Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

December 22, 2011

Counterterrorism: Legalizing Illegality

By David K. Shipler

You may have noticed a pattern in counterterrorism since 9/11. First, the executive branch violates the law, provoking an uproar of outrage, and then Congress changes the law to permit the violations. This has happened several times in the last decade, most recently in the National Defense Authorization Act’s mandate that suspected terrorists be imprisoned by the military, possibly indefinitely. President Bush started doing just that without clear legal authority, locking up three U.S. citizens in military jails until the courts intervened. Instead of acting to prevent a recurrence, Congress has now codified this extraordinary power.

The peculiar dynamic here is very different from the one seen in the 1970s, after the FBI and other federal agencies illegally spied on civil rights and antiwar groups.

December 12, 2011

Big Father: The Government as Parent

By David K. Shipler

When President Obama endorsed the decision to overrule good science and put Plan B contraceptives beyond the reach of girls without doctors’ prescriptions, he cited his role “as the father of two daughters.” It was a revealing remark, because this was not the first time that government had played an immoderate part in family life—not quite Orwell’s Big Brother, but something of a Big Father, taking over a task that rightly belongs to parents to choose how to raise and guide and converse with their child.

It is conservatives, the supposed champions of limited government, who most often want government to act like Big Father. In Tecumseh, Oklahoma, parents got the public high school to do random drug testing after a mother discovered her son and friends using drugs in her house. She and other parents couldn’t cope with their own children. In Stockton, Missouri, a father enlisted a conservative pastor to get the public high school to remove a popular and powerful book, about an American Indian facing racism and poverty, because of a brief passage extolling masturbation. Some parents, unable to talk with their kids about sex, are relieved to shift the burden to the school, or to see the topic erased altogether from available readings.

December 5, 2011

Poverty: How Much Is a Family Worth?

By David K. Shipler

We’re being peppered with a lot of numbers that tell us less than we need to know about financial hardship. We have the 99 percent and the one percent. We have the 8.6-percent unemployment rate. We have the average payroll tax cut of $1,000 this year, which next year will become either $1,500 or $0, depending on how well Congress dysfunctions before Christmas. Either 46.6 million or 49 million people are poor, depending on whether you want to reduce “poverty” by using the official formula based on families’ 1950s spending patterns, or would rather reconcile yourself to living in the 21st century, whose facts of life produce the higher calculation by the Census Bureau.

It is hard to get to the human story of poverty, and none of these numbers takes us there. A more revealing statistic helps, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves: a household’s net worth—assets minus liabilities.