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Not persuaded

Vie, 22/05/2015 - 19:51

IT IS almost impossible to change people's opinions on divisive political issues by arguing with them. This is rather depressing for opinion journalists and others in the advocacy business, but the social-science research is fairly conclusive. There is even evidence of a "backfire effect" in which attempts to change people's minds only make them dig in deeper.

Last month, however, the radio programme This American Life reported on a technique that seemed to work. A gay-rights group in California had sent door-to-door canvassers to have open, non-confrontational conversations with opponents of gay marriage. A study by two political scientists found that after a single non-confrontational conversation with a gay canvasser, support for gay marriage among the 972 subjects rose several percentage points, and that this effect was lasting. The study was so striking that the journal Science immediately accepted it for...Continue reading

A taxing decision

Jue, 21/05/2015 - 14:50

IN THE 15 years since the nine members of the Supreme Court effectively picked the nation’s 43rd president in Bush v Gore, the justices’ decisions have increasingly been regarded as falling along ideological lines. With the retirements of Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter and John Paul Stevens—three justices who proved to be more liberal than expected at the time they were nominated—today's court aligns rather neatly with the politics of the appointing presidents. Just over half of Americans perceive the court to be ideologically tilted in one direction or another—liberals tend to see it as conservative, while conservatives regard it as liberal. The justices are meant to transcend ordinary politics and base their rulings in law and logic, but many Continue reading

Waffling hawks

Mié, 20/05/2015 - 21:03

IT'S hard admitting a mistake. Over the course of four days last week, Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida and Republican presidential hopeful, could not quite decide how to answer an obvious question about the war in Iraq, which his younger brother George W. Bush started in 2003. Knowing what we know now, Megan Kelly of Fox News asked, would he have authorised the invasion of Iraq? First Mr Bush said "yes". Then, a day later, he said he hadn't properly grasped the question. Then, at yet another event, he suggested that dwelling on "hypotheticals...does a disservice for a lot of people who sacrificed a lot". Finally, he said "no": in hindsight, he would not have invaded Iraq.

Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, seemed to capitalise on Mr Bush's feckless inconsistency when he appeared last week at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and said, quite resolutely, "Not only would I have not been in...Continue reading

A company town without a company

Mar, 19/05/2015 - 15:55

“DID you like it?” asks Cecil Klopfenstein, a bearded volunteer at the information desk of the Studebaker National Museum. The 85-year-old is noticeably proud of the museum’s permanent exhibition, which retraces the glorious, 100-plus-year history of Studebaker, a wagon-maker turned carmaker. Mr Klopfenstein worked for Studebaker from 1949 until the South Bend factory closed in 1963, and he is still the happy owner of two Studebaker cars.

Indiana's South Bend used to be a company town, hosting the headquarters of one of world’s most popular makers of carriages and wagons in the 19th century and one of the big four American carmakers in the 20th. The company was founded by five Studebaker brothers—Henry, Clement, John, Peter and Jacob—the sons of German immigrants who came as blacksmiths and foundrymen to South Bend. The Studebaker brothers' big breakthrough came when they supplied wagons for the Union army during the civil war. Ulysses Grant, the leader of the Union army, used a Studebaker carriage during his term as America’s president in the 1870s. Abraham Lincoln drove a Studebaker to the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC,...Continue reading

A death sentence

Sáb, 16/05/2015 - 18:17

DZHOKHAR TSARNAEV was sentenced to death on May 15th by a federal jury for setting off bombs that killed three spectators and injured scores more at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The verdict was a surprise. Capital punishment has been banned in Massachusetts since 1987, and polls show that few in the state support the practice. But because Mr Tsarnaev was charged under federal law, not state law, execution was always a possibility.

There was little doubt of Mr Tsarnaev’s guilt. “It was him,” declared Judy Clarke, his acclaimed defence attorney, in her shocking opening statement in March. In April the jury found Mr Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 federal counts related to the attacks, including detonating a weapon of mass destruction. Seventeen of the counts were punishable with death. Most of Ms Clarke’s energy was devoted to the sentencing phase, when jurors were left to decide whether to send Mr Tsarnaev to his death or to life in prison without parole. She and the rest of the defence team worked to convince the jury that Mr...Continue reading

A choice, not an echo

Vie, 15/05/2015 - 21:36

WILL Elizabeth Warren run for president? The question is worth asking because Ms Warren (pictured), a senator from Massachusetts, rebuffs fans with the phrase "I am not running"—that is, she prefers the present tense, leaving open the possibility that this could change. Well, she ought to consider it. Her star is rising, especially in light of her momentous, if short-lived, victory in getting Senate Democrats to deny Barack Obama the "fast track trade authority" he needs to move forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge trade deal with 12 Asian nations.

Ms Warren has argued, plausibly enough, that the secrecy of these trade negotiations flout the rules of upstanding democratic conduct. She has also argued, less plausibly, that...Continue reading

Tribal loyalties

Vie, 15/05/2015 - 19:52

ON TUESDAY my colleague wrote a post criticising the "Boycott, Divest, Sanction" (BDS) movement on American campuses for making unrealistic demands of Israel that can only lead to more rancour and retard a peaceful solution. I agree with much of the post, but I think it suffers from a misplaced lack of pessimism. My colleague writes that meeting the BDS movement's demands would require a one-state solution to the conflict, which in most versions entails Israel incorporating the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and granting them full citizenship (possibly along with the Palestinian refugees who fled Israel's founding in 1948, and their descendants). He then characterises this as a programme “born of fantasy, not of pragmatism”. It is true that the one-state solution is hopelessly implausible. Any government attempting to incorporate two ethnically, religiously and linguistically exclusive communities, each thinking of themselves as a separate nation, who have come to hate each other passionately over the course of 70 years of war and...Continue reading

Lecturer-in-chief

Vie, 15/05/2015 - 05:24

WHEN allies demand the impossible from Barack Obama, it is rarely enough for him to say no. Something deep within him makes him explain—often in public—why foreign partners are mistaken about their own interests. On Thursday the six Gulf monarchies—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were the latest allies to endure such a teachable moment at the hands of America’s president.

Mr Obama gave his lecture in a press conference at the end of a summit at Camp David, the presidential retreat, with leaders and envoys from the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). The foreign-policy establishment in nearby Washington had spent days forecasting disappointment. It was predicted that the GCC would receive only vague security promises, offers to sell them yet more weapons, and assurances that America’s negotiations with Iran would limit the country's pathways to a nuclear arsenal. This would not be enough, was the consensus, because what the Sunni Arab leaders of the GCC really want is to hear is America agree that—even without nuclear weapons—Shia Iran is a dangerously expansionist power that needs to be...Continue reading

Edward Snowden in the primaries

Mié, 13/05/2015 - 20:31

LAST week a federal appeals court panel ruled that the NSA's indiscriminate hoovering of phone-call metadata, first revealed by the leaks of Edward Snowden, is not authorised by the Patriot Act. The pertinent section of the anti-terror bill, Section 215, is set to expire on June 1st, so the 2nd Circuit's ruling comes at a opportune time for congressional opponents of the NSA's bulk data-collection programme. "How can you reauthorise something that’s illegal?” asked Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader. "You can’t. You shouldn’t".

The development also clarifies the stances of several GOP presidential hopefuls, and the stakes of the primaries. Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, and Continue reading

Are calls to boycott Israel anti-Semitic?

Mar, 12/05/2015 - 21:44

DEBATES over Israeli policy, and particularly over the country's treatment of Palestinians, have long been fixtures on college campuses. But it seems these intellectual tussles are growing both more frequent and more fraught, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Jennifer Medina and Tamar Lewin write that it is not uncommon for discussions now to “stretch from dusk to dawn, punctuated by tearful speeches and forceful shouting matches, with accusations of racism, colonialism and anti-Semitism.” At the centre of these disputes are calls by campus activists for colleges to boycott Israeli businesses, owing to what they characterise as Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians.

The petitions are part of a broader campaign for boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel in protest against what critics call “Israeli Apartheid”. The decade-old movement calls on Israel to withdraw from the territories acquired after the 1967 six-day war; to...Continue reading

Spend, spend, spend

Sáb, 09/05/2015 - 19:34

BILL DE BLASIO, New York’s mayor, has had a somewhat fraught relationship with the city’s police department. At a time when public trust in the NYPD has been flagging, many officers have accused him of throwing them under the bus. Nerves still jangle over the way he seemed to side with the street protestors in December, when New Yorkers decried a grand jury’s decision to not indict a cop who choked an unarmed black man to death. So it is surprising—some even say shocking—that the mayor did not try to undo some of this damage with his new budget...Continue reading

Soothing mama, harming baby

Jue, 07/05/2015 - 15:28

MANY expectant mothers find themselves the victims of friendly advice. Pregnant women seen sipping coffee or alcohol, or sneaking a puff from a cigarette, are often subjected to some uninvited counselling, or at least a few harsh looks. As it turns out, nosy strangers are not completely off-base: a growing body of research shows that a baby's experiences in utero can have long-term consequences (something we reported in depth here). Now a new study finds that even drugs prescribed by a pregnant woman's doctor can seriously harm children in the womb, too.  

Research published in the Journal of Perinatology shows that in America in 2012 an infant was born every 25 minutes with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—a five-fold increase in a decade. This means the babies suffered from the withdrawal of drugs to which they had grown accustomed in the womb. Children born with the syndrome can suffer from seizures, struggle to eat and weigh less than those born...Continue reading

Keeping up appearances

Mar, 05/05/2015 - 20:29

CHIEF Justice John Roberts did something last week that he hasn’t done in three years: side with the liberal justices against his conservative friends on the Supreme Court. The occasion was a case involving a would-be judge in Florida, Lanell Williams-Yulee, who broke a rule against personally soliciting funds during her unsuccessful bid in 2009 to become a Hillsborough County Judge. For violating Canon 7C(1) of Florida’s Code of Judicial Ethics, Ms Williams-Yulee was slapped with a rebuke and a $1,860.30 fine. She responded with a lawsuit complaining that the ethics rule intruded on her freedom of speech.

The majority opinion in Williams-Yulee v Florida Bar, issued on April 29th, opens by noting a distinction between judges and other elected officials: “Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot,” Chief Justice Roberts writes. "A State...Continue reading

The soft bigotry of lazy abstraction

Mar, 05/05/2015 - 04:42

THE civil unrest in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray has reignited an old debate about the relationship between culture and poverty. The battle lines have been drawn in the opinion pages of the New York Times. On Friday David Brooks argued that costly big-government efforts to alleviate poverty haven't done much to improve conditions for those living in Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighbourhood where Mr Gray lived. "Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it," Mr Brooks writes. "[T]he real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighbourhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition." Ingrained codes of behaviour have "dissolved", he argues, leaving residents of impoverished areas "without the norms that middle-class people take for granted."

Paul Krugman is very...Continue reading

A liberal idea

Lun, 04/05/2015 - 07:47

GAY marriage is illegal in Georgia, and only spouses can adopt a child jointly. This was a problem for Elizabeth Wurz, whose son recently fell ill. Because her female partner is the boy's only mother recognised on paper, Ms Wurz found herself struggling to convince paramedics that she, too, was a legal guardian. “People don’t realise the fear you feel at a time like that,” she says.

Ms Wurz’s story is increasingly common in a country where two-thirds of the states now allow gay marriage; another 13 states still ban it. The Supreme Court is pondering whether these bans are constitutional. In this week’s paper, we include a dispatch from the oral arguments on April 28th. Few justices appeared to be swayed by the states' defence of their bans, but some still seemed cautious about redefining the institution. Another Continue reading

In a jam

Dom, 03/05/2015 - 00:37

SITTING in traffic is the worst. It’s frustrating and infuriating. But even the worst jams are fairly forgettable. At some point the congestion clears, riders reach their destination and the story is over. After all, who cares about a traffic jam? 

The Department of Justice cares. It cares a lot, at least when the jam in question involves four days of clogged traffic along the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. For 16 months the federal government has been investigating why the Port Authority mysteriously decided to shut down some lanes along the bridge connecting New York and New Jersey, backing up traffic all the way into Fort Lee, a nearby suburb. The jam was extraordinary: police and ambulances had trouble responding to emergencies, children were kept from school and commuters were hours late for work. In January 2014 leaked e-mails revealed that people close to Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, were involved.  Bridget Anne Kelly, a senior Christie staffer, appeared to signal the closures. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote to the governor’s friends at the Port Authority. Fort Lee...Continue reading

Dangerous cocktails

Mié, 29/04/2015 - 21:40

WHEN states began using lethal injection to execute criminals in the late 1970s, the idea was to make state killing more humane. This method allowed states to retire their electric chairs, and it was quietly effective for a couple of decades. But in recent years a key drug in the execution cocktail has been hard to come by. This has led some of the 32 states that have the death penalty to improvise, with grisly results. On April 29th 2014, when Oklahoma used a new regimen to execute Clayton Lockett, the condemned man spent 43 minutes writhing and shouting on the gurney. “This shit is fucking with my head,” he said, head bucking, before he finally died. 

Almost a year later, the Supreme Court heard challenges today from three death-row inmates who appear destined for a similar fate. The case, Glossip v Gross, turns on complex and hard-to-verify medical claims about the use of a new drug, midazolam, that apparently caused Lockett's pain and several other less-than-smooth executions in Ohio and...Continue reading

The lessons of Baltimore

Mar, 28/04/2015 - 21:38

THE last time Baltimore rioted in the way it did last night was in 1968, after the murder of Martin Luther King. In the neighbourhoods of West Baltimore, where the broken glass and burning cars are being cleared up this morning, the derelict houses and vacant lots are partly a legacy of that riot almost half a century ago. Like then, this latest bout of chaos began as an outpouring of anger, this time against the treatment of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who died in mysterious circumstances on April 19th, having apparently suffered injuries while being arrested.

Extreme lawlessness in an already troubled city

Yet the difference between 1968 and today is that Baltimore is no longer a place where blacks are...Continue reading

It's chaos

Mar, 28/04/2015 - 06:19

WHAT is happening tonight in Baltimore is perhaps best described not as a riot but as anarchy. Though there are police lines, there are few protesters or people fighting the police or hurling stones. Indeed, where the police are lined up, the people standing around are mostly taking photos on their phones. Drive a few blocks in any direction, though, and suddenly it feels lawless. Groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies, stand on street corners next to derelict buildings, staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars. Young women hurry home carrying bags of stolen loot: food, clothes, and bottles of beer and liquor. On the occasional street here and there cars burn freely. Shops, of which there are not many in this abandoned corner of the inner city, are ravaged, their windows smashed, their shelves picked over. Cars hurtle through red lights at high speed, music blaring, boys leaning out of the windows. And everywhere the intense smell of smoke and the buzz of helicopters overhead.

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