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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

Stiff figures

Jue, 27/03/2014 - 22:26

AMERICA carried out 39 executions last year. This puts the country in some unsavoury international company; only China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia put more people to death (albeit by a fairly large margin in China and Iran). Our colleagues over at Graphic Detail have plotted these executions on a rather grim chart.

For all the public hand-wringing over the death penalty, the number of places that carry it out and the number of people killed is rising. Amnesty reckons that 23,392 people are living under death sentences worldwide for crimes including treason, embezzlement and adultery. 

We have written about capital punishment in America quite a bit lately. Earlier this month we considered the controversy over executing prisoners who are mentally disabled (which was recently argued before the Supreme Court), and we published an "Economist explains" about why so many death-row...Continue reading

On the rise

Jue, 27/03/2014 - 20:41

The prevalence of children with autism jumped by 120% in eight years, according to a new survey from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since 2000 the CDC has used health and school records to report diagnoses of autism among eight-year-olds. The most recent survey, which collected data from 11 sites in 2010, found that one in 68 children was autistic, compared with one in 150 in 2002. The report is America’s best estimate of autism rates and how they have changed over time.  

There was wide variation across the 11 sites and within them. One in 175 children in Alabama was identified as autistic, compared with one in 45 in New Jersey. Rates of autism were nearly five times higher in boys than girls. White children were about 30% more likely to be autistic than black children and nearly 50% more likely than Hispanics. Interestingly, across children of all ethnicities, as many children were identified as autistic without intellectual disability as with it—the share of autistic children with average or superior IQs rose from one-third in 2002 to nearly half in 2010. But it was mostly white children, not black or...Continue reading

A unanimous guilty verdict

Mié, 26/03/2014 - 19:56

THIS morning in a New York City courtroom Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, former al-Qaeda spokesperson and Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, was found guilty of three counts: conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and providing support to terrorists. The jury returned its unanimous verdict fairly quickly, on the morning of the second day of deliberation. Mr Abu Ghaith was the most prominent member of al-Qaeda to be tried in a civilian court.
 
The conspiracy charges were confusing. Technically, under the law’s broad scope, Mr Abu Ghaith could be held responsible for terrorist acts that occurred even before he joined the al-Qaeda conspiracy. Perhaps because of this confusion, the prosecution was very clear in its arguments that the defendant knowingly and willingly aligned himself with bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In the months after the 2001 attacks he encouraged young Muslims to kill Americans in several video and audio broadcasts, which were played repeatedly throughout the trial. His own testimony did not help. He denied being...Continue reading

Golden but unwieldy

Mié, 26/03/2014 - 18:06

LITTLE knits California together. With a GDP of about $2 trillion (nearly as big as Russia's), the state is huge and sprawling, home to one out of every eight Americans. Spanning over 164,000 square miles, California is best seen as a federation of little states, each with its own sports teams, media markets and local pride. In light of this unwieldiness, there have been quite a few proposals to split the state. Kevin Starr, a former state librarian, has counted over 200 since statehood began in 1850. An intriguing new plan comes from Tim Draper, a rich Silicon Valley investor. His proposal to split the state into six smaller ones has no chance of ever happening, but it offers a fine chance to consider the oddities of this odd state. Check out this nice short video about why splitting up the golden state isn’t easy. And read more about Mr Draper's plan here, in which our west-coast correspondent argues that unravelling California would be "immeasurably more painful than dealing with its flaws"—though the flaws are many.

For more insight into Continue reading

They ought to be in pictures

Mar, 25/03/2014 - 23:30

C-SPAN marked its 35th anniversary last week. The channel has been airing gavel-to-gavel proceedings of the House of Representatives since 1979; it ventured to the floor of the Senate in 1986 and has added committee hearings, interviews and coverage of some foreign political events. For all the jokes about the niche nerdiness of C-SPAN’s audience, you might be surprised to discover that one in five American cable subscribers report tuning into the channel at least once a week. That’s about 40m people hungry (or at least peckish) for direct access to the guts of the federal government.

Yet C-SPAN has never set up a camera in the hallowed chambers of the United States Supreme Court. The justices began releasing audio recordings of oral arguments in 2010, but they have...Continue reading

Public health v religious freedom

Mar, 25/03/2014 - 18:53

THE Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v Sebelius. These cases concern the "contraceptive mandate" of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which requires businesses that offer their employees health insurance to provide plans that cover all federally-approved contraception methods at no additional cost to their employees. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties are both owned by Christians who believe that four of those contraceptive methods are tantamount to abortion, because they prevent a fertilised egg from implanting in the uterus. They are seeking an exemption to the mandate on religious grounds, which the administration has granted to some churches and religiously affiliated nonprofits. How does American law accommodate religious freedom in cases such as this?

Well, it's complicated. For some insight into legal precedent, our sister blog Economist Explains offers a fascinating look at American law and religious freedom through...Continue reading

The voice of al-Qaeda

Mar, 25/03/2014 - 15:07

A FEW blocks away from where the towers fell on September 11th 2001, the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is taking place in another New York high-rise, on the 26th floor of the federal courthouse. Mr Abu Ghaith was Osama bin Laden’s spokesman and later his son-in-law. He was arrested last year in Jordan and then handed over to the United States. He is charged with conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists. He is the most senior alleged al-Qaeda member to be tried in a civilian court.

The three-week trial has been gripping. Unusually, Mr Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric, testified in his own defence. He said that he did not know about the September 11th attacks in advance, but admitted that he did know something was coming. Hours after the four planes crashed, he was summoned to meet with Osama bin Laden in an Afghan cave. Bin Laden told him: “We are the ones who did it.” The next morning, Mr Abu Ghaith, seated on bin Laden’s right, made the first of many recordings on behalf of al-Qaeda, becoming its voice and its face.

Federal prosecutors played the recordings several times to show jurors that...Continue reading

The broom of the system

Lun, 24/03/2014 - 17:57

BRUCE RAUNER, a wealthy venture capitalist, won the Republican gubernatorial primary in Illinois last week. This sets the stage for a showdown in November between him and Pat Quinn, the incumbent governor, a Democrat. Republicans are excited by Mr Rauner, who styles himself as Mr "Shake up Springfield" and who wields a sledgehammer in his television advertising. Mr Rauner spent more than $14m on the GOP primary, including $6m of his own money. The Republican Governors Association—which smells blood in Illinois—has sent Mr Rauner $750,000. Three unions are so worried by him that they have already spent at least $800,000 apiece on attack ads via a political action committee. At least $400,000 was donated directly to his GOP opponents by unions. 

Mr Rauner offers the GOP the best shot at winning an Illinois gubernatorial race in years. He is a strong pro-business, anti-establishment, low-tax candidate, running against a governor who claims to be a "man of the people". Mr Quinn has lambasted Mr Rauner as a "one...Continue reading

Intransigence is good strategy

Vie, 21/03/2014 - 00:00

AMERICA has been pretty much stuck in neutral for the past few years, as Republicans used their gains in the 2010 elections to prevent Barack Obama from pushing any of the major items on his agenda through Congress. Mr Obama's jobs bill, climate-change legislation, gun-control initiatives, immigration reform, and even many of his appointments to executive posts have been stymied. Republicans in the House, rather than pass legislation that Senate Democrats might conceivably negotiate over and ultimately approve, have largely concentrated on confrontational symbolic gestures, such as bills repealing Obamacare. This has been an effective political strategy for Republicans, who have watched the president's popularity steadily decline. They will likely Continue reading

Has the use of SWAT raids gone too far?

Jue, 20/03/2014 - 22:35

PARAMILITARY police raids are on the rise, and largely for non-violent offenses. Our correspondents discuss the troubling militarisation of America's police

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In defence of the numbers

Jue, 20/03/2014 - 16:49

BOXERS train by hitting the heavy bag; Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic's literary editor, seems to train by destroying straw men. That is the most charitable interpretation of yesterday's column, in which he savages Nate Silver (pictured) and speaks up, as he writes, "in defense of 'bullshit.'" Mr Wieseltier was referring to a comment of Mr Silver's, given in advance of his new site's launch: "Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically."

Mr Silver, a statistician who has become famous for his data-driven analysis of everything from baseball to elections, blames conventional pundits for their "strong ideological priors", which ensures they are "not really evaluating...Continue reading

Monopoly v chess

Mié, 19/03/2014 - 19:50

TYLER COWEN had an interesting piece in the New York Times over the weekend arguing that like the cold war, the conflict between America and Russia over Ukraine should be seen through the lens of game theory. Three of the game-theory concepts Mr Cowen cites—nuclear deterrence, "tipping points" between different equilibrium levels of conflict, and the fact that credibility can't be faked when it isn't anchored in concrete interests—were interesting and clearly relevant. The fourth, which he describes as "market deterrence", is also interesting and relevant, but I think there are a couple of wrinkles that didn't make it into Mr Cowen's piece. The idea behind "market deterrence" is that financial...Continue reading

Brown's back

Mar, 18/03/2014 - 20:14

SCOTT BROWN'S red pick-up truck, which he used to barnstorm across Massachusetts during his 2010 senate run, has a new license plate. The former republican Massachusetts senator announced on Friday that he is considering a run for senate in neighbouring New Hampshire. He bragged that his truck is approaching 300,000 miles and that “it’s sure looking good with those license plates that say 'Live Free or Die’,”, New Hampshire’s resolute state motto.  
 
His announcement was not a surprise. He has been flirting with entering the race for nearly a year. He sold his Massachusetts house at the end of last year, claiming he was moving to New Hampshire to be closer to his mother. Some will surely shout that he is a carpet-bagger, yet Mr Brown has been a long-time summer resident of the Granite State. His Massachusetts background is not necessarily a burden; indeed, it may well appeal to the many voters who hail from the Bay State. One 2008 report found that nearly one in four of New Hampshire residents was born in Massachusetts. The southern part of the state is now considered part of the sprawl of Boston, where many work. New...Continue reading

Should she stay or should she go?

Mar, 18/03/2014 - 14:47

JUSTICE Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court’s fiercest liberal, turned 81 last week. She has survived two bouts of cancer, in 1999 and 2009, and didn’t miss a beat after breaking a pair of ribs in 2012. Though stooped and molasses-like on her feet, Justice Ginsburg shows no signs of intellectual decline, questioning lawyers with slicing precision during oral arguments. She also stays in physical shape: though she has given up water-skiing, the justice can still drop and give her trainer 20 “male” pushups.

But some of her strongest supporters say Justice Ginsburg’s 21st year on the bench should be her last. With Barack Obama on his way out in 2017, a Republican in the White House would have the opportunity to replace her with a conservative who could tip the balance on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, racial equality, gun control and many other critical issues.

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A kinder expulsion

Vie, 14/03/2014 - 22:38

AFTER John Boehner sent a memo to the House GOP at the end of January that held out the promise of a country in which undocumented migrants could live “legally and without fear”, it seemed like an overhaul of immigration laws might just be on the way. The optimism lasted just under a week. Since then, campaigners who favour a law that is kinder to migrants have switched their attention to putting pressure on the president. America deported 370,000 people last year, an operation carried out by the Department for Homeland Security. This is a federal agency, such campaigners reason, so the president ought to be able to stop it with a swish of his mighty pen.

On March 13th the president hinted that he agreed with them. After a meeting with three Democratic congressmen in the...Continue reading

We have ways of making you talk

Vie, 14/03/2014 - 16:55

A FEW years back, at an international media conference, a Russian reporter for the Kremlin-backed television station RT (formerly Russia Today) asked me whether I thought CNN was an American propaganda channel. Given the way CNN and other American networks had practically fallen over each other in their eagerness to cheer on the invasion of Iraq, the question had some merit. Also, the reporter was gorgeous, and her challenging expression suggested that if I answered "no", she would roll her eyes and end the conversation. So I said yes, you could say that CNN sometimes functions as an American propaganda channel, but not because of any direct influence by government officials on its editorial content. It's just that Americans, reporters and viewers included, are naturally disposed to back their own government in international conflicts, and the network gives the public what it wants.

Well, she retorted, how did I think things worked at Russian stations? It wasn't as if she had to submit her stories to government censors. Obviously Russian reporters like herself had shared the Russian perspective on the war in Georgia. And yes, RT received...Continue reading

Who, what, where and why

Jue, 13/03/2014 - 17:16

THE United States not only incarcerates a lot of people, it also has a bewildering array of places to put them. There are, of course, jails and prisons: jails are usually run by local jurisdictions (cities or counties) and house either convicted criminals serving short sentences or people awaiting trial. Prisons, or penitentiaries, are run by states or the federal government, and house convicts serving longer sentences. But there are also juvenile-detention facilities, military prisons, immigration-detention and civil-commitment centres (used for court-ordered treatment of the mentally ill; they can be inpatient or outpatient) as well as jails and prisons in Indian and overseas territories, most of which are administered by different government entities. This keeps data on the overall size of America's incarcerated population, as well as information about their crimes, quite fragmented.

Yesterday the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a criminal-justice research and advocacy group, released a report and chart that draws on various data sources to present a fuller picture of precisely...Continue reading

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