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Leap of faith

Sáb, 18/04/2015 - 00:42

IN AMERICAN politics, candidates often write books as a way to sell themselves to voters. Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, is no exception. His latest, “Gods, Guns, Grits and Gravy”, was released in January, just as Mr Huckabee suspended his show on Fox News to prepare his bid for the Republican nomination for presidency. This evening he appeared on Fox News to declare that he will formally announce on May 6th his intention to run. But Mr Huckabee’s chances of winning are so remote that a cynic might presume his real intention is to sell more books.

Mr Huckabee’s pitch is for the religious vote. A southern Baptist minister, he is fiercely—indeed occasionally absurdly—socially conservative. He once compared the idea that Christians should accept gay marriage to being “like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli”. Last year he argued that legal abortion is worse than the Holocaust. In his book, he complains that Jay Z, a rapper, has moved from being a “husband to pimp by exploiting his wife [Beyoncé, a pop star] as a sex object”.

In the past, that made him...Continue reading

Nasty, brutish and long

Vie, 17/04/2015 - 21:23

PRESIDENTIAL campaigns are more costly and choreographed than ever before. They are grueling for both candidates and voters

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You'll be black and blue

Mié, 15/04/2015 - 23:04

RIKERS Island, New York City’s largest jail, is a tough place. Its notoriously grim conditions have inspired investigative reports, hand-wringing and rap songs. “This ain't a place that's crowded but there's room for you/Whether you're white or you're black, you'll be black and blue,” sang Kool G Rap, a hip-hop artist, in 1990. Rikers's reputation was never good, but lately it is getting worse.

The jail is facing countless charges of abuse and neglect. Its population has fallen by nearly half to 11,400 over the past two decades, thanks largely to the city’s fall in crime, but incidents of violence are on the rise. Corrections officers beat a mentally-ill inmate unconscious in September. Another inmate, a mentally-ill military veteran, died in an overheated cell in February 2014. In 2013 staff reportedly used force against adolescents 565 times, resulting in 1,057 injuries. Preet Bharara, a federal attorney, claims there is a “culture of violence” against young inmates at the jail. In December the Justice Department filed suit against the city over the mistreatment of juvenile prisoners on Rikers Island. Another suit is...Continue reading

What are Rubio's chances?

Mié, 15/04/2015 - 01:03

AS A general rule, if you read one election forecaster for American politics, you’ve read them all. Contrary to the desires of most journalists, who need drama to lure readers, most races aren’t close. And since quantitative models tend to rely on similar inputs—a generous helping of polls spiced with a dollop of “fundamental” factors such as the economy and fundraising—if one system misfires, others will probably err in the same way. On the eve of the 2012 presidential vote, the three best-known predictors got at least 49 of the 50 states right; two years later newcomers to this newly crowded field duly joined the chorus in forecasting a Republican takeover of the Senate. It’s hard to stick your neck out while staying true to the data.

So it is striking that two of the...Continue reading

Join the club

Mar, 14/04/2015 - 14:29

GROUCHO MARX thumbed his prodigious nose at any club that would have him as a member. The plaintiffs in four cases to be argued at the Supreme Court on April 28th take another view. Lawyers for April DeBoer, Jayne Rowse, Gregory Bourke, Timothy Love and a number of other gay and lesbian Americans will ask the justices to strike down their states’ bans on same-sex marriage. They will argue that the federal constitution protects their wish to marry, no matter what their state's laws or constitutions may say.

The eight merits briefs in these four cases, which will be known collectively as Obergefell v Hodges, weigh in at nearly 550 pages. Add in the dozens of amicus briefs from people and organisations who feel they have a stake in the outcome, and the justices (and journalists) have quite a lot of reading to...Continue reading

A question of trust

Vie, 03/04/2015 - 04:08

THE tentative agreement reached by America and other world powers that aims to thwart an Iranian rush to build a nuclear bomb is “not based on trust” but on unprecedented verification by outside monitors, President Barack Obama declared in the White House gardens on Thursday afternoon. Not for the first time, Mr Obama cast opponents of his nuclear diplomacy as war-mongers, telling Americans: “When you hear the inevitable critics of the deal sound off, ask them a simple question. Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world's major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?" The president’s problem is that the provisional deal still raises questions of trust, in more ways than one.

First, there are the hawkish Republicans in Congress and putative candidates for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, all of whom find it hard to trust Mr Obama. That camp was noisy in its initial responses to the news from the talks in Lausanne. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, a Republican who has legislation drafted and ready for a vote that would slap additional sanctions on...Continue reading

The mayor v Hanukkah Harry

Jue, 02/04/2015 - 17:42

LAST week, in the second of three debates before the run-off mayoral election on April 7th, Rahm Emanuel, the incumbent, was stuck playing defence. At times he seemed unable to find a riposte to the feisty verbal attacks lobbed at him by Jesus (Chuy) Garcia, his opponent. But on March 31st, in the third and final debate on live television, Chicago’s mayor was back on form.

“You are walking along all over the place like typical career politicians promising everything like 'Hanukkah Harry,'” said Mr Emanuel, earning a laugh from the audience. When Mr Garcia suggested that Mr Emanuel’s time on the board of Freddie Mac, a mortgage-insurance giant, contributed to the recession, the mayor earned another chuckle when he quipped, "Single-handedly, I ushered in the recession...only you and my mother think...Continue reading

Performance anxiety

Jue, 02/04/2015 - 00:43

CONVICTED of racketeering, 11 educators were handcuffed on April 1st for their roles in a cheating scandal within Atlanta’s public schools (APS) that stretches back to 2001. The criminal investigation that led to the beginning of the trial last August involved more than 50 schools and hundreds of interviews with pupils, parents and staff. One teacher was acquitted. 

And how did it all begin? Suspiciously high scores on the Criterion-Reference Competency Test, standardised exams that assess competency in maths, English and other skills, prompted first a local newspaper, and then Georgia’s former governor Sonny Perdue, to start asking questions. 

The improved performance of the 50,000 or so pupils who attended APS was indeed remarkable. At Parks Middle School, for example, the share of 13-year-olds who “exceeded expectations” concerning their mathematical ability rose from 1% to 46% in a single year. The head of APS during the period, Beverly Hall, was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in February 2009.

A gubernatorial investigation found in 2011, after looking closely at erasure marks on test sheets, that more than half of Atlanta’s elementary and middle schools contained classrooms with an average number of wrong-to-right corrections more than three standard deviations...Continue reading

Digital pioneers

Mar, 31/03/2015 - 19:57

WHEN Brian Balasia moved his business into the iconic, tangerine-coloured Guardian building in downtown Detroit ten years ago, the chief executive of Digerati was a rare specimen: a tech entrepreneur in Motor City—and a white, young professional who lived downtown. The centre of tech entrepreneurship then was Silicon Valley or maybe New York, so choosing a rapidly declining manufacturing town as launching pad seemed an eccentric choice. And nobody wanted to live downtown: Mr Belasia’s peers preferred the safety of leafy suburbs such a Grosse Pointe or “lily-white” Livonia.

Giving us a tour of the Guardian’s polychromatic splendours, Mr Belasia, a native Detroiter, reflects on how much downtown Detroit has changed in one decade, in particular in the years since Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013. When he moved in with his business only 7% of the Guardian was occupied, even though it has an enviable location right next to the river and is one of the...Continue reading

Supreme triangulation

Lun, 30/03/2015 - 21:36

ON MARCH 27th Ellen Pao lost her high-profile discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, a venture-capital firm in Silicon Valley. The jury did not buy her story that the firm's male partners had mistreated and fired her because of her sex. Earlier last week, the Supreme Court issued a less-noticed but potentially more consequential decision relating to women's rights in the workplace.

Peggy Young (pictured), a former driver for United Parcel Service (UPS), was rebuffed in 2006 when, on her doctor’s advice, she asked to be relieved from heavy lifting during her pregnancy. UPS told Ms Young that light-duty assignments are reserved for workers who lose their driver’s licences, are disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act, or sustain an injury on the job. Ms Young failed to...Continue reading

Republicans get their wish

Sáb, 28/03/2015 - 00:10

HARRY REID, the leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate, announced today that he will not seek re-election. The Nevada senator was not due to face voters again for nearly two years. Yet in the run up to the midterm elections in 2014, Americans watching television could easily have presumed that he was not only on the ballot, but also running in their state. A favourite bogey-man for Republicans, Mr Reid inspired countless attack ads urging viewers to “retire Harry Reid” in contests from Alaska to Wyoming. In a single one-hour campaign debate in Kansas, the sitting Republican senator invoked Mr Reid by name 20 times. But having lost the Senate majority, and with a tough election battle up ahead, Mr Reid has decided to call it a day. Republicans have been quick to cheer, though they have lost a favourite foil.

Republicans describe Mr Reid's reign as majority leader, between 2007 and 2014, as a dark chapter in Washington history. They accuse him of twisting Senate rules to ram through an outrageously partisan agenda. In their telling, Mr Reid left the chamber’s traditions of lofty debate...Continue reading

Getting nicer

Jue, 26/03/2015 - 21:09

DESPITE all the partisan bickering, Americans are an increasingly tolerant bunch. A new study published in Social Forces, an academic journal, finds that the country’s attitudes towards once-marginalised groups, such as communists, gays and atheists, have softened considerably since the 1970s. Using the General Social Survey, administered by the University of Chicago since 1972, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Nathan Carter and Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia measured how attitudes have changed over time. Their study draws from more than 35,000 responses over three decades. 

Since the survey began, the proportion of people who feel comfortable with a gay teacher has risen from 52% to 85%. More than three-quarters of respondents in 2012 had no problem with their local library carrying a book by an anti-religious author—up from 63% in the early 1970s. But this growing leniency has its limits: the share of people who would let a racist person speak publically dropped slightly, from...Continue reading

Is marijuana a gateway drug?

Jue, 26/03/2015 - 13:27

“AS LONG as I am governor of New Jersey, there won’t be legalised marijuana in this state,” vowed Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, on March 25th. A potential Republican contender in the 2016 presidential race, Mr Christie explained that “every bit of objective data tells us that it’s a gateway drug to other drugs”. Is he right?

The gateway theory seems reasonable enough at first. Most people who take hard drugs start with soft ones. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that among people who have tried illicit drugs, about two-thirds began with marijuana. Hardly anyone jumps straight in at the deep end: less than 1% of drug users reported that their first-ever outing was with heroin or cocaine.

But then, it’s also a fact that most heroin addicts had previously tried chocolate. The trouble is that marijuana is so common—about four out of ten Americans, including the president, admit to having tried it—that any abuser of hard drugs is likely to have encountered it along the way....Continue reading

Flag waiving

Mar, 24/03/2015 - 16:06

AMERICANS love their cars, and they adore personalising them. Trail a Yankee’s sedan and you’ll see family stick-figure decals, bumper stickers and, occasionally, idiosyncratic licence plates. Motorists may compose their own seven-character messages (that’s a “vanity” plate), or they may opt for a “specialty” plate of a design that an organisation has persuaded the state to adopt. On Monday the Supreme Court grappled with whether states have any say in deciding what the parameters of these tags can be.

The question arose in 2009 when the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an association of male descendants of soldiers who fought on the losing side of the civil war, asked the state of Texas to issue a licence plate featuring its logo, which includes a Confederate battle flag. After critics of the design lined up to argue that the Confederate flag connotes racism and violence, the board charged with reviewing applications voted unanimously to reject the Sons’ plate. The board's rules specify...Continue reading

All-you-can-eat politics

Mar, 24/03/2015 - 00:06

CHOPPED up into five-second clips to be replayed on cable news, it will look impressive: close to 10,000 students at Liberty University sat in the college’s basketball stadium to listen to Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, launch his presidential bid this morning. Inside the hall a tuneful Christian rock group and an address from Jerry Falwell junior warmed up the crowd. This was hardly needed: Senator Cruz, with his wife and two cherubic daughters in tow, went down a storm. Dissenting voices were heard only on Yik Yak, an app that lets people sitting near each other share anonymous messages, where some students grumbled that their attendance had been compulsory. The crowd also included some irreverent folks in Stand with Rand T-shirts, in support of another first-term senator who is also likely to run for president.

Senator Cruz is a bundle of paradoxes: a populist with degrees from Princeton and Harvard; a politician suspicious of establishment elites, who also clerked for a Supreme Court judge and whose wife works at Goldman Sachs. He is also a talented speaker and campaigner who plays by his own rules. On arrival in the Senate...Continue reading

Cruz control

Lun, 23/03/2015 - 18:52

TODAY Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, took to a stage in Lynchburg, Virginia to announce he is running for president in 2016. Though plenty of candidates appear to be jockeying for position in the race to win the Republican nomination, Mr Cruz is the first to declare himself an official candidate. This is a fine way to ensure a nice boomlet of media coverage: political journalists who have grown tired of speculating about a Bush-Clinton showdown are now hungrily feeding on Mr Cruz’s grand pronouncements about everything he can't wait to overturn (Obamacare, Common Core, the president’s executive action on immigration, etc). But perhaps it would be best for Mr Cruz to not grow too attached to the limelight. As our data team shows in Continue reading

#Fail

Vie, 20/03/2015 - 18:27

HOWARD SCHULTZ, the head of Starbucks, thinks the gourmet coffee chain has a responsibility to address America’s vexed race relations. After a series of internal meetings at the company, he decided to launch “Race Together”, a co-venture with USA Today, a newspaper, to “stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America.” “Race is an unorthodox and even uncomfortable topic for an annual meeting,” Mr Schultz conceded at the company’s annual gathering for shareholders on Wednesday. “Where others see costs, risks, excuses and hopelessness, we see and create pathways of opportunity—that is the role and responsibility of a for-profit, public company.”

Though seemingly well-intentioned, the campaign has elicited a backlash. Starbucks baristas,...Continue reading

Want to make me?

Vie, 20/03/2015 - 14:08

ON WEDNESDAY, while Barack Obama was suggesting to an audience in Cleveland that it might be a good idea to make voting mandatory, my wife was being prevented from voting. My wife, a Dutch citizen, is away on a business trip, so for Wednesday's elections to the Netherlands' provincial assemblies she had filled out a proxy voting form. The proxy form states that a voter can designate "another voter" to cast their ballot. Without giving the matter much thought, she indicated that the "other voter" who would cast her ballot would be me.

That, as I discovered at the polling station, was not allowed. I could cast my wife's proxy ballot in the waterschapsverkiezingen, which choose the boards that run the country's dikes and canals, but not in the provincial-assembly elections, because I was not eligible to vote in them myself. The distinction had not occurred to...Continue reading

A looming threat

Jue, 19/03/2015 - 23:32

UNMANNED aircraft, otherwise known as drones, are becoming common. Many are familiar with America’s use of armed drones in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, but drones are increasingly being used by other parts of the government, as well as by companies and individuals. Drones can be far cheaper to operate than anything that requires an on-board pilot, and they are handy for making maps and taking pictures and videos. The FBI uses a small fleet of drones for law-enforcement surveillance. Customs and Border Patrol uses them to monitor the American border with Mexico (though the programme was recently found to be ineffective and expensive). Commercial drones are now regularly used for real-estate photography and to Continue reading

Lean in, push out

Mar, 17/03/2015 - 17:17

KLEINER Perkins Caulfield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious venture-capital firms, had promoted only one woman to the position of senior partner by 2011, nearly 40 years after the firm was founded. This isn’t unusual in the world of venture capital, which has long maintained a reputation for being an old boys’ club. Indeed, these firms tend to be even less diverse than the technology companies they fund. The number of female partners in VC firms has actually decreased from 10% in 1999 to 6% in 2014, according to a recent report from Babson College.

Ellen Pao, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a background in business development, joined Kleiner Perkins in 2005. By 2012 she had seen three of her male peers promoted to senior partner while she was passed over. Ms Pao filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in May 2012, citing multiple complaints: men were promoted before women; men were allowed to serve on multiple boards while women were only allowed to serve on one;...Continue reading

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