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Enlightened intolerance

Mié, 16/04/2014 - 18:08

EARLIER this month Brandeis University rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women’s rights activist, saying its officials had not been fully aware of some her more scathing remarks on Islam. Conservatives have accused Brandeis of muzzling Ms Hirsi Ali and bowing to Muslim pressure groups. Liberals have wondered how the university could possibly have overlooked Ms Hirsi Ali’s condemnations, not just of radical Islam, but of Islam as such. At the risk of coming off as a postmodern multi-culti squish, it seems to me that this discussion suffers from a lack of cultural context—but not the cultural context you’re thinking of. The way Ms Hirsi Ali talks about Islam strikes American liberals as strangely intolerant, but it has its roots in the prevailing discourse on religious freedom and Islam in the country where Ms Hirsi Ali first began seriously tackling these issues: the Netherlands.

As Ms Hirsi Ali noted in an interview on Fox News, the most-cited of her objectionable statements on Islam came in a 2007 interview...Continue reading

Known unknown

Mié, 16/04/2014 - 17:43

AMERICANS filed their income taxes yesterday, swearing that “under penalties of perjury...to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete.”

Former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that his return may be none of the above. Yesterday his office released (via Twitter) a letter to the Internal Revenue Service in which he says: “I have absolutely no idea whether our tax returns and our tax payments are accurate.” (See below.)

“The tax code is so complex and the forms are so complicated, that I know I cannot have any confidence that I know what is being requested and therefore I cannot and do not know, and I suspect a great many Americans cannot know, whether or not their tax returns are accurate,” Mr Rumsfeld wrote.

Mr Rumsfeld was wrong about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but in this case he is clearly right. The American tax code is a "known unknown", in Rummiespeak. It is 70,000 pages long and might as well be written in Klingon. Few Americans have a clue whether they are complying with it. Some 90% of them (including Mr Rumsfeld) pay a tax accountant or use commercial software to help navigate it (see Economist articles Continue reading

Bill of health

Mié, 16/04/2014 - 16:35

IF DEMOCRATS and Republicans can agree on one thing, it is that Obamacare is hugely important. Democrats say it is a boon, Republicans that it amounts to the apocalypse. But knowing precisely what Obamacare does is rather difficult. The law’s knock-on effects—on the broader economy, on health-care businesses and on health, such as its effect on heart disease or cancer—may never be precisely quantified. It is even difficult to measure Obamacare’s progress towards its main goal, expanding insurance. Gallup, a pollster, is the latest group to make the attempt, presenting new data on April 16th.

The figure, if it could be precisely measured, would show how many people Obamacare has benefited. It would also help Democrats argue that Obamacare is a success or add fuel to Republicans’ fiery proclamations that it is a disaster. Changes in how the Census measures insurance will make it harder to quantify exactly how many people have gained coverage. Not surprisingly, however, both the health department and independent researchers continue to produce their own estimates. Importantly, the survey from Gallup is larger than those of many competitors—the company interviews about 15,000 Americans about their health each month.

Obamacare has been...Continue reading

Cross-Atlantic extremism

Sáb, 12/04/2014 - 18:36

I HAVE long had a sneaking suspicion that Tea Party voters and eurosceptics are more or less the same sorts of people, born on different sides of the Atlantic. Both are traditionalist movements driven by economic anxiety and mistrust of centralised government power. Both have received a huge political boost due to the financial crisis (or, as it played out in Europe, the euro crisis), with eurosceptic parties expected to reap large gains in this May's European Parliament elections. This week, I got a new opportunity to test my thesis. The Dutch-based research group Motivaction International has just come out with a new study of eurosceptic voters across five countries, showing that they share certain traits and values. So I asked Martijn Lampert, Motivaction's research director, whether they could extend this comparison to America's Tea Party voters. It turned out the eurosceptics data was drawn from a 20-country survey that also included 2,185 Americans, and the comparison is pretty interesting. It suggests that I'm partly right, but mostly wrong. Eurosceptics and Tea Party supporters...Continue reading

Now what?

Vie, 11/04/2014 - 18:49

IT WAS not a matter of if, but when. Kathleen Sebelius, Barack Obama’s health secretary, is one of the longest serving members of his cabinet. To compare her tenure to a rollercoaster ride would be generous, unless that rollercoaster jumped the tracks and careened into quicksand. So the announcement that she would resign is big news, but not surprising.

Obamacare’s deadline for having insurance, or paying a penalty, was April 1st. Mrs Sebelius had spent the past six months desperately trying to fix Obamacare’s insurance website and convince Americans that the law could help them, contrary to everything Republicans said. With the April deadline past, now is as good a time as any for her to resign. The main questions are whether it will have much practical or political impact.

The appointment of Sylvia Matthews Burwell, head of Mr...Continue reading

Ezra Klein's strangled Vox

Vie, 11/04/2014 - 14:33

LAST weekend saw the launch of Vox, a new own online news site founded by the one-time wunderkind political blogger, Ezra Klein. For the happy occasion, Mr Klein, Vox's editor-in-chief, has produced an interesting think-piece, "How politics makes us stupid", in which he provides a diverting overview of recent experimental work on the hardy human propensity to shield tribal political faith from rational scrutiny. That Mr Klein's essay ultimately runs aground, tangled in its own question, may shed some light on the promise of Vox and its aspiration to help readers really understand the news.

Mr Klein's essay is chiefly dedicated to explaining the work of Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School. Mr Kahan and his colleagues have conducted a spate of experiments that show how our ability to reason soundly, particularly about political subjects, is undermined by the need to protect our core beliefs. Mr Klein writes:

Kahan calls this theory...Continue reading

Shots fired

Jue, 10/04/2014 - 23:07

A POSTSCRIPT to this week's print piece on police violence in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This morning, after The Economist went to press, the Department of Justice published the results of its 16-month probe into the conduct of the city's police department, and they weren't pretty. The review, published in the form of a 46-page letter to Richard Berry, the mayor, said that most of the 20 deadly police shootings between 2009 and 2012 it investigated were unconstitutional; officers, the report said, "used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat". In some situations these officers acted in a manner that "heightened the danger" and made the use of force more likely. They were also found to have used non-lethal force, such as Tasers, unlawfully.

This excessive use of force, the...Continue reading

By the numbers

Mié, 09/04/2014 - 22:28

APRIL has been a cheerful month for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. More than 7m Americans have signed up for private coverage through the law’s exchanges and, by the end of February, more than 3m people had enrolled in Medicaid, the health programme for the poor. According to the latest Gallup poll, America’s share of uninsured has fallen to its lowest level since 2008. These figures are good news for anyone keen to expand health coverage. They may not be so helpful for the Democrats’ election prospects.

To understand why, consider another set of figures. The Rand Corporation, a think-tank, estimates that 9.3m adults acquired insurance through mid-March. But more than 40m older Americans are enrolled in Medicare, the public-health programme for those aged 65 and older, with more than 15m of them in private Medicare plans. These are reliable voters in mid-term elections. And Republicans are telling them, again and again, that Democrats are raiding their benefits to pay for Obamacare.

Democratic politicians are desperate to convince them otherwise. On April 7th health officials provided some help: after proposing in...Continue reading

Imposter anxiety

Mié, 09/04/2014 - 18:26

DEFENDERS of North Carolina's new voter-ID law have been crowing this week. "Hundreds of cases of potential voter fraud uncovered in North Carolina," declared a recent Fox News headline. "Study finds 765 cases of NC voter fraud in 2012 election" echoed the Daily Tar Heel. North Carolina's State Board of Elections recently announced they had discovered 35,750 records of voters whose names and date of birth matched people who had voted in other states. More damningly, 765 North Carolina voters in 2012 had the same last four Social Security digits as people who voted in other states, and dozens more had apparently voted after they had died. Local conservatives have hailed these numbers as evidence that the state's strict new voter rules are essential safeguards against dodgy voter behaviour. “These findings should put to rest ill-informed claims that problems don’t exist...Continue reading

Noise and clamour

Mar, 08/04/2014 - 23:54

WHEN same-sex marriage activists force an ideological opponent to quit his job, are they violating liberal principles? Andrew Sullivan, a steadfast advocate for gay rights, thinks so. I do too, and John Locke, the great 17th-century theorist of liberalism, would probably agree.

In 2008 Brendan Eich gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California. When this detail emerged last month, some web developers boycotted Mozilla to protest its promotion of Mr Eich, one of the company’s co-founders and the developer of JavaScript, to CEO. OKCupid, a dating website, joined the anti-Eich campaign a few days later. "Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples,” read the site's default screen for Firefox users. “We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OKCupid." On April 3rd Mr Eich resigned,...Continue reading

Cash rules everything around us

Vie, 04/04/2014 - 16:38

AS A foreign journalist covering politics in America, I have learned to interpret the manoeuvrings of politicians in financial as well as political terms. A candidate for governor says something crazy about guns. Why? To shore up his position with voters ahead of a close-run primary, perhaps. But it could also be because he's running out of money and needs to gee up the fat-walleted second-amendment crowd. If you wondered, as I did, why the Democrats seemed to have got a bee in their collective bonnet over Nate Silver's GOP-friendly Senate predictions, you'll find the answer in their fundraising e-mails, which leverage the bad news to squeeze donors for more cash. Money Continue reading

You can lead a horse to the wadi

Vie, 04/04/2014 - 00:35

JOHN KERRY has spent much of his first year as Secretary of State on a quest to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority through sheer relentless diplomacy. As of this week, his effort seems to be on its last legs. As Mr Kerry put it, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." If the nine-month negotiations process reaches the end of April with no significant agreement, it will be strong evidence that negotiations are simply never going to succeed in producing the long-sought two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. We have been around this block over and over for more than 20 years now. There seems little reason to believe that another American could succeed where Mr Kerry has failed, or that future political developments in Israel and Palestine will push their leaders closer to a peace deal rather than further away.

For Americans, this will intensify an ever-worsening problem of cognitive dissonance: we support Israel in the belief that it is moving towards ending its occupation of the...Continue reading

Come up to the lab

Jue, 03/04/2014 - 21:50

FASHIONS change fast in foreign-aid policy. Ten years ago, when George W. Bush launched the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the priority was to find governments in poor countries that could be trusted to spend aid money wisely. Now the focus is on forming partnerships between rich country government aid agencies and the private sector, especially those private businesses, foundations and universities that try to use science and technology to develop innovative ways of helping people in poor countries escape poverty. To that end, on April 3rd Rajiv Shah (pictured), the head of USAID, the international development arm of America’s federal government, unveiled the biggest change to aid policy since the MCC: a new agency called the US Global Development Lab.

The Lab will start with a staff of 150, 65 of them scientists, many seconded from some 32 private-sector partners ranging from universities to companies such as Microsoft, Nike and Walmart, as well as charities including Care and Catholic Relief Services. From its base in Washington, DC, it will work with seven labs in universities across the country. Its aim will be to find new...Continue reading

Sky’s the limit

Jue, 03/04/2014 - 00:44

SHAUN MCCUTCHEON, a businessman from Alabama, wanted to give a symbolic $1,776 to 28 Republican candidates for Congress in 2012. Because of federal limits imposed after the Watergate scandal and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1976 in Buckley v Valeo, Mr McCutcheon was allowed to donate this sum only to 16 campaigns. On April 2nd, however, the Supreme Court ruled that he can get his chequebook out again. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), the justices voted 5-4 to strike down two “aggregate caps” on campaign contributions, leaving “base limits” of $2,600 per candidate, per election intact. Where individuals had been limited to total contributions of $48,600 to candidates for federal office and $74,600 to political parties and political-action committees, they can now give as much as they like.

“There is no right more basic in our democracy,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s plurality opinion, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” The First Amendment’s freedom-of-speech guarantee includes the right to “contribute to a candidate’s campaign.” So although “money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some,” it, along with other forms of unpopular speech like “flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades”, is entitled to “vigorous” protection. It is...Continue reading

Conservatives of every hue

Jue, 03/04/2014 - 00:33

GENTEEL and friendly is the image of South Carolina—until the political season rolls round. Then no holds are barred. This year, all the highest statewide offices are up for grabs: the governorship, both US Senate seats and all seven seats in the House of Representatives. Such bounty is a rare occurrence, and South Carolinians are rubbing their hands.

The bonanza has happened because Jim DeMint resigned his Senate seat in 2013 to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, in Washington, DC. The state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, appointed Tim Scott, then a congressman, to fill the seat pending a special election.

Mr Scott, South Carolina’s first black senator, is one of only two blacks in the Senate. Although the state’s Republican voters are overwhelmingly white, he is wildly popular with them. “He is the living, breathing embodiment of our conservative values,” explained Wes Climer, a local Republican official, at an early-morning pow-wow last week at the Rock Hill-York County airport featuring doughnuts, coffee and Mr Scott, who is touring the state to kick off his campaign.

Mr Scott has only token...Continue reading

No one cares about Hoover

Mié, 02/04/2014 - 19:57

TUCKED away in West Branch, Iowa, Herbert Hoover's presidential library lures rather few visitors (even though it is also home to the papers of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of "Little House on the Prairie" and other books about the American pioneer experience). Bill Clinton's "double-wide trailer" of a library in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the most popular, followed by Ronald Reagan's in California's Simi Valley. George W. Bush's gets more visitors than we had predicted in 2007, though his popularity is still dwarfed by that of the previous three presidents. Our colleagues in graphics consider the bizarre and varied appeal of these contemporary monuments to presidencies past. And in this week's paper, our mid-west correspondent writes about the search for a home for Barack Obama’s library and museum.

Will the haters ever stop hating?

Mié, 02/04/2014 - 00:04

LAST week, while watching videos on YouTube, I was repeatedly served with an advertisement in which a mournful woman informed me that unfortunately, Obamacare "just doesn't work." This left me bemused, since I live in a country where a variety of Obamacare (an all-private universal health insurance system with government subsidies and an individual mandate) has been in place since 2006, and it works just fine. The contrast might have led me to wonder why Obamacare works in the Netherlands but not in America, but it seems Obamacare is starting to work in America, too. The Affordable Care Act's health-insurance exchanges met the Department of Health and Human Services' revised target of 6m signups last Wednesday. Enrollment continues to surge, and will likely be Continue reading

The libertarian faithful

Mar, 01/04/2014 - 17:44

“FAITH, as such” Ayn Rand told Playboy in 1964, “is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.” Fast forward five decades to the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc, one of the cases challenging the Obamacare requirement that employer health plans pay for female employees’ birth control, and you will find deep libertarian empathy for the faithful. The Christian-owned Hobby Lobby Stores, Ilya Shapiro writes, should not be forced to pay for contraceptives if the family owners believe this violates their religious beliefs:

These individuals do not check their religious values at the office...Continue reading

What's the prognosis?

Lun, 31/03/2014 - 23:43

TODAY is the last day to sign up for Obamacare, sort of. Some people will qualify for an extension, but most Americans must have insurance by tomorrow or pay a penalty. As of March 27th more than 6m Americans had signed up for insurance through the exchanges. Health officials are scurrying to keep their systems up and running (with sporadic success). Healthcare.gov, the insurance site for 34 states, had 2m visits over the weekend. In the past week, the federal help line received more than 2.5m calls, compared with 2.4m for all of February.

It will be several weeks until we know exactly how many people have signed up for coverage by March 31st. Thanks to the longer, special enrolment period, the final tally will come even later. But a few things are certain.

First,...Continue reading

Crackheads will come for you

Lun, 31/03/2014 - 08:13

DO YOU agree that Western governments ought to be able to torture people suspected of terrorism and detain them without charge indefinitely, or do you support al-Qaeda? Do you think drug users should be subject to the harshest penalties the law allows, or should elementary-school cafeterias serve pot brownies for dessert? In this world there are only good guys and bad guys, and it is always easy to tell them apart. If you disagree with any of this, well then, we know which side you're on, don't we?

That seems to be the line taken by prosecutors and police officers in defence of strict sentencing guidelines for criminals. At a time when Americans of all political persuasions, at all levels of government, are starting to question the country's infatuation with ever-harsher sentencing policies, the National Association of Assistant...Continue reading

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