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It's a jungle in Louisiana

Vie, 23/10/2015 - 15:56

ON OCTOBER 24th voters in Louisiana will send two men to a run-off that will determine the state’s next governor. That vote will take place in November, but it is the first election—known as an open or “jungle” primary—that really counts. This year, anyway.

In a jungle primary, candidates compete in a scrum, regardless of party, and the top two move on. The effect of such a system can be unpredictable, varying with the size of the field and the politics of each candidate. Sometimes, it can boost those at the fringes. In 1991, much to Louisiana’s embarrassment, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke and a flamboyantly corrupt governor, Edwin Edwards, managed to capture so many of the votes at the margins that the two of them met in a run-off, spawning a raft of rueful bumper stickers. (Among them: “Vote For the Lizard, Not the Wizard.”) The unfortunate centrist squeezed out that year was the incumbent governor, Buddy Roemer, who had become increasingly unpopular—but whom most Louisianians still probably wished they could have picked when it came to it.

This year, the fringes are not so extreme, but there is a similar dynamic at play, to the...Continue reading

Grilling Hillary Clinton

Vie, 23/10/2015 - 08:20

SHORTLY before 10pm on September 11th, 2012, around 150 Islamic militants swarmed into the lightly defended American consulate in Benghazi. After blasting a way inside, with grenades and vehicle-mounted machine-guns, they poured diesel onto the compound and set fire to it, unleashing a cloud of noxious smoke into the safe-room where Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, and Sean Smith, a junior colleague, were hiding. Both died of asphyxiation. Later that night the militants launched a second attack, on a nearby CIA compound, where they killed two Americans agents with mortar rounds.

The ten-hour grilling Hillary Clinton was subjected to in Congress on October 22nd was, said her Republican interrogators, necessary to uncover the truth of how and why those four Americans died. But this was nonsense. The Benghazi select committee, launched by the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, has spent 17 months and, by a conservative reckoning, $4.5m shining little more light on those questions than seven previous enquiries. And indeed, the truth of the matter does not seem terribly elusive.

By the night of the attack, the US-backed effort to...Continue reading

Nebraska’s ban of the death penalty is on hold

Jue, 22/10/2015 - 03:34

EARLIER this week the “Daily Show” sent one of its correspondents to Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, to tape one of the comedy show's daily acerbic segments on current affairs. The topic? The death penalty, and Nebraskans' rather messy attempts to repeal it.

In May, the Midwestern state’s unicameral parliament overrode the veto of Pete Ricketts, the new Republican governor of Nebraska, of a bill to ban the death penalty. Governor Ricketts is a vocal opponent of the abolition of capital punishment, but he was obliged to sign the bill into law. Nebraska thus became the 19th state, and the first conservative state in more than four decades, to ban the death penalty.

The repeal stunned pro-death penalty Nebraskans. They immediately launched a well-organised and well-funded counter offensive. All across the state they stood with big clipboards in parking lots, supermarkets, country fairs and knocked on doors to collect enough signatures to bring about a state-wide vote on reinstating capital punishment. Their effort was bankrolled by “Nebraskans for the Death Penalty”, a lobby group partly financed by Governor Ricketts and his wealthy father, to the tune of a...Continue reading

Google Books wins a court battle

Mar, 20/10/2015 - 16:52

IN “THE LIBRARY OF BABEL”, a story by Jorge Borges, a man loses himself in a gargantuan repository of every possible book in the universe. Google Books is not quite that vast, but it is big. Since 2004, Google has teamed with libraries to scan over 20m titles—including many that are out of print—and put them on the web for anyone to access. Users cannot read entire books, unless they are in the public domain. But unlike the sad hero in Borges’s dystopian tale, who never locates the catalogue to the collection, Google Books browsers can search for specific phrases and, without paying, read snippets of countless tomes.

A decade ago, a group of authors sued Google, claiming the service cut into their copyrights. After years of legal machinations, a federal district court ruled in favour of the internet giant in 2013. The plaintiffs—including Jim Bouton, author of “Ball Four”, and Betty Miles, who wrote “The Trouble with Thirteen"—appealed to the Second Circuit Court in New York and on October 16th, they Continue reading

A lawsuit finally hits its target

Vie, 16/10/2015 - 23:13

EVERY time there is a mass shooting in America, a crescendo of calls for stricter gun control rises. Within a few days, the ire smoulders out. It is a testament to the strength of the gun-rights lobby that even with strong popular support for stricter regulations, gun-control legislation seems impossible to come by. In April 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting of the previous December in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed, a mild bill to strengthen background checks of gun buyers failed to pass in the Senate.

Congress hasn’t enacted a new piece of legislation clamping down on guns since 1994. Instead, lawmakers acted in 2005 to protect gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits waged by victims of gun violence. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which prompted a testy...Continue reading

The scandal at the top of America's third-largest school system

Jue, 15/10/2015 - 21:28

CHICAGO’s public schools have given Rahm Emanuel more headaches than any other institution of the city he runs. Teachers’ strikes in Chicago Public Schools (CPS)—America's third-largest government school system—and the closure of 50 schools were the main reasons his popularity plummeted during his first term in office and his re-election earlier this year was not the cakewalk he expected it to be. The mayor fought epic battles with Karen Lewis, the boss of the teachers’ union. And he recently had to announce a whopping, unpopular $550m hike in property taxes, in part to fund new buildings for CPS, which is even more bankrupt than other departments in a city on the brink of a financial abyss.

The last thing Mr Emanuel needs is a corruption scandal involving the boss of the CPS whom he handpicked for the job. But Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was described by Mr Emanuel as “the best and brightest” when he appointed her to the top CPS job in 2012, stands accused of using her position to steer multi-million dollar contracts to SUPES, her former employer, in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and bribes. Ms Byrd-Bennett and her co-conspirators...Continue reading

Grandin designs

Mié, 14/10/2015 - 21:45

THOUSANDS of animals are slaughtered for meat every second. Who is Temple Grandin and how has she helped to reform the meat industry and improve the welfare of livestock?

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Supreme scepticism about Florida's death penalty

Mié, 14/10/2015 - 03:06

IN JUNE, Justice Stephen Breyer called the entire American system of capital punishment into question. Rather than “try[ing] to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time”, he wrote, what is needed is a “full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the constitution.”

In the Supreme Court term that began this month, there are a handful of death-penalty cases on the docket, but none will satisfy Justice Breyer’s wish. Each addresses potentially problematic features of a particular state’s scheme of sentencing criminals to death rather than the constitutionality of the punishment itself. On October 13th, in Hurst v Florida, the justices took a close look at the procedures whereby Florida continues to be one of the most enthusiastic killers of criminals in the country. Only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have executed more people since...Continue reading

Introducing the Hillary horse race

Mar, 13/10/2015 - 17:55

HOW strong is Hillary Clinton's campaign? Her poll numbers have plunged since the beginning of the year and she has been pursued by stories about her peculiar use of a private e-mail address for government business. On the other hand, she has no real competition for the Democratic nomination and anyone in the Republican field would be delighted to have her ratings. Because she has no clear rival on her own side, the best yardstick against which to judge Mrs Clinton in 2015 is probably Mrs Clinton in 2007, when she was also a candidate. This is the idea behind the Hillary horse race, which will be updated throughout the primary season.

Republicans in turmoil as Kevin McCarthy exits the Speaker race

Jue, 08/10/2015 - 20:37

KEVIN MCCARTHY’S stunning decision to drop out of the race to be Speaker of the House of Representatives on October 8th has been hailed by his Republican colleagues as a selfless act. It was more obviously one of self-preservation.

The current House majority leader had been considered a strong favourite for the job. He was about to be confirmed as the nominee of his party, which has a big majority in the House, only moments before he withdrew. There was such little support for the other two contenders, Daniel Webster and Jason Chaffetz, respectively from Florida and Utah, that the contest was immediately postponed.

Mr McCarthy also wanted the job so badly that he was willing to trash the outgoing speaker, his friend and supporter John Boehner, in an effort to mollify the ultra-right-wing fringe who had forced him to resign last month. Asked to appraise Mr Boehner’s five-year tenure as Speaker, which has been sullied by endless rows with obstructive right-wing Republicans, for whom any form of compromise with President Barack Obama is ignominious, Mr McCarthy marked it an unimpressive B minus. Much good that act of betrayal did him.

Mr McCarthy,...Continue reading

Can you take a foreign railway to court in America?

Mar, 06/10/2015 - 18:38

THEY say you can’t fight city hall. If the tenor of yesterday’s hearing at the Supreme Court is any indication, it seems you can’t fight the Rathaus either.

The case pits a Californian woman, Carol Sachs, against OBB Personenverkehr BB, a railway owned by the Austrian government. In March 2007, Ms Sachs went online and bought a ticket for train travel in Austria and the Czech Republic from Rail Pass Experts (RPE), an outfit in Massachusetts authorised to sell Eurail passes. A month later, when attempting to board a train in Austria operated by OBB, Ms Sachs fell between the platform and the train and landed on the tracks. Her legs were crushed by the moving train, requiring a double amputation. Ms Sachs then filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in California in which she accused OBB of negligence, design defects and breach of implied warranties. 

Ms Sachs says the train began rolling just as she was stepping on board; OBB counters she recklessly attempted to mount the train when it was already moving. But this factual dispute is beside the point. The Supreme Court’s question in...Continue reading

It's a small, small world

Jue, 01/10/2015 - 20:48

STEPHEN BREYER took his seat at the Supreme Court in 1994. The Bill Clinton appointee usually leans left, but in the term that finished at the end of June he found himself in the majority more often than did any of his colleagues. He is also one of America's most prolific justices. In “The Court and the World”, the third book he has written during his two decades on the bench, Mr Breyer explains how globalisation has changed the way the Supreme Court does business. With “new challenges imposed by an ever more interdependent world”, he writes, “judicial awareness can no longer stop at the border.”

The challenges come in several forms. The weightiest, which Mr Breyer outlines in a sweeping historical review, is how to “protect basic liberties in the face of security threats”. The court was once highly deferential to presidents during wartime. The justices looked the other way when, during the first world war, the Wilson administration locked up socialists and prosecuted leafleteers opposed to...Continue reading

How a 1965 law changed the faces of America

Mié, 30/09/2015 - 06:00

DONALD Trump would be well advised to take a short break in his busy schedule and read a new report on immigration published by the Pew Research Centre. It shows that with his six-page immigration policy-proposal, which includes building a wall on the Mexican border (somehow making the Mexicans pay for it) and deporting all America's approximately 11m undocumented immigrants, Mr Trump is not only intent on causing misery for millions of people, but is also barking up the wrong tree. The report finds that over the last five years net unauthorised immigration has been zero because the number of illegal arrivals was offset by the number of undocumented immigrants leaving the country. And the number of undocumented Mexicans dropped 300,000 a year between 2007 and 2009 and 150,000 a year ever since.

Mr Trump says he doesn’t read statistics, so it’s unlikely that he will let facts trouble the misguided dogma he is touting. But his obstructionism is a shame because the findings of the report show how much America was changed (and improved, in the...Continue reading

Donald Trump's tax plan is a fantasy

Lun, 28/09/2015 - 20:53

IT takes a certain chutzpah to propose bigger tax cuts than your rival, claim your plan is cheaper and then suggest your sums add up due to “common sense”. This is what Donald Trump, the iconoclastic frontrunner for the Republican nomination, did on the morning of September 28th, when he became the second leading Republican candidate to publish a tax plan, following Jeb Bush’s effort earlier this month. Critics of Mr Bush’s plan said it was a giveaway for high-earners, funded by optimistic assumptions about its effect on growth. On both counts, Mr Trump, who has never suffered from a lack of gall, makes Mr Bush look positively pussyfooted.

The plan burnishes Mr Trump’s Republican credentials by giving high earners whacking tax cuts. Individuals earning more than $150,000 will see their marginal tax rate fall from close to 40% now to 25%, three percentage points lower than under Mr Bush’s plan. Whereas the former Governor of Florida wants merely to double the standard deduction, the amount that can be earned before paying tax, to $11,300, Mr...Continue reading

Bye, Boehner

Sáb, 26/09/2015 - 01:09

“This morning, I woke up, I said my prayers and decided today’s the day I’m going to do this,” John Boehner told a press conference on September 25th, shortly after startling both foes and allies by announcing his resignation as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Told that he looked relieved to be stepping down, the most powerful Republican in America grinned and sang a burst of “Zip-a-dee-Doo-Dah.”

Reasonable observers had to feel a twinge of sympathy for Mr Boehner. His nearly five years as Speaker have been marked by endless revolts from the hard-right, and demands to launch futile assaults on laws dear to President Barack Obama—assaults which were doomed because Republicans lack the 60-vote super-majority in the Senate needed to ram their wishes through against the wishes of the Democratic minority (and are even further away from the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a presidential veto).

Those numbers never daunted the most fervent 40 or so members of the House Republican caucus, who accuse Mr Boehner and other leaders of “surrender” each time they are unwilling to use every tool in the constitution...Continue reading

The pontiff on the Hill

Jue, 24/09/2015 - 23:41

IF THE faces of Joe Biden and John Boehner represented their respective Democratic and Republican parties, as Pope Francis gave the first papal address to Congress on September 30th, there is no doubt which was the happier. The vice-president, flanking the pope on the left, beamed as he delivered, in careful English, a veiled corroboration of recent Democratic positions, including on geopolitics, immigration, social justice and environmental stewardship; the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, seated to the pope’s right, looked for long periods as if he might regret inviting the mercurial pontiff.

To be fair, Mr Boehner is a more stony-faced individual than the jocular Mr Biden. The pope also took pains to muffle the partisan effect of his words, including by speaking, where possible, in general terms.

He did not repeat his straightforward support for the nuclear deal President Barack Obama and others have negotiated with Iran, which most Republicans loathe; he merely noted “the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences”. He did not congratulate Mr Obama on protecting millions of...Continue reading

Apple goes to Washington

Mié, 23/09/2015 - 17:04

SINCE 2007, when Amazon introduced its Kindle, readers have had the option of enjoying their books in bits and bytes rather than in bindings. But behind the scenes, retailers and publishers have struggled with how they should price ebooks. Set the price too high on the ineffable commodity and consumers will balk; mark them too low, and nobody will spring for the hardcover edition. In a forthcoming petition, Apple will ask the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter by taking up a 2013 ruling, upheld by another court in June, finding that the computing giant broke the law when it entered the ebook market in 2010.

At issue is the Sherman Antitrust Act, a law dating back to 1809 that polices attempts to stifle competition in the marketplace. When Apple was preparing to launch the iPad and iBookstore, its online market for electronic titles, Amazon was selling every ebook for $9.99, including many at a loss, to boost Kindle sales. To avoid having to match that bargain-bottom price and give itself a chance at profitability, Apple struck a deal with five big publishing companies. The publishers would switch to an “agency pricing” model...Continue reading

The strange asymmetry of the presidential race

Mar, 22/09/2015 - 15:59

GEORGE H.W. BUSH was a terrible campaigner and a rather good president. One, possibly apocryphal, story about his awkwardness in front of a crowd involves a campaign stop in a New Hampshire town that had recently seen job losses. On the way in Mr Bush was, supposedly, handed a card by an aide which read, “Message: I care”. The candidate took to the stage and started saying, “Message: I care”, like some pre-programmed robo-Wasp. Hillary Clinton’s appearance on "Face the Nation" at the weekend had a certain H.W. quality. She has been told by aides that she needs to remind Americans that she is a real person. “I am a real person,” she told the host, John Dickerson.

That Mrs Clinton is not great at campaigning ought to come as no surprise to anyone who watched her previous attempt to win the Democratic nomination. As with Mr Bush, this does not necessarily mean she would be a bad president. But it does help to explain Democrats’ enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, which has reached Trump-like levels in some polls. Mr Sanders is a puzzle for people trying to decide...Continue reading

Scott Walker drops out

Mar, 22/09/2015 - 00:26

GOVERNOR Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who today ended his Republican presidential campaign after a brutal collapse in his polling numbers, liked to present himself as the new Ronald Reagan. He dedicated his departure from the race to his idol, saying that the optimistic party of Reagan was being dragged into a contest of “personal attacks” by the “current frontrunner”, also known as the property tycoon Donald Trump. His direct inspiration came from God, Mr Walker added at a press conference in Madison. “While I was sitting in church yesterday, the pastor's words reminded me that the Bible is full of stories about people who were called to be leaders in unusual ways. 
Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the race so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” he said, also mentioning his hope that others would follow his example.

In a typical election season, seeking Reagan’s mantle is shrewd Republican politics. Every four years Republicans dream of winning the White House without having to sacrifice many (or any) of their conservative principles. For this,...Continue reading

The prospect of a shutdown looms

Sáb, 19/09/2015 - 03:48

THE leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination include eight more or less distinguished politicians, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, and two men, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, with no political experience and some odd ideas. Mr Trump wants to deport 11.3m people in two years; Mr Carson thinks being gay is a matter of choice and the Affordable Care Act the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”. Polls suggest these greenhorn screwballs command more than half the Republican vote.

To understand why Americans are so fed up with politicians, it would be reasonable to start with the government shutdown of September 2013, when the failure of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to sign off on a short-term budget proposal led to about 800,000 federal employees being sent home for 12 days and the mothballing of numerous government programmes and services. This was estimated to have cost the economy $24 billion in lost output; it also hurt the Republicans.

At the time, almost half of Americans said the shutdown had cost them and most blamed the GOP—even if the nation's disdain...Continue reading