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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.

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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

The perils of whistleblowing

Jue, 13/03/2014 - 02:55

EDWARD SNOWDEN'S revelations exposed American mass surveillance. Whistleblowers Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake and author Edward Lucas discuss whether reforms may follow the outrage

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Did the real Jan Brewer ever stand up?

Jue, 13/03/2014 - 01:59

ARIZONA is America's 15th largest state by population, but it is a fair bet that Jan Brewer, who announced this morning that she would not seek re-election in November, ranks rather higher on the list of its best-known governors. Vaulted to office in 2009 to replace Janet Napolitano, whom Barack Obama had appointed homeland-security secretary, and re-elected a year later, Mrs Brewer rapidly turned herself into the Marmite of governors. Red-blooded conservatives loved her uncompromising approach, perfectly encapsulated in a famous photo of the gubernatorial finger being jabbed in the presidential face in January 2012. They also loved the way she held strong in the face of fierce opposition, both local and national, to Continue reading

What to make of Florida

Mié, 12/03/2014 - 18:52

REPUBLICANS are drawing broad national lessons from their victory on March 11th in a special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District. With ill-disguised glee, they note that their candidate, David Jolly, won a district that twice voted for President Barack Obama after a campaign which pounded his better-known Democratic rival, Alex Sink, over her support for Obamacare.

The cheering was especially loud among those campaigning for a Republican take-over of the Senate in November’s mid-term elections (it can be taken for granted that Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives). Conservatives are starting to murmur about 2014 being a “wave” election-year, thanks to Mr Obama’s falling approval ratings (it fell to 41% in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, a record low) and public suspicions of Obamacare.

In a morning-after e-mail the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) declared that the “huge win” in Florida should alarm the most...Continue reading

Free the gas companies, free the world

Mié, 12/03/2014 - 15:07

RAND PAUL has a plan to punish Vladimir Putin for invading Crimea. Mr Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky who won the straw poll at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference to be the next Republican presidential candidate, lays out his plan in an op-ed in Time. Nobody on the political spectrum is calling for a military response, and as America's most prominent opponent of intervention abroad, Mr Paul doesn't do so either. Rather, he wants to "lift restrictions on new oil and gas development in order to ensure a steady energy supply at home and so we can supply Europe with oil if it is interrupted from Ukraine." He also calls for America to do a number of things (imposing economic sanctions, ending participation in the upcoming G-8 summit) which Barack Obama is already doing, though Mr Paul neglects to mention this. He recommends that America suspend loans and aid to Ukraine, lest they be used to pay the country's debts to Russia. Finally, he calls for reinstating the cancelled project to build American missile-defence emplacements in Poland...Continue reading

A new tack

Mié, 12/03/2014 - 04:44

BARACK OBAMA'S health law got a boost on March 11th. “Have you heard of the Affordable Care Act?” Mr Obama asks Zach Galifianakis, an actor, in a new web video. “Oh yeah I heard about that, that’s the thing that doesn’t work?” The clever mock interview, on FunnyorDie.com, manages both to poke fun at Obamacare and promote it.

But the more important news came later that day, in an enrolment report from Mr Obama’s health department. As of March 1st 4.2m Americans had signed up for coverage through Obamacare’s insurance exchanges. There are just 20 days until April 1st, the deadline for Americans to have insurance or pay a penalty. The Congressional Budget Office had expected 7m to sign up this year; recently it lowered that projection to 6m. Even this may be ambitious. In February 942,000 people enrolled, fewer than in January.

There are three key questions unanswered by the health department’s data. First, how many of the new enrollees were previously uninsured? This is an important metric: it conveys whether Obamacare is expanding coverage or merely prompting Americans to switch from one plan to another. According to a recent survey by McKinsey, a consultancy, 27% of new enrollees lacked coverage last year....Continue reading

The future of solar power

Lun, 10/03/2014 - 21:22

AS THE world’s largest solar-thermal plant opens in the Mojave desert, our correspondent explains that the future of solar in America may look a lot smaller

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