Paul Waldman

Could Postal Banking Be the Next Big Thing?

This doesn't actually have anything to do with postal banking. It's just awesome. (Flickr/grilled cheese)

It's often said that being poor is really expensive, and one of the most painful ways is what millions of Americans have to pay in order to make sure their bills are accounted for. If you're poor, time and money and intertwined in ways that people who aren't poor don't have to worry about. When your income and your expenses are right around the same amount, you have to worry about timing constantly. I'm not getting paid for a week, but this utility bill is due in three days, and I have to set aside enough for food and gas—how should I handle that? If I write my rent check on the same day as I get my paycheck, will the former clear before the latter? For many, the only choice to avoid catastrophes like getting evicted or having your power cut off going to one of the payday lenders and check-cashing operations you can find in every poor neighborhood. And since those payday lenders know their customers have no other options, they make them pay through the nose. As an analysis by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau showed, "Fees at storefront payday lenders generally range from $10 to $20 per $100, though loans with higher fees are possible...A fee of $15 per $100 is quite common for a storefront payday loan, and would yield an APR of 391% on a typical 14-day loan." The median interest rate for the loans they examined was an incredible 322 percent.

If we wanted to do something about this appalling exploitation of the poor, what are our options? One solution is tighter regulation of payday lenders, limiting their usurious interest rates and requiring them to offer reasonable terms to their customers. Colorado passed requirements like that a few years ago, and they've succeeded in reducing the amount of misery payday lenders can pour upon the state's most vulnerable citizens (there are details here). But there's another option. There's an organization that has thousands of locations around the country, already performs some financial transactions (selling money orders), and is eager for new sources of revenue. It's called the Postal Service. If they began offering some limited banking services, it would seem like a win for everyone—poor Americans would get access to banking without crippling interest rates, and the USPS would make money. Who could possibly object?

Left Grovels to Right, Achieves Nothing

Before yesterday's Super Bowl, President Obama sat for a ten-minute interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. The interview was about what you'd expect: a grab-bag of conservative grievances, discredited conspiracy theories, and attempts at gotcha questions. Why didn't you call Benghazi terrorism! Why haven't you fired Kathleen Sebelius! Why did the head of the IRS visit the White House! And my personal favorite, when O'Reilly read a letter from a viewer asking, "Mr. President, why do you feel it's necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity and success?" Ah yes, the "transform America" outrage, as though that 2008 statement must have been a coded message meaning Obama wanted to destroy America, combined with the old Why aren't you people more grateful?

The question is, though, why on earth would a Democratic president bother to grant an interview to an antagonistic conservative talk show host? The New York Times described the interview as "an unpleasant duty that was more or less unavoidable," but in truth it was nothing of the sort. A solo interview with the president is a relatively rare privilege given to only a few journalists. I don't remember George W. Bush inviting Keith Olbermann to interview him in the White House. So what gives?

It's Lonely At the Top

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

Last week, congressional Republicans got together at a Chesapeake Bay resort to contemplate their political fortunes. In one presentation, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a bit of shocking news to his colleagues: Most people are not, in fact, business owners. It would be a good idea, he suggested, if they could find a way to appeal to the overwhelming majority of Americans who work for somebody else. Their aspirations don't necessarily include opening up their own store or coming up with an amazing new product, so the prospect of lowering the corporate tax rate or slashing environmental regulations may not make their pulses quicken with excitement. They're more concerned with the availability of jobs, the security of health care, and the affordability of education.

Thwarting Big Brother

Nobody can tell who this guy is. Also, it's a dog. (Flickr/Davharuk)

As you know, our society is rapidly moving toward a dystopian future of mass surveillance, where every step you take and purchase you make and everywhere you drive and everyone you call and everything you eat and breathe and think is logged, categorized, and stored. Or at least it sometimes feels that way. But is it possible to take some of this control back? Here's one attempt as Technology Review tells us:

No, We Aren't Getting Closer to Immigration Reform

Flickr/Donna Burton

Yesterday, congressional Republicans released a set of principles on immigration reform which are supposed to guide the writing of an actual plan. This has led some optimistic people to say that perhaps some kind of compromise between the two parties might be worked out, and reform could actually pass. I'm sorry to say that they're going to be disappointed.

I might be proved wrong in the end. But I doubt it, because the fundamental incentives and the dynamics of the issue haven't changed. You still have a national party that would like very much to pass reform, and individual members of that party in the House of Representatives who have nothing to gain, and much to lose, by signing on to any reform that would be acceptable to Democrats and thus have a chance of passing the Senate and being signed by the President. So it isn't going to happen.

Remembering What Matters About the Affordable Care Act

Flickr/Laura Smith

On the Affordable Care Act front today, there's very good practical news, and not-so-good political news. That gives us an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves to keep in mind what's really important when we talk about health care.

Let's start with the good news.

American Know-How Fails

Marie Antoinette goes out the easy way. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, the state of Missouri executed Herbert Smulls, who had been convicted of a 1991 murder, despite a number of appeals and temporary stays. Smulls' lawyers had noted that the state refused to disclose where they got the pentobarbital they were going to use for the lethal injection, and apparently if the drug is not mixed properly it can create extreme pain. As you may know, in the last couple of years, pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs used to perform lethal injections have decided to suspend their manufacture, leading some states scrambling for ingredients they need to send condemned prisoners to the great beyond. Some have even considered antiquated execution techniques; there are bills in Missouri and Wyoming to bring back firing squads, and one Virginia lawmaker wants to make the electric chair an option again.

Which leads me to ask this. It's the 21st century. We can build skyscrapers a kilometer high. We can send ships to Mars. We can put a powerful computer in the pockets of billions of people. Are you telling me that with all our technology, all our engineering knowledge, and all our good old-fashioned American ingenuity, we can't come up with a quick, effective, and painless way to kill a man?

Is Barack Obama a Tyrant?

You can't spell "tyrant" without "rant"!

A typical State of the Union address is criticized for being a "laundry list," little more than an endless string of proposals the president would like to see enacted. The criticism usually has two parts: first, most of the items on the laundry list will never come to pass, and second, it makes for a boring speech (the pundits who make the criticism seem to care more about the second part). Last night's SOTU didn't have the usual laundry list (which of course meant that it was criticized for being too vague), but the one specific proposal getting much attention today is President Obama's idea to require that on future federal contracts, all workers be paid at least $10.10 per hour. So naturally, Republicans are crying that this is the latest example of Obama's tyrannical rule, in which he ruthlessly ignores the law whenever he pleases.

As Ted Cruz wrote in today's Wall Street Journal, "Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president's persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat." Is there anything to this criticism? Is Obama more of a tyrant than, say, his immediate predecessor? Let's take a look.

Hillary Clinton's Enemies Can't See Straight

Never forget!

Rand Paul, who is weirdly a potentially serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, got asked on Meet the Press this past Sunday about a comment his wife had made about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. His answer was revealing, I think, of a mindset Republicans are going to struggle with mightily should Hillary Clinton run for president. I bring this up not because I think Paul's comments are all that important in and of themselves, and not because Republicans are likely to spend a good deal of time talking about Monica Lewinsky come 2016. But there's an impulse when it comes to Hillary Clinton that presents a real danger for Republicans. There are so many things they hate about her and her husband that they barely know where to start. And that hatred could well be their undoing.

Vaccine Fear Mongers Are Wrong, But They're Not Ideological

President Obama possibly being injected with Kenyan socialist nanobots. (Flickr/ Rene Najera)

It's been true for some time that conservatives are far more likely that liberals to hold a number of false beliefs about the world, some of which were always political (e.g. Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, evolution is a myth) and some which became more political over time, particularly the belief that the planet is not warming and its subsidiary beliefs, which include the idea that there is a great deal of disagreement among climate scientists as to whether warming is occurring. Sometimes when this is brought up, someone will mention that liberals believe some demonstrably false things too, like the idea that childhood vaccines cause autism.

The trouble is, there has never been anything other than anecdotal evidence for this contention. Yes, there may be a parent at your kid's organic vegan locally sourced small-batch co-op nursery school who thinks it's true, and dangerous lunatic Jenny McCarthy, the nation's most prominent propagator of this theory, is a Hollywood celebrity and many Hollywood celebrities are liberals, but that doesn't mean that liberals in general are more likely to believe in the fictional vaccine-autism link.

Campaigns and the Human Condition

An image from "Mitt," taken at the moment when Mitt Romney realized he had lost the 2012 election.

Over the weekend I watched the Netflix documentary "Mitt," and true to its billing, it humanized Mitt Romney to an extraordinary degree. That's not all that surprising, given that the film was directed by a filmmaker who is friendly with the Romney family and obviously sought to give a behind-the-scenes view of the campaigns (it covered both the 2008 and 2012 races) that portrayed Romney in the best possible light. But in humanizing Romney, it did an excellent job of illuminating just how artificial all campaigns necessarily are.

Once Again, Conservative Media Treat Their Audience Like Idiots

Eat up what I'm serving, rubes. (Photo of Laura Ingraham by Gage Skidmore)

Dinesh D'Souza is one of a number of people who has made a good living over the years trafficking in anti-liberal screeds, culminating in his book "The Roots of Obama's Rage" and follow-on film "2016," in which he charges that President Stokely Charmi--excuse me, President Barack Obama is consumed with anti-white racism, hatred of America, and generalized fury because he's living out the "Kenyan anti-colonialism" of the father he barely knew. It's a story pitched to the deranged, but there's a healthy market for that in the right, as we know.

So when D'Souza was charged by a U.S. Attorney with violating campaign finance laws with a straw donor scheme, it wasn't surprising that some conservatives ran to his defense. You might think they'd take the opportunity to attack the law as unjust, particularly since D'Souza's lawyer all but admitted his guilt, essentially saying that sure, he violated the law, but he only did so out of friendship for the candidate in question and not for corrupt purposes ("Simply put, there was no 'quid pro quo' in this case, nor was there even any knowledge by the candidate that Campaign Finance Rules may have been violated. Mr. D'Souza did not act with any corrupt or criminal intent whatsoever. He and the candidate have been friends since their college days, and at worst, this was an act of misguided friendship by D'Souza"). But no.

Why Republicans Keep Calling Women Sluts

What are these strange and frightening concoctions? (Flickr/Sarah C)

As you've heard, yesterday Mike Huckabee stepped up to the plate and smacked a stand-up double in the GOP's ongoing effort to alienate every woman in America, when he said, "If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government then so be it! Let us take that discussion all across America because women are far more than the Democrats have played them to be." As expected, Huckabee quickly explained to his supporters who the real victim is here ("I am apparently the worst conservative ever or at least the most annoying one according to the left wingers in Washington today"), but the question is, why do they keep doing this? After all, every Republican knows by now that their party has a problem with women; Mitt Romney lost their votes by 11 points. The simple answer is that they can't help themselves, but more specifically, it's a combination of ignorance, contempt, and Puritan morality that inevitably leads to these eruptions. And it's going to keep happening. Let's look at the particulars:

The Republican Problem With Independent Voters

Still a problem.

As I've discussed before, there are moral judgments liberals and conservatives make about things like economics that not only underlie the positions they take on policy, but also make most of the empirical conversation we have about those issues kind of superfluous. We spend a lot of time marshalling facts to support positions that have a moral basis, when those facts have virtually no chance of persuading large segments of the population. For example, you can tell many conservatives that income mobility in the United States is lower than that in many countries, and it won't dent their belief that in this land of opportunity, everyone gets what they deserve and your wealth is a clear indicator of your virtue.

The good folks at the Pew Research Center have a new poll that includes some interesting questions probing how people think about poverty and economic fairness, and it shows how on this increasingly salient question, Republicans have a real political problem. Let's take a look at their key table:

Technology and Oppression, 30 Years Ago and Today

Apple's "1984" ad, thirty years old this week.

Thirty years ago this week, the Super Bowl featured an ad (directed by Ridley Scott, no less) for the soon-to-be-released Macintosh computer, in which Apple implicitly compared the dominance of Microsoft operating systems and IBM computers to the oppressive dictatorship of George Orwell's 1984. Apple's Board of Directors apparently hated the ad, but Steve Jobs insisted that it air, probably because he understood how critical it was to building Apple into not just an identifiable brand but a statement of personal identity. If you use a PC, Jobs was saying, you're a drone, a cog in the wheel, someone who has been stripped of your individuality as you labor for the Man. Whereas if you use a Mac, you're a creative, youthful individual forging your own way in the world and subverting the dominant paradigm.

Part of the reason Apple has managed to sustain that brand identity for so long is that there was always some truth to their argument. Nobody really loved Windows, but you had to use it because everybody else used it. On the other hand, Windows in its many incarnations has usually been good enough, and even its occasional frustrations aren't exactly comparable to life in East Germany circa 1957. These days, we hear a lot about technology as a force of liberation, but not so much about technology as a force of oppression. But that may be starting to change.

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