A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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A lot of congressfolk are demanding that Obama visit the border

It’s not clear what he’s supposed to do while he’s there. Presumably pose for photographs for negative campaign adds. But I suppose anybody can demand whatever they want of the President.

Can we change that rule slightly, though? I’d like the rule to be that you can demand anything you want to demand from the President unless you’re a member of a Congress with single digit approval ratings. Because maybe you need to prioritize getting your own branch of government in shape. Perhaps hold off on throwing stones until you figure out how to get that approval rating up to, say, 25%?

Notifying Congress

Obama has gotten a lot of flack from both sides for not notifying Congress prior to doing various military-related things. The War Powers Resolution requires a notification to Congress of military action and prohibits committing troops for more than 60 days without Congress’s permission. The National Defense Authorization Act requires notification prior to transferring detainees out of Guantanamo. Every single administration has maintained the position that these provisions are unconstitutional. Essentially, when the military is doing time-sensitive military stuff, it can’t be beholden to political gridlock. And doing time-sensitive military stuff is exclusively the jurisdiction of the executive branch.

With that said, the Presidents tend to, for the most part, follow the rules. Notifying Congress when it wants to be notified is probably good policy.

I’m not generally a fan of expanding executive power. But the Presidents are right on this one, aren’t they? Congress sucks. You can’t do time-sensitive military things when the House of Representatives is like, “Okay, but first let’s repeal Obamacare.” Notifying Congress is important, where practical. But when it comes down to it, it’s probably not actually the law.

Hope, change, and a few things I’ve learned since then

In 2008, I thought well-intentioned smart people could pretty much solve the country’s problems. Obama was elected President—and I thought a lot of things were going to change pretty quickly.

And a lot of things changed. We got a recession. We also got Obamacare, the CFPB, and thousands of small but significant changes to the way government works. Every bit of has been hard fought and grueling.

I wasn’t dumb in 2008. I didn’t think things would that change quickly. I didn’t think anything would be particularly easy. But I didn’t think it would be this hard.

Here are a few things I’ve learned since then.

  1. Significant and systemic change is possible.
  2. Getting good folks in government is part of what’s necessary.
  3. Large groups of people exercising an organized and targeted political voice can be incredibly powerful.

Cards on the table? I’m stilly pretty hopey-changey. But I underestimated how messy it all was. It takes a lot of work by a lot of people. Building a skyscraper takes a team of engineers and architects. But it’s not the engineers and architects who build the thing.

Four things about waste, fraud, and abuse

First, nobody is in favor of waste, fraud, and abuse. If one side of a political issue says “this is about stopping waste, fraud and abuse” and some other side disagrees with the policy, there’s some other issue in play the waste/fraud/abuse folks aren’t talking about.

Second, efforts to combat it is inherently wasteful. Trying to root out and prosecute fraud has its own costs. If it takes $10,000 to track down $9,000 of waste, it’s no good.

Third, combatting waste, fraud, and abuse has, in the past, been used to attack programs or policies people don’t like. Onerous and unnecessary audits can be used both to make people afraid to do their jobs, to waste resources, and to use technical deficiencies as political cover to shut something down. These were used pretty heavily during the Reagan administration against Legal Services Corporation grantees.

Fourth, be careful about claims like “30% of the money was not properly accounted for.” That’s not the same thing as “30% of the money is just missing.” It could be that some form was filled out the wrong way or that an audit found that some box wasn’t checked in a grant report. Somebody forgot a zipcode on a form. Or maybe there’s a required certification that somebody has not been convicted of fraud that wasn’t in a file. It’s not that the person was convicted of fraud—it’s just that somebody forgot to fill out a form.

None of this is to say that we don’t have major problems with fraud—particularly in large federal contracts. But read carefully.

Prisoner Exchanges

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been released by the Taliban in exchange for five detainees who have been held for a dozen years Guantanamo Bay. The five guys all released are pretty serious Taliban guys. Some of them seem to be involved in a variety of war crimes and mass murders. If the conservatives are going to claim that letting these guys out (into the custody of Qatar) makes the world a less safe place, they’re probably right.

But … at some point there are principles. If we have prisoners of war, the war has to end at some point. And if we’ve just got prisoners, we’ve got to give them a trial. Five fewer people indefinitely detained is, in itself, a good thing.

On Killing Jobs

I keep hearing that an increase in the minimum wage will reduce hiring. Could somebody clarify for me specifically which jobs they’re worried will be eliminated with a $0.50 hike in minimum wage? If you need somebody to work a register, you need somebody to work a register. If that person can be eliminated at $7.75, they can be eliminated at $7.25. Position eliminated of a small wage hike are going to be few and far between.

Racism in the 21st Century

One of my favorite gags around the holidays is to choose a present with a distinctive shape and wrap it in a way that makes it extremely obvious what it is. A present appears under the tree the size and shape of a tea kettle. The wrapping is sort of a symbolic covering—but you’d have to be wilfully ignorant not to know what was underneath. And even though people wink and joke about what could be in the present, it’s bad manners to actually say what’s in there.

It’s a lot like the colorblind approach to racism. In fact, our schools are largely segregated. Our neighborhoods are functionally segregated. Our wealth is segregated. Churches are segregated. Like my wrapping-job, it’s not a perfect fit. But the broad shape of the thing is there. And once in a while a glimmer of something underneath shines through. Maybe some of the overt stuff is concealed—but nobody is seriously fooled.

I guess I’m just losing patience with the “let’s pretend it’s not there and hope it goes away” approach.

But seriously

A few hundred years ago, we decided that owning an estate and a noble title didn’t make you special and that if you wanted to make something of yourself you ought to contribute actual value rather than skimming off what everybody else was doing.

It’s not really clear to me how holding and rearranging massive amounts of capital is any different in principal from that landed nobility thing we parted ways with centuries ago.

What am I missing?

On Progress

Progressives aren’t very good at the long game. Ultimately this won’t matter. Progress, by definition, is inevitable. The train has left the station—and no matter how many roadblocks conservatives pile in the way, it’s not going back. It’s just that it would be nice if that train would move a bit faster.

Perhaps that’s the Progressives’ weakness. They don’t always have a particularly coherent vision of the future or a practical plan on how to get there. The conservatives have a reasonably coherent, reasonably compelling narrative. It’s just not a good fit with reality. The Progressives would be well served to work a bit harder in the storytelling department.

GOP as the “iPhone party” – CNN.com Blogs

It looks like Lamar Alexander just got his first smartphone. He wants the GOP to appeal to kids these days with their iPhones and participation trophies and Twitterverses.

I’m not entirely clear on how the metaphor works. If your goal is a minimally regulated market, iPhone Apps are a terrible analogy. “We insist that businesses to go through a prolonged and opaque approval process before they have access to the market in order to ensure quality services for all citizens.” “We at Apple.gov believe we know how you want to use your device better than you do. We’re willing to sacrifice consumer choice for a sleek and streamlined design.”

I’m not hating on Apple with this. Their products do, after all, have a sleek and streamlined design. It works for them. It’s just … I’m pretty sure those aren’t the Republican’s goals.