Obamacare Navigators Knock–Senator Cruz Opens Door And Is Held Hostage

Obamacare mental health care navigators are said by reliable sources to have captured Senator Ted Cruz. They knocked on his office door and promised him a free Obamaphone and he fell for it. They are holding him hostage until the House repeals the Citizens United decision, passes the farm bill, funds the Affordable Care Act for ten years, passes a new Voting Rights Act, as well as a bill legalizing gay marriage nationwide and providing free wedding cakes for all such couples (or threesomes or foursomes if so desired).

Senator Bernie Sanders denounced Republican inflexibility on Cruz ransom conditions, noting that his own stated position had previously included a law jailing all CEOs of Wall Street firms and putting them in the stocks adjacent to Trinity Church for six months in all weather. Sanders remarked that he is now willing to compromise by providing umbrellas to cover executive heads in the rain.

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Has The NSA Finally Stepped On Too Many Blue Suede Shoes?

Today the NYT reports that the NSA began intruding on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in 2010, in a policy shift that allowed the agency to conduct “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness” of each email address or phone number or other identifier. According to authors James Risen and Laura Poitras (collaborator with Greenwald and subject of a recent NYT Sunday Magazine cover story), “because of concerns about infringing on the privacy of American citizens, the computer analysis of such data had previously been permitted only for foreigners.” This expansion of surveillance was done without any review by the intelligence court, according to the authors.

The Times has such an understated, seemingly blase way of sharing the scariest information. I would say the NSA is stepping all over our Blue Suede Shoes. Granted that we may never know about some plots that have been foiled by NSA analysis of social networks, this story seems yet another confirmation that the surveillance state has been operating beyond any effective review.

The giant tech companies implicated in this story cannot be happy about the business risk and uncertainty public disclosure of (at least some of) the reach of the NSA has caused them. How far can or will Google, Facebook, Apple, et al go up against the NSA and its corporate and government allies? They are perhaps the best hope for a check on the surveillance state, given that they know, or should, how quickly a damaged tech brand can disappear into liquidation. Google could care less if the NSA is evil, Facebook didn’t mind either, but when the National Security Agency moves so fast it breaks things like Facebook’s business model, then the corporate overlords in Silicon Valley might have a problem they can’t afford to ignore.

Would it be too pessimistic to think the NSA does not care about a government shutdown or even a bond default because they will just keep going by selling their data in secret?

Livin’ The Insane Gangsta Pretend-Libertarian Thug Vida Loca

In fairness to the insane gangsta thug pseudo-libertarians in Congress, President Obama did give them reason to believe two years ago that they ought to keep doing what they are doing. So it is up to Obama to explain early and often why he is doing what he is doing. And I thought he did a good job of that both at the Clinton Global Initiative the other day and then at a speech in Largo, Maryland. I do not believe, though, that it is the President’s fault if we the people prefer the narcotic of Breaking Bad to the more serious work of paying just a little more attention to basic details of the health care law and of the non-equivalent stances of the parties in Washington. The substantial point spread between approval of the “Affordable Care Act” and that of “Obamacare” is testament enough to our slothfulness.

The Discernment Of Continence, The Continence Of Discernment

The Pope said in his recent interview that one eventually gets tired of dogmatism and authoritarianism. He said that he learned philosophy in his youth from “decadent Thomistic commentaries,” which, he implied, became tiresome and unproductive. Francis remarked that true discernment is not facilitated by reliance on epitomes–spiritual Cliff’s Notes, that is. One needs to come to terms with the whole of what Ignatius said, the entire “constitution”–the Jesuit constitution, he meant, but we could apply the injunction to grappling with other classic works.

This is very much consonant with his insistence at several points in the interview that the church should not become imprisoned in “small-minded rules.” Francis is very much a Jesuit in circling back over and over to the theme of “discernment,” which is at the heart of the Ignatian spiritual exercises. And those exercises are, in turn, very much connected to an even more antique Greco-Roman tradition of philosophy as a way of life (hat tip to the work of the late Pierre Hadot on, for example, Stoic and Epicurean spiritual exercises).

Francis cautions that “in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be: if a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions–that is the proof that God is not with him…Uncertainty is in every true discernment.” This Pope is a subtle and dialectical fellow who also seems to be enjoying speaking what is on his mind. I might wish for acknowledgment of more than an “area” or “margin” of uncertainty when it comes to discernments about God’s will for our world, but this pope has taken such pains to distance himself from a monarchical style that perhaps I should be slower to judge! I do not think he is leaving much room at all for reactionary bishops or cardinals to find fault as yet. While he portrays them as obsessively focused on law rather than gospel, they are reduced to saying his words are being misconstrued and need to be read in full. I do agree, though, with Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter that regardless of the warmth of the welcome to gay Catholics “the wounds will not heal if the teachings remain the same.” And despite Francis’s utterly remarkable comment that “what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo,” his notion that “Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops” would become more impressive if this “Mary” person had a last name, was alive today, and the Pope appointed her to be a Cardinal.

Next week will likely be a leading indicator of what institutional changes this Pope has in mind, with the “G-8” group of cardinals meeting with him in Rome. I think that in Rome, as in Washington, the battle for the high ground this fall may be framed in terms of discernment and continence–as in, to put it pugnaciously, I discern that I am standing on the high ground of moral and spiritual continence, and those others are flat-out out of control and incontinent, and lacking any discernment to boot.

P.S. For further reading I am pleased to recommend a non-decadent commentary. I know that it is not decadent because it was written by Thomas Aquinas himself! To wit, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, by Thomas Aquinas (Dumb Ox Books:Notre Dame, Indiana, 1993), particularly Book 7, Continence and Incontinence, pp. 407-474.

Foreign-Born Senator Ted Cruz Misreads Green Eggs And Ham

The shameful misinterpretation of the beloved American fable Green Eggs and Ham by foreign-born Senator Cruz raises the question, can this man be trusted to uphold our American Constitution? Does he understand anything at all about our sacred American way of life? Sadly the answer seems to be no, given his sickening distortions of the pure truths Dr. Seuss conveyed to generations of innocent American children.

I refer, of course, to Senator Claire McCaskill‘s explanation of the meaning of Green Eggs and Ham on Morning Joe today: “I went to the University of Missouri. I did not go to Harvard. But my daughter texted me this morning and said, ‘Mom, does he not know the point of the story? It’s that you can’t knock things until you try it.'” What makes this all the more horrific is that Senator Cruz had the heartlessness to traumatize his own daughter with his misreading of the story as an anti-Obamacare bedtime tale.

Perhaps if Senator Cruz had not had the misfortune of being born in another country, he could better understand our founding texts and our exceptional values.

Pope Francis Still Not Allowing Gay Weddings in St. Peter’s Square

What is the hold up? Let’s get on with the gay wedding right in St Peter’s Square already! Francis, you have been Head Man in Rome for at least six months now. You said, Who am I to judge, didn’t you? And did you not say your favorite painting in Rome is Caravaggio’sCalling of St. Matthew“? How much gayer (and Baroquely so) than Caravaggio can you get? “St. Matthew” in the painting isn’t even dead, he is alive and living in Provincetown right now–unless he’s gone back to Chelsea for the winter already.

We don’t need to hear any more noise about “discernment,” by the way. Discernment takes time, you say. Uh-huh. The wedding planners have discerned plenty already. The gowns, dresses, tuxes, trains–they are ready and waiting, my man!

You hesitate. I understand. You are not a right-winger, but you don’t want to be doing stuff “willy-nilly,” as our President Obama says. No problem. We got a guy we are gonna send over to tell your people what he has no problem with, so as to nudge you along the path of righteousness. Name of Biden. There are no limits to God’s mercy, as you say. And you will be judged with mercy after you do the right thing.

Still Not Very Advanced

President Obama, speaking at a memorial for the Navy Yard shooting victims, said “no other advanced nation endures this kind of violence. None.” Of course other countries, such as England and Japan, have endured terroristic attacks. But he was right, I think, in that no other “First World” country sees mass killing after mass killing without doing what it takes to drastically reduce their future likelihood. Wayne LaPierre of the NRA said today that “all the outrage…ought to be placed on an unprotected naval base.” If Wayne LaPierre has enough influence that a more rigorous system of background checks still cannot pass Congress, just as it couldn’t after the Newtown, Connecticut slaughter, I have to wonder about part of what President Obama said. How advanced a nation are we?

Honey Badger Pope Manifests His Conscience

The Pope has made headlines again with a long (about 12,000 word) interview published simultaneously yesterday by 16 different Jesuit journals. The lede is the bomb dropped on right-wing “restorationists”: stop obsessing about gays and abortion and focus on the heart of the gospel, which is mercy. Francis likened the Catholic Church to a field hospital: “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful….I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” Elsewhere the Pope makes the same point more directly and literally, saying he knows some have reprimanded him for not speaking more about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, but that “it is not necessary to talk about these matters all the time.” He continues his counterattack against the legalistic reprimanders: “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials…this is also what fascinates and attracts more….We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the gospel….The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing….The message of the Gospel…is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

Francis wants to be like Pope John XXIII: “see everything, turn a blind eye to much, correct a little.” For liberal Catholics, the words of this interview are “rain in a parched desert,” as one National Catholic Reporter blogger wrote, and as another wrote, “my butt is sore from falling out of my chair as I read through the text.” Even before publication, Elizabeth Scalia warned in the Washington Post that liberal-minded people ought not to lazily make this pope into an idol (who will do all the hard work). The New Yorker, on the other hand, suggested that Justice Antonin Scalia (no relation, I believe) has formed a search committee to find a new pope! But Francis seems for the moment to be able to speak and breathe pretty well with just one lung. “Eventually people get tired of authoritarianism”: goodness gracious sakes alive, what is next?

Hat tip to a tweet on The Dish for “honey badger” description of Pope Francis

Heaven Forbid The American People Should Get Any Rising Expectations

How much chance is there that the federal government will shut down in October? The threat of intraparty challenges to Republicans who do not show bona fides of intransigence tilts the odds toward shutdown, though it’ll become a right-wing dead end real quick unless they can frame interruption of Social Security checks as the fault of the illegitimate usurper Obama. Which they will try to do. This may even be absurd enough to challenge the convention of equivalence in blaming Democrats and Republicans–or not, given how entrenched false equivalence is and how well Republican politicians and special interest lobbyists have exploited the unwillingness of mainstream news to take note of obvious asymmetries in extremism.

Shutdown is likely because no shutdown would mean climbdown and capitulation to an illegitimate President, an unconstitutional health care law, and an unacceptable status quo, according to Tea Party thinking. It is up to the Democrats, starting at the top, not to sigh, not to become visibly agitated or annoyed, but to explain again why standing firm on implementation of the Affordable Care Act is in the best interests of the country. There is no reason to give Republicans an easy target by pretending extending health coverage is in all ways a free lunch, but there is good reason to explain the great benefit in moving toward a universal risk pool. And there is every reason to remind the public in a cheerful, upbeat way of the gains in security and quality of life that the Affordable Care Act will promote. It would be great if Democrats and perhaps even some Republicans would point out, again, the benefit of things like health care portability and ensuring coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Countering right-wing scare tactics will work best, though, only after the law’s provisions start to spread by word of mouth.

That is what really scares right-wing elites: that the tens of millions of people who have suffered becoming more and more insecure and economically marginal in the last few decades will discover that the Affordable Care Act makes a positive difference to them. Heaven forbid we should allow, or worse encourage, rising expectations among the 21st-century proletariat and lumpenproletariat.

Summers No Longer Too Big To Fail

On the fifth anniversary of Lehman’s bankrupty and the ensuing meltdown, Larry Summers has tasted the agony of defeat. He has withdrawn from consideration for the post of Federal Reserve chair. He did the right thing. Thank goodness a few Democratic Senators made their feelings known. Maybe he would have made a terrific Fed leader, but his temperament is suspect to say the least. Do we really want somebody, anybody, who emanates an “I am too big to fail” vibe in charge of the world’s (still) main reserve currency? If Summers or somebody like him became head of the Fed, he or she (I am not saying Janet Yellen resembles Summers) also becomes too big to save. That would likely become a big problem before long.

You might have hoped that in 2008 we would have seized the day to deal with regulatory capture and moral hazard (big subjects for another day). Dodd-Frank regulations are less than half done, and the Volcker Rule has not been implemented. But we can hope than someone less captive than Larry Summers may become Fed chair.

Hillary Bangs The Fife And Drum

Hillary Clinton, along with inventor of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, primatologist Jane Goodall, and physicist Sir Peter Higgs (Higgs boson Higgs, absent due to illness), among others, accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews Friday. She claimed that there was a Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century–who knew? I thought they hadn’t taken off the war paint yet. But I digress, because giving the graduation address for the 600th anniversary of St. Andrews is a sure sign that Hillary Clinton is fully engaged in the 2016 battle. By the end of this month she will have the election locked up. Really? Well, after she locks up the golf vote this weekend by shooting a hole-in-one on the Old Course, she is due to chug a stein of Spaten Brau in Munich, clinching the critical upper and lower Midwestern Teutonic vote. Then on to Rome to personally receive a cold call from the Pope, in whose 1984 Renault she will drive around the countryside near Castel Gandolfo, wearing a mantilla, thus putting away the Roman Catholic swing voters. Game over.

He’s Back! Still The Style Icon, Pope Resolves Mid-Life Crisis By Acquiring 1984 Renault

It is papal white and looks like it has a fresh paint job. But why is Francis not telling us that he switched out the totally bogus Renault engine for a turbocharged Toyota Tacoma truck engine that generates 560 horses? And 190,000 miles? Please, Mr. Popeman, you could get a perfectly good Civic shuttle car with at least half a million miles on it in perfectly fine running condition. How many hectares are in Vatican City, anyway?

Putin The Trickster Rabbit Throws Self Into Moral High Ground Of Briar Patch

Vladimir V. Putin, current President of Russia and future Visiting Professor of Philosophy of International Law, appears to have seized, at least for today, the white man’s burden of duty and rectitude from President Barack Obama. Is he going to be accepting complimentary lifetime memberships from Amnesty International and the ACLU next? Can we handle the truth that “exceptionalism” is largely a dangerous fantasy, coming from such an imperfect messenger as him?

I do not agree with the reaction of some that the op-ed should not have been printed. Putin’s name appears as the author, and he thus assumes responsibility for the contents. Who cares if Russian speechwriters or the Ketchum P.R. firm wrote or edited some or all of it? Barack Obama and (one hopes) John Kerry are perfectly capable of presenting evidence to counter Mr. Putin’s assertion, for example, that the poison gas didn’t come from the Syrian Army. They can also supply relevant context that Putin conveniently omitted. If Mr. Putin is taking advantage of worldwide suspicion of American veracity and arrogance, and who do we blame for that?–he is setting himself up to be judged by higher standards when Olympic time rolls around. Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker notes, by the way, that “American exceptionalism” was coined as a negative reference point by Stalin-era Russian propagandists!

It is at least possible that the sometimes Mr. Magooish spectacle, as some have noted, of the last few days’ diplomacy may yield some good results

Rhetoricians Of Reaction Make An Exception To The Exception

The “rhetoric of reaction,” as described by Albert O. Hirschman in 1991, expresses suspicion of government via three theses: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. “According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to ‘make a dent.’ Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishments” (Rhetoric of Reaction, p. 7). Hirschman notes that these three theses may be used by progressives when conservatives are in power, but that perversity, futility, and jeopardy are arguments used primarily by counter-modern reactionaries.

Republicans in Congress have taken this rhetoric of reaction to new lows in their refusal, for example, to make any constructive tweaks to the Affordable Care Act. For decades, Republicans have, however, made an exception to their suspicion of government when it came to supporting the military, and the President as their Commander-in-Chief. Now, for President Obama, most seem to be making an exception to the exception. This is not to say President Obama has a foolproof plan, but Congress has not usually required that of Presidents before giving them latitude to strike or threaten credibly to do so. The divided Democratic caucus is a story for another day–as is the intentionality, or not, of John Kerry‘s utterances.

Losing The Run Of Himself–At 107?

A 107-year-old man was shot to death by police the other day in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

How did he manage to get as far as 107 and then just throw it all away like that? Was it a dispute over something serious like the merits of the new chicken and waffle flavor of Doritos? If so, I can see how the man finally snapped after 107 years of clean living and of not being shot to death by Pine Bluff police.

No We Are Probably Not Going To Change The Name Of Central Park

But nice try, Mr. Mayor-On-The-Way-Out-The-Door Bloomberg. Maybe if you ponied up a few billion no strings attached and then fasted for peace like Pope Francis, and said “who am I to judge” like the Pope and washed the feet of some Muslim women prisoners like the Pope and just in general if you adopted an attitude of nonchalant sanctity and chilled just a teeny weensy bit–maybe then we could talk about how many billion dollar bills it would take for naming rights to Central Park to happen. That is assuming we can call it Le Park Bloomberg. Michael Bloomberg Park simply won’t do. And no you can’t change it into a private gated deer park for your hunting buddies.

Ronald Coase, 1910-2013: Economics All In Prose

Ronald Coase was born in London before World War One, and died in Chicago on Monday at age 102. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in his eighties largely for work he did in his twenties, which in his Nobel acceptance he called “a strange experience.” Then he lived twenty-plus more years, and published a book last year at 101, How China Became Capitalist! Coase was one of the greatest 20th-century economists, and likely the greatest who used all prose and no mathematical models. In his Nobel address he said “The Nature of the Firm,” his 1937 article, explained that “in a competitive system there would be an optimum of planning since a firm, that little planned society, could only continue to exist if it performed its co-ordination function at a lower cost than would be incurred if co-ordination were achieved by means of market transactions and also at a lower cost than this same function could be performed by another firm.” The other article cited by the Nobel Committee, “The Problem of Social Cost,” contained what another future Chicago Nobelist, George Stigler (intellectual buddy of Milton Friedman in the U. of Chicago economics department–Coase was a professor at the U. of C. Law School, never economics or business) translated into the “Coase Theorem”: contrary to standard economic theory, under which some government action such as taxation or regulation “was required to restrain those whose actions had harmful effects on others (often termed negative externalities) …. in a regime of zero transaction costs–an assumption of standard economic theory–negotiations between the parties would lead to those arrangements being made which would maximize wealth, and thus irrespective of the initial assignment of rights.” If you need to, stop now and do a search on Coase theorem–right now, in the wake of his death, unexpected even at 102, there is hot debate on blogs and news sites over the meaning of Coase’s work. OK, Coase continues (again from his 1991Nobel speech): “This is the infamous Coase Theorem, named and formulated by George Stigler, although it is based on work of mine. Stigler argues that the Coase Theorem follows from the assumptions of standard economic theory. Its logic cannot be questioned, only its domain. I do not disagree with Stigler. However, I tend to regard the Coase Theorem as a stepping stone on the way to an analysis of an economy with positive transaction costs….it does not imply, when transaction costs are positive, that government actions (such as government operation, regulation or taxation, including subsidies) could not produce a better result than relying on negotiations between individuals in the market. Whether this would be so could be discovered not by studying imaginary governments but what real governments actually do. My conclusion: Let us study the world of positive transaction costs.”

That is intellectual dynamite. Why? Because the right wing made a fetish idol out of the “infamous Coase Theorem,” using it to ward off any attacks on “free people and free markets” (the WSJ slogan). But Coase said he had no use for articles of faith, nor for the easy tautology (if there are no impediments to bargaining and trading, people will not stop bargaining and trading) to which his work on transaction costs was reduced by self-dealing propagandists. Coase wanted his work to be a stepping stone toward empirical studies, not an end to investigation and analysis. If there were a heaven for political economists, perhaps Coase and Albert Hirschman, that other great economic and social thinker and prose stylist, who died last year at 97, could still be working away.

NRA Joins ACLU Vs. NSA

When it’s not even surprsing that the NRA filed an amicus brief yesterday in support of the ACLU’s suit against NSA surveillance, something funny must be in the air or water. It may be soon to declare Rand Paul the 2016 winner, but Hillary or another Democrat may find that the ideological ground has shifted quite a lot. Would it be deeply cynical to see this as a case of Moloch-worshippers lying down with useful idiots? Yes, I think it would. I think it’s more like vice paying tribute to virtue, but it is a little disconcerting.

He Waited ‘Til You Took A Big Bite Of Honey Cake?

Anthony Weiner got into it with a heckler today. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a man took issue with Weiner’s violations of Jewish law and common decency. The audio is muffled, at least to me, so I can’t be sure how many commandments Weiner is said to have broken, but his midrashic tweets after the incident confirm what a great loss to Jon Stewart it will be if Weiner is not elected mayor: “if by melt down you mean stood up to a heckler. Yep. Did that. That’s what Mayors have to do sometimes.” And another: “In defense of me the guy waited til I took a bite of honey cake to take a run at me.”

In defense of Weiner, yes, that was a low blow. But in defense of the critical representative of Orthodoxy, how else could he have gotten in a word edgewise? If I were (lowercase) mayor, I like to think that I would eat honey cake all day long so that if anyone told me I was a deviant, I would not contradict the ignorant constituent but would instead say, “begging your pardon, Guv’nor, but I am enjoying some fine honey cake. Could I offer you a bite?” I would be as inclusive as I could possibly be and eat honey cake in the style of Lebanon, Greece, Tel Aviv, Cairo, and points beyond. I would not prohibit any honey cake bites larger than sixteen ounces. And I would subsidize honey-cake making workshops for previously-under-honey-caked groups until all New Yorkers had access to fine honey cake within a three-block walk.

Care For Jam With Your Freedom Muffin?

The NY Post cover yesterday showed a funhouse image of President Obama in the Oval Office with the headlines “The Buck Does Not Stop Here!” and “Obama punts on Syria.” The other leading right-wing media organ, that is the WSJ, took a slightly higher road: “Obama recklessly gambles with American credibility.”

Many In Congress–Democrats as well as Republicans–might have preferred to not take a vote, so as to have the luxury of critique without fingerprints. President Obama deprived them of that easy path. Even though he did signal that he might go ahead with some kind of military action without Congressional authorization, I think that is quite unlikely. The political right is outraged whether Obama shows scrupulous respect for Congress’ Article One prerogatives or not. Their squeals are especially loud now that Obama has forced them out of their comfy Obamacare repeal fantasy zone and into the political open. Which is not to say Mr. Obama has a clear plan.

P.S. Are we likely to see the Murdoch-owned press show Cameron as a cheddar-cheese eating surrender monkey and Francois Hollande as a heroic Gallic Asterix? Will we (as has been tweeted already) have to call our breakfast food freedom muffins?