Paul Waldman

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Photo of the Day, Cool Energy Edition

That's a Tesla superfan (which apparently is a thing) posing in front of the company's new Powerwall battery, which Elon Musk unveiled today. Meant for homes and businesses, the battery will allow users to store energy from their solar panels, windmills, or whatever else they're using to charge up their cars and power their homes without any help from the grid. Chris Mooney explains why this could be a really big deal as we head toward our promising future of distributed energy.

Riots and Results

Yesterday, I wrote about how the explanation Baltimore police gave for the death of Freddie Gray was almost impossible to believe, and apparently, state's attorney Marilyn Mosby felt the same way after her investigation, because she announced today that she is charging six officers with crimes ranging from negligence to second-degree murder (you can watch her statement here). In a post at the Plum Line this morning, I raised the question of whether you could argue that the violence that occurred in Baltimore on Monday led to this prosecution and therefore produced some of the accountability people in Baltimore want so desperately. Here's a piece of that post:

The violence led to a huge increase in media attention, and even if much of that coverage was sensationalistic, there was also a lot of attention paid to the substantive issues involved. Those included the Baltimore police's record in dealing with the public generally, and in particular the use of "rough rides" as a method of abusing suspects, which is a likely explanation for how Freddie Gray came to have his spine broken in the back of a police van.

All that national attention put every public official under pressure to not only bring calm but also to confront the issues that have the people of Baltimore so angry: The police commissioner, the mayor, the governor, and yes, the state's attorney. While every official would like to believe that he or she would make all the same decisions regardless of whether there are people chanting in the streets and news cameras parked outside their office, they can't possibly be immune.

I have to confess I'm not completely sure what the answer to the basic question is. I'm not at all comfortable endorsing violence as a political tactic, particularly since it not only claims innocent victims, it also tends to be less effective than nonviolent protest over the long run. But there's no question that Monday's rioting instantly made Baltimore and Freddie Gray a national issue.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that if the nonviolent protests had simply continued and grown, there would still have been a prosecution. Though I know very little about Mosby, she doesn't seem like she's being forced into this against her will. One important question is how the rest of the Baltimore officials who are also under a microscope respond. What kind of police reforms are they going to initiate, and how effective will they be? We probably won't know the answers until long after the national media's attention has shifted elsewhere.

There's also the question of whether the events in Baltimore, including this prosecution, have any impact on what happens in police departments around the country, with regard to both police abuse and accountability for it. Suspects die in police custody all the time, after all, and prosecutions are pretty rare. Changing both of those things will take a long time, but the next time a suspect dies, the people in the community where it happened may now be more likely to take the streets, and the prosecutors are going to be asked why they aren't issuing an indictment like the prosecutor in Baltimore did. 

Why Democrats Upped Their Demands on the Minimum Wage -- and Why Republicans Should Embrace It

Democrats unveiled their latest proposal to increase the minimum wage yesterday, and it shows not just how quickly the party's consensus has moved on this issue, but what activists can accomplish by changing the terms of debate. We don't know exactly when a bill to raise the minimum wage will pass Congress and be signed by the president, but it will happen eventually. When it does, lots of Republicans are going to vote for it, for the same reason they have in the past: because the political risks of voting no are too high. The biggest question may be whether the next increase is the one that finally eliminates the minimum wage as a political issue.

The minimum wage has been at $7.25 since 2009, the last step in a series of increases set by the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007. That bill was signed by President Bush, and got the support not only of every Democrat in Congress, but also of 82 Republicans in the House and 45 in the Senate. Republicans may be standing in the way of an increase now, but eventually they'll let it through, if for no other reason than the desire to stop the pummeling Democrats inflict on them over the issue.

But look how the Democratic position has changed. In his State of the Union address in 2013, President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour. A year later, he proposed raising it to $10.10. His administration has now endorsed a $12 minimum; Secretary of Labor Tom Perez appeared at yesterday's press conference with congressional Democrats to give the administration's support for this new bill sponsored by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott.

Even more important may be the fact that indexing the minimum wage—having it rise automatically with the cost of living—has now also become a central Democratic demand. The Murray-Scott bill would index it not to inflation but to median wages (Danny Vinik argues that that isn't a good idea), but the point is that no Democratic proposal from now on is going to exclude indexing.

It seems pretty clear that the activist movement around a $15 minimum wage has pulled the consensus among Democratic politicians toward a higher demand. Which isn't surprising—it's called the anchoring effect, and it's something both sides use in negotiations over money all the time. I say I'll give you $20 for your old lawnmower, knowing that I'll be willing to give you more for it, while you say you want $100 for it, knowing you'll be willing to take less. We're each hoping that our initial offer will set a context that changes how the eventual number is perceived. It's why stores put labels that read, "Regular price $99—reduced to $49!" on items. The $99 is purely fictional; its only purpose is to make $49 seem like a great deal.

The discussion of a $15 minimum wage made $10.10 seem too modest to those who want to see the wage increased, so they've now settled on $12 (which would be phased in between now and 2020). So why should Republicans embrace the latest proposal or something like it? They may like to see a lower increase, and they might be able to negotiate one—perhaps to $10.10. But they really ought to embrace indexing, for the simple reason that it means we aren't likely to debate the federal minimum wage much once it's in effect. This issue is absolutely brutal for them—minimum wage increases are regularly supported by over 70 percent of the public, and the discussion reinforces the one thing above all others that Republicans wish people wouldn't believe about them, that they only care about the interests of the wealthy.

So if you actually passed a law that increased the minimum wage and indexed it to inflation, it would keep rising slowly to keep up with the cost of living, and there wouldn't be much reason to have arguments about it. Everyone would get something they want. 

Photo of the Day, Socialism On the March Edition

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, speaking to the press after announcing his candidacy for president. Here's something I wrote about him earlier today.

Indulging the Lunatics on the Right

Ask a Republican about the elaborate conspiracy theories that are so popular with many on the far right, and she's likely to respond that, sure, those people are there, but liberals have their wackos, too. But there is a difference, in not just how far to the center of Republican power the wackos get (consider how many Republican members of Congress still aren't sure that Barack Obama was born in the United States), but in the way the wackos are treated by the rest of the party. Which brings us to Texas:

Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Guard to monitor federal military exercises in Texas after some citizens have lit up the Internet saying the maneuvers are actually the prelude to martial law.

The operation causing rampant suspicions is a new kind of exercise involving elite teams such as the SEALs and Green Berets from four military branches training over several states from July 15 to Sept. 15

Called Jade Helm 15, the exercise is one of the largest training operations done by the military in response to what it calls the evolving nature of warfare. About 1,200 special operations personnel will be involved and move covertly among the public. They will use military equipment to travel between seven Southwestern states from Texas to California.

On Monday, command spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria attended a Bastrop County Commissioners Court meeting to answer community questions and was met with hostile fire. Lastoria, in response to some of the questions from the 150 who attended, sought to dispel fears that foreign fighters from the Islamic State were being brought in or that Texans’ guns would be confiscated, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman.

So in response to the fact that some of Texas's dumbest citizens emerged from their doomsday prepper shelters long enough to harangue a colonel about their belief that martial law is coming to their state, Governor Abbott issued an order to the National Guard to monitor the movements of the U.S. military just to make sure they aren't herding citizens into re-education camps or dropping Islamic State infiltrators into Galveston. I guess we're safe from that, for the moment anyway.

Every politician encounters nutballs from time to time, and it isn't always easy to figure out how to respond to them. But what's remarkable about this is that we aren't talking about an offhand remark Abbott made, or an occasion in which a constituent went on a rant to him and he nodded along to be friendly instead of saying, "You, sir, are out of your mind." This is an official action the governor is taking. He's mobilizing state resources, at taxpayer expense, because of a bizarre conspiracy theory that has some of Texas's more colorful citizens in its grip.

It's really hard to keep people from believing outlandish things. But you don't have to indulge them. And that's what so many Republicans do with the crazies on their side: They indulge them. Doing so doesn't reassure them or calm them down, it only convinces them that they were right all along and encourages them to believe the next crazy thing they hear.

So please, Republicans, next time you're tempted to say that extremism and fantastical thinking are just as prevalent and meaningful on the left as on the right, remember this.

The Baltimore Police Department's Extraordinary Explanation for Why Freddie Gray Is Dead

I can only imagine the kind of siege mentality that prevails within the Baltimore Police Department right now. Not only are the city's residents protesting daily (and on one night those protests turned violent), but reporters from around the country are now examining the force's less-than-stellar record when it comes to cases of abuse and brutality, and who knows what they'll find. There's little doubt that some time soon the city's leadership will demand investigations, commissions, or some kind of effort that could lead to serious reform of the department. At a time like this, it may be understandable if the police brass isn't quite thinking straight. Which would be one explanation for the story that they presented to The Washington Post:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray "banging against the walls" of the vehicle and believed that he "was intentionally trying to injure himself," according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

The prisoner, who is currently in jail, was separated from Gray by a metal partition and could not see him. His statement is contained in an application for a search warrant, which is sealed by the court. The Post was given the document under the condition that the prisoner not be named because the person who provided it feared for the inmate's safety.

The document, written by a Baltimore police investigator, offers the first glimpse of what might have happened inside the van. It is not clear whether any additional evidence backs up the prisoner's version, which is just one piece of a much larger probe.

I'm going to choose my words carefully here, because I have no direct evidence in this case to contradict this story. But ... do the Baltimore police actually expect anyone to believe this?

I suppose it's possible that Gray, overcome with anger at being arrested, could have slammed himself into the side of the van so hard as to sever his own spine. But when I say "possible," I mean that in the same sense that it's possible that I could jump off my roof, do a quintuple somersault in the air, then land, uninjured, in perfect balance perched on the radio antenna of my car, standing on my nose. You could probably come up with an explanation in which that event did not actually violate the laws of physics. So it's possible.

But it's also possible—and just a smidge more likely—that the cops used some of the means of persuasion at their disposal to convince this unnamed person to say he heard a bunch of banging in the back of the van. And it isn't as though we have to search too far to find a more likely explanation for what happened to Freddie Gray. As The Baltimore Sun reported, there have been multiple cases in recent years of the city's police inflicting "rough rides" on people in custody, tossing them in the back of a van without a seatbelt, then careening around the streets and stopping short so the prisoner is hurled through the compartment of the van. In at least two cases before Gray's, suspects subjected to a rough ride by Baltimore police sustained spinal injuries that left them paralyzed.  

If that's what happened to Gray, it wouldn't be surprising if Baltimore police thought they could get away with claiming that he did it to himself, no matter how implausible such an explanation is for the injuries that killed him. After all, it wouldn't be the first or even the thousandth time that cops claimed that injuries a prisoner sustained were actually self-inflicted. He fell down. He banged his head on the car door. He jumped into my fist. They might also look to the 2014 case in Louisiana of Victor White, who died after being shot while in police custody after being arrested for possessing marijuana.

Despite the fact that White was in the back of a squad car, with his hands cuffed behind his back, and had already been searched by police, they claimed that he had hidden a gun that police failed to find, took it out, and shot himself in the chest. While his hands were cuffed behind his back. What's so stunning about Victor White's case isn't just that the police would offer such a fantastical explanation for why he ended up dead, but that it worked: White's death was ruled a suicide.

If a police force elsewhere can tell that story in the case of a suspect who died in their custody and get away with it, why can't the Baltimore police say that Freddie Gray severed his own spine by slamming himself into the side of a van? After all, it's possible.

Photo of the Day, Ridiculous Overreaction Edition

That's Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles, hitting a home run in today's game against the Chicago White Sox before an empty Camden Yards. The game was held as scheduled, but fans were barred from watching it because of fears that rioters would storm the stadium and massacre everyone inside, or something like that. 

Sheldon Adelson Will Not Be Ignored

Sheldon Adelson has never struck me as a brilliant guy, but I admit I don't have much to go on in making that judgment. Maybe it's the spectacularly ridiculous dyed-red combover that makes him seem like such a comical figure, but who knows. What we do know is that all—or almost all—Republican presidential candidates desperately want his money.

But it seems that Sheldon is seriously ticked off at Jeb Bush. Eliana Johnson of the National Review reports:

The bad blood between Bush and Adelson is relatively recent, and it deepened with the news that former secretary of state James Baker, a member of Bush's foreign-policy advisory team, was set to address J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel organization founded to serve as the antithesis to the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

J Street has routinely staked out liberal views anathema to those held by Adelson and his allies. Adelson sent word to Bush's camp in Miami: Bush, he said, should tell Baker to cancel the speech. When Bush refused, a source describes Adelson as "rips***"; another says Adelson sent word that the move cost the Florida governor "a lot of money."

Let's keep in mind that there's no question that any of the the Republican candidates will be anything less than fully supportive of the Likud vision for Israel's future, which is Adelson's top priority. You'd think that Adelson would be able to live with the fact that former secretary of state and longtime Republican macher James Baker spoke to a liberal group and also is one of what I presume are a dozen or more informal foreign policy advisers to Jeb Bush. But apparently not.

Jeb can live without Adelson's money; he's not having any trouble raising funds, and if he becomes the GOP nominee, Adelson will come around. But what's unusual about this story is the fact that Adelson thinks he can tell presidential candidates whom their advisors can and can't give a speech to.

That brings things down to an unusually specific level that we don't ordinarily see. In this relationship, both the billionaire and the politician tell themselves a story in which everyone has the noblest of motives. The donor tells himself that his contributions are motivated solely by his concern for the country, and he only wants to help those who share his philosophy (and defeat those who don't.) He doesn't tell the politician what to think and do; he's just there to offer his wise counsel as a successful businessman and concerned American. The politician might listen to him, or he might not, and when he usually does, that's just evidence of how wise the billionaire is. The politician tells himself that his integrity is unsullied by money, since he makes his own decisions and is not swayed by the billionaire, even if he just happens to support all the things the billionaire wants.

Had Jeb actually told Baker not to go to J Street solely to make Adelson happy, it would have been hard for him to stay convinced that he was still pure. It's because the question is so trivial that it necessitated standing up to Adelson.

Adelson may have built a lot of casinos, but I don't think he understands much about politics, not only what works but which fights are worth having (this is, after all, a man who thought putting $20 million behind Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign was a wise investment). Say what you will about Charles and David Koch, but I couldn't see them making the same mistake. 

Why Do We Worry So Much About Cable News When Its Audience Is So Small?

The Pew Research Center's latest State of the News Media report is out, and as usual it has all kinds of interesting data about things like the slow-motion demise of the newspaper industry (an exaggeration, but only slightly) and the diminished state of network news. But for the moment I want to look at cable news, a medium that occupies a great deal of the attention of people like me who comment on the media. Take a look at this graph:

Pew Research Center (Nielsen Media Research Data)

 

Those numbers go up and down week to week, and they'll probably increase some in 2016 as we get into a presidential campaign, but still, we're talking about a median combined audience in prime time of Fox, CNN, and MSBNC combined of less than 3 million, or fewer than one in a hundred Americans. So why should we care about the latest outrageous thing Bill O'Reilly said?

It isn't completely illogical. Cable news matters in part because those 3 million include a lot of influential people. And cable can set an agenda for other media; one of the reasons Fox News exists is to push stories helpful to Republicans and harmful to Democrats into the rest of the media by hammering on them relentlessly (sometimes they succeed at this, and sometimes they fail). Also, cable news has two basic topics: breaking news and politics, both of which are things the people who write about news and politics are interested in.

But I think the main reason we media analysts are interested in cable news is that it's full of personalities in a way other media aren't. As horrifying as the thought may be, local TV news remains the top source of information for Americans; around 24 million people watch their late-night local broadcasts, while 23 million watch the early evening broadcast. That dwarfs the audience for cable news, but people only know the local news anchors in their city, and even they are pretty much interchangeable; you could switch from your local NBC affiliate to your local CBS affiliate at 6 o'clock, and you'd probably be getting pretty much the same thing. But that's not the case if you switched between Sean Hannity and Chris Hayes.

And unlike the people who produce content for other media, we see them in full. Most readers don't pay attention to the bylines on the newspaper stories they read, and even if they did, all they would know about that person is a name. NPR has a much bigger audience than cable news as well, but those are just voices that don't have faces attached to them, and what personality they do have tends to be shaped into that smooth, friendly, reassuring, serious-with-just-the-slightest-hint-of-whimsy NPR persona. Do Audie Cornish and Melissa Block seem like totally different people to you? Maybe in real life they're nothing alike, but not on the air.

So like so much else, cable news is interesting because it revolves around distinct and distinctive protagonists and antagonists, in a way most other news media don't. Even if you can't bear to watch more than a few minutes of it at a time.

Photo of the Day, Preparing for the Night Edition

Baltimore police preparing for more protests in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.