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The people v the constitution

Mié, 04/03/2015 - 02:37

IS AMERICA a democracy? It’s a favourite trick question posed by high-school history teachers. The official answer is no: in America the people do not themselves make, enforce or interpret the laws. Instead, they elect representatives to govern in their name. That makes America, in the nomenclature of the founding fathers, a “republic” and not a democracy. A republic, as James Madison famously explained, is “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place” rather than one in which the people “assemble and administer the government in person”.

But despite such clarifications, the republic-democracy dichotomy now feels a little phony. Few today associate the term “democracy” with its original Athenian definition. In a country this size, it is implausible for every citizen to have a personal role in every governmental decision. Democracy is, by necessity, indirect. It implies a structure whereby the people, protected by an array of liberal freedoms, select...Continue reading

Lofty ideas, low politics

Lun, 02/03/2015 - 17:33

BINYAMIN NETANYAHU'S speech to Congress on Tuesday will tackle some large questions of foreign policy: how to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and how to manage the American-Israeli security alliance when the two countries’ governments disagree on strategies to keep Israel safe.

Alas, there are several reasons to suspect that this lofty speech from Israel's prime minister is happening at this specific time and in this setting for reasons of low domestic politics, on both sides.

The timing of the speech is unusual. Mr Netanyahu is a couple of weeks away from elections in Israel, prompting opposition parties back home to call his visit to Washington essentially a campaign rally in a foreign land.

On the American side, both Democrats and some Republicans think the speech inappropriate. Mr Netanyahu—a foreign leader, albeit of a close ally—was invited to address a joint sitting of Congress by John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, to give him a platform to denounce the way that President Barack Obama is conducting nuclear talks with Iran. Mr Boehner and Mr Netanyahu planned the...Continue reading

Brinkmanship

Sáb, 28/02/2015 - 05:02

THE countdown was a nail-biter. At midnight tonight, barring any sort of last-minute deal, around 30,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security were going to be furloughed. Some 170,000 essential workers were nearly doomed to chug along without pay. A bill to keep the federal agency funded for another three weeks had died a grim death on the House floor earlier today. But with just two hours to go, John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, managed to corral enough votes to extend funding for the DHS for another week.

No one should call this a victory. Another ugly battle now looms just days away. But the last-minute deal does save Mr Boehner from the embarrassment he seemed destined for earlier today, when he failed to get enough House Republicans to back a bill that was created mainly to please House Republicans.

It is not that anyone has qualms with funding the DHS. Indeed, it is one of the few federal departments most politicians of both parties are keen to throw money at. This is why a number of Republican congressmen believed it would be a good strategy to use the department’s funding to unravel the president’s Continue reading

Rahm, round two

Mié, 25/02/2015 - 19:44

“THANK you, Chicago. We have come a long way, and we have a little bit further to go,” said Rahm Emanuel at around 9:30pm last night. The results of Chicago’s mayoral election on Tuesday had indicated that he will be forced into a run-off with Jesus Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, to keep his job. In a short, gracious speech the mayor, still hoarse from a nasty cold, congratulated Mr Garcia for a “good race” and called him a “good man” with whom he is looking forward to debating in the weeks ahead.

Having earned 45.4% of the vote, Mr Emanuel fell short of the 50% plus-one-vote he needed to avoid a run-off on April 7th. Mr Garcia’s piece of the electoral pie was larger than expected, at 33.9%, with the rest split among three other candidates. Voter turnout was low, with only 34% making it to the polls on a frigid day.

The result is a big setback for Mr Emanuel, who swept into power four years ago with a comfortable 55% of the vote. A singularly gifted fund...Continue reading

Fuelling anger

Mié, 25/02/2015 - 17:09

BARACK OBAMA has vetoed only three bills in his time in the Oval Office: less than almost any president in recent history. His veto of a bill authorising the Keystone Pipeline yesterday suggests that number will be rising fairly swiftly. With Republicans now in control of both houses, Mr Obama will be faced with far more decisions like this. The politics is simple: the Republicans want to trap the president into rejecting as many popular ideas (or at least ideas that Republicans like) as possible.

The Keystone Pipeline makes for an odd case study. The amount of political energy expended on it far outweighs its economic significance. Republicans made it one of their first priorities in Congress. Democrats are also obsessed with it. In December Mary Landrieu near enough Continue reading

Baked Alaska

Mar, 24/02/2015 - 15:01

SMOKING cannabis becomes legal today in Alaska, the latest state to lift its prohibition of the drug after Colorado and Washington, which took the plunge last year. Alaskans over 21 can now grow up to six of their own plants, share up to an ounce (28g) of harvested pot, and smoke as much as they like in private without breaking the law. Selling the stuff commercially will become legal next year, once the state authorities have hammered out a set of rules to regulate the business. Alaska’s 750,000 residents aren’t going to turn the pot business on its head. But two things about the state make it an interesting case study for weed-watchers.

One is that it currently has some of the most expensive marijuana in America. The price of pot is closely linked to proximity to Mexico, which has historically provided most of America’s cannabis. That is bad news for Alaskan tokers, who live a very long way from the Rio Grande. According Continue reading

Failing the children

Lun, 23/02/2015 - 17:33

“CLEARLY, this is a situation that is unacceptable,” says George Sheldon, the brand new director of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He was referring to the scandalous treatment of children by the institutions and people paid by the agency to look after them.

Bruce Rauner, the new Republican governor of Illinois, asked Mr Sheldon to take over from Bobbie Gregg, the former boss of the DCFS, after the Chicago Tribune, a local daily, published a five-part investigation in December that revealed shocking abuses at roughly 50 residential treatment centres financed by the DCFS. According to the Chicago Tribune’s findings, hundreds of state wards in Illinois are violently attacked and sexually abused each year at these centres, which are meant to offer round-the-clock supervision and therapy. Bullying, taunting and beatings are so common that they often go unreported. On average more than two dozen of the mostly African-American wards, some of them as young as ten and many with mental health and behavioural problems, run away...Continue reading

It's complicated

Vie, 20/02/2015 - 22:49

RUDY GIULIANI, a former mayor of New York City and failed presidential candidate, has caused a little stir by questioning Barack Obama's love of country. "I do not believe—and I know this is a horrible thing to say—but I do not believe that the president loves America," he said on Wednesday, at a private dinner to promote the presidential prospects of Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin. "He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."

The reaction to Mr Giuliani's comments have been swift and decisive. Pundits from the left have been quick to suggest that Mr Giuliani is making an elliptical comment about Mr Obama's race, alien paternity and/or Indonesian school days. Amy Davidson of the New Yorker asks, "[W]as Giuliani just suggesting to the audience that there was...Continue reading

When ambiguity is a saving grace

Mié, 18/02/2015 - 15:57

ON MARCH 4th the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case targeting the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare. The legal challenge against the law hinges on four words, as I explored in detail last week. Here I discuss the odd but distinct possibility that it doesn't matter whether the challengers or the government have the better interpretation of the provision in question. Ironically, the very fact that this conflict exists at all may end up working in the law’s favour.

King v Burwell asks a deceptively simple question: can Obamacare’s tax credits extend to individuals buying health insurance on 34 federally established exchanges, or may they go only to people buying policies on the 16 exchanges which were, as the law reads, “established by the state”? The challengers (if they have standing in court—a matter that is Continue reading

Media matters

Mar, 17/02/2015 - 16:33

“CHANGE comes very slowly, but then happens all at once,” observed David Carr, the New York Times’ media reporter, about the television business last year. As usual, his words proved prescient, capturing not only the upheavals that are now typical of this trade, but also the turn of his own life, and the paper he now leaves behind. On February 12th Mr Carr died at the Times offices, due to complications with lung cancer. At 58 he was one of the Times’ best-known reporters.   

I met Mr Carr when I took over the media beat for The Economist, in the summer of 2012. His opinions were unfailingly sharp and confident, but in the Times café he appeared somewhat fragile, raising forkfuls of coffee cake with a shaky hand. Though his years of alcohol and drug addiction were behind him, they had left their mark. Yet his prose never wobbled. His writing was incisive, crisp and principled. His “Media...Continue reading

A reprieve

Sáb, 14/02/2015 - 01:50

DOES the death penalty deter crime? Benjamin Rush, one of America's founding fathers, did not think so. Alongside Benjamin Franklin he helped reform Pennsylvania’s harsh penal code. By 1794 Pennsylvania limited the death penalty to cases of first-degree murder; in 1834 the state led the nascent nation in ending public executions. Today Pennsylvania took another big step closer to doing away with capital punishment altogether.

Tom Wolf, the state’s new Democratic governor, has announced a moratorium on all executions until he reviews a forthcoming report from a committee created in 2011 to research the matter. Terrence Williams, who was scheduled to die on March 4th, has been granted a temporary reprieve. Mr Williams was sentenced to death in 1986 after being convicted for murder. Having filed a number of appeals, he has sat on “death row” for nearly three decades.

He is far from alone. There are 186 inmates on death row in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Only...Continue reading

It's rather fun, actually

Vie, 13/02/2015 - 19:07

SHOOTING a handgun at a target is a thrill; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You load bullets into a clip, push it up into the gun, turn off the safety catch, take careful hold of the gun with two hands, aim and shoot. The thing jumps in your hand and you see the bullet knock a hole in the target and spark off the floor at the back of the range. There is an extraordinary rush and then you do it again. Another spark; perhaps this time the hole in the target is a little closer to the centre. Soon you have fired the whole clip and you’re loading the deadly weapon in your hand again.

That is just to preface a more obvious point. To a liberal European reporter, from afar, American gun culture appears utterly insane. Americans are far more likely to murder someone or to kill themselves than people in almost all Western European countries, largely because guns make it easier. That almost 33,000 people are killed with firearms each year in America (including Continue reading

Hillary Clinton's suffocating presence

Jue, 12/02/2015 - 16:51

THE field of Republican presidential contenders may be limited to a narrow range of conservative fellows in mid- to late-middle age, but at least there are a lot of them. The Democratic field is, for all practical purposes, Hillary Clinton.

Ahead by an average of 49 points in early polls, it is not clear that Mrs Clinton has any serious competition. There is some sign that Joe Biden might jump in, but his poll numbers are dismal for a second-term vice-president. Martin O'Malley, Maryland's former governor, might run. Jim Webb, a former Virginia senator, is a possibility. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the Senate's loveably irascible socialist, might take the opportunity to speak truth to weary beat reporters. As for Elizabeth Warren, no amount of valentines has wooed her away from her...Continue reading

Anxious sensitivity

Mié, 11/02/2015 - 05:20

AT A National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday, Barack Obama made the point that Islam is hardly the first religion to be hijacked and perverted by murderous extremists. Indeed, groups have been distorting religious faith for nihilistic ends for centuries. By way of example, he mentioned the atrocities committed by Christian Crusaders in the name of God. This reference to Christianity, historically accurate though it was, earned him quite a bit of criticism, mostly from Republicans. What has received less attention, however, is the way Mr Obama went on to call for Americans to refrain from insulting the faith of others.

It was a bizarre statement. He began by praising the wisdom of America’s founding fathers for their sophisticated understanding of the relationship between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. (“For to infringe on one right...Continue reading

Hearts of Dixie

Mar, 10/02/2015 - 20:19

“REMEMBER Sodom and Gomorrah!” warned a protest sign on a five-foot wooden cross. “Keep marriage traditional!” demanded a lady in a dark quilted jacket, one of several protesters outside Jefferson County courthouse in Birmingham. But their protest was in vain. For inside this courthouse Alabama’s first same-sex marriages were solemnised on February 9th. 

Campaigners for gay rights feel that history is on their side, so they are not shy about invoking it. Pro-gay demonstrators outside the same courthouse likened their opponents to the white southerners who tried to maintain Jim Crow. “Looks familiar?” asked a rainbow-lettered sign showing whites rallying against desegregation in Alabama half a century ago. 

Now, as then, defending the status quo means defying federal courts. Now, as then, some Alabamians feel it is their God-given duty to do exactly that. Last month Callie Granade, a federal judge appointed by George W Bush, struck down Alabama’s ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional. On February 8th, just before the first gay marriages were due to take place, Roy Moore, the chief justice of the...Continue reading

Four words could bring the law down

Lun, 09/02/2015 - 18:00

ON MARCH 4th the Supreme Court will hear arguments in King v Burwell, a case that could gut the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Barack Obama’s signature health-care law. It is the third legal challenge to Obamacare in four years to reach America’s highest court. In 2012 Chief Justice John Roberts surprised almost everyone by siding with the court’s liberal justices to uphold the constitutionality of the “individual mandate”, which requires most Americans to carry a health insurance policy. In 2014 he voted with the conservatives to allow certain businesses a religious exemption from providing some forms of birth control to female employees. This time, the challenge to the ACA is semantic. The case revolves around four words in the mammoth 906-page law that could bring the whole thing down.  

The inadvertent Trojan Horse consists of a seemingly innocuous subclause regarding the provision of tax credits...Continue reading

Ahead of the game

Vie, 06/02/2015 - 23:25

BRIAN KEMP, Georgia’s secretary of state (pictured), has a scheme to bring his state into the political spotlight. He wants Georgia to hold a presidential primary on March 1st 2016. Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia are scheming to join in. Even Florida may add its considerable weight to this group. 

By holding primaries so early in the nomination process, these states hope to play a bigger role in shaping the race. A “Southern Super Tuesday” would force prospective presidential candidates from both parties to woo the region’s voters, say its backers. A bit more backslapping and handshaking in the area could deliver some welcome business to the odd barbecue restaurant, too. 

But theory and practice rarely go hand-in-hand, warns Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Centre for Politics. It is entirely unclear just how a big Southern primary will alter political events, he says. Besides, “the candidates won’t start worrying about March 1st until they’re done worrying about February 2016. If you lose both Iowa and New Hampshire you’re in trouble...Continue reading

The melting pot works

Vie, 06/02/2015 - 00:12

THE tired, poor, huddled masses who arrive on America's shores yearning to breathe free actually bring talent, youth and global connections. They create jobs and do the work most natives shun. And they prosper. Just look at German-Americans, the country’s single-largest ethnic group, who have assimilated so thoroughly that their neighbours now barely notice them.

America is built on immigration. Yet the country’s immigration system now is a mess. Instead of fixing it, Congress seems poised to make things worse. Far too many lawmakers are trying to build ever-higher fences to keep foreigners out. This is a mistake.

This week we have created a bountiful package of stories that highlight the values of immigration. Our leader argues that in the absence of common-sense policy from Washington, some good ideas are thriving at the state level—and should be encouraged. In our United States section, we lead with a story about German-Americans, who are thriving despite the hysterical anti-German sentiment that greeted their arrival over a century ago....Continue reading

What experts say, and what people hear

Jue, 05/02/2015 - 16:47

EVERY day seems to bring a new story of a politician saying something stupid or evasive about vaccines. Rand Paul frets that they might cause mental disorders. Chris Christie said that his own children had taken their shots but that "parents need to have some measure of choice". Barack Obama, who once waffled on this subject, has declared his strong support for vaccinating children against measles, as has Hillary Clinton. The airwaves and the internet are filled with discussions about whether or not vaccines are safe. Health officials are worried that the discussion itself could scare more parents into shunning them.

This actually happened in Britain in 2002, after the idea of a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism was first publicised. Despite plentiful scientific evidence that the MMR vaccine was safe, and that it was used...Continue reading

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