Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Op-Eds

How Congress can save Social Security [The reply]

Social Security

Several readers have commented in recent days on the proposal to eliminate or raise the payroll cap as one means of assuring the long-term viability of Social Security. After my Op-Ed, "The golden trade-off," was put to bed, I came across an especially relevant comment from an especially relevant source, the Congressional Research Service, or CRS. 

The service has operated for nearly a century as a bipartisan helpmate for the House and the Senate. In September 2010, the CRS filed a report examining one of the specific issues posed in "The golden trade-off," i.e., what would be the fiscal impact if Congress in fact raised or eliminated the cap. Here is the bottom-line essence of the CRS report:

"Raising or eliminating the cap on wages that are subject to taxes could reduce the long-range deficit in the Social Security Trust Funds. For example, if the maximum taxable earnings amount had been raised in 2005 from $90,000 to $150,000 -- roughly the level needed to cover 90% of all earnings -- it would have eliminated roughly 40% of the long-range shortfall in Social Security. If all earnings were subject to the payroll tax, but the [taxable] base was retained for benefit calculations, the Social Security Trust Funds would remain solvent for the next 75 years…"  (My italics)

In other words, eliminating the cap on wages would place the Social Security system on firm ground for the next 75 years. In return, the benefits paid to high earners would no longer be capped; their taxes would rise, but so too would their benefits.

All of which gives an upcoming Congress the opportunity to achieve a stunning solution to a vexing political problem.

As a related aside, I'd like to respond specifically to commenter limitgovt. You state: "Since the benefits received under these programs are fixed and not adjusted for income, the tax is already extremely progressive when compared to benefits received." The CRS proposal would remove the inequity cited in the first part of your comment. As for the second part, allow me to disagree. It's true that the benefits paid by Social Security are progressive, i.e., lower-income workers receive relatively more in benefits compared to their contributions. It's equally true that the payroll tax itself is inherently regressive, and will likely be paid for decades before a single dollar in benefits is received. Fact: Social Security is progressive on the back end, but it's highly regressive on the front end.

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Reorganizing government out of the subsidy business

--Gerald E. Scorse

Illustration by Paul Tong / Tribune Media Services

Arizona and an opinion that matters [The reply]

Arizona
In response to my recent Op-Ed about the state of Arizona one year after the Gabrielle Giffords shootings, TimBowman comments: "Arizonans have a long history of being self-reliant and mistrustful of outsiders, and reading yet another diatribe from a sanctimonious Californian telling them how to live their lives only reinforces this." He's right. Many Arizonans indeed take a keen interest in the issues of the day and pride themselves in their willingness to be independent and plainspoken. I know this because I'm one of them.

My great-great-grandfather farmed cotton outside Phoenix during territorial days, and my family has been stubbornly rooted there ever since. I grew up in Tucson, attended school there, worked for the state's largest newspaper and have lived in five cities across the state over the years, from the big metropoli to the small county seat. I now teach at a California university, but (sorry, Tim) I have earned the right to talk about a place I know intimately. 

GregMaragos raises a question about whether an "attempt to explain crazy" really holds water, and I'd like to note that I'm making no attempt to explain how the deluded ramblings of Jared Loughner make any sense in the real world, only to point out what multiple researchers have concluded -- that the actions of a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia are influenced by the totality of the culture that surrounds them. Ignoring the context of the Safeway shootings, and failing to do anything about it (such as keeping guns away from the mentally ill, improving mental health awareness and making the public dialogue more oriented toward pragmatic solutions and away from villain-making), would be a stumble on Arizona's part, and there is no sanctimony in pointing out these things. 

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Burning America's future

The Peace Corps kids are all right

Public unions: What's the big deal?

--Tom Zoellner

Photo: This Jan. 8 photo shows newspapers, at a makeshift memorial, announcing the shooting rampage on Jan. 8, 2011, that killed six people and nearly took the life of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Credit: Lili DeBarbieri /AFP/Getty Images

The U.S.: Still the protector of Mideast strongmen [Blowback]

Obama mideast
Mark Levine, a professor of history at UC Irvine, responds to The Times' Jan. 9 Op-Ed article, "The U.S.: MIA in the Mideast." Levine is also a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, "The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh."
If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Has the U.S. really gone MIA from the Mideast under President Obama? Apparently so, if your knowledge of the region comes from its surviving monarchs, autocrats and assorted military leaders.

These are the people to whom John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and the author of the Jan. 9 Op-Ed article, has been talking lately, and it seems they are not at all happy with Obama's "lack of resolve" in maintaining the decades-old "Pax Americana" that has been crucial to ensuring their hold on power.

Hannah would like us to consider the failures of Obama administration policy that have led to this perception, including "overblown promises" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "betraying" faithful clients such as deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and failing to attack Iran. But the far more pertinent question is why Hannah is attempting to sell a narrative of American retreat that is so at odds with the realities on the ground.

Specifically, Hannah accuses Obama of being a "willing accomplice in the dismantling of a regional order ... that has been the linchpin of Mideast security for decades." In fact, at almost every turn, the president has done everything in his power to preserve the existing system. Setting aside the assassination of Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and the surge in Afghanistan, Obama has continued and in many cases increased U.S. aid (most of it military) to clients such as Morocco and Jordan, sold tens of billions of dollars in advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies, tightened the economic screws on Iran and refused to punish Israel (and in fact just increased aid) despite its continued settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Most important, Obama has consistently refused to offer more than the weakest support for the pro-democracy forces in the region during the past year of revolutionary upheavals. Contrary to Hannah's claim, Obama never "betrayed" Mubarak. Rather, the sclerotic Mubarak so badly miscalculated the level of public anger at the regime's increasingly oppressive and corrupt behavior that the military leadership was forced to push him from power to protect its dominant position in the country.

Obama has stood behind the Egyptian military since Mubarak's departure despite the junta's deadly attacks on the most fundamental human and political rights of Egyptians. Similarly, the president continues to throw America's weight behind preserving the status quo in Bahrain while refusing to push for a real political transition in Yemen.

More broadly, Obama has deepened American support for the region's corrupt and repressive monarchies. Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries on Earth, is in no danger of being abandoned by Obama, who authorized at least $60 billion worth of arms sales to the kingdom in the last two years. These will, of course, be matched by tens of billions of dollars in extra military aid to Israel and Egypt to preserve the "balance of power" in the region, not to mention the immense profits for U.S. arms makers.

The only country where the United States has been willing forcefully to support anti-government protests is Libya, which was ruled by a longtime nemesis of the United States whose replacement by NATO-backed forces clearly strengthened U.S. interests.

In fact, as the head of a foundation that ostensibly supports the "defense of democracies," Hannah is noticeably silent about the one area where the Obama administration has been woefully MIA -- in forcefully condemning the ongoing abuse of human rights by America's Mideast allies.

If Hannah had chosen to listen to civil society and pro-democracy activists rather than autocratic leaders, he would admit that Obama has remained as engaged as previous administrations in the region, with a similar disregard for how American support for repressive and corrupt governments harms the cause of peace, democracy and development.

But Hannah never once quotes or even mentions a pro-democracy activist or directly discusses the protests that have swept the region. It's as if the last year never happened in his political universe; or, if it has, its implications can only be mentioned obliquely, as a threat to an order whose true nature can't be admitted yet must be preserved.

I have spent the last year regularly meeting with grass-roots activists across the Arab world. In almost a dozen trips, the most consistent message I have heard from activists is not that the United States is in retreat but rather that it remains too supportive of the system many have died protesting. Wherever I've traveled, the goal has been the same, as symbolized by perhaps the most famous chant of the Arab Spring: "The people want the downfall of the system!" ("Ash-sha'ab, yurid, isqat an-nizzam!")

Needless to say, the Obama administration has not listened to such pleas. It has consistently told activists that the U.S. will not abandon longtime military and political allies or a system that has served American interests so well for the sake of human rights and real democracy. 

Sadly, this policy, and not the supposed "erosion" of U.S. power and credibility, as Hannah describes it, constitutes the real tragedy of Obama's  Mideast policy. If the president doesn't change course soon, it will also be among his most ignoble legacies.

RELATED

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The U.S.: MIA in the Mideast

Obama's modest proposal on defense

-- Mark LeVine

Photo: President Obama in 2010 with, from left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

Follow LeVine on Twitter at @culturejamming.

Rick Santorum's 'verbal ooze' inspires new adjective [Most commented]

Rick Santorum
"[Rick] Santorum's near-victory in the Iowa caucuses last week raised the volume on some of his more paranoid kvetchings about the moral breakdown of society -- gay marriage being a slippery slope to marrying your pet, "Christendom" being under attack, birth control being "not OK" even for married couples, writes Meghan Daum in this week's column about Santorum, the "weird, pious wackadoo" running for the Republican presidential nomination.  She continues:

Sure, the wind that Iowa put beneath Santorum's wings was roundly knocked out from under him in New Hampshire. But the fact that pundits spent the preceding week pretending to take seriously the notion that Santorum could end up as the nominee shows the degree to which the Christian right has taken on an almost mythic quality in GOP politics.

Here's a sampling of comments from our discussion board.

New word: Santorumonious

WORD FOR THE DAY

Santorumonious -- maintaining an extreme and unreasonable belief in the piety or righteousness of one's own actions or opinions, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

--HiVeloCT

Santorum doesn't speak for all Christians

Implying that Santorum speaks for all Christians is like saying that Al Sharpton speaks for all African Americans. It is offensive and just plain wrong. There is a tiny fraction of Christians to whom Santorum appeals, and yes, they vote.

Most Christians are not wackadoos, thank you very much. We are well-educated and came to our beliefs after much study and life experience. We are tolerant of other belief systems but are vocal in defending what we believe to be justice and fairness, particularly when it comes to children and the family. We are deeply protective of the innocence of children and the defenseless unborn. We promote and practice adoption as an option to abortion in unplanned pregnancies. We promote contraception but prefer abstinence in the case of unmarried people.

Frankly, we are tired of the vocal minority getting so much media attention when so many of us are working daily in the trenches of reality at our churches and in community organizations with people, feeding them, finding them homes, helping single moms, mentoring youth, and providing alternatives for pregnant women on a daily basis. The media ignores the day-in, day-out charitable work of Christian organizations because it doesn't serve their agenda of screaming-meemie crazy people with picket signs. So we quietly continue to do what we do and know that what we do serves people where they need it most.

--califmom

Santorum's verbal ooze

It would give me some pleasure to see Mr. Santorum deprived of some of his supposedly righteous ammunition against liberal causes. One of the "jewels" in Santorum's thinking concerns the meaning and purpose of marriage. It seems to me, if we were just to "unhitch" marriage from religion, arguments over it would gradually begin to disappear. Perhaps I touched a nerve, but I cannot see the connection between these two. One is a philosophy, the other is a practical arrangement invented by our society with nothing "philosophical" intended.

Over many years, I have seen Mr. Santorum spill his verbal ooze in the House Chamber. His outlandish revelations of the "truth" as he sees it have caused many a Congressman, and no doubt not just a few TV viewers to gently nod off into sweet dreams. The reason why I avoid mentioning specific Santorum rantings is the same as Darwin's unwillingness to arbitrate "Evolution;" it is totally pointless and it fits the remark: "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with facts."

--ragmaniac

*For clarity purposes, spelling errors in the above comments have been corrected.

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Santorum, Gingrich fail to cut Romney down to size

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to supporters during a campaign stop at the Springdale House and Gardens this week in Columbia, S.C. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Mitt Romney: Really the only GOP candidate who can beat Obama?

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney's latest endorsements come from the likes of former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who told Fox News that the presidential contender was "conservative enough for me," and Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration activist with questionable tactics.

Romney came out of the gate looking like the clear bet to win the Republican nomination and run against President Obama in the general election. His victories in Iowa and New Hampshire certainly make it appear that Romney's got this in the bag. Here is Washington columnist Doyle McManus on Romney's electability:

"Electability" can be a self-sustaining chemical reaction. Now that Romney has finished first in both Iowa (by an eyelash) and New Hampshire -- a feat no non-incumbent Republican had ever accomplished -- his aura of inevitability has grown. If he wins in South Carolina on Jan. 21, the race for the GOP nomination will be over -- and there won't even be much shouting.

But not so fast, writes Ari Fleischer on CNN. Newt Gingrich is still a problem from Romney

Republicans like Romney. They think he's qualified. But they don't love Romney and many worry about his core convictions.

That's why this race will come down to Newt's personal decision. Will he yield after South Carolina, recognizing the GOP needs to unite, or will he keep going, out of sheer determination and knowing Romney's weaknesses?

If he keeps going, it's going to be a long slog, with many Republicans viewing him as a spoiler intent on damaging the party's likely nominee. Many other Republicans, though, will look forward to casting an anti-Romney vote that can make a difference. Most won't be voting for Newt; they'll be voting against Romney.

And, of course, there's the issue of Bain Capital, which Gingrich's "super PAC," Winning Our Future, has driven home with "When Mitt Romney Came to Town." Here’s the short version for your viewing displeasure.

 

"This attack admovie destroys Romney’s argument for why he should be elected president. It does so by showing us the faces of the real people who were laid off as a result of Mitt Romney's company Bain Capital, buying their companies, restructuring them, firing their workers and closing their plants. Romney made millions off of these deals,” writes Zerlina Maxwell of Feministing. “Showing how Romney destroyed so many lives is an effective way to cast him for what he is -- a face of Wall Street greed."

The New Republic's William Galston agrees that Bain presents an obstacle for Romney. He writes: "Bain matters because it goes to the heart of the core case Romney is making: The economy is broken, Obama doesn't know how to fix it, and I do. If his rivals can undermine his record as a job-creator and substitute the narrative of Romney as a 'vulture capitalist' who makes money by looting firms and firing workers, his path to the presidency becomes a lot steeper."

Still, argues the Washington Post's Dan Balz, Romney's the candidate who has the best shot of beating Obama. And that's why Republican voters will continue to back him, he argues.

Democrats and Republicans have agreed privately that Romney would be less scary to independent voters than a GOP nominee who is further to the right ideologically. Scott Howell, a Republican strategist, said, "Romney will appeal to a broader electorate, and that's a huge problem for Obama."

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the media Thursday in Greer, S.C.  Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Prop. 13 and the issue of Amador Valley [The reply]

Prop13
My most recent column, which asks why Prop. 13 should be sacrosanct, drew many comments, including this one from "jackjack5."

Two weeks ago, Jim Newton wrote an article “about a lawsuit working its way through the state courts that poses a novel and fundamental challenge to Proposition 13, the tax initiative approved by California voters in 1978. According to the lawsuit, brought by former UCLA Chancellor Charles Young — represented by William A. Norris — Proposition 13's imposition of a two-thirds requirement for the Legislature to approve any tax increase may have so altered the arrangements of California government that it constitutes a revision of the Constitution rather than a mere amendment.”

Newton wrote that it was a novel approach. The problem is that it wasn’t novel at all. In fact, the issue was decided by the California Supreme Court in the 1979 case of Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist. v. State Bd. of Equalization in which the Court specifically found that Prop. 13 was an amendment and not a revision. So it is stare decisis and the Supreme Court is not going back to change its mind.

As a City Attorney who was very involved in Prop. 13 litigation I can provide a history.

What bothers me is that after Newton’s original article appeared, I wrote a short letter to The Times with a copy to Newton, pointing out this major error in his article but The Times chose not to publish the letter nor did Newton correct it in his latest article. Things must have changed since I studied journalism.

Here is my reply.

JackJack5 raises two points in his post: that Amador Valley resolved the question of whether Prop. 13 was a revision or an amendment and that I ignored his earlier post alleging that I’d committed a “major error” by not responding to his assertion that Amador Valley thus settled the question. Let me take one at a time:

First, the court in Amador Valley did find that Prop. 13 was an amendment, but it did not reach the argument that the plaintiffs in the new litigation have raised. In Amador Valley, the court considered arguments that the limits on property taxes imposed by the proposition altered the relationship between state and local governments and eroded “home rule” through its cap on property taxes. The court found that those relationships were not sufficiently affected to make Prop. 13 a revision but rather that it was properly considered an amendment. That’s important because if Prop. 13 were a revision, it would not have been valid -- revisions require the approval of the Legislature, not just the people.

But the court did not rule on another aspect of Prop. 13 -- its requirement that all other future taxes receive the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature, rather than a simple majority. That’s the issue in the current case, and the court has never directly spoken on it. The plaintiffs believe they thus have a new claim despite Amador Valley. JackJack5 may not agree with that claim, but it is, as I reported, novel and interesting, and full of profound implications. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the lawyer in the current case, William A. Norris, also was the lead lawyer in Amador Valley, so he knows something of this history, too.

As to the notion that I ignored the complaint about the column, that’s not just false but provably so. I filed this reply on our website, in which I addressed these issues, and I included this sentence in the follow-up column, which refers to Amador Valley, though not by name: “In 1978, the court declared the proposition an amendment, not a revision, but it did not address the two-thirds requirement in the Legislature, so that question remains open.”

Again, JackJack5 is free to read the case differently, but there’s an open question, and this lawsuit is exploring it. It seems to me that’s an important subject for Californians to think about; that’s why I’ve made it the subject of two columns and intend to return to it again. 

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Proposition 13 lawsuit: Farce or threat?

-- Jim Newton

Photo: Howard Jarvis, chief sponsor of Proposition 13, signals victory as he casts his own vote at the Fairfax-Melrose precinct on June 6, 1978. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Cosmetic surgery: Protecting the right to choose -- safely [Blowback]

PIP

Jeffrey M. Kenkel, a medical doctor and the president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, responds to The Times' Jan. 4 Op-Ed article, "Is it time to ban cosmetic surgery?" If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Over the last several weeks, the media have published disturbing reports of a French manufacturer that sold faulty silicone breast implants containing industrial silicone. These are implants no U.S. board-certified plastic surgeon could or would ever use.  There is no question that women who received the so-called PIP implants should immediately contact a board-certified (or equivalent) plastic surgeon for immediate evaluation. A listing of plastic surgeons outside the United States who meet the necessary qualifications to be performing any aesthetic procedure can be found on the website of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (isaps.org). To find a U.S.-based board certified plastic surgeon, please visit the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery's website at surgery.org.

An immediate lesson to be taken from this unfortunate and poor medical practice is that all surgeries are serious choices and should be done by and in consultation with a board-certified plastic surgeon, not as part of a whim or medical vacation.  This was a point of agreement my colleagues and I found with Alexander Edmonds' Op-Ed article.

That, unfortunately, was the only point of agreement we had with the medical anthropologist. In his piece, Edmonds uses the fraudulent manufacturing process in France and the experiences of misguided medical tourists as reasons to wonder aloud whether millions of Americans should be denied their right to make choices about their bodies. As president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, I would like to clarify several issues that Edmonds discussed.

Edmonds writes, "It's well known that breast implants of many types can cause burning pain, loss of sensation, hardening of breast tissue and serious infection."  But there is no data in the medical literature to suggest that these complications are a quid pro quo for the millions of women who have elected to have breast implantation, using saline or silicone products.  

Breast implants manufactured in the United States have been proved safe not only by the Food and Drug Administration but through more than 30 studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals that confirm their safety. They are, in fact, the most studied device in the history of the FDA.
  
Edmonds' statement that "an argument could even be made that aesthetic surgery violates the Hippocratic Oath because it carries a potential for harm without curing or preventing disease" is a worrisome assault on patients' rights. What would be next? Will physicians be banned from performing procedures on cleft-lip children because it does not prevent or cure disease? Or, using the most literal reading of this statement, perhaps Edmonds would prefer to limit the rights of adult women to pharmacologic birth control?

Do patients "benefit" from cosmetic procedures? There are many studies that show the positive impact aesthetic surgery has on a patient's self-image and self-esteem. The practice of medicine involves much more than simply "curing or preventing disease," as Edmonds seems to suggest.   
  
I find some common ground in Edmonds' notion that medical advances may contribute to a normalization of cosmetic procedures. The scandal in France, and trends even in our country such as "Botox parties," are sobering reminders of the need to keep these procedures in the domain of medical practice. A surgeon manages risk, regardless of the procedure, by focusing on patient safety, whether the surgery is aesthetically based or medically necessary. We should respect a patient's right to choose, and protect that choice through guidance and vigorous participation in the medical process.

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-- Jeffrey M. Kenkel

Photo: A nurse holds defective breast implants manufactured by the French company Poly Implant Prothese, or PIP. Credit: Lionel Cironneau / Associated Press

Proposition 13 lawsuit: Farce or threat? [The reply]

Prop. 13
Well, I guess it's no great surprise to discover that Californians still care deeply about Proposition 13. My column this week, about a lawsuit that challenges the 33-year-old measure, touched off hundreds of angry emails, many from property owners who worried that if the challenge were successful, they could be forced back to the days when rising values and rising taxes threatened to push some owners from their homes.

Sifting through the name-calling -- surely it's possible for people to disagree about the effects of Proposition 13 and the merits of the legal case against it without calling each other "morons," "dimwits" or "self-righteous, sanctimonious moonbats" -- the basic lines of response were two: Those who think the legal challenge is a farce, and those who worry that it might be for real.

In the farce category, a number of readers argued that the Supreme Court already has ruled on the issue at the center of this case, the question of whether Proposition 13 was an amendment to the California Constitution, which merely requires a vote of the people, or whether it in fact amounted to a revision, in which case it would have needed the support of the Legislature as well. Because the Legislature did not approve Proposition 13, if it really was a revision, then all or part of it might be legally invalid. Some readers pointed to a 1978 case in which the court did address the issue, ruling that Proposition 13 was an amendment and thus valid. But the case that readers cited, Amador Valley Joint Union High School District vs. State Board of Equalization (1978), confronted a challenge to Proposition 13 in terms of its reach in rolling back property taxes and its alleged alteration of the balance of power between local governments and Sacramento. The court concluded that Proposition 13 did not so alter those relationships that it would destroy "home rule," and it found that even though local governments would have a harder time raising taxes in the future, they still could if they could persuade voters to go along. Thus, viewed through those arguments, the court concluded that Proposition 13 was an amendment, not a revision.

The new case raises different issues, however. It does not contest Proposition 13's ability to restrain property taxes but rather says that another provision of the initiative, the one requiring any new taxes approved by the Legislature to receive a two-thirds majority of the Assembly and state Senate, so fundamentally alters the work of the Legislature that it should be classified as a revision. Defenders of Proposition 13 argue that the court has spoken; supporters of this lawsuit say they believe the court has not addressed this point. One other note to consider: The lead lawyer in the new case, retired judge William A. Norris, knows something about the Amador case. He was the lead lawyer then too.

On the other end of those reacting to the column were those who bemoaned this lawsuit, not because they think it's unlikely to succeed but rather because they fear that it might. For some, Proposition 13 has worn poorly. They see the inequity between new home-buyers and established owners that can result in radically different tax bills for similar homes; they complain that the limitations on the government for raising public funds has starved schools and infrastructure; they see Proposition 13 as stifling and responsible for much of California's decline in the years since voters approved it. For others, however, it is a monument to citizen power and to restrained taxation. Losing it, they fear, would plunge California back to the days when tax bills were rising so fast that some could not afford to stay. As one reader put it: "Repeal Prop. 13. Otherwise known as: Kick grannie and pops out of their home."

Finally, beyond those readers eager to see the measure repealed and those desperate to keep it in place, there's a third group. They boil this issue down to illegal immigration. Then again, that's how they boil down every issue.

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--Jim Newton

Photo: Since 1978, when this photo was taken in Manhattan Beach, Prop. 13 has established the basic facts of political life in California. Now there's a legal challenge. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Obama: The peace president, clarified

Obama
Tom Hayden wrote in an Op-Ed Dec. 16 about the role of "determined peace activists" in ending the war in Iraq, including  "one who embraced their cause and became president": Barack Obama. Hayden called Obama's opposition to the war -- which Obama, then an Illinois state senator, made clear in an announcement in October 2002 in Chicago --  a "brave stance for an ambitious politician."

Hayden went on to call Obama "the first president to campaign on a promise to end an ongoing American war." That assertion, however, is not true, and it has been corrected for the record. As a reader pointed out, Dwight D. Eisenhower campaigned in 1952 on ending the Korean War. And Richard M. Nixon promised to end the  Vietnam War during his successful presidential campaign in 1968.

Hayden, however, stands by the idea that Obama has played a singular role among recent presidents. In an email, he clarified his point:

Dwight D. Eisenhower promised to end the war in Korea, it is true, but he left the Korean peninsula partitioned and more than 25,000 American troops occupying the South until the present time. Those U.S. troops are pledged to fight again if hostilities erupt between the two Koreas.

Richard M. Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War, but his "secret plan" for peace led to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, escalated the bombing of North Vietnam, and resulted in tens of thousands of more American casualties until the war was lost to North Vietnam years after Nixon took office.

By contrast, Obama pulled the last of 170,000 American troops out of Iraq on schedule this month. True, he is leaving 16,000 personnel at the huge U.S. Embassy for "defensive" purposes, but they are hardly about to initiate another war. Iraq itself may erupt in sectarian war once again, but that calamity cannot be prevented by another U.S. military occupation, only by effective diplomacy with Shiite countries like Iran, with whom we have no diplomatic relations.

Compared to Eisenhower and Nixon, Obama has ended the war he pledged to end.

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U.S. pullout leaves Iraqi interpreters out on limb

--Susan Brenneman

Photo: President Obama greets troops as they step off a plane on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Dec. 20 during a ceremony marking the return of the United States Forces-Iraq Colors and the end of the war in Iraq. Credit: Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press 

Christopher Hitchens, Sarah Silverman and the Twitter wars [The reply]

Sarah Silverman
On Thursday, I logged on to my Twitter account and noticed I'd been the subject of a sudden flurry of activity. It seemed that the comedian Sarah Silverman had fired off five angry tweets about me over the course of what looked like a few minutes, a move that caused many of her nearly 2.5 million followers to immediately follow suit.

Silverman had taken offense to my Thursday column about Christopher Hitchens' infamous 2007 Vanity Fair essay "Why Woman Aren't Funny," in which, while recognizing the generally boorish tone of Hitchens' essay, I suggested that he was right that women are not, in the aggregate (i.e., there are many, many exceptions, among them Silverman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Wendy Liebman -- a personal fave -- and more, which is why I qualified the statement) as funny as men. I said this not to be sexist but in fact to shed light on the sexism at the root of the very phenomenon.

In the minds of many (not all) men and women, humor tends to defy culturally approved notions of femininity. Speaking from my own experience as a woman who is often (not always) perceived as funny, I can say that the moment of eliciting laughter is nearly always accompanied by a momentary sense of androgyny. And guess what? For me, and presumably for the legions of funny women out there who know what I'm talking about, it's exhilarating. But presumably there are also women who censor their humor out of a fear of that androgyny. As I wrote in the column, humor is power. And "to be deprived of this power, even by dint of one's own vanity, is a form of oppression."

Based on her initial tweet, Silverman actually seemed most upset about something else. A photo of her had accompanied the column, and the caption erroneously stated that she had objected to Hitchens' article. Her distress  was understandable (fyi: Writers have nothing to do with headlines, photos and captions), and The Times quickly corrected the error.

But in subsequent tweets, Silverman attacked the column itself, suggesting it lacked a point of view and saying that "today you have distinguished yourself as another great example of who 'the man' really is: women like you." Within seconds, scores of her followers were accusing me of everything from sexism to anti-Semitism to being a hack, an idiot, a disgrace and so on. Several seemed eager to watch a cat fight between Silverman and me, while another (my favorite so far) posited that  "this dialogue would benefit if we added an inflatable pool of lube." Indeed.

As a regular on the Opinion page for more than six years, I know that columns, like jokes, aren't going to resonate with everyone or even most people; in fact, if they do, that's a pretty good indication of their mediocrity (in other words, if you please all the people all the time, it's probably because you've helped them fall asleep). Silverman, a brilliant, brave and original comic whom I've admired for years, surely knows that better than anyone.

That's not to say she doesn't genuinely hate my column -- she well may, which is fair enough -- but I do think there's something ironic about the fact that her fans, in attacking me out of loyalty to her, are also attacking my attack on the double standard faced by women comics and funny women in general. 

Needless to say, this has added a new dimension to my holiday fun -- not to mention confirming my suspicion that Twitter is an excellent and productive use of everyone's time. Now where's that pool of lube?

ALSO:

Photos: The 10 most viewed Op-Eds of 2011

Photos:Ted Rall's 10 most popular cartoons of 2011

Christopher Hitchens: In our pages, in our memories

--Meghan Daum

@meghan_daum

Photo: Comedian Sarah Silverman visits Broadway vet Seth Rudetsky on "Seth Speaks" at the SiriusXM Studios on Nov. 3 in New York City. Credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

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