This is the sort of thing that becomes old news fast, but I still think the filibuster issue is important to take note of here.  First Kevin Drum lays out (pre-compromise) exactly what is so insidious and historically unique about what the Republicans have been up to:

Or, in some cases, to merely have the federal government operate at all. You see, the nominees that really have Reid seeing red are the ones for the NLRB and the CFPB. Republicans don’t actually have any special objection to any of them. They’ve just decided to shut down those two agencies via filibuster. The NLRB can’t legally operate at allwithout a quorum, and several important CFPB functions also can’t be implemented at allunless the agency has a director. So these agencies of the US government—agencies duly created by Congress and signed into law by the president—are effectively being eliminated by a minority of one house of Congress.

That’s what’s different this time around. Legislation has been filibustered for a long time. Judges have been filibustered for a long time. Republicans are doing it more now than in the past, but they’re not doing something that’s fundamentally new. Executive branch nominees are different. Filibusters of presidential appointments have been rare, and they’ve never been used to shut down entire arms of the government.

Meanwhile, Ezra brings ten facts to show the absurdity of the situation (here’s the two I really like):

1) Before Obama, 20 executive branch nominees were filibustered. Under Obama, 16 have been filibustered. This is a statistic Reid’s office likes to use. If current trends continue, they note, it’s entirely possible Obama could end up seeing more of his executive-branch nominees filibustered than every other president in history combined…

4) Republicans aren’t just trying to block nominees. They’re trying to nullify or change agencies. The fights that have Democrats most exercised right now aren’t over normal nominees. They’re over the National Labor Relations Board, where the GOP has refused to confirm enough members to create a quorum, and which thus can’t legally carry out its normal duties; and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where the GOP has said they’re blocking the nominee not out of any particular concern over his qualifications, but because they oppose the agency as currently constructed and want to see it changed. Democrats consider this a dangerous new tactic that needs to be quickly shut down.

And, yes, the Democrats basically “won” the compromise, but they really should have “gone nuclear” and eliminated this entirely absurd abuse of minority power.   Kevin Drum, again, while excerpting Jonathan Bernstein, nicely lays out what’s wrong with not actually eliminating the filibuster:

After all, Republicans didn’t agree to stop the filibusters. They just agreed to provide 60 votes for cloture when needed:

What’s different, post-deal, is that Republicans have apparently agreed that these filibusters will be limited — that they will avoid defeating cloture on executive branch nominations, and thus allow Democrats to confirm those nominees as long as they have a simple majority. They can still filibuster, however, and it’s not as if it’s meaningless; it does, in fact, use up Senate floor time that could be used for something else, and it’s not unusual for Senate floor time to be valuable.

This has always been an underappreciated facet of the Senate filibuster. Republicans routinely filibuster people and bills that they have no real problem with, which is why you occasionally have a filibuster one week followed by a 98-0 vote the next week to approve something (or someone). Why? Because it sucks up floor time, and the more time spent on useless stuff like this, the less time there is for passing actual legislation.

The filibuster is an absurdity in a democratic system of government and it needs to go.  And you won’t need to remind me I said that when Democrats are in a minority.

Rich people are different

So, I was going to write a post about this interesting new research about how rich people really are different.  Basically, they are meaner and less empathetic.  Here’s the abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

And, here’s the speculation on the why, from the discussion:

Why are upper-class individuals more prone to unethical behavior, from violating traffic codes to taking public goods to lying? This finding is likely to be a multiply determined effect involving both structural and psychological factors. Upper-class individuals’ relative independence from others and increased privacy in their professions (3) may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts (8). The availability of resources to deal with the downstream costs of unethical behavior may increase the likelihood of such acts among the upper class. In addition, independent self-construals among the upper class (22) may shape feelings of entitlement and inattention to the consequences of one’s actions on others (23). A reduced concern for others’ evaluations (24) and increased goal-focus (25) could further instigate unethical tendencies among upper-class individuals. Together, these factors may give rise to a set of culturally shared norms among upper-class individuals that facilitates unethical behavior.

And  before I got to post this, John F. alerted me to a PBS Newshour segment that covers this ground in a thorough and engaging manner:

The part that’s really depressing about this is that it seems an inevitable feature of the human condition.  When people were put into situations that manipulated their relative wealth/status, they got meaner on average.  So, it’s not just that unethical, unempathetic people get rich, but rather, there’s something about you being rich that make you treat your fellow human worse.  That’s depressing.

Don’t worry, though, I won’t let my raise from my recent promotion to Full Professor affect me :-).

Abortion and public opinion in NC

PPP came out with a new poll of North Carolina yesterday and there’s lots of fascinating results.  I found the results on abortion to be particularly interesting– basically Republican claims that the regulations are only about women’s health and not actually restricting access to abortion seemed to have fooled pretty much no one:

Unhappiness over the abortion bill seems to be driving a lot of the increased unhappiness with the Republicans in state government this month. Only 34% of voters support the proposal to 47% who are opposed. They’re even more unhappy with the process- 80% think it’s inappropriate to combine abortion legislation with bills about motorcycle safety or Sharia Law.

That said, I will take issue with PPP on this.  While 80% disapprove of the Republican approach, I absolutely guarantee you that 80% of North Carolinians were not aware of this approach before being asked about it in a survey question.

Surely, the most heartening news for Democrats it this:

All of this could come back to bite Republicans in next year’s election. The GOP has an overall 35% approval rating for how it’s running state government with 55% of voters disapproving. Democrats now lead the generic legislative ballot 51/42, the largest lead we’ve ever found for them since we started tracking this statistic.

That said, what the Democrats will really need is 1) money; and 2) quality candidates to capitalize on this sentiment.  Especially given the organizational problems the NC Dems have faced recently, neither of these is a foregone conclusion.  If these sentiments to persist, though, it will be a good test of just how effective the Republican gerrymander of the state is (sadly, I suspect very effective).  My guess is that even with things potentially looking up for Democrats in NC, many of the best candidates will choose not to run in districts which seem to be hopelessly Republican.

For now, it seems pretty clear that the NC Republicans are doing a pretty good job of driving away all but the right-wing base.  That’s not enough for them to continue winning in NC.  I will be very curious to see, therefore, how they may attempt to moderate things in 2014.  Then again, given all the Tea Party nuts serving in the legislature, probably not too much.

Prisons and the mentally ill

One of the well- established but rarely addressed facts of our criminal justice system is what a sadly huge portion of inmates suffer from serious mental illness.  We know that this is not the approach, but we never do anything to improve it.  Great column on the matter from the LA Times’ Steve Lopez:

If you routinely hear voices, hallucinate, sink into suicidal depression or suffer inescapable torment, Los Angeles has a place for you.

The county jail.

On Monday, the jail held 3,200 inmates diagnosed with a mental illness and accused of a crime. Most have not been to trial, many have waited months for their day in court, and the majority have cycled through at least once before. There’s no longer enough room to house them all in segregated areas, so 1,000 mentally ill men and 300 women are housed with the general population.

Sheriff Lee Baca has said for decades that he runs the nation’s largest mental hospital, but we’ve heard it so often that the shock has worn off. We know there’s something inexcusably wrong with the system — something backward and inhumane. But we shrug and move on, and the failure of public policy persists, at great public expense, while Los Angeles County officials order up another round of studies…

Clearly, locking these men up over and over again isn’t working, and it isn’t cheap. But it’s what the system has been doing for years in Los Angeles County and in jails and prisons across the country.

Therapists know it. Judges know it, because they see the same offenders churn through their courtrooms, many of them for drug possession and minor offenses in which the underlying cause is often a mental illness. And jailers surely know it, though the problem is not of their making or of any other single agency’s.

“We’re on the same page here,” sheriff’s Cmdr. David Fender said Monday when I met with him and mental health officials at the jail. “The entire leadership” of the Sheriff’s Department “believes we’ve got to do something about this.”

No doubt, so what’s the plan?

Short version.  There isn’t much of anyone.  At some point, its gotta be super cost-effective to provide better mental health treatment to those that are prone to committing crimes, thereby saving multiples of the treatment cost by savings in the criminal justice system.  Alas, mental health and criminal justice are run by separate bureaucracies with separate budgets and that sure doesn’t help.

Photo of the day

So, a solar-powered plane actually flew across the US both day and night.  Pretty cool.  And nice photo gallery from Big Picture:

The Solar Impulse glides over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco during a successful test flight on April 23. The Solar Impulse is powered by about 12,000 photovoltaic cells that cover massive wings and charge its batteries, allowing it to fly day and night without jet fuel. (Solar Impulse/Associated Press )

Krugman, welfare, and race

Nice, angry column from Paul Krugman on Republicans war upon the poor (as opposed to war on poverty) as realized through their hostility to food stamps:

So House Republicans voted to maintain farm subsidies — at a higher level than either the Senate or the White House proposed — while completely eliminating food stamps from the bill.

To fully appreciate what just went down, listen to the rhetoric conservatives often use to justify eliminating safety-net programs. It goes something like this: “You’re personally free to help the poor. But the government has no right to take people’s money” — frequently, at this point, they add the words “at the point of a gun” — “and force them to give it to the poor.”

It is, however, apparently perfectly O.K. to take people’s money at the point of a gun and force them to give it to agribusinesses and the wealthy.

Good stuff.  That said, Krugman needs to spend a little time keeping up with political science.

So what’s going on here? Is it just racism? No doubt the old racist canards — like Ronald Reagan’s image of the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy a T-bone steak — still have some traction. But these days almost half of food stamp recipients are non-Hispanic whites; in Tennessee, home of the Bible-quoting Mr. Fincher, the number is 63 percent. So it’s not all about race.

No, it’s not all about race.  But the sad truth is, that’s a huge part of it, regardless of the fact that Blacks are a minority of food stamp recipients.  The key is not the reality of food stamps, but white perceptions of food stamp recipients.  Martin Gilens published a great book on this over a decade ago (American Prospect summary here)

This puzzle is at the heart of Martin Gilens’s compelling book, and his answer can be summed up in a word: race. Americans dislike the programs most commonly called “welfare”– especially Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and its successor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)–not because they are too individualistic to believe in public social provision or too self-interested to pay for it, but because they associate these programs with African Americans.

Meanwhile, there’s a much more recent book by Don Kinder and Cindy Kam (touted multiple occassions by Yglesias) that finds much the same thing.  Yglesias:

The No. 1 book about American politics that I wish more people would read is Donald Kinder and Cindy Cam, US Versus Them: The Ethnocentric Foundations of American Public Opinion. Absolutely everyone knows that race and ethnicity are central to American politics. Everyone knew last week that Obama would do better with middle-class black voters than with middle-class white ones. Everyone understands that courting the “white working class” is different from courting working class voters in East L.A. But excessive politeness tends to lead pundits to bracket this knowledge off the importance of race and ethnicity from analysis of particular political controversies. Yet that’s foolish. We just had a whole campaign in which the candidates talked endlessly about taxes and Medicare and then skin color and national ancestry turned out to be huge drivers of voting behavior just as they are every year.

The book has some wise things to say about how to bring “the issues” together with demographics by looking at, among other things, how “ethnocentric” (an attempt to be a bit less charged than calling people racist) different classes of voters are. And as it turns out for all voters ethnocentricity is a statistical correlate of views on other matters. Among African-Americans, for example, more ethnocentric people are more dovish on foreign policy.

But among white people, the big issue is that ethnocentricity drives attitudes about social welfare spending.

Since I was playing with various measures of racial attitudes this week, I plugged them into all my models of social welfare attitudes.  It didn’t matter how you measured race, or how many possible controls you used (every demographic you can think of plus partisanship and ideology), but racial attitudes nonetheless plays a huge role in how white Americans think about the role of government.

Here, for example, negative feelings towards Blacks and beliefs that Blacks have too much influence in government are quite significant in predicting opposition to Obamacare (a policy, with no obvious racial connection whatsoever).


So, sadly, it may not be all about race.  But race still plays far too large a role in how Americans think about important public policies.


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