Monday, October 31, 2011

Societal Duties

As I’ve listened to some of the Republican debates and read various articles, one thing that has become clear to me is that the modern Republican Party, influenced strongly by the Tea Party, seems to willfully, if not joyously, abandoned the “compassion” which President George W. Bush tried to wrap around his brand of conservatism. Today, when I listen to candidates like Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul (in particular), some of the other candidates (more generally), or some of the right-wing talking heads, I see a brand of conservatism that is all about personal responsibility and success with almost no attention paid to benefits of a social safety net or even social responsibility.

This point of view has been manifested in many ways, from the situation a year or so ago (was it longer?) when a fire department wouldn’t put out a house fire because they family hadn’t paid for fire protection, to opposition to the DREAM Act to allow children of illegal immigrants to get an education and a path toward citizenship, to the “let him die” moment at a Republican debate (in response to what to do with a man without health insurance who suffered catastrophic injury), to suggestions that efforts to keep the auto industry and banks from failing were wrong, to Mitt Romney’s recent suggestion that we should let the mortgage crisis “bottom out” and let investors buy foreclosed homes, to arguments about tax policy.

So all of this got me thinking: What obligations do we, as members of a society, have to one another? I’m not talking about what the law says that we must do; rather, I’m talking about the general social compact that allows our civilization and society to function. I think most of us are pretty clear on what we should not do to one another; I can’t kill your or sell your child into slavery, I can’t burn your house down and claim your land as mine, and I can’t tell malicious lies about you (at least not without being expected to pay some kind of price for doing so). But what about the inverse? What are we expected to do to help one another, if anything?

I have my own ideas, but for the time being, I’m more interested in throwing out some scenarios and seeing what people think. And remember, my question is not what the law imposes on us, but rather, what we as a society think it appropriate to impose upon one another. So think about these questions (and I’m sure I could have come up with a far lengthier list than this, but hey, I do have to work sometime…) and post a comment with your thoughts:

  1. If I see my neighbor’s house on fire, do I have an obligation to call 911? Do I have an obligation to see if anyone is in the house and try to help them get out?
  2. If it’s raining or cold and I see my neighbor’s child apparently locked out, do I have an obligation to invite the child into my home? Do I have an obligation to try to call the child’s parents?
  3. If I look out my upstairs window and see that my neighbor’s gutter is full of leaves (and my vantage is different than what my neighbor can see when he walks around his house), do I have an obligation to tell him?
  4. If I see my neighbor’s car stuck in the snow in front of his driveway, do I have an obligation to help him dig it out or push it?
  5. If I see my neighbor’s child do something dangerous or I see him drinking or smoking, do I have an obligation to tell my neighbor?
  6. If I see my neighbor’s child doing something wrong, do I have an obligation to say something to the child?
  7. If I see my neighbor’s child throw a ball into my fenced yard, do I have an obligation to go get the ball? Do I have an obligation to let the neighbor’s child come into my yard to get his ball?
  8. If I know my neighbor is out of town and, late one night I see someone prowling around my neighbor’s house, do I have an obligation to call the police? Do I have an obligation to try to scare the prowler away?
  9. If I learn that my neighbor is having an affair, do I have an obligation to say something to his wife or do I have an obligation to keep silent?
  10. If I suspect that my neighbor cheated on his taxes, do I have an obligation to report him to the IRS?
  11. If I see my neighbor shoveling snow from his driveway and I have a snowblower, do I have an obligation to either let him borrow it or offer to help him with his driveway?
  12. And do your answers to any of the preceding questions change if you and your neighbor despise one another?
  13. When I see a panhandler by the side of the road, do I have an obligation to give the panhandler any money?
  14. If my parent or sibling is sick but can’t afford medical care, do I have an obligation to help them pay for the care that they need? What if, instead of my parent or sibling, it is my first cousin? What if it’s my third cousin? What if that cousin has parents or siblings who can help, but won’t? Does that absolve me of any obligation that I might have? What if it isn’t a family member at all, but just a friend or a neighbor?
  15. If I see a little old lady trying to put a spare tire on her car, do I have an obligation to stop and help? What if, instead of a little old lady, it is a big strapping dude? Where is the dividing line between which people I need to help with the tire and which people I can leave to solve the problem on their own?
  16. If a creditor calls me looking for information about my neighbor, do I have an obligation to provide information to the creditor, do I have an obligation to say nothing and thus help my neighbor, or are there no obligations at all?
  17. If a friend of my child makes a racist or discriminatory statement, do I have an obligation to say something to the child? Do I have an obligation to say something to the child’s parents?
  18. If I know that guy mowing my yard is an illegal immigrant, do I have an obligation to call the police or ICE? What if he is a citizen or legal immigrant, but I know that his parent is here illegally? What if I only suspect?
  19. If I suspect that my neighbor’s gardener is an illegal alien, do I have an obligation to report either the gardener and/or my neighbor?
  20. If I hear someone repeating something that I know to be a lie, do I have an obligation to speak up?

Now, with those sorts of questions, and your general answers in mind, ask the following question: Do any of the obligations that you think may exist, change if the neighbor or other person in question is an illegal immigrant? What if that person is of a religion that you don’t approve of? What if that person did something that you find morally objectionable in an unrelated incident (for example, do any obligations to a neighbor differ if he is a convicted sex offender, had an abortion in her teens, or was arrested for drunk driving)?

Finally, think back on your answers yet again and then ask yourself if people in other parts of the world would answer the same way. Would people of a different faith tradition answer differently? What about people from different socio-economic classes? Are your answers uniquely American, unique to your religion or culture or social class?

As I said at the outset, I have my own ideas on these questions, but I certainly don’t have the “right” answers. But I do think that it is important to temper the individualistic zeal so enthusiastically supported by the Tea Party and some GOP candidates by an examination of what it means to be part of a society in the first place. If we have no obligations to one another, then so be it; that will certainly inform when it comes to decisions about tax policy and the social safety net. But if we do have obligations, then we need to consider those obligations in their broader societal form rather than just in their application to our family, friends, and neighbors. And no, I don’t think that a society that believes it has an obligation to help not only family, friends, and neighbors, but also the “least among us” is either “socialist” or “Marxist”.

Republicans (primarily) want to have a discussion about where to cut the social safety net; I don’t think that we can have that discussion until we’ve had a discussion about the obligations that we owe to one another as part of what we think of when we think of American society and culture.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Doctors and the Lack of Courtesy and Attention (Guest Post)

For quite some time I’ve been suggesting to my wife that she should write some posts for this blog. Well, she had an experience earlier today that finally prompted her to take my suggestion. So here is the first (and hopefully not last) guest post on Me Me Me Me Me!

How many times have you found yourself in a doctor’s appointment with a doctor who doesn’t actually want to listen to you and whose only goal is to give you the quickest answer possible and race out of the room before you can even open your mouth to speak? So many doctors today seem to be in this category, and it is the few doctors in the minority who actually are interested enough to listen to their patient and consider each one independently. Today I encountered yet another doctor who seemed more amused with himself and his own one-liner jokes than in listening to my problem. Had I not known better, I might have thought that I was having a prank pulled on me. Our conversation went like this:

Me: “I have pain on the edge of my heel, not only when I step down but also when I am sitting and my foot isn’t touching the floor.”

Doctor: “Your heel hurts most when you get up in the morning?”

Me: “No, it hurts all day exactly the same. It doesn’t hurt more in the morning.”

Doctor: “So, your heel hurts most in the morning when you get up!”

Me: “No, it hurts the same all day long.”

Doctor: “Where is the pain?”

Me: “On the edge of my heel.”

Doctor: “And the pain is in the bottom middle part of your heel.”

Me: “No, the pain is in the outer edge of my heel.”

Doctor: “Well, based on the fact that your heel hurts most in the morning, and is in the bottom middle part of your heel, you have plantar fasciitis.”

Ahhhhhh! At this point, I had about had it and knew that it was pointless to do anything more except smile and nod … while plotting my escape and wait for an appointment with another specialist who would hopefully listen to my symptoms.

The underlying question that we should ask here is why are the considerate, polite doctors in the minority and the doctors with the big egos in the majority for us patients? If we are willing to pay their hefty fees, then surely they should be responsible for actually doing their job both correctly and politely. Is it polite to ignore what your patient is saying? No. Is it polite to literally be running out the door while the patient is still talking? No. How would that very same doctor like it if he came to us for a service and we behaved the same way?  Not too happily, I imagine…

I’ve asked her to elaborate on some of her thoughts, maybe talk about why she thinks doctors act this way or what we, as patients, can do. Hopefully, there will be more to add to this post in the coming days. And we’d love to hear from doctors, too. Do you think that what my wife describes accurately reflects your profession? If so, why? If not, what do you think explains her experience?

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Is Herman Cain Pro-Choice, Anti-Abortion, or Just an Idiot?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But let me explain.

Some issues are very complicated with lots of detail and nuance. Other issues are much more straightforward, approaching the proverbial black or white, yes or no, up or down analysis. Abortion is one such issue. Sure, there is some degree of nuance: If abortion is illegal, should there be exceptions for rape or incest. If abortion is legal, should government pay for it. Similarly, questions arise regarding  when an abortion might be legal (i.e., first trimester only, until viability, etc.), the types of procedures to be allowed, notification and similar requirements, and what the rules are when the person seeking an abortion is a minor. But those queries are mostly just picking at the edges. The core issue is simply whether abortion should be against the law or whether a woman should have the right to get an abortion.

So let’s listen to what Herman Cain told Fox News’ John Stossel earlier this year:

CAIN: I’m pro-life from conception. Yes.

STOSSEL: Any cases where it should be legal?

CAIN: I don’t think government should make that decision. I don’t believe government should make that decision.

STOSSEL: People should be free to abort a baby?

CAIN: I support life from conception. No, people shouldn’t just be free to abort because if we don’t protect the sanctity of life from conception, we will also start to play God relative to life at the end of life.

STOSSEL: So I’m confused on what your position is.

CAIN: My position is I’m pro-life. Period.

STOSSEL: If a woman is raped she should not be allowed to end the pregnancy?

CAIN: That’s her choice. That is not government’s choice. I support life from conception.

STOSSEL: So abortion should be legal?

CAIN: No. Abortion should not be legal. I believe in the sanctity of life.

STOSSEL: I’m not getting it. I’m not understanding.

CAIN: I believe…

STOSSEL: [crosstalk] If it’s her choice that means it’s legal.

CAIN: No. I believe… I don’t believe a woman should have an abortion. Does that help to clear it up?

STOSSEL: Even if she is raped?

CAIN: Even if she is raped or if she’s the victim of incest because there are other options. We must protect the sanctity of life and I have always believed that.

STOSSEL: Alright.

So, are you clear on Cain’s position on abortion? It should not be legal but it isn’t for the government to decide. It should not be legal but whether to have an abortion should be a woman’s choice. Oh, and we should decide abortion policy because that decision will impact decisions on end-of-life care and, I suppose, euthanasia.

Well maybe David Gregory, interviewing Cain on Meet the Press can get a more clear response:

[following a brief discussion of same-sex marriage]

GREGORY: What about abortion? You want to overturn Roe v. Wade. Could you support or condone abortion under any exceptions at all?

CAIN: I believe in life from conception and I do not agree with abortion under any circumstances.

GREGORY: Exceptions for rape and incest?

CAIN: Not for rape and incest because…

GREGORY: What about life of the mother?

CAIN: Because if you look at rape and incest they … the percentage of those instances is so miniscule that there are other options. If it’s the life of the mother, that family is going to have to make that decision.

GREGORY: Would you condone abortion if the life of the mother were…

CAIN: That family is going to have to make that…

GREGORY: You won’t render a judgment on…

CAIN: That family is going to have to make that decision.

Ah, much more clear, now. No abortions, even in cases of rape or incest because “those instances are miniscule” and there are other options. I’m sure that a girl who has been raped by her father will be happy to know that she is part of a miniscule statistic and has other options. Does that baby come with an extra topping and free breadsticks? But if a woman’s life is in danger, Cain will allow the family to make the decision.

So then, Cain was interviewed by CNN’s Piers Morgan. Yes, Celebrity Apprentice America’s Got Talent, Piers Morgan. After an interesting discussion about homosexuality (Cain thinks being gay is a choice that he distinguishes from race because race doesn’t “wash off”) the subject turned to abortion:

MORGAN: Abortion. What’s your view of abortion?

CAIN: I believe that life begins at conception. And abortion under no circumstances and here’s why.

MORGAN: No circumstances?

CAIN: No circumstances.

MORGAN: Because of many of your fellow candidates or certainly some them qualify that.

CAIN: They qualify but…

MORGAN: Rape and incest and so on.

CAIN: Rape and incest.

MORGAN: Are you honestly saying again … tricky question I know …

CAIN: It’s a tricky question…

MORGAN: You… You’ve had children, grandchildren… If one of your female children, grandchildren was raped you would honestly want her to bring up that baby as her own?

CAIN: You’re mixing two things there Piers.


CAIN: You’re mixing two things…

MORGAN: Because that’s what it comes down to.

CAIN: No. It comes down to it’s not the government’s role or anybody else’s role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidents you’re not talking about that big a number. So what I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make. Not me as President, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It’s down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide.I shouldn’t try to tell them what decision to make for such a decision…

MORGAN: Besides expressing the view that you express you are effectively telling… You might be President. You can’t hide behind now the mask if you don’t mind me saying it of being the pizza guy. You might be President of the United States of America so your views on these things become exponentially massively more important. They’ve become a directive to the nation.

CAIN: No they don’t. I can have an opinion on an issue without it being a directive on the nation. The government shouldn’t be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to a social decision that they need to make.

MORGAN: That’s really interesting. That a very interesting departure from the normal politics.

CAIN: Exactly. [Note: These last two lines don’t appear in this video; they are present in other versions of the video, but I chose this version because it was easier to embed.]

Ok. Does that make it any more clear? Abortion under no circumstances, but it’s not the government’s job to tell a family what decision to make.

Realizing that he had, once again, stepped in the proverbial, “it”, Cain took to Twitter and said:

I'm 100% pro-life. End of story.

His campaign then released the following statement:

Yesterday in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN, I was asked questions about abortion policy and the role of the President.

I understood the thrust of the question to ask whether that I, as president, would simply “order” people to not seek an abortion.

My answer was focused on the role of the President. The President has no constitutional authority to order any such action by anyone. That was the point I was trying to convey.

As to my political policy view on abortion, I am 100% pro-life. End of story.

I will appoint judges who understand the original intent of the Constitution. Judges who are committed to the rule of law know that the Constitution contains no right to take the life of unborn children.

I will oppose government funding of abortion. I will veto any legislation that contains funds for Planned Parenthood. I will do everything that a President can do, consistent with his constitutional role, to advance the culture of life.

Ah, yes. The old “blame the interviewer” strategy (how’d that work out for Sarah Palin?). Now go back and re-read Morgan’s questions and Cain’s answers. Were you confused by Morgan’s question? Did you think Morgan was asking just about the “role of the President”? And, if Morgan was talking about the “President’s role”, then what was the point of Cain’s discussion about the “choice” that a family must make or the notion that it isn’t the government’s role to make that decision?

So Cain went on GOP-TV … er, sorry … Fox News again to try to further clarify his position:

MACCALLUM: … the question that that description sounds an awful lot like choice.

CAIN: It’s not, Martha. Look, let’s go back. See he was asking me two questions. My position on abortion has been the same … on pro-life has been the same throughout this campaign. And that is I am pro-life from conception and I don’t believe in abortion. When he then tried to pigeon-hole me on my granddaughter being there as as a victim of rape, then what would I do? The only point I was trying to make. A lot of families would be in that position, and they're not going to be thinking 'Well, what does the government want me to do?” My position is no abortion. My position is no abortion, but all I was trying to point out was: take the typical family in this country, and you don't know what they might do in the heat of the moment.

MACCALLUM: I understand that…

CAIN: That’s what I was trying to say.

MACCALLUM: I understand that. But here’s the issue that pro-life people are going to have with that. They’re saying that you’re presenting it as a choice, a decision that’s to be made by the family, not something that is considered murder by the laws of this country. So that’s where you draw the line. And you know Rick Santorum who we’re going to have on a little bit later has already come and said you know that for him there’s absolutely no dividing line. So we… You know there’s plenty of people out here, plenty of Catholic politicians for example, who you know…

CAIN: Right.

MACCALLUM: …Have said exactly what you just said. That when it comes down to it they’re absolutely pro-life but that they want the government to stay out of the decision, they want the family to make the ultimate decision, they’ve gotten a lot of grief for that. So you know, so that’s where the tough line is on this for you. And you’re getting a lot of backlash from a very influential radio host in Iowa on this this morning and they’re saying this is going to be problematic for you with the people in Iowa.

CAIN: Well, I’m sorry if it’s going to be problematic. Let me just state again. I am pro-life from conception. No exceptions. I was trying to separate two situations here. And if they won’t allow me to separate those two situations, they won’t allow me to separate those two situations. That’s unfortunate. I don’t know how much more I can say than I’m pro-life from conception. No exceptions. I will not fund any abortions by government. I will work to de… I will sign any legislation to defund Planned Parenthood and all of the other variations on this who pro-life issue. I was trying to make another point and if that point was missed…

MACCALLUM: I understand… [crosstalk] but I guess the question is do you believe that abortion should be legal in this country for families who want to make that decision?

CAIN: No. No. No. I do not believe abortion should be legal in this country, if that's the question.

MACCALLUM: So then, so then you're saying that if those circumstances come up and the family does make that decision, that they decide that that is the best thing for this young person or she decides that on her own, then if that were the case, you know, that's what they decided, then it would be an illegal abortion that they would need to seek.

CAIN: It would be an illegal abortion! If the law… Look, abortion should not be legal. That is clear. But if that family made a decision to break the law, that's that family’s decision. That’s all I’m trying to say.

MACCALLUM: Alright. Understood, Mr. Cain.

And to even further clarify his position, Cain gave an interview to Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody:

(Transcript taken, in part, from’s Brody File with some formatting changes; note that the CBN transcript has odd omissions from the text):

BRODY: This whole… The whole pro-life situation. What is the lesson that you are learning from all of this would you say?

CAIN: The lesson that I’m learning is that I’ve got to be careful of being pigeonholed because people can take a piece of tape and edit out the first half and only pull out one snippet that could start a firestorm. The tape that you are referring to, I said specifically, “I am pro-life, from conception, no abortions, no exceptions,” but they only focus on a later part of it where they were trying to pigeonhole me with a specific situation. So, the lesson learned is beware of being pigeonholed, because you know they can pull it, and take it out of context.

BRODY: Right. Let me ask you, cause you just mentioned out here. Do you believe that abortion should be illegal in America?

CAIN: Yes.

BRODY: Social conservatives and pro-life groups will hear that and say therefore are you for some sort of pro-life amendment to the Constitution that in essence would trump Roe v. Wade?

CAIN: Yes. Yes I feel that strongly about it. You known. If we can get the necessary support and it comes to my desk I’ll sign it. That’s all I can do. I will sign it.

… [discussion about a same-sex marriage]

BRODY: The social conservative groups, one of the things they’re telling me is that they want a president that’s going to use the bully pulpit on the life issue. It doesn’t mean you have to get bogged down on all of this, but they want to see a president if not use the word advance the legislation, at least use the bully pulpit to talk to America about this issue. What’s your sense on that?

CAIN: I believe that the office of the presidency and the bully pulpit should be used for that because I happen to believe that we have many instances where, if you appeal to people’s hearts, you can change their minds. I had the experience of visiting a facility in Houston, Texas, not too long ago. It was a women’s facility, I can’t remember the name. I happened to be there that day, what they do, they work with young ladies who have gotten pregnant and they think they want an abortion. It was so moving to walk in there, and they introduced me to a young lady who had decided not to have an abortion, and see that pretty baby there. If you touch the hearts of people you can get people’s minds to change, but you have to show them the beauty of not aborting a life. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest leaders this country has ever seen. How did he bring about the movement that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964? He touched the hearts of people. That’s what a president needs to have the ability to do, in order to change peoples’ minds.

BRODY: You’re saying as president of the United States, you can be a business man and also somewhat of a social conservative warrior as well?

CAIN: Yes. You sure can. You sure can because if people trust you, they will believe in you and they might rethink some of their thoughts on some of these social issues.

Besides noting how different this last statement is than his first statements, did you notice anything else interesting in Cain’s comments to CBN?

CAIN: If we can get the necessary support [a pro-life amendment to the Constitution] and it comes to my desk I’ll sign it. That’s all I can do. I will sign it.

Perhaps, if Cain really wants to be President he should, you know, like, um, maybe, read the Constitution! If he did, he might learn that Presidents don’t sign constitutional amendments; in fact, Presidents have no real role to play in the amendment process.

And though this is only tangentially related to the direct question of Cain’s position on the legality of abortion, his comments on efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are worth considering:

Here’s why I support de-funding Planned Parenthood, because you don’t hear a lot of people talking about this, when Margaret Sanger — check my history — started Planned Parenthood, the objective was to put these centers in primarily black communities so they could help kill black babies before they came into the world,” Cain told on Tuesday when speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Cain’s comment was in response to a question from about whether the Republican-controlled Congress should vote against any federal tax dollars for Planned Parenthood.

“You don’t see that talked that much about,” said Cain. “It’s not Planned Parenthood. No, it’s planned genocide. You can quote me on that.”

I’ll leave discussion of that quote for another day.

But, to sum it up, here is what I understand Cain’s position to be on the issue of abortion:

  • He is pro-life, from conception; and
  • Abortion should be illegal; but
  • Government shouldn’t make the decision about whether there are exceptions; though
  • Abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest; but
  • It should be up to a family to decide if the life of the mother is at risk; and
  • Government shouldn’t tell people what to do on a social decision they have to make; but
  • If people chose to have an abortion, even after rape or incest, it would be an illegal abortion.


  • As President he would just have an opinion that wouldn’t be a directive on the nation; but
  • He would use the bully pulpit of the Presidency to convince people not to have abortions; but
  • The Government shouldn’t tell people what to do about social decisions; but
  • He would “sign” a constitutional amendment to ban abortions.

Clear now?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear Cain’s positions on complex issues with lots of variables. I mean, how hard is it, really, to enunciate a clear and consistent position on an issue like abortion? I mean, it isn’t as if this is a brand new issue that was suddenly sprung upon politicians; nor is it an issue upon which few people, other than experts who’ve spent decades of study, can develop a reasonably thorough understanding and a cogent, consistent positions It seems to me that Cain has memorized his talking point (“I’m pro-life, from conception”) but doesn’t really have a firm understanding of the actual issue, the impact on real people, or, perhaps most importantly, what words (i.e., “decision” or “choice”) really mean.

Amy Sullivan, writing for’s Swampland blog, sums it up quite well:

There’s nothing refreshing about a would-be President whose answers to complicated questions depend on total ignorance of the issues involved.

Finally, if you haven’t seen it yet, you must watch this web ad for Herman Cain. It may be one of the strangest political ads ever. Watch carefully at about 0:40.

Seriously? Smoking? And what’s with that really creepy smile that Cain gives at the end? It’s like he knows something that we don’t. I mean, that the smile of a man who is saying, “Boy, am I pulling one over on these idiots…”.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

A Chart Is Worth a Thousand Words

I came across several charts over the last few days that do a nice job of illustrating several tax policy issues. First, let’s look at the repeated point that somewhere near 50% of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes (though this fact is often muddled by the careless or specious omission of the words “income” or “federal” from the claim; see my previous post Do Republicans Want to Raise Taxes on the Poor and Elderly? for more on this). Anyway, take a look at this chart (from Talking Points Memo):

There are a few important things to note here. First, note the decline in the percentage of revenue from corporate taxes. Then look both at the increasing percentage that payroll taxes account for. Now remember, payroll taxes are only paid on income derived from things like wages. Thus, there isn’t a payroll tax on the sale of a stock or a corporation or on dividends from owning a corporation. That is one of the reasons that billionaires like Warren Buffet may pay a smaller overall percentage of their income in taxes than do middle class working Americans. So, when you hear someone talk about the large percentage of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax, keep this chart in mind and remember that many of those people are still paying federal payroll taxes which account for nearly 40% of the federal government’s revenues.

To go with the foregoing chart, take a look at these charts from Misconceptions and Realities About Who Pays Taxes by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (incidentally, I’ve been privileged to attend several presentations by the CBPP on tax policy; these people really know their stuff and do a great job presenting their information in a meaningful and understandable way):

So when you hear someone (i.e., a Republican presidential candidate) talk about people paying their fair share, you should ask yourself which of these groups should have their taxes raised. I think that a massive tax increase on people who can’t afford to feed their families would be a great idea. Maybe a big tax increase for the homeless, too.

When you hear a candidate or elected official discussing tax policy and their refusal to raise taxes on income above $1,000,000 you might ask about some of the information from these charts. And just for yucks, you might ask that candidate or official to explain how marginal tax rates work; the more I hear from politicians the more convinced I’ve become that many (if not most) don’t really understand this core concept of our tax structure.

Finally, more for laughs than anything else, below is a chart prepared by the CBPP to show how Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan would impact the taxes paid by Americans of different income levels. Be prepared to start scrolling…

If I’m in that top 0.1%, Herman Cain would be my candidate! But if I’m in the bottom 80%… um, not so much.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Government So Small it Will Allow a Doctor to Kill a Woman But Big Enough to Keep Her from Talking to Her Doctor

Last week the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed House Resolution 358, the so-called “Protect Life Act”. However, many people have taken to referring to this bill, not as the “Protect Life Act” but, rather, as the “Let Women Die Act”. Why you ask?

Imagine that you’re a pregnant woman. And imagine that something terrible happens and suddenly your life is danger. You are rushed to the nearest hospital. When examined, it becomes clear that an emergency abortion is required to save your life. But the hospital or the treating physician is opposed to abortion and therefore refuses to offer or even discuss that treatment with you. And so you die. The fetus, too.

Under existing law, the hospital can’t do that (well, not if the hospital receives any federal funds and virtually all do); a hospital can’t allow a woman to die if the only way to save her is to perform an abortion.

But the Protect Life/Let Women Die Act would overturn that existing law. It would allow a hospital or doctor to exercise their conscience and not perform the necessary life-saving procedure. In fact, as I understand it, the hospital or doctor would not even have to tell the woman that an abortion could save her life.

I’m really curious to hear from the pro-life readers of this blog whether they think that is the right outcome. I’m not asking whether a hospital should be required to perform elective abortions and I’m not asking whether federal or state funds should be used to pay for abortions. I just want to know what people think about a hospital or doctor allowing a woman to die in order not to perform an abortion.

And if the woman dies, so too, I imagine, will the fetus. So what life is being “protected”?

Ah, but that isn’t enough for one Senator. Nope. He wants to be sure that women can’t even discuss abortion with their doctor via the Internet or teleconference (i.e., Skype):

Anti-choice Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) just filed an anti-choice amendment to a bill related to agriculture, transportation, housing, and other programs. The DeMint amendment could bar discussion of abortion over the Internet and through videoconferencing, even if a woman's health is at risk and if this kind of communication with her doctor is her best option to receive care.

(Emphasis in original.) [Note that the text of the DeMint amendment has apparently not yet been posted; rather, he apparently discussed the amendment in remarks made to the Senate that will be included in the Congressional Record before the amendment is formally introduced.]

Funny, but I don’t remember Sen. DeMint proposing laws to ban the use of the Internet for discussion about assassinating President Obama. I don’t recall him trying to prohibit people from using Skype to discuss efforts to disenfranchise several hundred thousand African Americans in his home state of South Carolina. Nope. And, if I recall correctly, Sen. DeMint was one of those vocal opponents on the issue of net neutrality, fearing Glenn Beck’s completely misplaced fear of a government takeover of the Internet.

But when it comes to the issue of abortion, Sen. DeMint is happy to trample on the First Amendment, the freedom of the Internet, and a woman’s right to have a discussion with her doctor.

I wonder: Will he next propose a ban on women discussing abortion with their doctors in a face-to-face environment? Will he try to ban online discussions of homosexuality? Maybe we should ban any discussion of things that a far-right, evangelical Christian doesn’t agree with. Internet Theocracy perhaps?

So just take a few moments and think about where the Republican party is today. They want smaller government. So small, in fact, that it will let women die. But not so small that it won’t prevent the use of the Internet to advance the doctor-patient relationship.

Shameless. And disgusting.

Is this why people voted Republican?

Oh, one last question: How many jobs will either of these proposals create?


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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gilad Shalit and Israeli-Arab Prisoner Exchanges

To many Americans, the name Gilad Shalit rings no bells. However, I think it’s fair to say that to Israelis, Shalit has become as important as we Americans viewed the Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979.

In June 2006, Shalit was a 19-year-old soldier serving in the Israeli army. He was stationed on the border with Gaza. Members of Hamas tunneled under the border and attacked an Israeli army post. Several Israeli soldiers and Hamas terrorists were killed. And Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas and taken back to Gaza through the tunnel.

During his years of captivity, Hamas has refused to allow the Red Cross or other humanitarian agencies to see Shalit to check on his health or to allow him humanitarian communication with his family (as required by international law). In fact, since being kidnapped, the only contact between Shalit and the outside world has been three letters, an audio tape, and a DVD that Israel received on in 2010 in return for releasing 20 female Palestinian prisoners (more on that in a moment).

In the years since Shalit was kidnapped, Israel has worked hard to reach some kind of agreement for his release. Mediators from international organizations and Egypt have been involved, but to no avail. Until now.

Yesterday, Israel announced, and Hamas confirmed, that working through an Egyptian mediator, Israel and Hamas had agreed upon a prisoner exchange. Hamas will release Gilad Shalit … and Israel will release approximately 1,047 Palestinians convicted of terrorism or other crimes.

And therein lies the point that I want to discuss. Just think about it for a moment: Israel is willing to release 1,047 people convicted of terrorism or other crimes in exchange for 1 soldier. When I think about that deal, it makes me wonder about the valuation of life made by the two societies. To Israel, it is worth the life of a single soldier to free over a thousand convicted terrorists and criminals. Would you make that trade? Would you make that trade if the soldier was your child? But then look at it from the Palestinian perspective. How valuable are the lives of any one of those Palestinian prisoners? Obviously 10 of them aren’t worth enough to trade for Shalit. Nor are 100 or 500 or even 1,000. Nope. It took 1,047 prisoners to “equal” the worth of Gilad Shalit. Moreover, it’s not just run-of-the-mill Palestinians who accidentally ran afoul of Israeli law who are to be released; rather, those on the list include Palestinians who planned or carried out actual acts of terrorism that killed Israelis. Apparently Israel did refuse to allow two terrorist “superstars” that Hamas has been demanding.

You know, Israel could have said to the Palestinians that Israel would stop treating Palestinians in Israeli hospitals until Shalit was released. Israel could have said that Palestinians wouldn’t have access to Muslim holy sites in Israel or the West Bank until Shalit was released. Israel could have withheld funding from the Palestinian Authority until Shalit was released. Israel could have refused to allow the Red Cross or humanitarian agencies to have access to Palestinians in Israeli jails until Shalit was released. But Israel didn’t do any of that. Israel did threaten to stop jailed Palestinians from being able to continue work on college degrees from within prison.

Oh, and Israel never said that it wouldn’t keep trying to negotiate peace until Shalit was released; by contrast, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate until Israel stops additional construction of “settlements” (for more on this issue see Are Israeli Settlements Really Such a Problem? A Primer and Palestinian Statehood).

What is fascinating about this trade is that it isn’t the first time that Israel has made a trade this seemingly lopsided. Recall earlier that Israel was willing to release 20 female Palestinian prisoners, not for Shalit, but for a DVD showing Shalit. And to think that people complain about the prices that Netflix charges for a DVD…

In 1969, Israel participated in a multi-party exchange that saw Israel release 52 POWs to Syria and the UAR in exchange for 2 Israelis by Egypt.

In the early 1990s, Israel offered to pay Iran $10 billion and help Iran negotiate with the United States. What did Israel want in return? Israel wanted information about Israeli air force pilot Ron Arad who was captured by Hezbollah. $10 billion for information. Oh, and did I mention that it was presumed that Arad was already dead?

Later, in 2008, Israel released Samir Kuntar, 4 Hezbollah militants, and 200 Lebanese and Palestinian POWs in exchange for the bodies of 2 Israeli soldiers. Previously, Israel was going to release Kuntar for “concrete proof” from Hezbollah as to Ron Arad’s fate, but that deal apparently fell part. And if the name Samir Kuntar doesn’t mean anything to you:

Samir Kuntar … is a Lebanese Druze convicted murderer and former member of the Palestine Liberation Front. On April 22, 1979, at the age of 16, he participated in the attempted kidnapping of an Israeli family in Nahariya that resulted in the deaths of four Israelis and two of his fellow kidnappers. Kuntar was convicted in an Israeli court for murder of an Israeli policeman, Eliyahu Shahar, 31 year-old Danny Haran, and Haran's 4-year-old daughter, Einat Haran, whom he killed with blunt force against a rock. He was also convicted of indirectly causing the death of two-year-old Yael Haran by suffocation, as her mother, Smadar, tried to quiet her crying while hiding from Kuntar. In 1980 Kuntar was sentenced to four life sentences. [¶] Immediately after his arrest, Kuntar admitted to the killings, but at his sentence and thereafter he denied killing the father and daughter, saying that they had been killed by security forces in the ensuing gun battle. He did admit to taking them hostage and killing Eliyahu Shahar, however.

(Footnotes and hyperlinks omitted.) So, the man convicted of what many Israelis regard as one of the most brutal terror attacks ever (in case the Wikipedia article wasn’t clear, Kuntar killed the 4-year-old girl by repeatedly smashing her skull against a rock), was released for the bodies of 2 Israeli soldiers.

The earlier failed exchange that would have released Kuntar did result in the release of 30 Lebanese POWs, the remains of 59 Lebanese, and 400 Palestinians in exchange for an Israeli businessman kidnapped by Hezbollah and the remains of 3 Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid.

In all, over the last 30 years, Israel has released about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure freedom for 19 Israelis and the bodies of 8 others.

7,000 for 19 (plus 8 bodies). When we add in the Shalit exchange, it will be about 8,000 for 20. I’ll let you do the math.

So why is Israel willing to give up so much for the return of a single Israeli or even the body of a single Israeli or information about a single Israeli? And why do the Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt demand so many prisoners before they will release that single Israeli or that single body or that nugget of information?

I could speculate on answers, but I don’t think I will. At least not here and not now. But I will say that the efforts and sacrifices that Israel has shown it is willing to make for the return of Israelis tells me much about the value placed upon the lives of Israelis by the Israeli government and the Israeli public.

But perhaps this video, and in particular, the last words of the Hamas spokesman, may offer some insight:

When Gilad Shalit returns to Israel, perhaps in the next day or so, there will be jubilant celebration in Israel. But that jubilation comes at a very expensive — and dangerous — price.


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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Freedom of Speech Just Isn’t That Complicated (and other notes about Hank Williams Jr.)

Some things are complicated; other things, less so. Take for example the protections for speech embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution (pertinent part in red):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But far too many people seem to think that the protections of the First Amendment apply to the acts of individuals and businesses, not just the government. For example, read what Hank Williams Jr. had to say today about his quitting (or being fired — it isn’t entirely clear) from ESPN for making offensive comments (more on that in a minute):

After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision. By pulling my opening Oct 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE. It’s been a great run.

Did you get that? According to Williams, ESPN “stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech…” (what’s with the weird capitalization…?). Um, sorry, Hank, but no. ESPN not only did not step on any First Amendment toes, it could not step on First Amendment toes because ESPN is not a governmental entity. The First Amendment allows Williams to make any stupid, asinine, racist, hateful statement that he wants. But the First Amendment does not require ESPN to air those statements or to continue to employ or have business relations with Williams.

This reminds me a bit of comments Sarah Palin made during the 2008 campaign when she was criticized for saying that Barack Obama “palled around with terrorists” (emphasis added):

If they convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.

Similarly, when Laura Ingraham was criticized for a profanity-ridden tirade on her radio show (from which she then resigned), Palin noted on Twitter:

Dr.Laura:don’t retreat…reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence”isn’t American,not fair”)

But all too many people — and unfortunately, all to many prominent people — seem to think that the First Amendment protects them from criticism or gives them a right to be heard. It does not.

The First Amendment means that I can stand on a tree stump and shout my ideas to the world; but it does not mean that anybody has to come listen. The First Amendment means that I can write a book with crazy ideas; but it does not mean that anybody has to read it. And the First Amendment means that I can tell a newspaper reporter what I really think; but it doesn’t mean that he has to print it.

And therein lies the confusion behind the statements of people like Williams and Palin. The problem is that these people want us to take their points of view seriously and want to have an influence on politics and our government (thankfully Palin isn’t running for the GOP nomination, but Williams is allegedly considering a run for the Senate from Tennessee). But they don’t understand the core concepts embodied in the First Amendment.

We have to ask ourselves whether people whose understanding of this fundamental component of the Constitution is so fatally flawed are people whose voices we should pay any attention to, let alone follow or elect.

I wonder what Williams would say if I bought a ticket to his concert and then claimed a First Amendment right to climb onto the stage and say what I think? Is he violating my First Amendment rights if he refuses to allow me to write my thoughts on the liner notes of his next album? And when FOX News refuses to allow me to appear to tell Sean Hannity that he’s … anyway, I think you get the point. Williams has the right to decide who can speak from his stage or on his album. FOX News can decide who can appear on their programs. And ESPN can decide if they want to keep playing Williams’ song. And none of those decisions impact the First Amendment.

Yes, there are complicated issues that arise under this part of the First Amendment, whether we’re talking about defamation or the public forum doctrine or reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. But the basic question of whether a private corporation violates someone’s First Amendment right to free speech by refusing to provide a forum to that person is not one of those complicated issues.

I also want to back up and look at the comments Williams made on FOX News that led to this situation:

WILLIAMS: You remember the -- you remember the golf game they had, ladies and gentlemen?

DOOCY: Yeah?

WILLIAMS: Remember the golf game?

DOOCY: Boehner?

WILLIAMS: That was one of the biggest political mistakes ever.


WILLIAMS: That turned a lot of people off. You know, watching, you know, it just didn't go over.

CARLSON: You mean when John Boehner played golf with President Obama?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah! Yeah. And Biden and Kasich, yeah. Uh-huh.

CARLSON: What did you not like about it? It seems to be a really pivotal moment for you.

WILLIAMS: Come on. Come on. It would be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu, OK?


WILLIAMS: Not hardly. In the country this shape is in, the shape this country's in, I mean, no, I don't think so.

BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): Yeah, I don't understand that analogy, actually.

DOOCY: Well, it's -- it's out there.

WILLIAMS: Well, I'm glad you don't, brother, because a lot of people do. You know, they're the enemy. They're the enemy.

KILMEADE: Who's the enemy?

WILLIAMS: Obama! And Biden! Are you kidding? The Three Stooges.

Now I get that some people dislike President Obama, maybe even hate him. But Hitler? I mean, we’ve covered this ground before, but I think that it’s important to take a quick look at the context of Williams’ comparison. He doesn’t say that President Obama’s policies remind him of Hitler. Nor does he suggest that President Obama is trying to stage a coup or consolidate power like Hitler. His statement doesn’t appear to have anything to do with policy. Rather, he suggests that a golf game between the President and Vice President of the United States and the Speaker of the House and a sitting governor — a social activity during which leaders of the two political parties might have a chance to talk — was completely and totally unacceptable. But he didn’t just say that; rather, he went further still and presented an analogy where one side represents one of the greatest mass murderers in history and the other side represents his victims.

Even with all the animosity people like Williams feel toward President Obama and even with their apparent view that the Republicans should not negotiate or compromise, why does the analogy have to be one in which President Obama is compared to Hitler? And, for that matter, why would President Obama and Vice President Obama be characterized, not as political opponents or people with whom Williams has a differing political viewpoint (which, recall, he can express thanks to the First Amendment…), but as “the enemy”.

To Williams, President Obama is so evil, so beyond the purview of human understanding, that the mere act of playing golf with him is a terrible, unforgivable sin. Really?

What would Williams have Americans do with an “enemy” comparable to Hitler? Somehow just voting for someone else doesn’t seem a “punishment” worthy of the “crime”.

So now let’s look at Williams’ “apology”. First, came this attempt to explain his comments:

Some of us have strong opinions and are often misunderstood. My analogy was extreme — but it was to make a point. I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me — how ludicrous that pairing was. They’re polar opposites and it made no sense. They don’t see eye-to-eye and never will. I have always respected the office of the President.

Every time the media brings up the tea party it’s painted as racist and extremists — but there’s never a backlash — no  outrage to those comparisons… Working class people are hurting — and it doesn’t seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job — it makes a whole lot of us angry.  Something has to change. The policies have to change.

Does that explanation clear anything up for you? And did you note that he gets upset that the Tea Party is painted as being racist and extremist … in his explanation for why he compared President Obama to Hitler? Nope, no extremism there. Move along… Now might be a good time to go back and review all of those photos I posted of the Tea Party making that same comparison together with expressing other charming views (see list of links at the bottom of this post).

Following that explanation, Williams tried his hand at an apology, of sorts:

I have always been very passionate about Politics and Sports and this time it got the Best or Worst of me. The thought of the Leaders of both Parties Jukin and High Fiven on a Golf course, while so many Families are Struggling to get by simply made me Boil over and make a Dumb statement and I am very Sorry if it Offended anyone. I would like to Thank all my supporters. This was Not written by some Publicist.

Note that classic formulation of this non-apology apology. He doesn’t say that he is sorry for making the comparison that he made or that it was wrong (just “Dumb”). Nope. Instead he says that he is “very Sorry if it Offended anyone” (emphasis added). In other words, he isn’t sorry for the words he used; he’s only sorry that someone might have taken offense at those words. It’s like saying, “I’m not sorry I called you an asshole, I’m sorry you were offended that I called you an asshole.” Watch for that sort of non-apology double-speak, as it has become quite popular among politicians and others who are forced to publicly “apologize” for things they’ve said.

Oh, and Hank? By the way you write, trust me: We can tell that it wasn’t written by a publicist…

One final point that I want to make about Williams. When I visited his website to find his statements, the first image that confronted me left me a bit dumbfounded:


Stop and look at that picture for a moment let it sink in.

I’m not sure what the logo in the middle of the flag is. I tried to find it on Google but had no success (though I only spent a few minutes; if you recognize it, please let me know). But the flag itself is pretty obvious, isn’t it? That is, indeed, a Confederate battle flag. For those who forget their civil war history, that flag represents, plainly put, treason. It represents those who took up arms against the United States so that they could continue to own slaves. It is the flag that was flown as Americans killed one another on battlefields across our country. And here it is, being oh so proudly displayed by members of the United States military (presumably in Iraq or Afghanistan). Does that trouble you? It troubles the hell out of me…

And of all the images for Williams to choose to advertise his Facebook page, he chooses an image of apparently active duty, deployed soldiers displaying the flag of treason. What does that tell us about Williams? It tells me just about all I need to know.

For my part, I’m looking forward to Monday Night Football continuing to open without a song sung by an apparently insensitive, stupid, bigot. Goodbye, Hank. Good riddance.

Here are links to all (I think) of my posts with images of the Tea Party displaying racist or violent rhetoric:

A Sampling of Signs from the "Tea Bag" Parties That You Didn't See on the News
A Sampling of Signs from the "Tea Bag" Parties That You Didn't See on the News (update 1)
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs (Part 2)
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs (Part 3)
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs (Part 4)
Tea Party Idiots Are Back ... and Just as Vile
How Do We Respond?
Yet More Tea Party Signs: Racism, Violent Rhetoric, and Idiocy
What Violent Rhetoric? Washington Times Alleges a “Pogrom” Against “Conservative Thinkers”

Just for fun (with a bit of bonus racism):

Teabonics: More Reasons to Fear the Teabaggers.

For comparison, here is my post on the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (that I attended, albeit briefly):

Some Signs from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Busy, Busy, Busy

Sorry for the lack of updates. Work has kept me very busy of late. I've got a few things in the hopper, but nothing I'm quite ready to post.


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