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The Machinery of Death

[ 32 ] September 16, 2015 |

I recently mentioned the case of Richard Glossip, whose execution was greenlighted by the Supreme Court despite Oklahoma’s intention to use a potentially cruel and unusual method of execution, and despite the fact that Oklahoma’s evidence that he committed the murder for which he was condemned is rather negligible.  Well, today is the day the injustice might happen:

Oklahoma is set to execute Richard Glossip, despite grave doubts about his guilt. A chorus of people that includes Republican former Sen. Tom Coburn; Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson; and Barry Switzer, the beloved former Oklahoma Sooners football coach, has called for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to grant a stay of execution. If she does not, and if the Supreme Court does not step in, Glossip will be put to death Wednesday.

The Supreme Court considered Glossip’s case in June, though the issue before the court dealt narrowly with Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure. The court ruled 5–4 in Glossip v. Gross that states may continue to use a cocktail of drugs that has led to prolonged, possibly excruciating executions. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent suggesting that the death penalty is too broken to fix and that the Supreme Court should reconsider its constitutionality. Justice Antonin Scalia ridiculed Breyer’s suggestion, treating it as nothing more than a recycled request that a minority of the court has raised over the years: “Welcome to Groundhog day,” he wrote.

Scalia is correct. It is Groundhog Day—just not in the way he intended. Over and over again, the Supreme Court has been chillingly dismissive of serious questions about the death penalty. And over and over again, new evidence has suggested or even proved that the condemned prisoners at the center of these cases are innocent.

Two examples are particularly striking. Scalia specifically mentioned half brothers Leon Brown and Henry Lee McCollum, both on death row at the time, in one opinion. He wrote that an execution would be an “enviable” death for Brown and McCollum relative to the death of the victim—an “11-year old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat.” In another decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ridiculed the claim of then-condemned Paul House that the scratches on his body did not demonstrate that he committed murder, but rather that he had obtained the wounds from “tearing down a building, and from a cat.” “Scratches from a cat, indeed,” Roberts wrote mockingly.

DNA evidence later cleared these men, saving the lives of Henry Lee McCollum and Paul House despite the fallibility of our institutions of justice. Unfortunately, there is no DNA test that can save Richard Glossip’s life.

The fact that his fate rests in the hands of Scalia, Roberts, and their ideological comrades is certainly encouraging!


The SUPERGENIUS of Chip Kelly, SUPERGENIUS: A Progress Report

[ 96 ] September 15, 2015 |


You want to be very careful about drawing conclusions from one week of NFL games.  But given that there are only 16 a season, some games to provide useful information.  This weekend’s Titans/Bucs game, for example, does not prove that Mariota will be a star and Winston will be a bust, and it does not even prove that Mariota will be better than Winston.  On the other hand, the consensus of the scouting community seemed to be that despite Mariota being more effective against tougher opposition Winston was more “pro-ready.”  Mariota massively outplaying Winston with inferior surrounding offensive talent against a comparable defense makes the consensus…much less likely to be true than false.

So history may vindicate Chip Kelly, picker of players.  But I think it tells us something that in Game 1 Kelly’s moves went about as well as could be expected.  This is not good news for Eagles fans:

  • The Good Trade  Kelly made at least one excellent move in the offseason, getting Kiko Alonso for Shady McCoy.  This still looks excellent.  Alonso, an very good player when healthy, made a key pick in the endzone.  McCoy was expensively pedestrian at best for the Bills.  This was very smart — get a running back’s best performance, and ditch him while he still has some perceived value.  Alas, Kelly forgot the wisdom of this deal quickly.
  • All of yr running backs belong to us  The most baffling decisions of Kelly’s offseason involved heavy investments in the running back market.  The centerpiece acquisition was DeMarco Murray, who was excellent last year but 1)gets hurt a lot, 2)was given an insanely high workload by a team that clearly had no intention of retaining him, and 3)was running behind a superb offensive line.  Since Murray gets hurt, Kelly also invested in another injury-prone RB, Ryan Matthews.  Kelly ended up investing more than $15 million in running backs this year.  This is a really bad idea, because 1)the marginal quality of a team’s running game just isn’t very important in 2015, and 2)any competent organization should be able to find adequate players at the position on the cheap.  Because of Kelly’s innovative offense it’s tempting to assume that Kelly has HACKED the NFL and could make running backs matter like Dick Nixon was still in the White House.  Tempting, but almost certainly wrong.  Anyway, if Kelly has HACKED the NFL he’s modest enough to keep it under wraps.   Facing 2014’s 30th ranked running defense, Murray got 9 yards in 8 carries and Matthews got 4 yards in three carries, and neither did much as a receiver.  The only quality play the Eagles got out of running backs yesterday was out of a guy who was already on their roster after having been acquired by a 5th round pick.  Murray and Matthews will have better games than this, of course, but both signings were obviously dumb, and people who think that Kelly knows something about the value of running backs the market doesn’t are kidding themselves. Kelly has hacked running back value in the sense that Larry Lessig has hacked politics.
  • The Quarterback  The good news for Eagles fans is that Sam Bradford was better yesterday than his career norms.  The bad news is that he can improve substantially and still be mediocre, which is what he was against the league’s 31st-ranked pass defense in 2014.  At least he was on the field, which he often isn’t.  I can understand Bradford as a relatively cheap reclamation project.  I don’t get sacrificing draft picks and a QB of at least comparable quality to take him on at a huge cap hit at all, and obviously nothing he did yesterday changes my mind.
  • Let’s pretend Byron Maxwell is a #1 corner rather than a decent player who looks really good next to three better players in the Legion of Boom  Kelly paid $63 million for Byron Maxwell.  Julio Jones caught 9 passes for 141 yards and 2 TDS.  Jones has torched a lot of guys, of course, but Maxwell remains a solid #2 corner at best getting paid like he’s Darelle Revis.

Maybe this game will prove to be an outlier.  I think it’s much more likely that as a personnel guy Chip Kelly is a very fine offensive tactician.

In Conclusion, Benghazi!

[ 53 ] September 15, 2015 |

More on how Jeb! is trying to play the media like his brother, and apparently succeeding:

The formative experience of my political life was the 2000 presidential campaign, in which the media mercilessly persecuted Al Gore over a series of trivial exaggerations and now-forgotten pseudo-scandals while giving George W. Bush a pass on the fact that the central premises of his economic agenda were lies.

People too young to remember the campaign may wonder how Bush persuaded the country that budget-busting tax cuts for the richest Americans were the prescription the country needed. The answer is that he simply misdescribed his plan. In speeches, in televised debates, and in advertisements he represented his plan as consistent with a continued budget surplus and as primarily benefiting middle-class taxpayers.

Bush won the election and enacted hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts. Surpluses turned into deficits, and the promised economic boom never materialized.

None of this was surprising or unpredictable to anyone who cared to dig into the details. The problem was political reporters had found those details much less interesting than snarking about Al Gore’s wooden speaking style and complaining that his “demeanor” was disrespectful during a debate exchange in which Bush repeatedly attacked Gore with bogus math.

According to the conventions prevailing at the time, to offer a view on the merits of a policy controversy would violate the dictates of objective journalism. Harping on the fact that Bush was lying about the consequences of his tax plan was shrill and partisan. Commenting on style cues was okay, though, so the press could lean into various critiques of Gore’s outfit.

Today it’s clear that Jeb Bush is very much his brother’s successor, both in terms of a love of regressive tax cuts and in terms of a passion for making the case for them in a dishonest way. And reading mainstream political reporters characterize the Jeb tax plan as “populist” or some kind of break with conservative orthodoxy paired with endless front-page coverage of every new micro-development in the Hillary Clinton email inquiry is giving me a very uncomfortable sense of déjà vu.


Thus far this year, America’s collective journalistic manpower has spent a lot more time and energy on scrutinizing Clinton’s emails than on scrutinizing the content of Bush’s economic policy. And that’s a lucky thing for him, because what he’s put out there is an appalling edifice of flimflam based on three claims that don’t withstand cursory examination

I’m hoping the pushback will be more effective this time, but we’ve tried the “let Republicans tell massive substantive howlers while investigating meaningless trivia about a Democratic candidate” thing before, and it really didn’t work out that well.

We Have Met the Enemy, And it is Not “Partisanship”

[ 62 ] September 14, 2015 |


The biggest problem with Larry Lessig’s claim to have hacked politics is that the political theory behind it doesn’t make any sense. But let’s leave that aside and focus on the merits. Would, as Lessig suggests, most of our problems disappear if only we had higher electoral turnout, reduced “partisanship,” and restricted the role of money in politics? History strongly indicates otherwise:

Even stranger than his so-called platform is Lessig’s focus on the evils of “partisanship.” This is the mantra of people whose politics is antipolicitcs: Both Sides Do It. The truth is more mundane. Democrats generally support Lessig’s reform goals and Republicans, at both the federal and state level, vociferously oppose them. I agree that it would be desirable to have a bipartisan consensus on these procedural reforms, but Lessig’s plan for achieving it is wishful thinking all the way down. In practice, Lessig’s reforms will require solid Democratic majorities, not gimmicks.

To see the limitations of Lessig’s proposed reforms, we just need to go back to mid-20th century American politics. Many of the things Lessig seeks to solve were attenuated or absent. Partisanship was very weak. Turnout in presidential elections generally exceeded 60%. More stringent campaign finance reforms were in place, and campaigns were a lot cheaper, reducing the role of money in politics. So this was when American politics was actually functional and representative, right?

Hardly. Between 1938 and 1963, Congress was dominated by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans that consistently thwarted progressive reforms and civil rights legislation. Probably the most important legislation of the period was the Taft-Hartley Act, in which veto-proof bipartisan coalitions reached across the aisle to eviscerate American labor. The statute remains a major source of American inequality today.

Conversely, party-line or near-party line votes achieved the major achievements of the Obama administration, including the Affordable Care Act and major stimulus and financial regulation laws. You might argue that all of these statutes are flawed, and I would agree, but then so were most of the major achievements of the New Deal and Great Society. And while those earlier periods of progressive reform had more nominal bipartisan cooperation, it’s not a coincidence that some Republicans felt compelled to do along only when faced with atypically huge Democratic supermajorities. Partisanship isn’t the enemy of major reform: it’s more of a necessary condition. And even if you mistakenly think it would be beneficial, the era of liberal northern Republicans and a conservative Democratic south isn’t coming back.

The brutal truth is that the choices that make American government largely dysfunctional were not made by the Supreme Court in 2010 or by state legislatures following the 2010 census. They were made by the framers of the Constitution in 1787. The large number of veto points established by the system were designed to make transformative change enormously difficult, and they have.

More on the subject here.

Monday Links

[ 74 ] September 14, 2015 |


[ 87 ] September 13, 2015 |


So, apparently, round 1 goes to feminists and analytics NERDS. And, more regrettably, Oregon fans, but they’ve already suffered enough this weekend.

NFL 2015

[ 122 ] September 13, 2015 |

AFC East 1. NE 2. MIA 3. BUF 4. NYJ As we saw Thursday, this will be business as usual with the Patriots; they will generally outplay their opposition, who will whine (usually baselessly) after they get badly outplayed. Their depleted secondary will make it harder to get through the postseason (personal to the Jets: now you sign Revis, thanks a lot), but if Brady stays healthy I don’t see the division being much of a challenge. The next three teams could finish in any order. In a coin flip, I’ll side with Miami, who even with Suh can’t match the defenses from New York and New Jersey but who unlike those teams have a competent quarterback who could even be competent plus. If you want to be optimistic about the Bills you could note that Rex Ryan took Mark Sanchez to two AFC championship games with less in defensive personnel than he has here. If you want to be realistic, you could note that 1)Taylor probably isn’t even Sanchez, 2)he was nonetheless the best option on the roster, and 3)the Bills will therefore be trying to play GROUND AND POUND (TM) in 2015, and with a shit offensive line and an injured RB1 to boot. The Jets are like the Bills with a slightly more acceptable QB — although he gets hurt and what’s behind him makes Tyrod Taylor look playable — and not quite as much talent on defense. If Bowles is good, they could finish second but it’s hard to see them giving the Patriots a push.

AFC North 1. BAL 2.PIT (*) 3. CIN 4. CLE The Ravens are a hot pick, and I can see why — Flacco isn’t great but has one a Super Bowl once and could again, the organization is very good, and the defense is at least OK. The Steelers have a fine offense. A lot of people are concerned about the loss of Dick LeBeau, compelling me to point out that while he was a great DC for many years all the evidence — starting with Pittsburgh having the 30th best DVOA in the league last year — suggests that he’s long since lost his fastball. (Tim Tebow’s QB rating in the last four games he started as a professional: 37.9, 20.6, 125.6, 52.7. Guess which one was the result of the irreplaceable supergenius of late-period Dick LeBeau.) The defense is likely to still be bad but the odds suggest it will be at least a little better. Marvin Lewis — the rich man’s LeBeau — once again has Andy Dalton and not a lot in terms of pass rushers; I could see them at least fighting for a wildcard again but I could also see a real decline this year. The Browns are like the Bills or Jets only the defense probably won’t be as good.

AFC West 1. DEN 2. KC(*) 3. SD 4. OAK The Broncos figure to have the best defense in the conference except for Buffalo, and I would say that Peyton Manning is at least a marginal upgrade on Tyrod Taylor. Whether they’re merely good or a Super Bowl contender will depend on Manning’s health, which is hard to either count on or count out. The Cheifs and Chargers should both be wild card contenders; I’ll take the Chiefs’ somewhat better defense over San Diego’s somewhat better QB, but there’s scarcely a dime’s worth of difference. The Raiders seem to be in steadier hands, but I’m not really a Carr believer.

AFC South 1. IND 2. HOU 3. TEN 4. JAX The Colts have an excellent QB, a legit shutdown corner, some decent receivers, an OK offensive line, and that’s about it. Good enough to win an atrocious division and get the crap beaten out of them by the Partiots in the playoffs, in other words. The Texans have the best defensive player in the world and some other talent to go with it. They’re also starting a QB whose performance last year was comparable to that of Clipboard Jesus himself. CJ has been replaced by Marcus Mariota, who most scouts see as the second-best QB in the draft (although, FWIW, the analytics like him more than Winston.) Mariota should be at least good enough to get them ahead of the Jags. People seem to like Bortles, but he was really terrible last year and I still think picking him ahead of Bridgewater was a another massive blunder from the organization that brought you “picking a punter with Russel Wilson still on the board.”

NFL South 1. ATL 2. NO 3. CAR 4. TB The biggest hurdle teams face is finding a QB. What’s weird about this division as that at least three of these teams have solid or better QBs but haven’t filled out the team. I’ll take the Falcons based on Julio Jones and the assumption that Quinn will shore up the defense a little bit. Brees can still play but cap hell has really thinned out the Saints, and Newton has remarkably little to work with after the injury to Benjamin. Winston is tough to project — looked like potentially solid NFL player after his first season, definitely doesn’t project as a quality one after his second season — but I’m taking a show-me approach.

NFC North 1. GB 2. MIN (*) 3. DET 4. CHI The Packers have the best player in the world and at least a decent defense; even with the Nelson injury that makes them Super Bowl contenders. The Vikings have the best QB of the 2014 draft, have other talent to go with it, and seem well-coached. The Lions aren’t as good as their record last year and have suffered devastating losses to their defense. The Bears have a dreadful defense, and Jay Cutler isn’t going to make up for it.

NFL East 1. DAL 2. PHI (*) 3. NYG 4. WSH The Cowboys have the best QB in the division, they let Murray go at the right time, and the defense should be just good enough again. The Eagles will be an interesting battle between Kelly’s superb tactics and his very dubious personnel management. The Giants defense looks really terrible, and while the offense isn’t bad it’s the third best in the division. What can you say about the Racist Nicknames except that Kirk Cousins sucks.

NFC West 1. SEA 2. STL 3. ARI 4. SF Why, oh why, couldn’t teams raid Bevell rather than the DCs? Oh wait, it’s actually very explicable! (Alas, the play call WAS AN INSIDE JOB, and the guy who made it is still here.) The Seahawks don’t have the depth they did when their core talent was underpaid, but are still the rare team with a solid QB and a first-rate defense. Foles is not Wilson, but the Rams’ defense is almost as fierce as Seattle’s. Arizona was over their head last year; maybe this is a reflection of Arians having a unique ability to win close games, but I know how I’m betting. Everyone expects the 49ers to be much worse after their talent and coaching hemorrhage, and it can be tempting to be contrarian. Hey, maybe Eric Mangini can turn the defense ar…no, I can’t even finish this.

Fuckin’ Women, How Do They Work?

[ 95 ] September 12, 2015 |


If further shots were going to be fired into the corpse of parody, it makes sense that Bobby Jindal’s minions are involved:

The task seems straightforward: Make a list of health care providers that would fill the void if Louisiana succeeded in defunding Planned Parenthood. But the state, which is fighting a court battle to strip the group of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Medicaid funds, is struggling to figure out who would provide poor women with family planning care if not Planned Parenthood.

Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than in a recent declaration by Louisiana’s attorneys that there are 2,000 family planning providers ready to accommodate new patients. A federal judge, reviewing the list in an early September court hearing, found hundreds of entries for specialists such as ophthalmologists; nursing homes caregivers; dentists; ear, nose, and throat doctors; and even cosmetic surgeons.

“It strikes me as extremely odd that you have a dermatologist, an audiologist, a dentist who are billing for family planning services,” said the judge, John deGravelles, who will determine in the next week whether it is legal for the state to end Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid contracts. “But that is what you’re representing to the court? You’re telling me that they can provide family planning and related services?”

Are Massive Upper-Class Tax Cuts “Populist”? Views Differ!

[ 62 ] September 11, 2015 |

This is an excellent point:

If you have heard about Jeb Bush’s new tax plan by reading political reporters, you have probably heard that it is a “proposal to reform the tax code” that will “crack down on hedge fund managers” (CNN), that it is “mainstream and ordinary” with “a populist note” (NPR), that it “challenged some long-held tenets of conservative tax policy” (the New York Times), and has “a nod to the populist anger roiling both parties” (The Wall Street Journal). It is, in other words, the same sort of coverage George W. Bush received when he unveiled his tax cuts in 1999, and which the campaign successfully cast as a populist departure from traditional Republican priorities.

On the other hand, if you have learned about the tax plan from some of the new policy-focused writers, you have drawn a very different impression. It is a “large tax cut for the wealthiest” (the Upshot) and a reprise of the Bush tax cuts, but “with more exclamation points” (Wonkblog). The difference lies between journalists who write narratives drawn from quotes from campaign sources and those who build their coverage on data. George W. Bush was fortunate that data-based journalism barely existed 16 years ago. His brother is counting on the power of narrative to obscure the data.

There are criticisms to be made of “data-driven” journalism, and it’s no panacea. But if you compare it to old-fashioned “narrative” journalism, it’s certainly a major improvement. Any remotely competent policy-based evaluation of Bush’s tax cuts will show them to be massively regressive and massively revenue-negative. But — particularly if they include one sensible reform that would stand no chance of surviving the sausage-making process in Congress — you can appeal to traditional journalists by just describing your plan as a populist reform and counting on conventions to prevent journalists from telling their readers that you’re lying and/or dissembling. Jeb!’s brother, as Chait observes, exploited these conventions brilliantly.

On Kim Davis

[ 143 ] September 11, 2015 |


Some thoughts on the less-than-massive resistance in Kentucky.

Today in the Noble Ideals of Amateurism (TM)

[ 70 ] September 11, 2015 |

Tom Ley has the perfect response to Notre Dame’s president, who delivered some of the usual nonsense about how a system in which everybody is allowed to drive dumptrucks of money up to their house except for the people who provide most of the actual labor is needed to preserve the purity of the game and the educational enterprise:

The trouble with Jenkins is that it’s hard to tell if he’s just bullshitting, or if he really does believe a) that people watch and pump money into college sports because they are charmed by the noble ideal of amateurism and b) that getting paid fairly for the work you do is morally corrupting. If you got an SEC school’s president drunk enough, he’d probably morph into Boss Hogg and tell you that he just really likes being rich and he’s going to keep the scam running until he has to cut the kids in on it, at which point he’ll gladly do so. The Times piece, though, leaves you with the sense that Jenkins is a true believer in the idea that young people need to have the type and amount of compensation they can get for certain kinds of work set by a self-interested cartel.

Here’s a good way for Jenkins to prove his honesty: he can go right ahead and enact all of the hypotheticals he laid out to the Times. If he truly believes that football should not take precedence over education, that the university would be just fine without its TV contract and Under Armor sponsorship, and that money only cheapens college football, he can go right ahead and opt out of the machine. Nobody is stopping him from turning Notre Dame football into a club sport that doesn’t produce millions of dollars in revenue but does improve the educational experience of students who just want to get some physical activity while they learn about Aquinas and physics. If he doesn’t, it must be either because he doesn’t really want to, or he’s afraid to act on his convictions. Who can tell which it is?

Right. In addition, the idea that people would stop caring about college football if players were permitted market compensation is massively implausible, but if it’s true it’s beside the point. The idea that gross exploitation is justifiable as long as it provides aesthetic satisfaction to others is rather obviously indefensible.

Mike Huckabee, Constitutional Scholar

[ 112 ] September 10, 2015 |

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Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said on Wednesday that the Supreme Court decision that upheld slavery “remains to this day the law of the land.”

Huckabee appeared on conservative radio host Michael Medved’s show to defend Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who went to jail for contempt of court after refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The former governor compared the Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize same sex marriage to the Dred Scott decision, which upheld slavery.

“Michael, the Dred Scott decision of 1857 still remains to this day the law of the land which says that black people aren’t fully human,” he told the radio host. “Does anybody still follow the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision?”

There are many things you can say about the decision so nice it had to be overruled by constitutional amendments twice. “The law of the land” is not one of them. (In fairness, some of Taney’s reasoning retains considerable influence in Republican legal circles, which makes Huckabee’s comments even more like rain on your wedding day.)

Take this as further proof that the winger Constitution consists of the 2nd Amendment, the 10th Amendment, and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment* (*applicable when needed to select Republican presidents and eliminate affirmative action programs only.)

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