Monday, August 22, 2011

About that 46%...

One of the points I was trying to make in my last piece is that we have two different kinds of income-related taxes in this country: the one we call “income tax” and the one we call “payroll tax.” The former is putatively progressive, although it is demonstrably not necessarily so. The latter is unquestionably regressive, since it applies only to the first $106,800 of earned income per wage-earner: not only do people making a million dollars a year pay a far lower rate than ordinary folks do, but the kinds of income that tend to be reserved, at least at significant levels, for the wealthiest among us (capital gains, dividends, interest, rent) aren’t taxed at all.

But just as those on the left too frequently conflate Exxon’s or GE’s failure to pay federal income tax with not paying taxes at all, those on the right—Rick Perry being the latest, particularly stupid and/or disingenuous, example of this phenomenon—holler about the 46% of Americans who don’t pay income tax. It’s true, of course, and also a completely conscious fabrication: a family of four making $26,000 in 2010 would indeed pay no income tax. ($26K = 4 exemptions @ $3650, plus the standard deduction of $11,400.) That family would pay $1092 in payroll taxes, however, even at the reduced rate used in 2011. This figure doesn’t count the additional $1612 paid by their employers, which, as Syracuse University professor Len Burman points out in an article on the website of that leftist rag, Forbes, “economists believe is ultimately paid by the employee in the form of lower wages.”

But the fact that virtually any GOP politician you can name is completely and utterly mendacious on this point isn’t news. What I’d like to discuss instead is the underlying truth that goes too often unspoken: the problem with the country isn’t that nearly half the people don’t pay income tax, it’s that nearly half the people don’t make enough money to be taxed. I’m not the first to talk about this, but certainly there are far too few politicians or commentators, even on the left, who make this observation.

Here’s the reality: study after study shows that economic disparity in this country is bad and getting worse. Just a few examples: a study by sociologist G. William Domhoff of the University of California at Santa Cruz shows that nearly 43% of the financial wealth (net worth minus home value) in the country is controlled by just 1% of the population. The top quintile controls 91.3%, the bottom two quintiles combined, 40% of the population, own only 0.3% of the wealth. These figures are very much tied to race, as well; whereas whites (in 2006) had household incomes about 67% higher than African-Americans and 43% higher than Hispanics, their net worth exceeded African-Americans’ by a ratio of over 15.4:1 and Hispanics’ by more than that. But if you take homes out of the picture, the ratios become 87:1 and 109:1, respectively.

Still, while race clearly plays a part in this scenario, the division between rich and poor—or, more accurately, between the ultra-rich and everybody else—is what really matters. The richer you are, the less of your net worth is tied up in your home: an article by Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot in Mother Jones this spring points out that “The 2007 data (the most current) doesn't reflect the impact of the housing market crash. In 2007, the bottom 60% of Americans had 65% of their net worth tied up in their homes. The top 1%, in contrast, had just 10%. The housing crisis has no doubt further swelled the share of total net worth held by the superrich.”

Particularly interesting in the Mother Jones piece is a chart based on the work of Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson of UC-Berkeley. These two political scientists charted what actually occurred in the generation from 1979-2005 compared with what would have been projected based on the data of the previous few decades. You will not be surprised, Gentle Reader, to learn that the richest 1% fared quite well over that period, raking in some $673 billion (nearly $600,000 per family) per year more than would have been predicted. The hardest hit in percentage terms, of course, were those at the bottom, but the biggest losses in dollar terms came from those at the very center: families in the third quintile made over $10,000 a year less than would have been predicted.

Finally, let’s look at how America compares to other countries in terms of wealth equity. Hint: it ain’t pretty. There’s some complicated mathematics that goes into figuring the Gini index—I won’t attempt to explain it here, but basically there are two things you should know: it’s an objective number rather than an analysis of any kind, and the lower the number, the more equitably a nation’s wealth is distributed among the population. According to the CIA, the most recent number for Sweden is 23; Hungary, 24.7; Slovakia, 26; Canada, 32.1; the United Kingdom, 34. The United States: 45 in 2007, up from 40.8 a decade earlier. True, that’s not as bad as Swaziland (50.4), Honduras (53.8), or Namibia (70.7), but are those really the economies we want to be comparing ourselves to? We’re behind the likes of Albania (26.7), Bangladesh (33.2), and Yemen (37.7). The European Union as a whole: 30.4. China: 41.5. India: 36.8.

Another metric would be the ratio of the average income of the top 10% to the average income of the bottom 10%. Using this statistic, Japan has the most equitable economy at a ratio of 4.5:1; Bolivia is the worst of those surveyed, at nearly 94:1. The United States, at 15.9:1, is behind every other first-world country, not to mention the likes of Bosnia and Herzogovenia, Tanzania, and Liberia.

Of course, having a high degree of income disparity is neither the full measure of an economy nor an inherently bad thing: I’d rather have our economy that Greece’s or Ethiopia’s, even though they both beat us in both the metrics listed above. That said, however, Domhoff’s statistics are revealing:
Americans from all walks of life were also united in their vision of what the "ideal" wealth distribution would be…. They said that the ideal wealth distribution would be one in which the top 20% owned between 30 and 40 percent of the privately held wealth, which is a far cry from the 85 percent that the top 20% actually own. They also said that the bottom 40%—that's 120 million Americans—should have between 25% and 30%, not the mere 8% to 10% they thought this group had, and far above the 0.3% they actually had. In fact, there's no country in the world that has a wealth distribution close to what Americans think is ideal when it comes to fairness.
There’s an outstanding graph that originally accompanied an excellent article by James Fallows in The Atlantic last fall about a study similar to Domhoff’s, this one by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Daniel Ariely of Duke. The chart, which I put on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page last September, shows that whereas there are perhaps predictable variances between people who voted for Bush as opposed to Kerry, or who make more than $100K a year as opposed to less than $50K, literally every demographic both underestimated the existing disparity and believed that there should be more equity. Those making over $100,000 a year, for example, predictably showed the highest “ideal” percentage of wealth to be controlled by the top 20%. But their ideal would be 40%. They thought the reality was 62%. The actual reality: 84%.

So there seems to be some interest in a more balanced economy in which the gaps between the top and the bottom are less pronounced. This is true in theory, anyway—whether there’s actually as much egalitarian spirit as the subjects surveyed in either of these two studies seem to pretend is another matter. But the studies do highlight both the central flaw in the right-wing rhetoric in logical and ethical terms, and indeed the reason this spurious argumentation is effective. If, as the populace believes, those not paying income tax account for even the 15% of so of the nation’s wealth, that’s a fair amount of money not to be drawing any tax revenue at all. Trouble is, that bottom 46% make less than 3% of the income and have well under 1% of the wealth.

And so we’re back to where we started: if the right wants to make a big deal out of “nearly half” of the population not paying taxes (there were also a few thousand millionaires who didn’t, either, but that doesn’t bother them so much), then the appropriate response is not merely to point out that virtually everyone with a job of any kind pays payroll tax. It’s also to ask what the GOP is going to do to raise people up economically to the point where they’re going to be called upon to pay taxes. How do you do that, Governor Perry? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by leading the nation in minimum-wage (and sub-minimum-wage) jobs.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just when you thought the GOP couldn't get any more hypocritical...

Seems like we just got over a skirmish on taxes and there’s another one looming. The Republicans decided in the negotiations over raising the debt ceiling that allowing the Bush tax cuts for the stinking rich to expire qualified as a tax increase, so they couldn’t possibly support it. Well, now the one-year break on payroll taxes (a.k.a. FICA), not to be confused with income taxes, is nearing its expiration, and President Obama wants to continue it. And the Republicans are opposing him! So much for any credibility any of them ever had.

GOP Grand Exalted Hypocrite Ways and Means Committee Chair David Camp says that tax reductions, “no matter how well-intended,” will add to the deficit. That’s true, of course, but where was that line of reasoning a month ago, when Republican petulance prevented any increase in revenue in any form from being part of the deficit deal?

The difference, say truth-impaired asshats like Lamar Alexander (I’m so old I can remember when he was sane) and Eric Cantor (he was never sane), is partially that the Bush tax cuts were intended to last for 10 years. Uh huh, and that decade was about to run out, and… Also, of course, Cantor “has never believed that this type of temporary tax relief is the best way to grow the economy.” Cantor is loony, lying or an idiot. My choice is D, all of the above, but you’re free to differ. Anyone not rendered brain-dead by adherence to the silly, demonstrably-failed, regressive policy known as supply-side (a.k.a. “voodoo”) economics realizes that the way to stimulate the economy is to put more money in the hands of people who will spend it. Logically, that means if we’re going to do tax cuts, they should go primarily to poorer people, who will purchase things they otherwise couldn’t afford, rather than banking the difference.

The Republicans, whose rhetoric, even more than Democrats’, concentrates on manifestations of the Puritan work ethic, don’t really value work. Thanks to them, for example, capital gains and most dividends are taxed at a significantly lower rate than earned income. (This is why the “hedge fund exemption” is so outrageous.) And FICA taxes are ultimately regressive, since they apply only to the first $106,800 of income.

A DINK (dual income, no kids) family making $50,000 a year will pay $5961 a year (11.9%) in taxes, between federal income tax and FICA. (In all three hypothetical families, we’re assuming they don’t itemize, although of course the wealthiest family would be far more likely to do so, since the percentage of income necessary to make itemization work to their advantage would be negligible.) A second family, making $100,000, would pay $16,894 (16.9%) in those combined taxes. But what of a third family, making, say, $1,000,000 in earned income and another $19,000,000 in capital gains? Their total tax would be $3,202,479 (16.0%). Yes, that’s a lower rate than the middle-class family.

Allow the payroll tax cut to expire, and the $50K family will see a $1000 increase in their taxes. It would be $2000 for the $100K family, and $4272 for the $20M family (assuming both spouses made at least $108K; otherwise, the increase would be smaller). That already tells you something: that the increase is barely over twice as high for the last family as for the middle one, even though their total income is 200 times as much. But let’s look at those numbers another way: allowing those cuts to expire would raise the first family’s total federal income-related tax burden by close to 16.7%, the second family’s by 11.8%, and the third family’s by about .1%. The tax increase as a percentage of income would be 2% for the working class and middle class families, .04%, or 1/50 as much, for the wealthy one.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the kind of revenue enhancement the Republicans can get behind. I posted the AP article linked above on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page earlier today. The first comment read, “If the GOP are for it, it must be a tax on the poor.” Well, actually, yeah. It’s a big increase on the poor, a fairly substantial one on the middle class, and an almost imperceptible one on the wealthy.

A caveat: I’m not convinced in policy terms that extending this cut is actually a good idea. I do think revenues need to be raised, and I don’t think allowing this short-term cut to actually expire ought to be off the table. Then again, I wasn’t the one yammering into every available microphone that raising taxes in any way would be the moral equivalent of allowing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to gang-rape your sister. No, that was the guys now nattering about fiscal responsibility and fighting to raise taxes on the poor and middle class.

Here’s the deal. I’m willing to pay a little more in taxes if it’s part of a comprehensive approach to raise revenue and decrease the deficit/debt. Such a policy initiative would necessarily include closing loopholes, ending or drastically reducing subsidies of corporations making literally billions of dollars in profits, increasing the rates on capital gains, and returning the top marginal rate to at least near Clinton-era levels. But until and unless I hear something that sounds like genuine willingness to negotiate in good faith (and actually to compromise) coming from Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, et al., then I’m going to fight these disingenuous and venal corporate water-carriers for every penny.

More to the point, one of my most significant disappointments with the Obama administration is in how inept they seem to be in political as opposed to policy terms. The President’s use of the bully pulpit has been sporadic, truncated, and diffident. Here is a gold-plated, gift-wrapped, all-expenses-paid donation from the GOP. If Plouffe, Axelrod, Messina, Carney, and indeed Mr. Obama himself aren’t bellowing from the rooftops at every opportunity for the next 15 months that the GOP was perfectly willing to let the country default in order to save tax breaks for billionaires, but want to raise your taxes, Mr. and Mrs. America, they truly deserve to lose the next election. Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t deserve the inevitable result of their cravenness, timidity, and overall political ineptness.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Celebrating the Continued Health of a Mass Murderer

The second best known man in Libya as I write this—maybe the best known by the time you read this, if events in Tripoli play out the way they might—isn’t exactly a household name. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, anyone? Ah, but if I call him simply the Lockerbie Bomber, you’re likely to know exactly who I’m talking about.

There is a special ring of hell reserved for this son of a bitch as far as I’m concerned: the college-aged daughter of a friend of mine was one of his 270 victims on that December day in 1988. So I was more than a little pissed off that this despicable excuse for a human being was released by Scottish authorities two years ago this weekend on “compassionate grounds” because he was dying of prostate cancer and had only three months to live. I freely admit that my humanitarian instincts are less foregrounded than I perhaps might like them to be in situations like this. I would be perfectly happy to have Mr. al-Megrahi die a protracted and agonizing death, and the sooner the better.

His release was controversial for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the propinquity of the words “compassion” and “al-Megrahi” in the same sentence was just a little too much to swallow for a lot of people. Even more problematic, there was speculation in venues no less august than the Sunday Times that the release would oh-so-coincidentally benefit BP and perhaps provide the West, the UK in particular, with a little advantage in their competition with Russia to acquire some of Libya’s oil rights. There has also long been a complex conspiracy theory according to which al-Megrahi was in fact innocent all along, with the real culprits being Iran-backed Palestinians… or the CIA… or little green men from Mars. But let’s face it, if the clamoring is sufficient to make the powers-that-be have to say that the decision was made for compassionate reasons alone, it doesn’t look good for anyone.

What we didn’t know at the time was that al-Megrahi would still be alive and appearing at a televised rally alongside Moammar Gadhafi some two years after he was given only three months to live, an eventuality that was already causing embarrassment to Scottish authorities a year ago. Last August, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray claimed that Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill had been “incompetent” in not getting clear and unequivocal evidence of al-Megrahi’s imminent demise: “A year ago I said this decision was wrong because the balance between justice and compassion was wrong, but a year later even that element of the decision, the medical evidence, now has very significant doubt cast on it.”

Of course, the medical opinion in question, that of Dr. Andrew Fraser, turns out to have been wrong. Maybe. The thing is, it has now been confirmed that al-Megrahi is being treated with a drug called Abiraterone. This hormone-based treatment was only recently approved by the FDA in the US and still unavailable in the UK, despite the fact that it was actually developed there, at the Institute of Cancer Research in London. If and when it can be prescribed in the UK, it still may be too expensive for the NHS, costing as it does a cool £3000 (roughly $5000 at current exchange rates) a month.

Anyway, it’s likely that the Scottish doctors who determined that al-Megrahi was terminal didn’t even know this drug existed, and they couldn’t have used it if they did. All of which mitigates the criticisms: if al-Megrahi would have died in a matter of weeks had he stayed in the UK, then the whole humanitarian rationale takes on a particular piquancy. Mr. al-Megrahi’s release may literally have saved his life—extending his time on the planet for several years and quite possibly decreasing the pain of his affliction as well. Much as I’d like him to suffer, this is ultimately a good thing. He becomes a very visible reminder of the efficacy of Abiraterone, which will—consummation devoutly to be wished—both make that drug more readily available to less homicidal patients who need it, and spur continued research by Johnson & Johnson’s competitors (J&J currently markets the drug as Zytiga) to find an even better, more affordable, alternative. This is capitalism at its best.

Of course, there’s another positive by-product to this saga, less direct but no less relevant. My hope, forlorn though it may be, is that it may provide a teaching moment. The research that developed Abiraterone was real science: identification of a problem, background work, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On one of the Facebook pages I read, there was a link today to an article about Jon Huntsman’s repudiation of Rick Perry’s anti-science (indeed anti-intellectual in general) faux populism. The page admin wondered if Huntsman is an “undercover liberal.” No, believing that science is something other than a visceral hunch possibly inspired by indigestion is not “liberal”; it is sane. Well over 90% of real climate scientists, for example, believe that climate change is not only real but at least significantly man-made. Over 90% of deniers are being funded by oil companies. Coincidence, that.

My point is this: even the most lunatic pseudo-Christian right-winger has got to understand that Abiraterone and hundreds of other drugs work because scientists discovered what helps and what doesn’t. There’s no question that al-Megrahi was in very bad shape, almost certainly dying, two years ago. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, he’d still have outlived his prognosis by 700%. Tea Partiers have two choices to account for his continued health (even if he did recently take a “turn for the worse”). Either science works, or the Christian God decided that a Muslim mass murderer whose victims were predominantly Christian would be a great choice for a miracle cure.

Now, if only there were a Tea Partier (or a Republican presidential candidate with any real shot of winning the nomination) who actually cared about facts or logic…

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Outrage That Wasn't... But Was.

The horrible collapse of the stage at the Indiana State Fair last week generated more than enough grief for more than enough people. Dozens were injured, and there were five fatalities. The thought that the fates would have determined that one woman’s suffering still wasn’t enough captured the imagination: the generally reliable Bil Browning posted on the site that Indiana authorities refused to release the body of victim Christina Santiago (pictured) to her legal-in-Illinois-but-not-in-Indiana domestic partner Alisha Brennon, who was herself seriously injured in the accident. [N.B., one site lists Ms. Brennon as Ms. Santiago’s “fiancée.”]

Browning got the story wrong. To his credit, he pulled it as soon as it became clear that such even might be the case, and he issued what I read as a comprehensive and sincere apology when the facts became clearer, but the story had already gone viral, e.g., a post by Dan Savage which includes this little mini-rant:
This is what DOMA is designed to do. DOMA does nothing to strengthen traditional marriages. It doesn't prevent straight couples from divorcing or make straight couples any more likely to take responsibility for their children. The federal DOMA and all the mini-DOMAs enacted by the states only serve to torment and persecute gay people at the most trying moments of their lives: when a partner is ill, when a child is sick, when a partner dies. And people who claim to be Christians will howl the loudest if DOMA is repealed.
Savage, too, corrected the record after it became clear that Ms. Brennon, still hospitalized, was not being denied access to her partner’s remains.

The story quickly shifted to trying to figure out how the mistake happened: Browning tells the tale from his perspective, while a commenter on a post on the Facebook page of Amigas Latinas, an organization for Hispanic LGBTQ women, for which Ms. Santiago was director of programming, feared that she (the commenter) had inadvertently spawned the false report:
In a Spanish-language interview yesterday I was asked how Amigas was/had responded, and I said one of our immediate concerns-bc this happened in Indiana- was to make sure that AB's wishes would be respected and to be a support or advocate if they weren't. Worried that my Spanish language skills - kind of at 80%- made it sound like this WAS happening (instead of HAD BEEN an initial concern/question).
Luckily, however, whatever the reason for the false report, it was, indeed, a false report, and Ms. Santiago’s remains will be venerated and disposed of in accordance with Ms. Brennon’s wishes.

So all is well, right? Not really.

All we need to do is to read the article on the WILL site to see that there’s a potentially very dark cloud surrounding this silver lining:
“The wife (Brennon) never contacted us to claim the body so she was never denied that opportunity,” said Alfarea Ballew, chief deputy coroner of the Marion County Coroner’s Office. “The wife is still hospitalized. We’re working with the friends and aunt (of Santiago) to release the body. I’ve never talked to anybody denying the wife that opportunity.”

In an interview with Chicago Public Media on Tuesday afternoon, Ballew said the office has never encountered a situation involving the spouse claiming a body of a same-sex loved one.

“Still,” Ballew said, “I’m surprised it’s being put out that way. That’s not how we would address that kind of issue. We release the body to the next of kin. Christina’s aunt was listed as the next of kin. The aunt signed off on paperwork and everything is moving forward with the wife.”
Notice in particular that matter-of-fact, slightly puzzled, tone in the last paragraph. Translation: Ms. Brennon will be involved in the disposition of Ms. Santiago’s remains because, and only because, Ms. Santiago’s aunt—the next of kin—allows her to be. And what if there had been no aunt? Or if the aunt had refused to honor the wishes of Ms. Brennon?

Ultimately, it matters little what the precise details were of the relationship between the two women, or of the ultimate resolution of the perhaps manufactured mini-crisis of how and to whom Ms. Santiago’s body should be released. The point is this: the two lesbian women could have been married per se according to the laws of several states, and Indiana would still have released the remains only to the aunt as “next of kin.” Luckily, the aunt is a mensch, but such is not always the case. I personally witnessed a dear friend be denied the opportunity even to attend the “private family funeral” of his partner of over a quarter century. (The family did graciously allow him to pay his partner’s medical bills, however. Seriously, I would cheerfully strangle these bastards with their own intestines, which I would obtain by reaching down their throats.)

And so we’re back to Savage’s twin observations: on the one hand, “it didn’t happen this time”; on the other, this is indeed precisely what DOMA was intended to do. That Indiana didn’t turn down a partner’s request for her loved one’s remains may be true, but it is true only because they weren’t asked. The coroner is indignant because someone alleges that she “[denied] the opportunity” to Ms. Santiago’s wife. She didn’t. She would have, had she been asked, but that’s a different matter, of course.

This case has a happy ending, to the extent that any story about a life cut short far too early can do so, in that we can safely presume that Ms. Santiago’s friends and loved ones will have an appropriate outlet through which to celebrate her life and mourn her death. But we’re also reminded that such a result was precipitated not by laws, codes of ethical conduct, or a culture of respect and dignity. Rather, it stemmed from the grace of a single woman, who could just as easily—legally and quite possibly (from her perspective, at least) ethically—have decided otherwise.

The adage that no one is free until we all are may be trite. It’s also as resonant today as ever.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

All Racism is Stupid, but Not All Stupidity is Racist

Journalistic failing comes in many flavors, ranging from general incompetence to cowardice to advancing a political agenda in allegedly unbiased reportage. Somewhere between cravenness and politically motivated fabrication on the slime-o-meter is the conscious manipulation of the facts of a case simply to make the story “sexier,” often with little regard for the consequences to innocent people. This isn’t quite the level of offense against the profession that, say, Andrew Breitbart’s malicious and mendacious editing is (not that any sane person thinks Breitbart is really the “journalist” he claims to be), but it’s close.

A prime example of this phenomenon occurred a few weeks ago, when Chicago TV station WBBM played a small segment of an interview with a 4-year-old boy who apparently happened to be a witness to a shooting in which two teenagers were wounded on the same night a 16-year-old was killed in another part of the city. The reporter on the scene unquestionably violated the standards of his profession by asking questions of the boy at all, especially since he appears to have done so without parental permission. He also, it turns out, uttered a mild expletive in the course of the interview. Still, unlike the news editor who subsequently mangled the piece beyond recognition, he at least seemed interested in hearing what the boy really had to say.

But what actually showed up on the air was this:
Boy: I’m not scared of nothin’.
Reporter: When you get older, you gonna stay away from all these guns?
Boy: No.
Reporter: No?
Boy: Noooooo.
Reporter: What do you want to do when you get older?
Boy: I’m gonna have me a gun.
And then we cut back to the insipid anchors (apologies for redundancy) clucking about how “that is very scary indeed” and generally acting sanctimonious.

Now, even if the entirety of the interview had been included in the broadcast tape, there was no reason to air it, no reason to be surprised that a 4-year-old wouldn’t have an entirely mature response to the horrific events he had seen and heard, no reason to find it newsworthy that little boys like guns, no reason to be at all disturbed that a child that young would find a defense mechanism to cope with the trauma he’d just endured: it was the fact of what the boy had witnessed, not his apparently unguarded statement, that deserved to be described as “very scary indeed.”

But, in fact, the breach of journalistic ethics is even more outrageous than simply conducting and broadcasting an interview with a 4-year-old crime witness. It turns out that the reason for the boy’s desire for a gun—“I’m gonna be the police”—was edited out of the tape before it was aired. For this, someone ought to join the ranks of the unemployed: this was a purely intentional deception.

The aftermath of the incident was entirely predictable: 1). the idiots at WBBM got caught, 2). there was a furor, 3). the station hierarchy issued an entirely pro forma apology, “[taking] responsibility” for the “mistake”(and, of course, making a false claim that the segment had aired only once), 4). no one, apparently, was fired, censured, or even subjected to reproachful glances. One can hardly be surprised that WBBM management did nothing substantive either to truly atone for their egregious unprofessionalism or to take steps to prevent a recurrence. After all, these are the responsibility-challenged yahoos who thought conducting the interview was OK, airing the interview was OK, willfully distorting a little boy’s intent was OK, and having their talking heads, undoubtedly chosen for their jobs on the basis of their vapidity, bemoan the fate of the world based on the [intentionally distorted] testimony of a boy too young for kindergarten was OK.

The only thing not OK in their book was getting busted. I shed no tears for the fate of anyone associated with this sordid little incident: except, of course, for the boy, who, in this age of YouTube, will never outlive his moment of unsought celebrity (not to mention that the poor kid seems to be suffering from some pretty execrable parenting—why else would he have been even available to be interviewed?). But from the I Shoulda Known shelf comes this more recent revelation: there are some folks who are claiming that the garden-variety incompetence demonstrated by WBBM was linked to race: the boy, you see, is African-American.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, who, to their credit, seem largely responsible for bringing this story to light (but how did they get a copy of the unedited tape?), are also hand-wringing about “We have long been worried about the ways in which the media helps perpetuate negative stereotypes of boys and men of color, but this appears to be overtly criminalizing a preschooler.” So quoth Dori J. Maynard, President of the Maynard Institute. Kathy Y. Times, former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, is quoted by Bob Butler (current NABJ VP) in an article entitled “A Prime Case for Newsroom Diversity,” as saying “I have to believe, had there been somebody of color in management, that video would not have aired.”

In the same article, Renee Ferguson, communications director for Congressman Bobby Rush, also puts a decidedly racial spin on the matter:
This station is licensed to broadcast in the public interest, and I know that no FCC… licenses have been taken away in a long time. But the whole idea that you’re licensed in the public interest to really serve the public interest, how can you do that if you don’t have diversity in your news management?
What is disturbing here is the reflexive assumption that somehow everything would have been better if there’d only been a couple of black managers around. They, of course, aren’t inspired by the same crass, tabloid-style, stupidity that prefers edgy to accurate. They aren’t too lazy to view the entire minute-long tape instead of pulling something from the first 40 seconds. They aren’t motivated by the same first-is-best, if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality that plagues white journalists. All WBBM needs to fix their obviously inept news bureau is a couple of darkly-complected folks.

Give. Me. A. Damned. Break.

Incompetence is incompetence. No race, religion, gender, or nationality has a monopoly; none is exempt. This isn’t about making a black kid look bad while proclaiming moral superiority while demonstrating its opposite. It’s about making a kid (who happens to be African American) look bad for the sake of ratings or sanctimony or whatever the hell motivated those morons. It is remotely conceivable that an otherwise equally inept black editor would have behaved differently from the cretinous white one responsible for this debacle. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

It's Finger-Pointing Season. Again.

The decision by Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the US government’s credit rating from AAA to AA+ has, unsurprisingly, led to a veritable feeding frenzy of finger-pointing, blame-assigning, and outright silliness.

This is serious business—the government’s credit-worthiness wasn’t thus questioned even during the Great Depression—but the prognostications of doom and gloom are no doubt exaggerated. For example, Edmund L. Andrews of the National Journal, hardly a bastion of liberalism, argues that:
Credit ratings, though hugely important, are only one of many factors affecting the cost of borrowing. The more important factors are broad forces of supply and demand for Treasuries, and the outlook for inflation and growth. That’s why Japan has been downgraded three different times in the past decade (it’s currently AA-) yet its long-term rates are lower than those on U.S. Treasuries.
And let’s face it, it’s pragmatic concerns like the cost of borrowing, not the symbolism of an official rating, that really matters. Moreover, as Andrews also notes
It’s also true that S&P is hardly some kind of Delphic Oracle. It and the other rating agencies were almost criminally negligent about the risks of subprime mortgages during the housing bubble. And it’s not as if S&P told investors anything about U.S. fiscal problems on Friday that they didn’t already know.
In announcing their move, S&P proclaimed “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.” Moreover, the rationale also criticizes the recent debt-ceiling agreement for “[envisioning] 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.”

That said, the analysis by Judd Legum at ThinkProgress seems fairly accurate: “In explaining their decision Standard & Poor’s cites both the decision by Republicans in Congress to turn the debt ceiling into a political football and the [Republicans’] intransigence on tax increases.” He cites a series of quotations from S&P’s explanatory document to bolster his point:
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.

[...]It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options.

[...]The act contains no measures to raise taxes or otherwise enhance revenues, though the committee could recommend them.

[...]Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.
Most notably, Legum points to the “revised upside scenario,” which
incorporates $950 billion of new revenues on the assumption that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for high earners lapse from 2013 onwards, as the Administration is advocating. In this scenario, we project that the net general government debt would rise from an estimated 74% of GDP by the end of 2011 to 77% in 2015 and to 78% by 2021 [vs. 79% in 2015 and 85% in 2021, as predicted if the Bush tax cuts are not allowed to expire].
Andrews concurs:
The big new element on Friday was an official outside recognition that U.S. creditworthiness is being undermined by a new factor: political insanity. S&P didn’t base its downgrade on a change in the U.S. fiscal and economic outlook. It based it on the political game of chicken over the debt ceiling, a game that Republicans initiated and pushed to the limit, and on a growing gloom about the partisan deadlock. Part of S&P’s gloom, moreover, stemmed explicitly from what a new assessment of the GOP’s ability to block any and all tax increases.
In other words, the GOP’s willingness to play political games with something as serious as extending the debt ceiling—up to and including allowing the Donald Trumps, Pat Toomeys, and Michele Bachmanns to say remarkably stupid things without repudiation—is the real cause of the downgrade. Congressional Republicans’ puerile and petulant insistence on no new sources of revenue introduced a new element into the mix: the idea that government might be unable to meet its obligations because it chooses not to. No one serious believes the budget can be stabilized, much less balanced, without revenue enhancement: call it a tax increase, call it eliminating loopholes, call it asparagus for all I care, but more money needs to be brought into government coffers, and it needs to come mostly (not exclusively) from the people who have benefited most from tax breaks, subsidies, and loopholes: the rich.

When even S&P recognizes that, when 4000 millionaires pay no federal income tax at all, when the Balanced Budget Amendment that Rand Paul and his libertarian goon-squad wanted as a pre-condition to raising the debt ceiling is described by even Bill Kristol as “a pointless and embarrassing gimmick,” when Congress sets new records for disapproval, the GOP has a problem. The rank and file understands it. It’s the politicians themselves who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge reality.

They babble about how “the American people demand…” whatever they choose to ascribe to John Q. Public. Witness John Boehner’s proclamation that “Republicans have listened to the voices of the American people and worked to bring the spending binge to a halt.” All of which would be convincing indeed if that is in fact what the American public wanted (even if they were wrong). Except, of course, for that whole “not being true” thing that seems to haunt the GOP leadership.

Nate Silver’s analysis a couple of weeks ago is trenchant: even GOP voters favored a roughly 3:1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue enhancement as their ideal debt ceiling deal. Independents were at about 2:1, Democrats essentially 1:1. There was, as Silver points out, “a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones” [emphasis his]. President Obama offered a mix of 83% cuts and 17% revenue—a position well to the right not only of the American people, but of Republican voters, and the GOP rejected it out of hand. Sooner or later, the public is going to recognize the adolescent posturing for what it is, especially since the Tea Party—whose political fortunes have been in decline since the population began to figure out just how crazy they really are—is now at just 18% in the latest New York Times poll, the lowest figure since the question started being asked.

Indeed, when we put that NYT poll (taken August 2-3) alongside the one from CNN (taken August 1), we get some pretty interesting numbers. In the chart below, I list the approval vs. disapproval ratings for a variety of political figures and groups. A + indicates an overall positive rating, a – means an overall negative rating. So, for example, a approval of 50% and a disapproval rating of 40% would result in a +10.
President Obama: +1 (NYT), -7 (CNN); specifically on debt ceiling negotiations: -1 (NYT), -7 (CNN)
Congress: -68 (NYT), -70 (CNN)
John Boehner: -27 (NYT)
Specifically on the debt ceiling deal: Congressional Republicans/ Republican leaders: -51 (NYT), -38 (CNN).
Specifically on the debt ceiling deal: Congressional Democrats/ Democratic leaders: -38 (NYT), -28 (CNN).
Debt deal should have included revenues: +6 (NYT), +20 (CNN).
Also, how about these figures from the New York Times poll: “Who do you think is mostly to blame for the federal budget deficit?” The Bush administration outpolled the Obama administration, Congress, and “someone else” combined, by 44-40%. Obama was blamed by only 15%, with “all of the above” and “combination” (neither of which was one of the prompted responses) chosen by 12%. A huge majority regarded the negotiations over the debt ceiling as an attempt to gain political advantage (82%) rather than doing what was best for the country (14%). Republicans in Congress were blamed for the difficulties in reaching an agreement by 47%, Obama and the Democrats by 29%, both (again, a volunteered response) by 20%.

The negotiations made 66% of those surveyed more pessimistic about Congress’s ability to “deal with future issues,” vs. only 12% more optimistic. Allowing the Bush tax breaks for the $250K+ crowd to expire: favored by 29 points. Impression of the Tea Party: negative by 20 points, with a huge (39 points) collection of variations on the theme of undecided. [Really?] The Tea Party has too much influence? 43%. Too little? 17%.

So… yeah… which brings us to the Republican response to all this, which is predictable in the extreme. Ultimately, I needn’t spell out all the variations on the same theme, which is basically that although Republican intransigence caused the problem, it’s all Obama’s fault, anyway. TARP was Obama’s fault. The Iraq War was Obama’s fault. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby was Obama’s fault. The sacking of Constantinople was Obama’s fault. John the Baptist’s halitosis was Obama’s fault.

I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t provide at least one specific example of a GOP Presidential candidate’s take—the MSNBC article on the subject (linked above for the Boehner quotation) has this: “Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor, said the downgrade is ‘a reflection of the failed leadership of President Obama. He really is inept when it comes to the economy. He's had over three years of being president. Barack Obama has had his chance and it's not working.’” Given the fact that President Obama has been in office about 31 months, which is not, in fact, “over three years” in my universe, perhaps we ought to leave the accusations of ineptness to those who can handle 3rd-grade arithmetic, eh, Tim?

Exactly what federal crime is involved here?

My netfriend Jack Marshall has found another story about teachers behaving badly. This time it’s a guy named Paul Gust, a computer teacher in Saugatuck, Michigan, who was fired for a variety of offenses. According to The Smoking Gun, he:
...was caught with explicit images on his machine when he opened a presentation he was preparing in November for the school board in front of another staff member and “a nude female’s pubic region with her legs spread apart” was projected on a screen….

...the MacBook was used to search “for Miley Cyrus’s age and then for a picture of her braless.” At the time of the search the pop singer had not yet turned 18.

[A private forensics company] also recovered at least seventy images—eighteen of those were identified by an expert as being of underage children. [Does anyone else think this “expert” is almost by definition a charlatan?]
The Allegan County News enumerates the charges:
Possessing, searching for, downloading and viewing pornography on a computer assigned to him and in his control;

Bringing pornography onto school grounds and/or accessing or viewing pornography on school grounds;

Displaying pornography in the presence of a school employee and her child, a district student, although the student does not appear to have viewed the pornography.

Using the district e-mail system to receive promotional material related to sex toys;

Sending and receiving and/or storing sexually explicit e-mails; and

Violating the district's Acceptable Use Policy.
The County News’s Tim Keith also reports that :
The ruling notes that the computer, as district property, was subject to transfer to another teacher or student at any time.

It also notes that Gust’s actions constituted a violation of the school's acceptable use policy that Gust, as technology director, had written.

Also discovered in the investigation were sexually-explicit e-mails including one in which Gust discusses sexual fantasies involving underage teenagers.
Gust’s defense is basically that his violations of policy were accidental. This can happen: most of us have uploaded the wrong file, grabbed the wrong CD, caused embarrassment by sending an e-mail to the wrong address, and so on. But Gust’s infractions seem sufficient in both quantitative and qualitative terms that they bespeak at least an unprofessional recklessness if not intentionality. OK, so, unlike the equally creepy guy at UTSA, he should have been fired. He appears to have pretty clearly and pretty egregiously violated an actual school policy.

I agree completely with Jack Marshall’s analysis, as far as it goes: firing Gust was the right call, but that doesn’t legitimize the entirety of Judge James Ward’s ruling. Collecting photos of (apparently fully clothed) underage girls or searching for pictures of a braless (N.B., not topless) under-aged Miley Cyrus may be a little distasteful, but to suggest it is somehow connected to a firing offense is absurd; as Marshall points out, condemning someone for eight-year-old e-mails about sexual fantasies constitutes pursuing “thought-crime.”

There’s a technical term for male teachers who never, ever, even fleetingly, fantasize about their female students: gay. But the overwhelming majority of them succeed, without much trouble, in suppressing any inclination to act on these thoughts or to do anything whatsoever to jeopardize the trust and respect required for their work with students. The school district has seen fit to publicize these irrelevant details as if they were salacious, as if they had anything to do with Mr. Gust’s ability to do his job appropriately. And they might, now: now that the unprofessional idiots at the school board have defamed him, that is. Mr. Gust doesn’t belong in the classroom in Saugatuck. But neither does any other teacher who doesn’t want to be subject to the whim of a gaggle of puritanical cretins.

But there’s one more aspect to this case that no one I’ve seen has covered: What the hell was the FBI doing in this business? After 9/11, their mission was re-defined to concentrate on anti-terrorism efforts. I guess that problem has been solved now, huh? Likewise illegal immigration, drugs, organized crime, gangs, armed paramilitaries, soldiers who intend to shoot up army bases, vote fraud and vote suppression, securities fraud… Hell, jaywalking is at least illegal. That would make investigating it a more legitimate use of the agency’s time than this.

Really, as the country agonizes over what cuts in government spending must be made in order to restore fiscal stability—and perhaps to improve the credit rating downgraded yesterday by Standard and Poor’s—we’re not even a little bit concerned that the FBI’s resources are being employed in an internal personnel matter at some school in Michigan? I see no evidence of any crime whatsoever—no conspiracy, no molestation, no child pornography—just a violation of school policy. Indeed, I see no evidence that there even might have been evidence of a crime.

On what grounds were the FBI called in, and what district Bureau executive decided this case was worthy of his/her office’s time, effort, and—by extension—budget? Either there’s more to the case against Gust than we’re hearing about (unlikely, but possible) or there are some serious imbeciles in positions of power in the hierarchies of both the Saugatuck school system and the local FBI office.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On the (In)Offensiveness of Doug Lamborn

If you’re like me, you’d never heard of Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn until he took to the airwaves recently and proclaimed the following:
Even if some people say, “Well the Republicans should have done this or they should have done that,” they will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away. I don’t want that to happen to us, but if it does or not, he’ll still get, properly so, the blame because his policies for four years will have failed the American people.
He was referring, of course, to the process of negotiating the recent debt ceiling agreement with President Obama.

But the “tar baby” reference raised more than a few hackles. The knee-jerk left immediately went apoplectic, accusing Rep. Lamborn of employing a racial slur about the President of the United States. Equally predictably, the right also went ballistic, taking umbrage at the umbrage-takers. The term, they note, derives from the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. The tar baby is a ruse constructed by Brer Fox to catch Brer Rabbit: the more the latter struggled to get away, the more he was ensnared. The term has come to be associated with that kind of sticky situation. But it has also been used as a racial slur, derived in part, no doubt, from the color association, and in part from the fact that Harris gives his eponymous character a dialect that would make Stepin Fetchit cringe.

It is clear that Rep. Lamborn didn’t pay sufficient attention when Mitt Romney, Tony Snow, Virginia Foxx, and John McCain all got in trouble for using the phrase. In all of these instances the term was apparently intended to be devoid of racial overtones: only Foxx’s comments—“the Democrats have a tar baby on their hands and they simply can't get away from it”—could even arguably have been construed as a willful slur on an African-American.

The same could not always be said, however: in 2002, the head of the Redstone Area Minority Employees Association—associated with the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama—issued a press release declaring that a US Army GS-14 manager had described an African-American woman, an Information Assurance officer with a PhD in Systems Engineering, as a “tar baby.” An article posted on the site suggests that “Tar-baby seems to be the slur of choice at Redstone Arsenal,” although two of the three incidents described involve using the term in its metaphoric, non-racial sense: a “sticky situation” from which it is increasingly difficult to extricate oneself rather than as a demeaning term for a member of a racial minority. Still, Oxford American Dictionary editor-in-chief Erin McKean told Time in 2006 that “What's really important is not etymologically what it means, but the effect it has”; she said that the next edition of her dictionary would note that the term can have derogatory connotations. By contrast, there is no such indication at Merriam-Webster’s site.

Representative Lamborn has been described as the most conservative member of Congress, a distinction in which he apparently takes particular pride, telling the Colorado Springs Gazette that “to be called the most conservative member of Congress is a distinct honor.” But to be conservative is by no means inherently to be racist, although there is, of course, some overlap.

Moreover, the fact that “tar baby” can be a racial slur doesn’t mean that it always is: witness words like “coon” or “spade,” which are offensive in some contexts but not in others. Representative Lamborn should have known better than to use potentially inflammatory language which would distract from his message. But I am willing to take him at his word that he intended no disrespect by the phrase. He apologized in a personal letter to the President, and posted this notice on his website:
Congressman Doug Lamborn (CO-05) today sent a personal letter to President Barack Obama apologizing for using a term some find insensitive. Lamborn was attempting to tell a radio audience last week that the President's policies have created an economic quagmire for the nation and are responsible for the dismal economic conditions our country faces. He regrets that he chose the phrase “tar baby,” rather than the word “quagmire.” The Congressman is confident that the President will accept his heartfelt apology.
John McWhorton, a contributing editor to The New Republic and an expert at both race relations and linguistics, told the Denver Post that Lamborn was “clumsy” in using the term, but that calling it racist was an “overstatement”: “It's not the most graceful statement in the world, but to fashion it into just shy of calling the president something worse is feeding into drama.” That reading comports with my own. Indeed, I am completely satisfied that Lamborn intended no racial disparagement. Apology accepted; time to move on, right?

Not so fast.

I’m perfectly willing to grant Rep. Lamborn a pass on “tar baby,” but let’s look at what he actually said and apparently actually intended. “Now, I don’t even want to have to be associated with him.” This is what a member of Congress says about the President of the United States? More to the point, Lamborn’s apparent intention with the “tar baby” line is more or less explained in his subsequent narrative: “you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away.” Whoa, wait a minute. We’re not talking about the negotiations anymore. We’re talking about assigning blame for the inevitable disaster sown by this awful deal.

And it’s not me saying the so-called compromise in which Obama gave away a couple trillion dollars in federal spending and nearly two million jobs in exchange for a box of sporks and a 6th-round draft choice is a turkey: there’s simply no other explanation for Lamborn’s commentary. He’s part of the problem. Of course, I’d argue that people like Lamborn have been part of the problem for a long time, and that hasn’t changed. He was, after all, one of those who eviscerated the stimulus package, making it smaller than it needed to be, and loading it down with tax cuts, which no economist who doesn’t work for a conservative think tank believes are a good source of economic catalyst.

No, Rep. Lamborn’s role hasn’t changed. But our perception has. He has power now; he’s a member of Congress, and his party is in power in his chamber. He bears responsibility. But he doesn’t want that. It would be conjecture to wonder why, but it’s pretty clear that the answer is tied up in politics rather than policy.

Maybe he’s a loyal American and wants things to get better, but realizes that should that happen, much of the credit will redound to President Obama, perhaps ensuring his re-election, which, in his mind, would be a bad thing. He’d still rejoice in the strengthened economy, even if someone else got the approbation. You know, like a grown-up would. More likely, given his party’s utter intransigence on anything touching on revenue, all the while crowing about fiscal responsibility and bemoaning the deficit, Rep. Lamborn is willing to sacrifice the national economy in order to get his party back into the White House—this is the strategy suggested implicitly by Mitch McConnell and pretty much explicitly by Donald Trump.

Lamborn’s dilemma is that now people have seen him in a position of some authority. He now owns something of the success of strategies that work, but, importantly, something of the failure of those that don’t. And the debt deal is a catastrophe, as even the financial markets recognized: the stock market faltered when there was no deal, then dropped like a rock when there was one (the Dow Jones Industrial Average—Big Business in its purest form—plummeted over 265 points Tuesday). That’s the “tar baby”: partial ownership in both a sluggish economy and a broken political system, both made worse by a bad “compromise” and by the puerile posturing that got us there. That stuff gets all over your hands. And Congress’s spiffy new 14% approval rating is going to be hard to wash off.

Mr. Lamborn wants power without responsibility. He’s a Creon when we need an Oedipus. That’s a fair assessment of today’s GOP in general, and of the Tea Party in particular. And it’s a lot more problematic—and ultimately more offensive— than a clumsy locution.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Stupid Legislation of the Month (and it isn't the debt deal)

No one knows for sure who came up with the maxim that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, but no one doubts its wisdom, either. And the bill to raise the debt ceiling is a particularly ugly camel, at that. It is the product of weeks of partisan posturing, a complete lack of presidential leadership, an uncommonly high level—in both qualitative and quantitative terms—of hypocritical and indeed mendacious declarations by virtually any Republican you can mention (except the really stupid ones who may even believe some of the drivel they spout) and more than a few Democrats.

It really doesn’t do what it says it will do, but manages nonetheless to encapsulate the GOP’s proclivity for extortion and the Democrats’ equally well-developed propensity for cravenness and capitulation. It kicks the overwhelming majority of decisions down the proverbial road a little further, and creates a “super-Congress” of people the rest of us don’t get to vote on who will dither and pontificate for a while longer before coming up with a proposal acceptable to the Koch brothers and Grover Freaking Norquist: the only people in the country who appear to count, anymore. The bill may have needed to be passed, but it’s a terrible horrible no good very bad piece of legislation in about every conceivable way.

Still, for absolute, mind-blowing, glow-in-the-dark stupidity, it pales in comparison to this bill from Missouri, passed a couple of weeks ago but only finding its way into the public consciousness over the last couple of days. The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act is named for a student who was molested by a teacher over three decades ago (!). Ms. Hestir testified a couple years back before the Missouri House Education Committee; needless to say, legislators are incapable of reason when confronted by anecdotal evidence that feeds their prejudices, so we now get a bill which apparently prohibits teachers from being Facebook friends with their students.

I suspect that there are constitutional issues involved here: being a teacher doesn’t mean you give up your right to choose your own friends. But it gets worse. Here’s the exact wording of the part I’m talking about:
Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.
OK, a few points. First, it is reasonable to exercise caution, regardless of one’s age or profession, in one’s interactions on social media. My students are older than those in question here. Even so, I won’t initiate a friend request for one of my students (even if I’m confident that the reason the student hasn’t started the process him/herself is oversight rather than choice). I often allow students to see only a limited profile, or block their posts from showing up on my news feed. Even more trepidation is in order when dealing with high schoolers (and younger).

But to say that this law is clumsily written is like saying that Barney Frank isn’t likely to endorse Michele Bachmann for president. First off, it’s ill-conceived in that it targets teachers for no clear reason. I do not doubt that Ms. Hestir was molested by a teacher, and that she suffered considerably from that ordeal. But the creep in question could just as easily have been her church choir director, rec league softball coach, mom’s co-worker or dad’s bowling team buddy... or Dad, himself. But teachers are currently the flavor of the month on the right-wing idiot hit list, so guess who gets the brunt of the stupid rule? (By, the way, shock of shocks, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jane Cunningham, is the Tea Partier who proposed eviscerating the state’s child-labor laws a few months ago.)

Secondly, it criminalizes not only innocent behavior, but, at least potentially, innocent inertia. It is unclear whether simply being a Facebook friend is forbidden. Cunningham tells CNN not: “The law doesn't prohibit social media contact. If anybody says it does then they have not read the law. It just stops exclusivity, we just want those conversations to be available to the parents and school districts.” I have read the law, and I’m not so sure. The legislation does not, in fact, prohibit employing “exclusive access.” It forbids teachers from having a website that allows such access. Facebook, for example, allows exclusivity through both chat and message features. Of course, what the law actually does is to prevent teachers from having accounts with Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, etc., altogether. And forget about a personal blog!

That may not be what Ms. Cunningham intended, which means only that she as incompetent at writing as she is at legislating. My guess, however, is that even the mental deficients who run the state of Missouri aren’t really going to try to keep teachers from having a Facebook page. Rather, they will send out the Friend Police to scour the friends lists of students and teachers alike, trampling willy-nilly on 4th as well as 1st Amendment rights, chasing after what is public already. (Note: a student and a teacher can engage in an on-line messaging conversation without being “friends.”)

Teachers know people through other means than their jobs. I have a teenaged niece who is my Facebook friend. If I taught high school instead of college and lived in the same town as her, I’d be fine to continue our Facebook friendship up until the day she enrolled in my class (or perhaps in my school—the law is unclear on this point, as on so many others). But if I forgot to de-friend her, I’d be in violation of the law. It’s not clear what the penalty would be: probably losing my job. Think the regulation wouldn’t be pursued with that level of ardor? Well, people moronic enough to pass or sign a law like this are fully imbecilic enough to demand its enforcement… or, conversely, they were just showboating all along. You choose.

Thirdly, this law wouldn’t work, even if there were a serious problem (“serious” here is intended only in quantitative terms; obviously even a single case is a problem in qualitative terms). The legislation precludes only websites. Are you seriously going to tell me that a pervy teacher isn’t going to figure out that (s)he can still communicate by cell phone, text message, or e-mail? Kids really do know how to delete messages, and the average parent would have no clue how to retrieve them once that happens. This legislation is equivalent to mounting an anti-obesity campaign by outlawing licorice, while leaving unregulated the chocolate-covered marshmallows next to it on the supermarket shelf.

Fourthly, forbidding contact between teachers and “former students” is absurd on its face. I started teaching in 1979, and I’ve still got another decade or more to my career. Even if I were dealing with junior high kids instead of college students, I’d now have “former students” well into their forties. But, as the law is currently written, they’d still be off limits. Nowhere in the bill is there any mention of “minor students” or similar language.

Fifthly, the legislation forbids all manner of positive interactions—not merely the high school teacher who can calm the apprehensions of the former student now experiencing the trauma inherent in the freshman year of college, but also, as pointed out to MSNBC by University of Missouri information services professor Vicki Sauter, specifically professional assistance: “There are social media sites like LinkedIn where a student may want to put together a page for their career and get advice from a teacher. With this law they can’t do that, so I think it’s short sighted.”

Social media also have a positive function during times of crisis. Randy Turner, a teacher at Joplin East Middle School, whose blog piece on the topic is more specific and more eloquent than I can be, describes “the positive effect that teachers and students being Facebook friends had on Joplin Schools’ effort to locate students after the May 22 tornado.”

Finally, there is simply no need for this legislation. Ms. Turner makes this point brilliantly:
The laws are already in place, something Sen. Cunningham never mentions. During the mid 1990s, the state enacted laws which toughened background checks on teachers, expedited the removal of criminal teachers from the classroom, and ensured that their teaching licenses would be revoked.

And those laws have worked. Ironically, the success of that legislation has been used as a weapon against teachers by Sen. Cunningham. Each year as she pushed this legislation, she cited an Associated Press survey which showed Missouri ranked high in the number of teachers whose licenses were revoked for sexual acts with students.

In other words, these people were already being removed from having contact with students and their licenses were being revoked. The law was working. The very success of the law served as ammunition for Sen. Cunningham, since the AP study was comparing Missouri to states that have taken no action to cut down on the minority of teachers who bring shame to the whole profession.
In short, what this bill does is to outlaw positive interactions between teachers and students while doing bupkes to prevent the tiny minority of abusers from continuing their already-criminal ways. It serves as a direct and quite intentional insult to the overwhelming majority of teachers who would no more abuse a child in their care than chew off their own leg. It costs school districts time and, by extension, money, while budgets are being shrunk—and without a whiff of an upside. It reveals a profound lack of understanding of how social media operate, the technology involved, or the adolescent mind-set. Its sponsor is either horrifyingly stupid or outright insane. In other words, it is the quintessence of what passes for “common sense” among the Tea Party crowd.