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dotCommonweal Blog

Class or race?

Let's just say I am no fan of David Brooks. Usually I pass over his first sentence and move on. His column this morning got something important right (i.e., correct) and I read all the way to the end.

Spoiler alert: He mentions Ferguson and then goes on to open up a conversation we should be having about class.

"Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things....This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging."  Whole column here: NY Times.

'Blackness is not probable cause.'

Few are surprised by yesterday’s Grand Jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, despite the fact that it is extremely rare for grand juries not to return an indictment. A front-page story in today's New York Times paints a picture of both rage and resignation, quoting a protestor in New York: “You’re kind of numb to it at a certain point. It’s so systematic.”

Coincidentally I’ve been re-reading Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, his 2013 collection of essays on being young, black, and male in the south, and it conveys the same sense of simultaneous anger and weariness.  The epigraph is by James Baldwin: “Morally, there has been no change at all, and a moral change is the only real one.” It recalls the verse, Jeremiah 6:14, making the rounds today: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

In Laymon’s title essay, he recounts being pulled over by police for throwing non-existent drugs out the window of his girlfriend’s car. After he’s handcuffed and thrown in the back of a police car “for his own safety,” he comes home shaken and tries to work on his novel. He finds himself writing three times in a row: “We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.”

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The Best 2014 Election Analysis Was Written Two Years Ago

"(T)he biggest single under-discussed aspect of contemporary national politics is the consistent disparity in turnout patterns between presidential and non-presidential elections, which at the moment happen to align almost perfectly with party preferences."

If anyone's taking nominations in the category of "Best 2014 Election Analysis", I nominate Ed Kilgore's Nov. 9 post, "Turnout Disparities and the Democratic Dilemma for 2014", on the Washington Monthly's invaluable Political Animal blog.

What's so good about Kilgore's piece?  Well, for one, it's from Nov. 9, 2012.  That means it was written during the euphoric afterglow (for partisan Democrats) of President Obama's convincing re-election.  Second---and this may be the most important reason---it remains resolutely focused on the fundamental interplay of how US voters actually behave and how the US electoral system is structured:

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In the Wake of Tuesday's Elections - Open Thread

Let's try an experiment.  Rather than dive right into a national overview of what happened at the polls, I'd be interested to see what dotCommonweal readers and contributors found most interesting about the returns from elections in their own states and localities.

For example:  Here in Massachusetts Republican Charlie Baker narrowly defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley in the race for governor.  That might seem like it's part of the national Republican wave (and it may be) but with Baker's election, five of our last six governors have been Republicans.  (We like our tall, square-jawed, conventionally handsome patricians here in the Bay State.) Democrats retained control of both legislative chambers in the State House, and the commonwealth's congressional delegation remains all Democratic.

We had four referendum questions in which the voters 1) repealed a gas tax increase dedicated to roads, bridges and other infrastructure, 2) overwhelmingly voted down a proposed bottle bill expansion, 3) defeated an attempt to ban casinos, and 4) approved an earned sick time benefit for the nearly 1 million Massachusetts workers without one.

I may have more to say about the last one, but the overarching lesson I draw from the ballot questions is that money talks.  Except when presented with an opportunity to cut their own taxes, voters sided with the campaign that spent the most money.

What happened where you are?  And what lessons do you draw from it?

Citizen Snowden, the movie

Citizenfour is the new documentary about Edward Snowden, who in 2013 disclosed the existence of a secret NSA mass surveillance program. In its subject and production it looks and feels a bit like those conspiracy movies from the 1970s—Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, or All the President’s Men. There’s the unwitting protagonist, the chance at heroism not sought but thrust upon him; the outsized, amorphous antagonist, the extent of its reach and capacity for treachery heretofore unimaginable; and the paranoia informing and infusing the story, heightened by ominous music and weirdly ominous shots of ordinary buildings, streets, and rooms. I say “a bit,” because Citizenfour is a documentary and not a dramatization—but also because that even as a documentary, it seems second-hand and overdone in comparison to fictional treatments.

How can that be? Shouldn’t access to the figure at the center of the story make for riveting work? In fact, the issue might be Snowden himself, whose presence dominates the long middle section of the movie, filmed over eight days in the Hong Kong hotel room he absconded to. The fear accompanying the growing awareness of what their characters have stumbled into—and the growing danger it puts them in—seems less manufactured in the acting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman than in the actual speech and behavior of Snowden, hiding out from U.S. authorities. True, the key revelations and developments aren’t coming in the “real time” of the narrative, but it’s precisely that Snowden’s actions were undertaken prior to this moment that the tension should be higher. It’s understood he’s in danger, so when and how it will it arrive? He professes to feel anxiety, and he exhibits the classic tendencies of the paranoiac—convinced that he’s being watched because, of course, everyone is after him. But he’s also aware of being watched being watched: It’s a virtual performance in the role he may have been destined to play.

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Death penalty in the Colorado gubernatorial race

Over the past few election cycles, Colorado has become an important "battleground state" and a bellwether for larger electoral trends. Featuring contested races for both a Senate seat and the Governor's mansion, it is arguably the most important site of the upcoming midterm elections. The gubernatorial contest has Bob Beauprez, an established figure in the Colorado Republican party, attempting to unseat (the previously very popular) Gov. Hickenlooper.

Social issues have entered the two campaigns in some expected ways -- abortion, health care coverage, gun safety laws, and marijuana legalization. But during these gubernatorial debates, the issue of the death penalty has also briefly held the spotlight.

Back in May, Beauprez made a campaign promise that surprised many, since he presents himself as a faithful Roman Catholic. "When I'm governor," he said during a GOP debate, "Nathan Dunlap will be executed." Or, in a headline offered by Mother Jones, "Elect Me, and I'll Kill that Guy."

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All in a night's work for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

You’re permitted to cast a ballot in Texas (where early voting began Monday) if you show a concealed-handgun license at the polling place, but not if you present a student, veteran, or federally recognized Indian tribe ID card. Of course, that eligible voters (in Texas and elsewhere) would suddenly need specific types of photo identification or meet any variety of strict new requirements was foreseeable when the Supreme Court last year struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorably dissented at the time: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” The umbrella discarded, Texas duly implemented measures making it indisputably harder for many people to vote—precisely the kind of maneuver the preclearance provision had many times since the civil rights era forestalled.

Just how hard was made clear by Ginsburg (who else?) in her quickly-becoming-famous, wee-hours dissent in the Court’s weekend decision allowing Texas’s voter identification law to stand—this despite an earlier federal ruling striking it down explicitly for its discriminatory intent. Ginsburg noted that more than 400,000 eligible voters face round-trip travel times of three hours or more to the nearest government office issuing the allowable forms of ID, where they will likely have to present a certified birth certificate. Those normally cost $22; though the state offers certificates for election purposes at $2 or $3, this information isn’t available on relevant websites or forms. Taken together, Ginsburg logically concluded, it amounts to a poll tax, and those were outlawed with ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.

Texas has justified its strict new requirements as a safeguard against voter fraud. Two instances of voter impersonation were confirmed in all of the elections held in Texas between 2001 and 2011, so clearly there is a problem—though fraud isn’t it.

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George Mitchell: A Profile in Political Courage

There's a nice little story in our local paper about the Kennedy family delivering its Profile in Courage award to former president George H. W. Bush for his role in the 1990 budget compromise that cut spending, raised taxes and---along with the 1993 Clinton budget---laid the foundation for the federal budget surpluses of the late 1990s.

Unfortunately for both the Kennedys and the Bushes, the historical record undercuts the notion that Bush acted courageously.  As his granddaughter pointed out when accepting the award on his behalf back in May, "Candidly speaking, my grandfather didn’t want to raise taxes in 1990...".  Well then, with all due respect, it's hard to conclude it was an act of political courage on his part to do so, isn't it?

Especially because Bush had painted himself into that particular political corner with his craven (and unnecessary) "Read my lips; no new taxes" pledge at the 1988 Republican national convention.  "The Pledge" didn't get him elected in 1988; and breaking it was not the cause of his defeat in 1992.

No, if any politician deserves a profile in courage award for the 1990 budget deal it's then-Senate Majority Leader---and Commonweal's 2014 "Catholics in the Public Square" honoree---George Mitchell.

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Graham Greene's (Catholic) hopes for Charlie Chaplin

In marking one hundred years of publication, the New Republic is featuring a number of its most memorable articles and this week has uncovered what it calls one of “the wackiest things” in its archives: A 1952 open letter from Graham Greene to Charlie Chaplin, penned three weeks after Chaplin’s return to England amid allegations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI of communism and the revocation of his visa by the attorney general. Greene expressed hope that at least one group in the U.S., and perhaps a certain publication now celebrating its ninetieth anniversary, might publicly stand with Chaplin:

Remembering the days of Titus Oates and the terror in England, I would like to think that the Catholics of the United States, a powerful body, would give you their sympathy and support. Certainly one Catholic weekly in America is unlikely to be silent—I mean the Commonweal. But Cardinal Spellman? And the Hierarchy? I cannot help remembering an American flag that leant against a pulpit in an American Catholic Church not far from your home, and I remember too that McCarthy is a Catholic. Have Catholics in the United States not yet suffered enough to stand firmly against this campaign of uncharity? 

(The) Commonweal seems not to have come through with quite the vocal backing Greene might have anticipated, though some years later it did comment on Chaplin’s plight. This from the editors in 1958, in a piece on the Soviet “campaign of vilification” against Boris Pasternak after the publication of Dr. Zhivago:

There are some observers of the American scene…  who are as dismayed and disapproving as anyone else over this latest example of Communist brutality but who seize upon it to remind Americans of their own failings in the area of tolerance for unpopular views. It has been suggested that America's treatment of Charlie Chaplin or, even more, of artists and writers who suffered from professional "blacklisting," is much like the Soviet treatment of dissenter Boris Pasternak….

The case of Charlie Chaplin seems … inapplicable. Most of the criticism of Mr. Chaplin is wholly unofficial; and, if his critics have sometimes taken the tone or the assumptions of the critics of Pasternak, they are in the minority. (It might also be noted that Mr. Chaplin's strictures on conditions in America lack the reasonableness and the weight of evidence that Boris Pasternak brings forth.) And if Mr. Chaplin has suffered economically for his unpopular views, it is because he has flouted public opinion--a freedom which must always be paid for--not because of any campaign to seek vengeance.

Which isn’t to say that the magazine was not critical of McCarthy, or that the Catholics of the United States in whom Greene placed his faith were as a whole particularly supportive of the senator—a fact noted in 1953 by the same New Republic, which after conducting a poll “estimated that McCarthyism was not representative of Catholic thought,” according to Rodger Van Allen in The Commonweal and American Catholicism. And though a January 1954 Gallup Poll “showed 58 percent of American Catholics favorable to the senator,” that number dropped to 46 percent by April, during the Army-McCarthy hearings. As for the hierarchy, and Cardinal Spellman specifically, Greene was probably right to be pessimistic about their support.

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Using 'Hobby Lobby' to refuse a subpoena about child labor

During oral arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sibelius and subsequent written opinions, the Supreme Court debated the case's unintended consequences.

Would laws requiring vaccinations or prohibiting child labor, for example, now be affected by the new interpretation of RFRA? Or would the "parade of horribles" never come to pass?

A new case from Utah provides a surprising early glimpse: a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has successfully refused a federal subpoena based on his religious belief in secrecy.

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Henry Kissinger Does Not Care for Your Unserious Questions

Henry Kissinger has a book to promote, and so he found himself appearing on The Takeaway -- a news magazine program that airs on the New York City public radio station WNYC.

In the book, World Order, Kissinger offers his thoughts on the present state of foreign policy, drawing on his long career observing and advising on same. But he bristled, to put it mildly, when that long career prompted a few pointed questions from interviewer Todd Zwillich. It seems the Nobel Peace Prize winner isn't accustomed to being asked to defend his role in some of the uglier episodes of the 1970s.

That Kissinger doesn't want to talk about such things is no surprise. It is surprising that he hasn't come up with a better way to deflect questions about, say, Allende or Vietnam by now. The grounds on which he objects to Zwillich's bringing up the past are pretty flimsy: first of all, it happened a long time ago, and therefore is not something contemporary audiences should be interested in or consider themselves able to assess; and second, it is unfair to the people who were involved in making the decisions that are now being questioned.

In response to this from Zwillich:

One passage in your book says that idealism is a critical part of American policy, but that the most sustainable course will involve a blend of realism and idealism, [which is] too often held out in the American debate as incompatible opposites. It made me think of your history in places like Chile. Was it the case that realism trumped democratic idealism there when you engineered the coup against Salvador Allende, was that an example of that?

Kissinger replies:

Ahem. You know one trouble with discussion of this...You’re referring to an event that happened 50 years ago, and so it’s very hard to reconstruct…

Zwillich presses on, correcting the timeline ("forty years") and noting that, despite Kissinger's disavowal of any involvement with the coup, "Many other people testified in front of the Church Commission in the Senate later on that in fact you were well informed of that operation even after officially turning it off in a memo –"

Once again, Kissinger falls back on his not-quite-an-argument about how it's all off-limits for discussion because it happened a long time ago.

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An abusive "culture of violence" at Rikers's youth prisons

The front page of today's New York Times reports on the findings of the U.S. Attorney's Office that there is a “deep-seated culture of violence” in the prisons that hold adolescent inmates on Rikers Island.

The report, addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio and two other senior city officials, singled out for blame a “powerful code of silence” among the Rikers staff, along with a virtually useless system for investigating attacks by guards. The result was a “staggering” number of injuries among youthful inmates, the report said.

The report, which comes at a time of increasing scrutiny of the jail complex after a stream of revelations about Rikers’s problems, also found that the department relied to an “excessive and inappropriate” degree on solitary confinement to punish teenage inmates, placing them in punitive segregation, as the practice is known, for months at a time.

The report also enumerates "systemic deficiencies that contribute to, exacerbate, and indeed are largely responsible for the excessive and unnecessary use of force by DOC staff. Many of these systemic deficiencies also lead to the high levels of inmate violence."

The picture is grim, especially given the youth of the inmates and the possibility that they might be rehabilitated -- released after their sentences to be successful and productive members of society. How much harder will it be for these young men to put their lives back together after suffering or even witnessing the treatment described in the report? How can they be expected to trust law enforcement, or any authority? Whatever we imagine prison is "for," it should not be a place where "adolescents" -- or any inmates -- "are at constant risk of physical harm while incarcerated."

One major factor is inadequate oversight. The report notes "several areas in the jails where adolescents are housed have no camera coverage whatsoever. Additionally, critical videotapes frequently go missing."

The missing video surveillance is alarming, given that the Department has a specific policy requiring any video recording of a use of force or alleged use of force to be retained in the office of the Deputy Warden for Security for no less than four years, as well as detailed procedures for documenting the chain of custody for any such recordings. The frequency with which video evidence disappears either indicates an unacceptably blatant disregard for the Department’s policies regarding the safeguarding of video evidence, or even more disturbingly, possible tampering with important evidence.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Attorney's Office also found that internal investigations into the use of force by staff against inmates (when it is reported) are "inadequate." Staff members, the report says, have no reason to expect that they will be held accountable for violations of policy, and "expect that their version of events will be accepted at face value with little scrutiny" -- even if an inmate's testimony and/or medical evidence contradict it.

Reading the article and the report, particularly the section on the overuse of "punitive segregation," reminded me of Derek Jeffreys's recent Commonweal article on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, "Cruel but Not Unusual." (See also this recent NYT article by Erica Goode about the practice of "cell extractions.") As Jeffreys wrote, "The dehumanizing conditions in which inmates are held—the lack of sensory stimulation and human contact; the petty control over inmates’ daily lives; the disorientation with regard to time; and the threat of indefinite isolation—are, in the minds of prison officials, essential to solitary’s power as a disciplinary tool. Contemporary solitary confinement is a policy designed to do harm to the men and women subjected to it."

It seems clear that the United States has a prison system that regularly, systematically violates the dignity of the human beings in its custody. It also seems designed to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to address: violence, anti-social behavior, lawlessness, unstable communities. Reading about the treatment of adolescent prisoners makes that grim irony especially clear. Now, what can we do about it?

Hillary’s reading, reading Hillary

Why do we care what political figures are reading? Do the books on their nightstands say something about them that the ones on ours can’t, or won’t? Maybe it’s reasonable to believe that one can draw general inferences about a politician who cites the Bible as his or favorite, different from those drawn when someone mentions Aurelius’s Meditations, Kagan’s The World America Made or Morrison’s The Song of Solomon (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Jeb Bush, respectively). But that could just as easily suggest we’ve internalized all the cultural signifiers and can pick up on the dog whistles: the titles are meant less to tell us about those figures as real people than to present them as packagable, electable brands to a core constituency or group of donors. Or perhaps I’m being cynical.

A little over a week ago the New York Times Book Review asked Hillary Clinton about the books she’s reading, likes to read, remembers reading, and wants to read. How you view her responses, both individually and in sum total, may depend on your feelings about Hillary Clinton in the first place. Some might see intellectual voracity, others a general and generous capaciousness; some might sense a lack of discrimination, and still others (and they’re out there) a carefully considered, maybe even market-tested, cataloging of titles meant to tickle the vanities and excite the particular interests of a range of existing and emerging constituencies—even if as far as I can tell no one’s actually called it triangulation.

Rarely content to provide one answer or a single example when several (or more) will do, she also exhibits the Clinton penchant for surfeiting the audience. The one book she wishes all students would read? Pride and Prejudice, Out of Africa, and Schindler’s List. The last truly great book she’s read? The Hare With Amber Eyes, The Signature of All Things, Citizens of London, and A Suitable Boy. Favorite genre? Cooking, decorating, diet/self-help and gardening books. Her roster of favorite contemporary authors runs to twenty, from the literary to the less-so, from Mantel and Morrison to Grafton and Grisham. She mentions poets and pundits and politicians, from Neruda to Dionne to Sen. John McCain. Kids’ books? You got ‘em: Winnie-the-Pooh and Nancy Drew and Little Women, and, from her time reading to daughter Chelsea, Goodnight Moon and Curious George.

And then comes… the Bible.

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Meet your newest Tea Party Catholic

If you haven’t already collected your share of fast facts on David Brat, who primaried congressional majority leader Eric Cantor out of office yesterday, here are some worth starting with:

He ran with strong Tea Party support and largely on an anti-immigration message, referring to undocumented migrants as “illegals.”

He’s a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon University in Virginia, where he also teaches ethics; he holds a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary; he describes himself as a "free-market, Milton Friedman economist" and his scholarship includes work with titles like "God and Advanced Mammon — Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?" and "An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand"; he says he stands for the main tenets of the “Republican creed: free markets, equal protection under the law, fiscal responsibility, constitutional restraint, strong military and belief in God.”

He is a Roman Catholic, though his position on immigration puts him politically far more in line with white evangelicals, among whom support for immigration has dropped to 48 percent; 63 percent of Catholics support immigration reform, as do 68 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

He is either still celebrating or may need to brush up on actual policy, if this exchange from "Morning Joe" is any indicator. A snippet of his answer to a question from Chuck Todd about the minimum wage: 

"Minimum wage, no, I'm a free market guy," Brat responded. "Our labor markets right now are already distorted from too many regulations. I think Cato estimates there's $2 trillion of regulatory problems and then throw Obamacare on top of that, the work hours is 30 hours a week. You can only hire 50 people. There's just distortion after distortion after distortion and we wonder why our labor markets are broken."

Todd then pressed Brat on the question.

"Um, I don't have a well-crafted response on that one," Brat finally conceded. "All I know is if you take the long-run graph over 200 years of the wage rate, it cannot differ from your nation's productivity. Right? So you can't make up wage rates."

As for arming Syrian rebels: “I'd love to go through all of this but my mind is — I love all the policy questions but I just wanted to talk about the victory ahead.”

And as of 10:50 a.m. eastern, his website is down.

The post-mortems on Cantor also make for good reading, starting with E. J. Dionne Jr.'s take, now featured on our homepage.

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Engagement or retreat? Joseph Bottum responds

Right now on the homepage, Joseph Bottum takes his turn in our special feature, "Engagement or Retreat? Catholicism & Same-Sex Marriage." Bottum responds to Ross Douthat and Jamie L. Manson, who themselves were responding to Bottum's controversial Commonweal piece from last summer, "The Things We Share: A Catholic's Case for Same-Sex Marriage." An excerpt from Bottum's response:

Sometimes same-sex marriage has been described as a natural outcome of the removal of sex from the realm of morality. Sometimes it has been praised as a wonderful transgressive rebellion, good because it helped undo bad Western norms. Sometimes it has been described as a useful expansion of an old idea, helping preserve the marriage culture. Occasionally it has been promoted as a way of returning ethics to sexual relations, drawing gays and lesbians away from support for the demoralization of sex, to which, it is claimed, they were forced by the repressions of a premodern morality that lasted into the modern world.

In other words, the arrival of legal recognition of same-sex marriage was over-determined in America. And that’s why I think it makes a terrible object for the Catholic Church to pick as the synechdoche for all the objectionable things in contemporary society. Our problem as Catholics isn’t that same-sex marriage somehow uniquely represents Western society’s recent turns; our problem is those turns themselves: the disenchantment of the world, the systematic effort to hunt down and destroy the last vestiges of old metaphysical and spiritual meanings in the world.

Read the whole thing here; read Douthat here, and Manson here.

Who will visit the 9/11 museum?

A featured reader comment at the New York Times’s review of the September 11 Memorial Museum, which was dedicated Thursday morning, began like this: “Having lived here in NYC during that time I most assuredly will never visit this museum. I do not need it to remember nor do I want to remember it.”

I lived in New York City at the time, and I still have competing desires to forget and remember. Two years ago this spring, I visited the museum while writing for a company involved in its design. Work was well underway and the opening was considered imminent—this before Hurricane Sandy and the damage it caused adding further delay to a project already long beset by problems, not the least of which were reasonable questions over the advisability of building it in the first place. What would it contain (“exhibit” certainly didn’t sound like the appropriate verb)? What would it accomplish? And would visitors really be charged admission to a place also functioning as a repository for the remains of those killed in the attacks? (Yes: $24, as it turns out.) Publicized political tussling and construction setbacks didn’t help matters, nor did announced estimates of $60 million in annual operating costs. 

It was warm and sunny the day I visited; I was given a hardhat to wear and, along with a few colleagues, followed a project manager down into the site.

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A tale of two cities, seventies-style

You don’t need to be a New Yorker to appreciate the 1981 documentary Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet, which chronicles the near default of the city in 1975, or to be from Cleveland, which the film also features and which took a much different approach in confronting its own insolvency three years later. You could be from Detroit or Stockton or San Bernardino or Camden, or any municipality in bankruptcy, on the brink, or simply operating within a set of ever-tightening creditor constraints. Thirty-three years after its release, the documentary’s take on how private business interests exert a controlling hand in the financing of public services makes it perhaps even more timely now than it was then.

I saw it at the Queens Museum a couple of weeks ago, and readers in the New York area will have a second chance to catch up with it Monday, May 12, when it’s screened at the Bronx Documentary Center. The film mixes interviews from the period with archival footage to help viewers understand the scope and severity of the financial crisis New York faced in the 1970s, now too often recalled via the reflexive shorthand of the infamous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Intercut with stories from the frontlines of de-staffed hospitals, daycare centers, and firehouses are clips of a black-tie gala at Lincoln Center celebrating the acclaimed saviors of the city, including Felix Rohatyn of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and members of the Emergency Financial Control Board, whose cuts to public funding are portrayed as having disproportionately affected the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. A tuxedoed attendee climbing from a limo tells an interviewer of the EFCB’s work: “It's great. It puts an intervening layer in there. It separates the politicians from the constituencies.”

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Capital Punishment Watch, Cont'd--UPDATED

Last night marked another horrific chapter in our nation's practice of capital punishment. In Oklahoma, two executions were scheduled for last night, following a new three-drug protocol. The first drug administered was midazolam, already used as part of a botched execution in Florida. (see my previous post on this topic for pharmacologic details and links.)

About 10 minutes into the first execution, 38-year old Clayton Lockett was declared unconscious by a physician.  According to CNN, Lockett sat up and tried to speak 16 minutes into his execution. He was seen to be writhing or convulsing on the gurney, and about 20 minutes into the process, his vein "exploded," executioners said, causing them to halt the process. At that point, guards closed the windows so the witnesses could no longer see what was happening. 43 minutes into the process, Lockett apparetly suffered a massive heart attack and died. 

The legal battle centered around a prisoner's right to know the source of the drugs to be used to execute him or her. A stay on Lockett's execution was lifted last week when a judge ruled that there was no such right. After last night's experience, executions are again on hold in OK for at least 2 weeks.

The plan was to render Lockett unconscious with midazolam, then stop his breathing (and all muscular activity) with the paralytic drug vercuronium bromide, then stop his heart with potassium chloride.

What could have gone wrong? Of course, I wasn't there, and can't speak with certainty, but here are two possibilities. 

Benzodiazepines like midazolam can rarely have paradoxical effects: a drug that usually renders one deeply sedated and relaxed, and has anti-convulsant properties, can cause agitation, anxiety, aggression, talkativeness, rage, violent behavior, and delirium, often states not recalled by the patient upon recovery. The midazolam dose used for sedation is much lower than that used for execution, but since Mr. Lockett's vein "exploded," it's unclear what dose he actually received, or, from the information given, what his actual state of consciousness was. The effects of midazolam can be reversed with Flumazenil, (a benzodiazepine-receptor antagonist) but did the executioner have a reversal agent on hand? Reversal of midazolam with Flumazenil can cause seizures. When the execution was stopped, efforts were made to resuscitate Lockett, but details aren't clear.

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Dumb guns

On our website now, E. J. Dionne Jr. on Georgia’s new “guns everywhere” legislation that expressly allows people to bring their weapons to church, among other places:

Nothing better reveals the utter irrationality of our politics for the whole world to see than this madness about guns -- and no issue better demonstrates how deeply divided our nation is by region, ideology, and party…. Nowhere else in the world do the laws on firearms become the playthings of politicians and lobbyists intent on manufacturing cultural conflict. Nowhere else do elected officials turn the matter of taking a gun to church into a searing ideological question. But then, guns are not a religion in most countries.

Dionne’s latest comes on the heels of the National Rifle Association’s “Stand and Fight” rally, held in Indianapolis over the weekend, where Sarah Palin with Christian motherly charm declared that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” And she demonstrated glancing acquaintance with transitive logic in getting to the red-meat portion of her remarks: “If you control oil, you control an economy. If you control money, you control commerce. But if you control arms, you control the people, and that is what they’re trying to do.” [Applause]

They, being the Obama administration, which at last check had taken action on gun reform off the legislative docket. But faith of course is famously resistant to fact and reason.

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College, receding from reach

One of our most-read stories in recent weeks has been Hollis Phelps’s piece on student loan debt -- the total of which nationwide now surpasses $1 trillion (second only to home mortgage debt), with the average student owing close to $30,000 on graduation. As Hollis notes, a big reason for that is that in real dollars the cost of attending a four-year school has more than tripled in thirty years, while family incomes have stagnated. Commencement is a rite of passage closely associated with this time of year, but for many new college grads and rising freshmen (along with their families) it’s now accompanied by the jolting reminder of just how much is owed or will need to be financed.

During a recent college visit with my son, the voluble and eminently capable tour guide was ultimately asked a general question about financial aid. She prefaced her general response with uncharacteristic bloodlessness: “We are a private, high-priced liberal arts college.” Commend her for being forthright, but the framing—no doubt formulated and tested by the administration—hints at what in a different context might be called multitudes: some people can afford this school, but it may be unaffordable for you; we can help arrange a financial aid package that relies in no small part on loans, but you might be better off applying to a public university.

Of course, paying even for a public, “low-priced” college presents, for many people, a financial burden. A big reason is that public schools are themselves becoming more private in terms of how their operations are funded. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ latest annual report, states are covering less and less of the costs they used to, with students now on average providing almost 50 percent of what’s known as educational revenue—the money that goes to teaching and administration; in some states, students cover as much as 85 percent of those costs. Jordan Weissman at Moneybox:

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