Headline of the day

Via Foxnews.com (I’ve linked to Chait, since Fox has since modified the original headline):

Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General

They’ve since gone back and changed this to “who defeated U.S. General,” but the fact that Obama praising Sitting Bull, among a dozen other historic American figures in a children’s book, merits this headline really tells you all you need to know about Fox News.


Slate has a nice piece on gerrymandering.  My favorite part, though, is a great slide show on “the most gerrymandered districts in America.”

Three of the 20 are in North Carolina, but my favorite is Illinois 4:

Maryland 3 is also great:

You should definitely check out the whole slide show.

How to be pro-life

I used to consider myself “pro-life” until much more recently than you might expect.  While I’m still very much of the opinion that, as a society, we should try and take measures to reduce the number of abortions, it has become increasingly clear that those who identify as “pro-life” generally are not so interested in that.  Will Saletan has a really nice article in Slate on finding common ground between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and it seems pretty clear to me that “pro choice” camp is much more willing to take steps that will actually reduce abortions.  Saletan:

1. Reduce the abortion rate through voluntary means. In the conference’s opening session (videos of all but one session are available here), David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, warned fellow pro-lifers that overturning Roe v. Wade wouldn’t address the underlying cultural dynamics that cause abortions. The next day, Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, voiced a similar concern: “We have to see whether prohibiting [abortion] is actually effective in minimizing, reducing the rate of abortion. And so I’m very concerned with the study in 2007 that indicated that societies which criminalized abortion did not succeed in reducing the rate of abortion.”

Rather than focus on passing laws, Gushee conveyed an alternative approach: He urged pro-lifers to study data on why women seek abortions and to systematically address those factors. This approach recognizes that the right to life and the right to choose are not antithetical. In fact, they’re aligned to the extent that women don’t like abortions. Help women avoid pregnancies they don’t want, and you’ll wipe out the vast majority of abortions without having to enact a single restriction. [emphasis mine]

I think that last line is really what it mostly comes down to.  Truth is, those on the “pro choice” side are the ones generally more supportive of the policies that would seem to reduce unwanted pregnancy.  Saletan goes on to talk about the issue of contraception.  Catholics have their whole theological opposition to the matter (not that it has a particularly large effect on Catholic behavior), but getting Evangelical Protestants to be more supportive of birth control is low-hanging fruit in the matter:

Because these families and churches don’t feel comfortable saying, “If you’re going to have sex, use contraception,” I think it’s fair to say that conservative religion is one contributing factor to the remarkably high rate of unintended pregnancies in our culture….

The morality of contraception is not the intrinsic problem in Protestant thought that it is in traditional Catholic moral thought. … It ought to be possible to work in historically conservative evangelical subcultures to increase the acceptance of contraceptive education and provision, at least as a second best option.

I think the following line is key:

If pro-lifers were to embrace contraception and give it moral sanction—it would prevent more abortions than any anti-abortion law would.

Honestly, since I really do think fewer abortions are a good thing, it is encouraging to see at least some of the more intellectually honest “pro-life” crowd coming around on finding ground.  Sadly, it’s Sarah Palin and friends, though, who drive the positions of the Republican party.

Texas Justice

Somewhat surprised the only place I’ve seen this story is Jonathan Cohn’s blog, but there now seems to be pretty clear evidence that Texas has executed yet another innocent man:

From the Texas Observer:

Claude Jones always claimed that he wasn’t the man who walked into an East Texas liquor store in 1989 and shot the owner. He professed his innocence right up until the moment he was strapped to a gurney in the Texas execution chamber and put to death on Dec. 7, 2000. His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene—a strand of hair—that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.

But DNA tests completed this week at the request of the Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project show the hair didn’t belong to Jones after all. The day before his death in December 2000, Jones asked for a stay of execution so the strand of hair could be submitted for DNA testing. He was denied by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

Cohn, naturally, also links to the fabulous New Yorker story on Cameron Todd Willingham who in all likelihood did not burn down his house with his family inside.  Alas, Texas was not so interested in hearing evidence about the horrid and unscientific arson investigation that convicted him before they put him to death.   I always tell my students if they are going to commit a murder (not that I encourage such things), not to do it in Texas.  Rather, I think I should tell them, if they are closely associated with someone who is murdered, they better hope they are not in Texas.

“Fiscal conservatism”

Very nice column from Michael Lind in Salon about what “fiscal conservatism” actually means in contemporary political discourse:

There’s just one problem. There is no such thing as “fiscal conservatism.”

The phrase “fiscal conservatism” in common usage today has two meanings — one trivial, the other misleading. When “fiscal conservatism” means merely a willingness to pay for government spending, no matter what the scale or purpose of that spending may be, then the term is trivial. When “fiscal conservatism” is used as a synonym for small-government economic conservatism, then the term is misleading.

Let us begin with the trivial definition. If “fiscal conservatism” means nothing more than a belief that all federal spending should be paid for sooner or later, then practically every possible position on every debate is “fiscally conservative.”…

But of course nobody uses “fiscal conservatism” in this trivial sense. In practice, “fiscal conservatism” is as a synonym for “economic conservatism.” The so-called fiscal conservatives in the present-day United States, including the Republican Alan Simpson and the Democrat Erskine Bowles, would not support the creation of a social democratic America with 50 percent of GDP going to federal, state and local governments, even if that 50 percent were paid for with taxes and even if the budget were regularly balanced. In practice, most “fiscal conservatives” want a smaller government and less federal spending, not simply a match between federal spending and federal revenues.

Lind nicely spins out a number of political implications from all this.  What struck me, though, is the amazing parallel with “judicial activism.”  In both cases, conservatives have come to “own” a phrase in common political usage which has become completely divorced from its real meaning and implications and use it to great political effect.  Presumably, liberals could learn from this.  But, for the most part, I think we’re a little bit more bound by that pesky little thing better known as “reality.”



Who does the Mortgage Interest Deduction benefit?

Probably not you, all that much (I don’t think I have too many readers in million dollar homes). Sure, there’s a modest benefit for middle-income Americans, but the largest benefits accrue to those with the most expensive homes. Ezra Klein brings the charts to demonstrate this:


As you can see, the less money you make, the less the mortgage-interest tax deduction does for you. But putting it in percentile terms understates the situation, as 1 percent of a big salary is a lot more money than 1 percent of a small salary. So here’s the same graph in raw dollars:


On both graphs, the benefits for the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution are invisible. That’s not because they literally don’t exist, but because the deduction is worth $2 to people between in the bottom fifth and $32 for the quintile after that. As for the top 1 percent? They’re getting a break of more than $5,000. I’m not really clear why we’re giving people making hundreds of thousands a year large subsidies to buy a house, but I’m sure there’s a good reason.

I think Ezra is being coy.  In fact, it is pretty clear.  Despite the modest progressivity of the tax code, it is basically written for rich people by rich people.  Perhaps more notably, really powerful lobbying interests– home builders and realtors– work really hard to keep this in the tax code.  And I suspect that most home owners think they get much more benefit than they actually do.

When I first became a home-owner in Lubbock, TX just over ten years ago, I was shocked at how little the home mortgage interest deduction helped on our taxes, after hearing about the tax benefits of home ownership all my life.  Then again, in Lubbock in 2000 you could by a 1400 square foot 3 bedroom/2 bath w/ 2 car garage for $76,000.  Still, the deduction is still not all that great for our much pricier house in Cary, NC.  For those of us in the middle of the income band, its only about 1 % savings on the tax bill.  That’s not nothing, but there are much more efficient ways to deliver that benefit to middle-income Americans without also subsidizing the richest Americans owning million-dollar homes.   I’m all for eliminating this tax break entirely.  Kevin Drum suggests putting the cap at $250K (instead of a million), which certainly sounds like a good (and much more politically feasible) start.


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