members of Congress; however that claim has also been debunked.

Do some of the ideas expressed in this “Act” have merit? Perhaps. Certainly term limits are worth discussing (though I’m generally unconvinced that this would make for a good change). But, as in so many other areas, it is absolutely impossible for the American electorate to make good, informed decisions — and to tell our elected representatives what we’re thinking — if we don’t make those decisions on good, solid facts.

The Internet has provided fertile ground for people to express their ideas and for others to respond and debate those ideas. And that is obviously a good thing. But the Internet is unfiltered. Anyone can post anything, without regard to truth and accuracy. We owe it to ourselves, to those with whom we might communicate, and to our country, to stop and think carefully about random proposals and ideas that we encounter online, especially when they include “facts”. It isn’t very hard to fact check these sorts of things so that we can be sure that our decisions are sound.

After completing the foregoing, but before posting (I was proofing and trying to verify a point…), I came across yet another, and far more detailed version of the so-called Congressional Reform Act of 2011 (specifically intended to be adopted as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution). This proposal is not likely to go anywhere. At all. Ever. Nevertheless, I thought some of the points raised were interesting enough to comment on below (the text of the proposed Amendment is in blue; my comments follow in black), especially to demonstrate just how difficult it can be to write good legislation (especially an amendment to the Constitution) and how poorly this proposed amendment was thought through (it’s almost as if the author thought that length made up for poor design). One of the biggest challenges to crafting a law, especially an amendment to the Constitution, is to analyze the unintended consequences of the proposed law or amendment and how it might be either taken advantage of, skirted, or abused. The other reason to go through the exercise of analyzing this proposal is to demonstrate just what we all should be doing with any of the slew of amendments to either the Federal or our state Constitutions, whether it be an amendment banning same-sex marriage or requiring the government to balance the budget.

So, let’s look at this more detailed version of the so-called Congressional Reform Act of 2011:

Article 1. No member of Congress shall serve a period of more than a total of six years in office, regardless of position, party affiliation or circumstance. As I said above, I’m not sold on the idea of Congressional term limits. Sure there are plenty of bad members of Congress who should be shown the door after a term or two. But there are other members who have shown their value over an extended time. Moreover, there is something to the argument that only by spending time in Congress, do members really learn how to legislate effectively. One other point worth noting: Were this to be enacted, presumably nobody would ever be willing to fill the seat of a Senator who died or resigned mid-term, because the replacement Senator would not be eligible for re-election, even if the replacement term was only a few months (because that would render the term longer than six years). So, for example, Scott Brown, who was elected to fill the vacancy left by Sen. Kennedy in early 2010, would be ineligible to run for re-election in 2012 (when Sen. Kennedy’s term expires) because, were Brown to win re-election, he would serve 8 years in the Senate.

Article 2. Congress shall be subject to — without exception — all laws enacted within the United States of America, regardless of circumstance or intent. Congress shall neither receive nor be afforded any dispensation, immunity, excuse or recusal from the penalty of law in all cases relating to their individual behavior, indiscretion and/or participation in or knowledge of an act that is deemed illegal. First, consider how this would impact the purposes of Article I Section 6 referenced above. Second, what if a state were to pass a law designed to have an effect solely upon members of Congress (i.e., imagine Virginia passing a law that says “any member of Congress maintaining a residence in the Commonwealth of Virginia shall cast votes in Congress as directed by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia”). Would that make sense? Yet under this proposal, not only could a state presumably do so, but the members of Congress would be required to conform to that law; remember that the proposal specifically notes “regardless of circumstance or intent”.

Article 3. All members of Congress shall collect a salary of no more than $125,000 per year while serving in office and receives no pay, benefits or incentives when not serving in office. Is it wise to put the salary amount in the Constitution? If we enter an inflationary economy, should we have to amend the Constitution each time that we deem a pay increase appropriate? And does the prohibition on benefits when not serving in office preclude pensions? Would the prohibition on benefits “when not serving” apply to a member of Congress on vacation or while Congress was in recess? Would that include healthcare?

Article 4. Other than Congressional salary, no member of Congress shall be allowed or able to personally or peripherally profit from the activities of Congress at any time before, during or after their period of service. Any action resulting from personal profit through either knowledge of or involvement in the activities of Congress by a member of Congress shall be inarguably construed as profiteering and shall be subject to the full weight of applicable law without exception or interpretation — as determined in Article 3 of this Amendment. This provision seems really poorly thought out. If it is aimed at lobbying, I might understand, though it would seem that a time limit might make more sense rather than a future blanket prohibition. But as I read this proposal, a member of Congress (or even a former member of Congress) couldn’t even write a memoir about time spent in Congress unless no personal profit was derived from the book. Similarly, a former member of Congress couldn’t accept honoraria to speak about Congress. Forget the conflict with the First Amendment for a moment, and ask whether we want current and former members of Congress to be prohibited from writing or speaking about their time in Congress unless they were to do so gratis. I’m also really concerned with the phrase “inarguably construed”. As a lawyer, I read that to mean that the accused member of Congress could not offer any defense to a charge of profiteering if any profit were obtained. Don’t we like the concept of … oh, I don’t know … fairness? You know, like a jury of peers and all that? Somehow putting this in a strict liability category seems wrong (one of the few other categories of strict liability crime is child porn; this seems a wee bit different…) And finally, ask yourself what is meant by “peripherally profit”. Say that a law is passed, after the member of Congress leaves office, that provides a federal pension benefit to school crossing guards. And say that the wife of the former member of Congress was a school crossing guard. Hasn’t the former member of Congress now obtained a peripheral profit that is “inarguably construed” as profiteering in violation of the Constitution? Ouch. And people would want to serve in Congress why, exactly?

Article 5. Congress shall not have the ability to increase Congressional pay or benefits. Congressional pay will rise only upon approval by a simple numerical majority of citizens of the United States via full public disclosure prior to implementation of any financial adjustment. With a citizen majority approval, Congressional pay and/or incentives shall only increase by either 3% or the federal Cost of Living Allowance, which ever is lower. Any adjustment to Congressional compensation shall be merit-based, and in no way automatic, obligatory or expected as an entitlement of Congress. Congressional pay and/or benefits shall not be increased more than one time in any four-year period. Didn’t we already determine Congressional pay back in Article 3? Anyway, what does the author mean by “simple numerical majority of citizens”? Are we supposed to have a national referendum to increase Congressional pay? That seems … um … silly? But more importantly, the phrase doesn’t say something like “a simple numerical majority of voting citizens”? In Presidential elections, we get less than 60% of registered voters (in 2008, we got 56.8%, which was the highest percentage since 1968). And obviously not all citizens are registered voters (just think about this: children are counted as citizens, but are ineligible to vote; so by the very language of this poorly drafted amendment, to pass, there would automatically have to be enough additional “yes” votes to offset the total number of children who would be ineligible to vote). So, if this Article were in effect, virtually all of those voting would have to vote in favor of the pay increase (and that still might not be enough…). And what is meant by “full public disclosure”? Is saying, “Let’s raise Congressional pay by 5%” good enough? Where must that disclosure be made to be “full” and “public”? Furthermore, if citizens are voting, why are we limiting the increase to the lesser of 3% or COLA? What if citizens want to raise it more? And given the limits on maximum increases and the further limit on increases no more often than once every four years, it seems likely that Congressional pay will very quickly lag far behind other salaries (if COLA is 3.5% per year but Congress is, at best, eligible for 3% every four years, then in just a few years … you can do the math). Finally, and perhaps most worrisome, what is meant by “compensation shall be merit-based”? Is there going to be some kind of commission to decide which members of Congress are good and which are bad, who deserves a raise and who doesn’t (even after the raise is authorized by citizens)? Does it matter if the member is in the majority or minority? Whether they were able to get bills that they sponsored passed? Whether TV networks like to interview them? What?

Article 6. No member of Congress shall, under any circumstances, accept or receive any form of payment, gift, compensation, remuneration, incentive or offering — regardless of amount — from any individual or group that has any business, concern or proposal — past, present or future — under consideration or proposed for action by any element or component of the United States Congress. Violations of this amendment shall never, under any circumstances, be treated as other than a violation of law(s), and shall therefore be subject to the full penalty of applicable law(s) without equivocation. This proposal is a perfect example of what I meant when I suggested that it’s hard to write good legislation. I think that we can all probably agree that the purpose of this Article is to prevent a member of Congress from receiving a bribe or a “gift” that, for all intents and purposes, is no different than a bribe. I think that we can all probably get behind the idea that a member of Congress ought not to have dinner paid for by a lobbyist or be flown to a plush Caribbean vacation by a corporation with legislation pending before a committee on which that member servers. Now go back and read the proposal again. Done? OK. So consider the following. Sally is a citizen and a taxpayer. She has an interest in whether her income taxes rise, whether her taxes are used to pay for a war against Bumfukistan, whether her Medicare benefits will be cut or the eligibility age raised, whether Congress will enact a law that prohibits her from getting her ears pierced on Tuesdays, and a whole host of other things. Her father was a member of Congress when she was a child. Sally gives her father a tie for his birthday. BAM! Her father, the former member of Congress, received a gift from an individual that has a “concern” (present or future) in Congress. Is that really the harm this is supposed to address? But it must be treated as a violation and be subject to the full penalty “without equivocation”. “But,” you cry, “that’s not what the law meant.” No. It isn’t. But that is what it says.

Article 7. Congress (past, present & future) shall participate in the United States Social Security program with no alternative or opt-out option unless such an option is available to all American citizens. All funds in the current Congressional retirement fund and accounts shall be moved into the Social Security system immediately. All members of Congress are taxed equitably by the Social Security system. No cap or restriction of any kind shall be imposed on the amount of income that is subject to the existing Social Security tax rate. Social Security funds shall never, under any circumstances, be used for any purpose other than the payment of benefits to legitimate, tax-paying Social Security recipient citizens of the United States. Again, as mentioned above, Congress does participate in Social Security. In addition, including references to Social Security in the Constitution seems wrong, given that Social Security is not a program created in the Constitution. Also, note the phrase “[n]o cap or restriction … shall be imposed on the amount of income that is subject to the existing Social Security tax rate.” That appears to be making a change to the existing Social Security law which does have a cap above which income is not taxed for Social Security. While I think that is probably a good change to Social Security, does that kind of change belong (a) in the Constitution and (b) in an amendment designed to reform Congress?

Article 8. No member of Congress shall have access to any form of tax reduction, exemption or deduction that is not available to any American citizen, regardless of income or position. I think that I understand what this provision is attempting to do, but it doesn’t seem to achieve that goal. Let’s say, for example, that Congress passes a law that provides a tax credit of $1,000 per minor child. Obviously, only taxpayers with minor children are eligible for this credit. Is a member of Congress with a minor child eligible? It would appear not because the credit is not available to “any American citizen, regardless of … position.” I can think of example after example after example of tax reductions, exemptions or deductions that are not universally available. It seems, however, that the intent of this provision, that is, to be sure that members of Congress are treated the same as citizens in a similar position (other than status as a member of Congress), is a good one. This proposal just doesn’t accomplish its intended goal.

Article 9. No member of Congress shall have access to or the ability to obtain any health care options and services that are not available to the common individual citizen, regardless of income level. All members of Congress shall obtain their health insurance coverage and services from the commercial industry market as available to all common American citizens. No member of Congress shall have access to any health care insurance or service that is not available to an American taxpayer at the lowest income level. You know me. I supported single payer. And I support equality of treatment. But this provision seems to miss its mark pretty wildly. Consider this: Can a wealthy member of Congress buy high cost, high benefit private insurance? It would appear not (“obtain … health insurance coverage … from the commercial market as available to all common American citizens”). Could a member of Congress choose elective surgery and pay for it out of his or her pocket? It would appear not (“obtain health care … services that are not available to the common individual citizen, regardless of income level” and “access to health … service that is not available to an American taxpayer at the lowest income level”). And what if we choose to enact more government-sponsored insurance programs? Where would members of Congress get their insurance? And what about a member of Congress who was a veteran and was therefore also eligible for veterans’ benefits? It would seem that this provision would nullify that eligibility. For that matter, unless aspirin is suddenly provided free to everyone, wouldn’t this provision prohibit a member of Congress from purchasing aspirin because it might not be “available” to “an American taxpayer at the lowest income level”? Again, perhaps good intentions, but poor execution.

Article 10. No member of Congress shall, under any circumstances, introduce or include any legislation, amendment, consideration or proposal into any bill that does not directly and clearly relate to the primary subject and focus of said bill. The applicability of all secondary proposals, amendments, riders and additional legislation presented for inclusion in any given bill shall not be subject to the interpretation, will or intent of the member of Congress proposing it. All issues, singular or otherwise, shall be acted upon as separate and distinct legislation of its own merit and accord. Indiana has a constitutional provision much like this, often referred to as the “germaneness” provision. And year after year, members of Indiana’s General Assembly play political games with whether a particular amendment is germane. On the whole, I like the idea, but the problem comes in enforcing it. Query, for example, whether deficit reduction was germane to a bill dealing with the debt ceiling. As it just so happens, usually the majority will conclude that a favored amendment is, indeed, germane, while an amendment offered by the minority, is often ruled out of order. Hmm. Imagine that. Politics. And if a bill passes, with provisions that are not germane, do we really want the courts to strike down those provisions, not because they are inherently problematic but just because the provision wasn’t germane? I suppose that a better version of this could be written, but I’m not sure how.

Article 11. All members of Congress shall conduct themselves in accordance with the stated will of the electorate as a whole. No member of Congress shall ever act or perform on behalf of any specific sub-group or segment of the electorate, or by dictation of the statistical or implied will of any representative of any individual or group who does not represent the United States of America as a unified entity. I’m really not sure what the author’s intent was in this provision. All I know is that it is a truly frightening concept (were it to have any hope, whatsoever, of passing). Read the provision again very carefully. Now, let’s say that Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District elects a Democrat, but that only 2 of Indiana’s 9 representatives are Democrats, both Senators are Republicans, the governor is a Republican, and both houses of the Indiana General Assembly are controlled by Republicans. Can that Democrat representing the 2nd District vote in favor of a bill opposed by Republicans (or vote against a bill favored by Republicans)? Remember: According to this proposal, the member of Congress must conduct himself/herself “in accordance with the stated will of the electorate as a whole”. Does that mean all of the voters of the 2nd District (but even then, the “whole” didn’t elect him/her, only a majority [or even plurality] did) or does that mean all of the voters of the State of Indiana? And what if, even though Indiana is currently Republican, it voted for a Democrat for President, or if one of the two houses of Congress is controlled by Democrats, or if during the most recent national election, a majority of votes were cast for a Democrat. Ask now whether those Republican members of Congress from Indiana can vote for a Republican-sponsored bill if it is opposed by Democrats (who represent a majority nationally, at least as of the most recent presidential election). As if that wasn’t complex enough, the proposal then gets worse by prohibiting a member of Congress from acting “on behalf of any specific sub-group or segment”. By this language, it would appear that a member of Congress could not represent the majority that voted him/her into office; nor could that member of Congress vote in favor of a bill that might only directly benefit citizens of a particular state or district. Could the member of Congress vote in favor of a bill that might grant a particular civil right to a sub-group or segment of the electorate that had previously been denied that right? Could a member of Congress even arrange for a tour of Congress for a group of visiting high school students from the member’s district. But wait! If you act now, you can also get the provision that provides that, even though the member was elected by a particular state or district within a state, the member must still act only on behalf of the “United States of America as a unified entity”. What the fuck does that even mean? I guess that advocating secession is out (but if that’s the point we’re at, will a provision like this even be meaningful?), but short of that, I have no clue.

Article 12. No legislation, regardless of intent or content, shall be debated or delayed for longer than 30 calendar days. Upon the 30th day, if passage has not been achieved, a simple numerical majority up-or-down vote shall be implemented and voted upon on that day and shall not be postponed or delayed further for any reason. Any request or attempt to delay legislation must be fully disclosed to the American public immediately on that 30th day or before. Another one of those interesting ideas that is really poorly implemented. I presume that the author is trying to prevent bills from being filibustered, held up, or tabled via parliamentary means to keep them from coming to a vote. And in that idea, the author may be on to something. Maybe. But it just so happens that some legislation is very, very complex. Often it takes a long, long, loooooong time, to work through the details of a particularly complex piece of legislation, to allow the various committees having an interest in the bill to hold the appropriate hearings and discuss possible amendments to the bill. So trying to prohibit bills from being held up for ulterior motives is not properly addressed by simply adopting arbitrary time limits that may have the result of preventing legislation from being improved or made better. In fact, the opposite may happen. Legislation won’t be introduced publicly until Congress has finished “fixing” it in private so as not to start the clock running. Alternately, potentially good legislation would likely fail if it was forced to a vote before it was ready. And, perhaps most importantly, because the proposal only speaks to “legislation”, it would not have any impact upon filibusters or “holds” on judicial or executive branch nominations, none of which are legislation. Oh, and what happens if the 30th day is during a recess, national holiday, or blizzard?

Article 13. No legislation shall be presented or acted upon that has an implementation or effective date that exceeds five calendar years from the date of the legislation becoming law. I’m not quite sure what the goal of this one is. I’m perplexed by the “presented or acted upon” language; why not just say “shall not be valid” or “shall not be adopted”? But it seems to me that this isn’t really a very good idea at all. Here’s an example: Let’s say that Congress thinks that we should require car manufacturers to build cars that can get 50 miles per gallon. And let’s say that the industry agrees with this requirement, but says that they won’t be able to do so for 15 years. This proposal would prohibit Congress from passing a law that says, commencing in 15 years, cars must average 50 miles per gallon. Or what if Congress wanted to extend the eligibility age for Medicare? This bill would prohibit that extension from commencing more than five years from the date enacted. And what about laws that automatically end (sunset) after a given number of years? Would those laws be unconstitutional if the sunset date was more than five years from enactment?

Article 14. No member of Congress shall exclude or recess themselves from session when national legislation remains unresolved. No member of Congress shall recess for the purpose of delaying or politicizing any given issue or item of legislation. No member of Congress shall implement tactics or behavior that in any way impedes the completion of legislative action. No member of Congress shall engage in any activity that impacts legislation that occurs for any purpose of evasion or mental reservation. Failure to comply with this Article shall be cause for immediate and permanent removal from office. Welcome to either the land of make believe or a totalitarian nightmare. Frankly, I’m not sure which. First, note that the proposal talks about members of Congress rather than Congress itself. Can a member of Congress take an individual vacation even though Congress is in session? Probably not. What if, instead of a vacation, the member of Congress must go into the hospital? Think of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She “exclude[d] or recess[ed]” herself when legislation “remains unresolved”. According to the terms of this proposal, her absence from Congress is “cause for immediate and permanent removal from office”. Wow. No trial. No jury. Just immediate removal. Because she was shot in the head. Next, I would be willing to bet that there are literally hundreds of items of “national legislation” that remain unresolved. And each year, there are probably hundreds of bills introduced that go absolutely nowhere; often, the author of the bill had no intention of even pushing the bill (but appeased a constituent, donor, or lobbying group by introducing the legislation). But if this proposal were to pass, then so long as even one bill remains “open” then Congress couldn’t recess. Not for vacation, not for holiday, not for blizzard. And if Congress didn’t vote, would all of the members be “immediate[ly] and permanent[ly] remov[ed] from office”? But the proposal goes on. A member can’t recess to politicize an issue? What? Does that mean that a member of Congress couldn’t leave the Capitol building, walk over to a TV reporter, and do an interview in which the member explains why he or she thinks the bill is good or bad and why the “other side” is wrong? And member of Congress can’t “implement tactics or behavior” that impede the completion of legislation. Does voting against a bill impede its completion? Does talking to other members of Congress to get them to agree to oppose a bill impede its completion? Does asking voters to call other members of Congress to express opposition to a bill impede its completion? And can anyone explain what is meant by activity “for any purpose of evasion or mental reservation”? Finally, just who exactly decides whether a member of Congress has done one of these bad things for which he or she can be immediately and permanently removed from office? Is the Supreme Court supposed to watch out over Congress? Do we create a special Office of Congressional Referees and give them giant whistles? And I’m sure that party politics would have nothing to do with any of this, either. Nope. Not at all.

Article 15. No part or parcel of this Amendment shall be subject to interpretation or circumstantial revision by any individual or group without the expressed consent of a numerical majority of registered American voters. Well at least this time we talk about registered American voters instead of just citizens, but we’re still not recognizing that less than 60% of those registered voters vote. It also appears that the author simply doesn’t understand what courts (especially the Supreme Court) do. A core purpose of the judiciary is to interpret both legislation and the Constitution. Does the 4th Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches prohibit a county sheriff from using commercially available GPS tracking equipment to follow a car without a warrant? Those are the sorts of questions courts have to answer; obviously “interpretation” is part of the process. And just what are the “individual or groups” that this proposal is talking about? It would seem that it isn’t really talking about Courts unless “individual” includes a judge. But as I read this proposal, it would appear that we would have to hold national referenda each and every time any question of interpretation arose as to the meaning of any word or provision in this amendment. Volumes and volumes can be filled just with legal analysis and court rulings regarding one small phrase from the 4th Amendment (and let’s not even start on 1st Amendment jurisprudence). Can you imagine how many questions of interpretation this sort of amendment might raise? And we’d have to have a vote on each one of those questions? When would we work? And, for that matter, who thinks that most American voters would even understand the issues?

Article 16. All existing or pending contracts with any and all members of Congress — past, present and future — are null and void, immediately and permanently upon passage of this Amendment. Great. Immediately upon passage, this provision is in conflict with Article I Section 10 of the Constitution. I guess we’ll have to have a vote (per Article 15) to decide how to interpret that conflict. But think about the breadth of this provision. It would certainly appear that any contract to provide a pension or healthcare benefit would be null and void. What about a pension or benefit for a member of Congress who was also a veteran? Think about a member of Congress who spent 20 years in Congress and was well-liked by his constituents. But now, 30 years after he retired, all contracts to which he is a party are suddenly null and void? Wow. But it gets even worse. The proposal isn’t limited to contracts entered into with the member of Congress as a result of being a member of Congress. In fact, if passed, this provision would invalidate the mortgages that members of Congress signed for their houses, their car leases, their pre-nuptial agreements, and any other contract into which that member of Congress had entered. And think about the reference to future members of Congress. A contract with a future member of Congress would suddenly be null and void. Um, just who are those future members of Congress. You might be. So is my contract with you null and void?

Whew. OK. Enough.

Well, I think you’ve probably got the idea by now. I do think that we need to discuss reforms for Congress. I think that we need to find ways to reduce the influence of money, especially unregulated corporate money. I think that we need to find ways to reform voting (i.e., what can be filibustered, if anything, and how and for how long). We may want to consider making it so that being a member of Congress is not viewed as lifelong employment or to reduce the electoral benefits of being an incumbent. But we also need to think these things through very carefully. We need to examine unintended consequences. We need to understand precisely what would result from a particular reform and how people or corporations might try to avoid the goals of the reform. And, most importantly, we need to be sure that we understand the core issues themselves. We can’t make informed decisions on the basis of faulty understanding, let alone lies. And we can’t presume to make things better without thinking through whether a particular remedy might, in fact, make things worse.

Updated October 25, 2016: Way, way too many typos! Corrected a bunch, but I’m sure I missed some.

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