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dotCommonweal Blog

The politics of snow and show

Last fall on this blog I took issue with commenters making spurious cause-and-effect assumptions about a Bill de Blasio mayoralty and spiking crime in New York. (Has the return of police commissioner Bill Bratton – the original architect of the strategies so often linked to falling crime – quelled their fears?) But forget creeping lawlessness for now and consider the snowstorm said to be headed for New York. Predecessors like John Lindsay and Michael Bloomberg infamously incurred the wrath of residents in neighborhoods slow to see a plow – and a day after the new mayor’s inauguration there are numerous articles out there characterizing the storm as an early test. Fail it, the highly conventional wisdom goes, and the de Blasio era will have been defined practically before it’s begun, no matter what might be accomplished in terms of education, poverty, and homelessness. 

True, in politics, support can vanish in the time it takes a street to be cleared. But if symbolism is the metric on which to base early impressions, then I’ll go back to the veritable dawn of the new mayor’s term: Wednesday’s inaugural ceremony, in which Bill Clinton and New York governor Andrew Cuomo played prominent roles. The presence and participation of the Great Triangulators (so dubbed by the New York Times) couldn’t have given hopeful progressives much comfort, the governor’s in particular: Cuomo has shown zero interest in imposing the tax increase on wealthy earners de Blasio needs to fund universal pre-K, is intent on rolling back real-estate taxes statewide, and has been a noticeable no-show on the closures of neighborhood hospitals over which the state has control -- an issue de Blasio seized on last summer to help spur his lift in the polls.

As symbolism goes, it may not be as telling (or troubling) as the questionable decisionmaking of New York’s new public advocate in bringing to the podium Dasani Coates-- subject of a recent multi-part story in the Times, which Mollie wrote about here – and hailing her as “my new BFF.” But if people are putting stock in appearances, then it’s the presence of Clinton and Cuomo on the steps of City Hall that may say more about what to expect realistically from a “progressive” de Blasio administration than his Tale of Two Cities trope or how fast he gets the plows rolling.

Paul Moses on New York's new mayor

At one minute past midnight tonight, Bill de Blasio will be sworn in as the mayor of New York (and will be sworn in again by Bill Clinton at noon on Wednesday, at the public ceremony). Featured now on the website is a piece from Paul Moses on what a de Blasio mayoralty means not just for New York but for the nation, and on why voters -- after selecting pro-business candidates running on the Republican line for the past twenty years -- "this time chose a mayor who finds his inspiration in liberation theology—and by a 3-to-1 margin, at that." 

It’s a dramatic change in direction, and “Bloomberg fatigue” is sometimes a coded way of minimizing its significance. It implies that the public’s desire for change sprang from attention deficit rather than any shortcomings on the part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. ... Please, let’s give New Yorkers some credit for recognizing what their own interests are. De Blasio won because he appealed to the many people who had come to feel alienated in their own city. Voters were given very clear choices on issues at the core of local governance—how to run the police department and schools, and whom to tax—and roundly rejected the Bloomberg approach.

The result is likely to resonate across the country. Any mayor of New York quickly becomes a national figure, and the Big Apple’s experience has been influential nationally on matters such as policing, housing, health policy, and education.

You can read the whole thing here.

Top stories (and top posts) of 2013

In a year that saw a papal resignation (and consequent conclave) and the public embrace of the new pope, it's not surprising that among our most-read articles and blog posts of 2013 are items on these stories, such as our exclusive interview with Francis. But readers also responded to stories on same-sex marriage, public-education reform, and the relationship among work, material necessities, and "the good life." Below are the top ten stories from Commonweal and blog posts from dotCommonweal this year. As this is simply a data-generated tally, are there other stories and posts from 2013 not represented here that are nonetheless worth a mention? Any particular favorites - or further thoughts? 

Top stories

“The Things We Share,” Joseph Bottum

“Less Please: Capitalism & the Good Life,” Gary Gutting

“A Chat with Pope Francis: The Commonweal Interview,” The Editors

“Beyond the Stalemate: Forty Years after Roe,” Peter Steinfels

“Reform of the Reform,” Jackson Lears

“Regime Change: Benedict & His Successor,” William L. Portier

“The Big Chill: ‘Humanae Vitae’ Dissenters Need to Find a Voice,” Cathleen Kaveny

“A New Balance: What the Pope’s Interview Reveals,” The Editors

“Historical Amnesia: When Catholic Leaders Misread the Past,” Nicholas Clifford

“The Big Dig: Reconfiguring the Church in Boston,” Luke Hill

Top blog posts

“No, the Pentagon won't court-martial service members for sharing their faith,” Grant Gallicho

“NYT’s ironic fact-check error,” Michael Peppard

“Archdiocese of Wobegon,” Grant Gallicho

“Washing feet,” Rita Ferrone

“Apostolic Nuncio to USCCB: Be pastoral, not ideological,” Grant Gallicho

“Francis: women are the first communicators of the Resurrection,” Grant Gallicho

“Interregnum report, March 6,” Dominic Preziosi

“The conclave bird: a distinctively Roman omen,” Michael Peppard

“When ‘allegedly prolife’ groups attack,” Grant Gallicho

“Pontifex legibus solutus?” Joseph A. Komonchak

A Superficial Question, or maybe just a stupid one

I don't think Pope Francis will have the answer. But who knows...maybe he does.

Question: What has happened to pot holders? You know those square (sometimes rectangle), thick, easily manipulated things that sat by the stove and permitted hot pots to be moved. I have conducted a wide search for someone who asked for them for Christmas. Pot holders are now mostly silicone, wormy things that are hard to hold and to grasp a pot with. Or they are flimsey decorative pieces of cloth sewn together.

Have I missed a recall? New safety whatsies? Anyone know?

And what about the candy cane situation... None to be had! Gone the way of real jelly beans.

On the homepage: Minimal wages; Kaveny on ACLU & bishops

Two new items featured on the homepage today. First, the editors on working for less than a living wage:

Contrary to popular misconceptions nourished by some in the media, most of the low-wage workers who would benefit from a higher minimum wage are not teenagers earning a little pocket money and learning some basic job skills. More than 90 percent of them are adults and almost a third are parents. The federal government spends around $7 billion a year on public assistance just for the families of fast-food workers. If conservative lawmakers are serious about streamlining entitlement programs and promoting self-reliance, they should be lining up behind proposals to raise the minimum wage.

So why aren’t they? It isn’t for lack of public support. A large majority of voters from both parties are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Whatever their opinions about welfare, most Americans agree with Adam Smith that those who work for a living should actually make one. Opponents of a higher minimum wage say it will only hurt the poor by reducing the number of jobs: when labor costs are higher, they warn, employers will hire fewer workers. This argument has a certain intuitive force, but several recent studies suggest that modest minimum-wage increases have no significant effect on employment levels. Lobbyists for retailers and fast-food restaurants also argue that higher wages will drive up business costs, which will be passed along to consumers as higher prices. But research suggests that a $10.10 minimum wage would add only a few pennies to the price of a hamburger. The lobbyists don’t mention that the big corporations they represent could also absorb some of the higher labor costs by accepting lower profit margins.

Read the whole thing here.

Also, Cathleen Kaveny looks deeper into the ACLU's complaint against the USCCB in the case of Tamesha Means, who allegedly received medically negligent treatment in the course of her pregnancy and miscarriage at a Catholic health facility:

The alleged negligent act: promulgating the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

According to the complaint, the USCCB is responsible because it “directed the course of care Plaintiff received.” ... According to the plaintiff, Directive 27 does not require Catholic hospitals to disclose the option of a “previability pregnancy termination,” because (she claims) the church does not see it as morally legitimate. The plaintiff also blames Directive 45, which prohibits abortion. That directive reads: “Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.” The plaintiff contends that Directive 45 prevented [the hospital] from either completing the miscarriage or referring her to a place that would do so.

But has Means identified the right defendants? Contrary to popular belief, the USCCB does not have the power to tell individual bishops—or Catholic health-care systems—what to do and what not to do.

Read the whole thing here.

My daughter, my conservatism

There ought to be a word – something not quite the same as gratitude – for that tingling feeling inspired by a Ross Douthat column noting a tilt toward conservatism by people who by all accounts should be liberals, especially one that uses a fictional character from a novel by a New York literary darling to make its point. Because as Douthat helpfully confirms, things are more complicated for liberals than they might have thought, especially when it comes to raising daughters.

Don’t I know it! As the father of a girl and a parent whose adult social set overlaps with the un- and never-married, plus the divorced and remarried, plus the spouseless adoptive-parent, plus the same-sex unmarried with children, plus the mixed-race couple with dogs, not to mention the two-parent (one woman, one man) married, my own uncomfortable reckoning arises from contemplation of my daughter’s future happiness, and a young male – all right, a boy – named Dexter P.

This character, Dex to his friends, doesn’t technically exist; he’s a composite of several of the boys in my daughter’s fifth-grade class at her Brooklynite elementary school. But his type exists, in more or less the same form, wherever ten-year-olds congregate and socialize (in playground and lunch room) or pair off (as math and reading buddies). Not the worst kid, by any means: Dex is no bully, and he doesn’t wipe his nose on his sleeve as much as he did even last May. He’s attentive, after a fashion, and mildly artistic, judging from the cover of his report on westward expansion. But he can be a source of irritation, if not exactly misery, especially for the girls whose section of the coat closet he shares. He doesn’t mean to make them unhappy; he even seems to try to please them, in his way, which is the way of so many spirited young boys – swiping their pencils when they’re not looking, for instance, or falling out of his chair on purpose or fake-belching. Yet what he ends up doing, in spite of himself, is provoking their displeasure.

He does so by attempting to operate within an educational and cultural landscape in which biology hasn’t changed, yet expectations – and maybe even abilities? -- have been decoupled from gender. Dexter P. does what seems like the right thing: Round this number up to the nearest tenth, he might suggest to my daughter during an in-class session on decimals, even going so far as to helpfully if mistakenly erase her correct answer. Or he might snatch her saxophone case and start to haul it up the four flights to the classroom only to abandon it somewhere on the stairwell between the second and third floors because it’s too heavy for him. Indeed, these acts, well-intentioned as they are, seem to be the hidden taproots of the typical fifth-grade female’s academic and social angst, and one of the plausible explanations for her increased sullenness and a noticeable uptick in back-sass in the hours immediately after school.

One obvious solution to the Dexter P. problem is a culture that downplays the abilities of girls so that boys can continue to receive the attention and validation they want and need from them. To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation’s world through their children’s eyes, that’s an insight more immediately available through daughters than through sons – especially since girls retain the mysterious power to shape future-men. For example, must my daughter (or anyone’s) continue to outperform Dex in math? How will she ever graciously cede oversight of the household checking account – to say nothing of finding happiness in a household in the first place – if she persists in doing better on her assignments? Or, why can’t she switch to a lighter, more feminine instrument like flute or clarinet, thus giving Dexter P. the chance to realize the fruits of his chivalrous offer to carry her instrument up the stairs for her – and in the process allow him to re-establish, firmly, the behavioral norms inhering in the physical differences between male and female?

No matter what studies or Ross Douthat say about the likelihood of turning into a social conservative, now that I’ve begun to flirt with this insight—though I’ll admit a formal engagement may still be some ways off—I’ve tiptoed a little closer to a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name (cough! – male chauvinism – cough!). Next up: getting my wife and daughter out of Brooklyn, for their own good of course. Can’t wait for Douthat’s next column! 

Is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism?

It's hard to believe that question is still being debated, isn't it? For over 100 years, the definitive answer is No. Pope after pope after pope, right up to Benedict XVI, has explained this in the most magisterial ways.

But perhaps it has taken Pope Francis's singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism. Or perhaps the underbelly of globalization has finally come to light, through a combination of the explosion of financial capital, the worldwide recession, and the opportunities afforded by the Information Age for learning about the distant effects of almost-unregulated markets.

Whatever the reason, Pope Francis is getting through. He is obviously not a Marxist or socialist. But he is leveling strong critiques of the current state of global capitalism -- as it is actually being employed.  And to my mind, one of the best interpreters of his message (especially for those reading from the right-wing) has been Michael Gerson.

Read more

New issue, new stories

We’ve just posted the latest issue to the homepage, and here are some of the highlights:

  • J. Peter Nixon writes there’s still reason to be optimistic about Obamacare – but that “to understand why, it helps to know a few details about the law.”
  • David Cloutier writes on how luxury compromises Christian witness: “If many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable.”
  • John Garvey on the importance of vows – and “the difference vows can make in a culture where many expect them to be broken” [subscription].

See the full table of contents for the December 20 issue right here.

Also featured today, E. J. Dionne Jr. on the return of the working-class hero: “For the first time in a long time, working people are making their way back into the news.” Read the whole column here

U.S. test scores low. So what?

Commonweal contributor Rand Richards Cooper flags a typically blunt reaction from Diane Ravitch to news that U.S. students performed less well than kids from other countries on international standardized tests. Ravitch castigates what she calls the Bad News Industry for making a big deal of this because the United States has never, in half a century, performed much better than it did this time and, further, it probably just doesn’t matter how our kids stack up against their counterparts in Finland, Japan, or Germany.

In my recent book, Reign of Error, I quote extensively from a brilliant article by Keith Baker, called “Are International Tests Worth Anything?,” which was published by Phi Delta Kappan in October 2007. Baker, who worked for many years as a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, had the ingenious idea to investigate what happened to the 12 nations that took the First International Mathematics test in 1964. He looked at the per capita gross domestic product of those nations and found that “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth-the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.” He found no relationship between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores. Nor did the test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. And when it came to creativity, the U.S. “clobbered the world,” with more patents per million people than any other nation. …

Never do [test proponents] explain how it was possible for the U.S. to score so poorly on international tests again and again over the past half century and yet still emerge as the world’s leading economy, with the world’s most vibrant culture, and a highly productive workforce. From my vantage point as a historian, here is my takeaway from the PISA scores … If they mean anything at all, [they] show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.

Ravitch can always be counted on to re-introduce rationality to the debate over education “reform,” whether via her rapid-response blogging or opinion pieces in the press. The recent book she refers to was of course reviewed last month in our pages by Jackson Lears – a review Ravitch herself called “The. Most. Brilliant. Review. of. Reign. of. Error. Ever.” [punctuation hers] If you want to know what’s being done to schools (and to kids, teachers, and communities) in the name of “reform,” it’s always a good time to read it -- maybe no more so than when the Bad News Industry is on full alert.

Does your new health plan cover abortion? Good luck finding out.

Just posted to the homepage: my piece on elective abortion coverage on the health exchanges. I'll have more to say about this later, but for now, here's a preview:

On Sunday, the Obama administration’s self-imposed deadline for fixing passed, with seemingly decent results. For the past month, the administration had been consumed with that task. But in the meantime another serious problem seems to have escaped its attention: Federal and state health-care exchanges make it nearly impossible to tell whether their plans cover elective abortion. And in some states customers don’t even have the option to purchase abortion-free coverage.

Last month, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was brought before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to be questioned about the failures of “If someone…has strongly held pro-life views, can you commit to us to make sure that the federal exchanges that offer that [abortion coverage] is clearly identified and so people can understand if they're going to buy a policy that has abortion coverage or not?” asked Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). “I don’t know,” Sebelius answered. “I know exactly the issue you’re talking about. I will check and make sure that is clearly identifiable.”

That was November 1. It’s still nearly impossible to determine whether plans on the exchanges cover elective abortion. For example, on the New York State exchange—supposedly one of the best—the signup process is painless. You create a username and password, enter your legal name, address, Social Security number, and within moments you’re shopping for coverage. You can compare several plans at all levels of coverage (bronze, silver, gold, platinum). Monthly premiums are displayed first, followed by deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. You can explore a plan’s outpatient-services coverage, its prescription-drug coverage, mental-health services, lab tests, etc. You can even see its pediatric-vision coverage. But you can’t find out whether a plan covers elective abortion.

Read the rest right here.

Money & schools, Catholic & otherwise

Andrew Sullivan flags this piece from Mike Dwyer, headlined “My Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education.” It’s not about what’s taught or what isn’t, or about how best to instill in children values and traditions given insufficient weight in a secular culture. Instead it’s about what many education stories seem to be about these days: Money, the divide between the educational haves and have-nots, and the emergence of a separate class of students whose parents can afford annual tuitions approaching or exceeding $20,000 per year.

The once erroneous perception that a Catholic education was only for the well-off has now become a reality. What does this mean for a faith with deep roots in the middle class? Whereas parochial schools were the norm for most Catholic children a half-century ago, will there be a day when American Catholics become sharply divided among the haves and have-nots, with a private education being the wedge? I don’t know what the future holds for us, but right now is a time of great change for Catholic education and it remains to be seen how things will play out.

Raising two children in New York City has presented no shortage of challenges when it comes to selecting how they should be schooled; cost was a significant factor but so was belief and commitment to public education, and we were lucky enough to have landed in a district that was just beginning to see big improvement when my older child entered kindergarten. Over the years we’ve made (and continue to make) significant contributions, almost entirely in time volunteered; but these days, more and more fellow parents make significant contributions in treasure, and the effect is being felt in ways that do not always comport with my sense of what public education is supposed to mean. The calving off of some public schools into de facto private collectives funded by wealthy parent-teacher associations is to me a particularly troubling trend in public education.

Friends and fellow parishioners have made other, and understandable, choices in terms of educating their children – some selecting Catholic schools and others opting for well-known prestigious non-Catholic private schools, with prices topping $30,000 a year in some cases (and even higher in others). I can’t challenge their decisions; they’ve done what they feel is best in their situations, and having gone through it myself I’m aware of the difficulty of it, the weighing of variables and the sacrifices required. But it can make for interesting conversation around the dinner table. In trying to impart to our kids a sense of being attuned to the needs and differences of others, of the importance of the lived and experienced over the purchased and "consumed," the topic of their friends’ schooling sometimes comes up. Education – public, Catholic, non-Catholic-private – as an economic marker is something that even they are becoming aware of. 

Russell D. Moore: A Manifesto on "Some" Evangelicals

When I saw that Russell D. Moore had written a long piece about the so-called Evangelical “retreat” from American politics and culture wars, I was elated.

I am updating a syllabus for a course in religion and American politics, and I hoped this would be the perfect fresh take to round out our coverage of Evangelicalism. Certainly the media-savvy and next-generation Moore, the newish President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, would help my students understand the movement better than when they read speeches by his predecessor, Richard Land.

In short, I was primed for this essay.

Sadly, it is not assignable. This 4000-word feature, authored by the most prominent official of the Southern Baptists, is composed almost entirely of straw men.

Read more

ACA not worse than Katrina, Stewart suggests

When I first read the headline "Health Law Rollout's Stumbles Draw Parallels to Bush's Hurricane Response" on my phone last Thursday, I ignored it because it seemed just another in the long line of attempts to identify President Obama's very own "Katrina" (2010 Gulf oil spill, 2009 H1N1 flu, 2009 GM bankruptcy -- expanded list here). Little did I know how eager the usual suspects (really, Chris Wallace?) were ready to run with it. Jon Stewart last night reintroduced some perspective.

Kennedy, in fiction

Poor, prescient Don DeLillo, forever to be condemned for his ability to tell us how we live now a quarter of a century before we start to think about it ourselves. Rereading Libra during what Paul Elie calls “assassination season” I’m struck again by DeLillo's ability to anticipate (foretell? Warn of?) the ripple effects of each small advance in technology, every incremental expansion of media’s reach – including especially the shrugging acceptance of the manipulation of word, image, and what has come impersonally to be known as personal data. One of the characters in DeLillo’s 1988 fictional reimagining of John F. Kennedy’s assassination assembles a plot centered on a fabricated killer, a would-be assassin conjured out of fake ephemera:

He would show the secret symmetries in a nondescript life. An address book with ambiguous leads. Photos expertly altered (or crudely altered). Letters, travel documents, counterfeit signatures, a history of false names. It would all require a massive decipherment, a conversion to plain text.

The italics are mine, and meant to highlight DeLillo’s particular expertise in concisely expressing how reality can be made to seem more real by making it seem less so. A lot of “seems” in there but that’s the point; Libra is a hall of mirrors about a hall of mirrors. The notion of fractured images endlessly reflecting back on themselves, a jumble of past, present and future, is captured in the lines of another character:

Read more

Throwback Thursday in Outer Space

Launch of Jupiter-C/Explorer 1 at Cape Canaveral, 1958

Space has been in the news: The Kepler telescope found five Earth-sized and possibly habitable planets oribting distant stars; scientists are able to predict the Earth is likely to be hit by more asteroids as often as every decade; and India became the seventh nation to launch a mission to Mars (four have been successful). This has us wondering – in all senses of the question – how did we end up here? And, how much has it cost? 

For this Throwback Thursday we're linking to three articles from the Commonweal archives assessing the political, philosophcal, and financial implications of man’s first steps into space.

Scientist Charles M. Herzfeld wrote in 1958, a year after Sputnik and the seven other satellites soon launched by both the U.S. and U.S.S.R.:

The impact of the earth satellites on technology and the cold war are closely related. The large guided and ballistic missiles which play such a critical role in the cold war are also the tools used to launch the satellites. Thus the satellite programs have given added incentive to the expansion of the new rocket and missile industry. The development of special rocket engines, new fuels and special guidance systems is required, and because of the complexity of satellite and missile systems this demand affects large sectors of the aircraft, chemical and electronics industries.

Herzfeld contended that satellites could not be used as "launching platforms for missiles," but predicted that "some years from now satellites will be important observation and reconnaissance tools."

The expansion of the rocket and missile industry caused what John Hunt called an "Inner Space Race" in Washington. He wrote of the conflict between the Air Force and NASA in 1963 as one between "philosophies":

One philosophy, espoused by Eisenhower and officially by President Kennedy, at the insistance of the State Department, holds that U.S. rocketeering should be divided into two parts, to wit, war and "peace." The war missilery is considered useful for deterring the Russians and impressing the rest of the world with U.S. military strength. The ‘peace’ part is supposed to show off American scientific genius as superior to that of the Russian, and also to demonstrate America’s intention to build a better, brighter world with the new technologies and not just a more dangerous one.

Ronald Steel and William Lineberry wrote in 1963 on the controversies surrounding the budget for NASA:

Despite its humble beginning in the post-Sputnik year of 1959 with a $339 million budget, NASA has managed the remarkable feat of getting Congress to double its budget nearly every year until it is now asking $5.7 billion for fiscal 1964.

This proposal  – along with Kennedy’s $20 billion request for the Apollo mission – was met with scrutiny.

The Kennedy Administration [had] been issuing reams of publicity handouts to justify the scientific importance of the Apollo project. The nation’s scientists have been supporting the basic goals of the space program – although not necessarily the priorities of the moon landing project – largely because of its scientific importance. They continually stress that science should be the primary consideration in the program.


If [British physicist] Dr. Boyd’s estimate [that man is a nuisance in space] is correct, and if the Apollo can be kept within its $20 billion budget, that would make our man on the moon effort add up to $2 billion for science and $18 billion for a try at prestige.

Back to Herzfeld in 1958:

Man is again extending into new worlds, and with him goes his potential for good and evil. If he has profited from his past experience, the good will far outweigh the evil, and men will formulate ethics and create institusions for the Space Age, rather than dismiss the whole challenge on a note of condemnation and ridicule.

Sticker Shock Bandwagon

Did Obama lie?

Whether he did or didn't, there are several million angry people out there who are getting "pay more or be cancelled" notices from their insurance companies for 2014.

So what's going on? On the RIght, of course, Obama was caught in a bald-faced lie, having given his personal guarantee that all Americans could keep their current insurance if they wished. On the Left, technically Obama wasn't lying, because there is nothing in the PPACA (Obamacare) statute that says that insurance companies have to cancel policies or that anyone at all has to be forced onto the exchanges. But Obama can't control the insurance companies and their own business decisions. So it's their fault.

Everyone is spinning as fast as they can. What's really happening?

Read more

New stories on the homepage

A couple of new stories now on our homepage. 

First, Joseph Sorrentino's photo essay on the laborers who help harvest New Mexico's green chile crop -- which amounted to about 78,000 tons worth a total of $65 million in 2012:

The people who pick it ... barely eke out a living, and some of them can’t even afford their own lodging. Sin Fronteras Organizing Project’s shelter in El Paso, Texas, opened in 1995 to house farmworkers who don’t earn enough to rent an apartment. ... The shelter can accommodate up to 125 people. A majority are men who stay there to sleep in a crowded main room; a few more are tucked in the narrow hallway outside the bathrooms. A dozen or so sleep upstairs, in a smaller room where bedding is stored on plastic shelves. A few women, generally only two or three, sleep in a tiny room off the reception area. The shelter’s accommodations are, to put it mildly, rough. There are no beds; people sleep on thin mats or blankets spread on the linoleum floor. And there is no privacy. The men’s bathroom has only one functioning urinal. The shelter is crowded, hot, and stuffy. But there aren’t many alternatives for these workers.

Read the whole thing here, and see the slide show that appears at the bottom of the story.

Also, E. J. Dionne writes on Washington's misplaced obsession with the deficit:

Since a Republican Party driven by tea-party thinking managed to make government spending and deficits Washington’s paramount concerns, the administration has backed off aggressive efforts to use government to pump much-needed energy into an economy whose tepid growth since the 2008 implosion has left 11.3 million Americans still out of work.

By putting so much effort into negotiating a failed “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner in 2011 and subsequently agreeing to the sharp, across-the-board cuts of the “sequester” to get out of a crisis, President Obama contributed to the deficit chorus. Because of the fiscal tightening, our unemployment rate is probably a point higher than it would have been otherwise. We’ve done a heck of a job on the deficit, reducing it from about 10 percent of the economy in 2009 to 4 percent now. We’ve done badly by the jobless.

Read the whole thing here.

New stories on the homepage

Just posted to the homepage, two new stories. In this web-exclusive response to Germain Grisez, Dennis O’Brien writes on Francis and the character of Christian truth:

It is often commented that unlike many other great sages and spiritual leaders of humankind, Jesus never wrote a word; his impact was in live speech. The primacy of live speech, face-to-face communication, is a deep lesson about the nature of Christian truth and teaching. I believe that Pope Francis in the interview places the particular person speaking prior to instruction. The interview with Civilità Cattolica starts with “Who is Jorge Maria Bergoglio?” The answer: “I am a sinner—a sinner who has been forgiven by Christ.” For Francis, the voice that claims to teach the truths of Christianity is the voice of a forgiven sinner. Grisez might counter that this is all very well for Bergoglio, but not for one charged with the office of pope. The pope should speak in a “universal” voice, not as Ratzinger or Bergoglio. I think a universal voice fails to carry the full Christian message, and that is the radical shift that Pope Francis effects. Face-to-face is the site of Christian teaching.

Also posted: E. J. Dionne Jr. on where Obamacare is working, and where it isn’t.

States that created their own healthcare exchanges -- and especially those that did this while also expanding Medicaid coverage -- are providing health insurance to tens of thousands of happy customers, in so many cases for the first time.

Those seeking a model for how the law is supposed to operate should look to Kentucky. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat in a red state, has embraced with evangelical fervor the cause of covering 640,000 uninsured Kentuckians. …

Beshear urges us to keep our eyes on the interests of those the law is intended to serve, our uninsured fellow citizens. "These 640,000 people are not some set of aliens,” he says. “They’re our friends and neighbors ... some of them are members of our families.” As for the troubled national website, Beshear offered this: “If I could give unsolicited advice to the critics, and maybe to the media, it’s: Take a deep breath.”

Wise counsel. But there can be no denying the system failure that is a profound embarrassment to the Obama administration and threatens to undermine all the good the law could do, since its enemies will use any excuse to discredit it.

Steinfels, McKenna & Commonweal

George McKenna, then a political scientist at the City College of New York, wrote a terrific piece for the Atlantic in 1995, “On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position.” I recommended it to friends, both defenders and opponents of Roe, and quoted from it on occasion in talks. McKenna argued that Lincoln, although firmly opposed to slavery as a great moral evil, knew that it was politically impossible to abolish the practice where it already existed. The only tenable political position for those seeking to end slavery was to oppose its establishment in new territories and states. Once cabined in that fashion, slavery would eventually collapse on its own. McKenna drew a strong parallel between Lincoln’s position on slavery and the prolife cause. It was a long essay and a subtle argument, but McKenna summarized his proposed prolife strategy in the following phrase: “permit, restrict, discourage.” That position made a lot of sense to me, especially McKenna’s observation that “we must remember that [Lincoln] intended to conduct his argument before the American people. Lincoln knew that in the final analysis durable judicial rulings on major issues must be rooted in the soil of American opinion. ‘Public sentiment,’ he said, ‘is everything’ in this country.’”

Given my familiarity with McKenna’s Atlantic article, you can imagine my surprise when I read his criticism in the current issue of the Human Life Review of Peter Steinfels’s Commonweal essay on abortion, “Beyond the Stalemate.” Peter hardly needs me or anyone else to defend him, and he may respond to McKenna’s “A Bad Bargain” essay here at dotCommonweal or elsewhere at some point in the near future. But I will comment on what McKenna has to say about Commonweal and what he presumes motivates the “liberal or progressive” Catholic audience for which Peter is writing.

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Web exclusive: default dangers

Now featured on the homepage, Charles R. Morris on what could happen should the U.S. default on its debt:

What is most scary about the possibility that Congress will fail to authorize an increase in the national debt limit is that no one really knows what the consequences might be. But it is not alarmism to fear that such a step could trigger a global recession....

The most immediate impact of a default will be on countries—from the Middle East to East Asia—that currently hold trillions in surplus dollar balances. They will suffer major losses, which will accelerate the move toward trading in other currencies, something long-bruited by countries that resent America’s financial dominance. The United States will be punished as its own cost of borrowing rises substantially, and possibly permanently....

The effect on world trade could be catastrophic, as buyers and sellers attempt to reprice cargoes in midstream. When Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, said that a default “would ripple through the global economy in ways that you can’t possibly understand,” he really meant it.

Though the House did nothing yesterday to address the crisis, the Senate could review and announce a deal today that would fund the government through January 15 (at the levels reflecting the cuts enacted in March) and raise the debt ceiling through February. Sen. John McCain says that, as he predicted, Republicans have lost a battle they never could have won, and Sen. Lindsey Graham says Republicans "really did go too far."

From yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

This is the quality of thinking—or lack thereof—that has afflicted many GOP conservatives from the beginning of this budget showdown. They picked a goal they couldn't achieve in trying to defund ObamaCare from one House of Congress, and then they picked a means they couldn't sustain politically by pursuing a long government shutdown and threatening to blow through the debt limit.

Jonathan Strong at The Corner has an insider's account, quoting a senior GOP aide--"It's all over. We'll take the Senate deal"--and passing this along:

The Christian rite accompanying legislative chaos [Tuesday] was Florida representative Steve Southerland’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” — “all three verses,” said Representative Michael Burgess (Texas) afterwards in amazement. But Southerland is an undertaker by trade, and the song is normally sung at funerals. It’s hard not to see [Tuesday's] failure as the death of the House GOP’s role, in at least this standoff.