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Wikipedia celebrates its first 15 years

Vie, 15/01/2016 - 15:09

FIFTEEN years ago today, on January 15th, 2001, Wikipedia was founded by two internet pioneers, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, although neither had any idea how ambitious their online encyclopedia would become. Today Wikipedia is the tenth most popular website in the world, with versions available in some 280 languages containing around 35m articles. Like the ancient library of Alexandria and Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia published during the Enlightenment, Wikipedia is an ever-evolving manifestation of its creators’ desire to preserve and compile knowledge.

Wikipedia was early to anticipate three important digital trends. First, people are willing to participate in global forums for nothing. Wikipedia, which is written and edited by volunteers, was an early social network. Second, Wikipedia saw that the knowledge economy was heading online. In 2012 the “Encyclopedia Britannica” stopped printing and is now only available in digital form. Third, Wikipedia showed the importance of network effects to online ventures: the more people use Wikipedia and write entries, the more helpful it has become. Younger digital firms, like Facebook and...Continue reading

Candidates Cruz and Trump butt heads

Vie, 15/01/2016 - 08:53

THE gloves came off in the sixth Republican primary debate, held in North Charleston, South Carolina, on January 14th, especially during exchanges between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two front-runners, who until recently had enjoyed an unofficial alliance. “I recognise that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa,” said Mr Cruz, in answer to a question about whether he might not qualify for the presidency because he was born in Canada, which, he said, was first raised by Mr Trump. An angry-looking Mr Trump retorted that Mr Cruz was “misrepresenting” how well he was doing. “I was all for you until you started that,” he said.

The exchange escalated when Mr Cruz suggested that, by Mr Trump’s standards, he himself might not be eligible to run for the presidency; his mother was born in Scotland. (“But I was born here—big difference,” was Mr Trump’s reply). It then turned almost comedic when the pair (sort of) offered each other the vice-presidency: Mr Trump said he would choose Mr Cruz as vice-president…but that the cloud of contestable nationality hanging over his head was a problem. Mr Cruz said...Continue reading

America's most famous jailer hangs up his keys

Jue, 14/01/2016 - 22:34

BURL CAIN, America's most famous jailer, has hung up his keys after nearly 21 years as the warden of Louisiana’s maximum-security Angola prison. Mr Cain, who has a strong belief in redemption and a way with words, has been a rockstar of the correctional world and the subject of documentaries, books, and countless newspaper and magazine articles.

He also ran the largest prison in the state that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any other—in the nation that leads the world in imprisonment. His stint as warden of the plantation-like prison located on 18,000 bucolic acres in a deep bend of the Mississippi River is the longest by far in Angola’s history.

Though Mr Cain is 73, his decision to call it quits wasn't because of old age. A few months ago, Mr Cain—who flirted with a bid to become Louisiana governor early last year—said he hoped to stay on regardless of who won the state’s recent election. His decision to quit came just as the new governor, John Bel Edwards, was deciding on key positions, and there had been speculation that Mr Cain may have been given some encouragement.

It seems more...Continue reading

Why Florida will have to rethink its approach to executions

Mié, 13/01/2016 - 20:24

LAST year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a 31-page dissent to a 5-to-4 decision upholding Oklahoma’s controversial method of executing criminals. To rely on a drug cocktail with a track record of torturing prisoners to death, she wrote in Glossip v Gross, is “barbarous” and violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments. This week, Justice Sotomayor wrote her first majority opinion in a death-penalty case, taking just ten pages to explain why Florida’s death-sentencing procedures are out of whack with the jury-trial guarantee in the Sixth Amendment. The vote was 8-to-1, with only Justice Samuel Alito in dissent.  

In nearly every state that executes criminals, the decision to sentence a convicted murderer to death lies with the jury. But in Florida, a hybrid sentencing scheme has given judges the final word. While juries are asked to issue an “advisory sentence” by a majority vote, and their recommendations must be given “great weight”, presiding judges are empowered to adjust the sentence based on their own assessments...Continue reading

Trump’s attack on Cruz gets a boost from law professors

Mar, 12/01/2016 - 19:57

WHEN you’re behind in the polls, attack your opponent in some new and creative way. It’s a well-worn and occasionally effective strategy, and Donald Trump is employing it with aplomb against Ted Cruz in the last stretch of the run-up to the Iowa caucuses on February 1st. Last week, echoing old questions about the birthplace of Barack Obama, Mr Trump renewed his scepticism about Mr Cruz's very eligibility to be president. The billionaire White House aspirant noted that Mr Cruz was born in Canada to parents of mixed heritage: while his mother was an American citizen, his father was born in Cuba. “Republicans are going to have to ask themselves the question”, Mr Trump said, “do we want a candidate who could be tied up in court for two years? That’d be a big problem”.

Article II of the Constitution mandates that a president must be at least 35 years old and “a natural born citizen”. Mr Trump is not certain that Mr...Continue reading

The justices seem poised to deliver a blow to public-sector unions

Lun, 11/01/2016 - 23:56

THE LABOUR movement in America has seen better days. In the 1960s, about a third of American workers were members of unions; today, with right-to-work laws in place in 25 states, the figure hovers at 10%. This spring, when the Supreme Court issues a decision in Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, the decline may well accelerate. Rebecca Friedrichs, a public-school teacher in California who left her union because she did not share its priorities, is challenging a rule that says non-members must pay “fair-share fees” to cover the costs of collective bargaining. It violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, she and nine other teachers say, to be forced to subsidise an organisation whose politics they reject.

In 1977, the Court ruled in Abood v Detroit Board of Education that while unions could not charge non-members for political activities like lobbying for causes or candidates, states could allow unions to collect fees to support negotiations over workplace matters like wages and benefits. In the oral argument on January 11th, Michael Carvin, the teachers’ lawyer, questioned this distinction....Continue reading

Barack Obama’s despair over guns

Vie, 08/01/2016 - 06:34

IT WOULD be too upbeat to call a televised town hall meeting on Thursday night between President Barack Obama and gun-rights advocates a dialogue of the deaf. For Mr Obama and his critics could hear one another just fine during the one-hour meeting, broadcast by CNN, a cable news channel. What came across, with dismaying clarity, was that this president’s critics listen to what he says about guns, and do not believe a word of it.

To CNN’s credit, the meeting was as well-managed, constructive and calm as could be expected, given the topic. Yet it would be a miracle if it changed a single mind among those watching.

In recent years gun lobbyists and their political allies have successfully transformed the debate about firearms. Where once they argued that the Founding Fathers gave Americans a constitutional right to bear arms, they now cast ownership of lethal weapons as something closer to a duty—declaring that an armed citizenry is the strongest bulwark against government tyranny, and the ultimate defence that the law-abiding have against criminals and, most recently, terrorists. This has worked. A poll taken for...Continue reading

The case for mandatory union fees

Jue, 07/01/2016 - 19:38

ON MONDAY, we previewed a case the Supreme Court is set to hear on January 11th challenging the regime whereby public-sector employees have no choice but to pay union dues. The plaintiffs are teachers who refuse to join the California Teachers Association (CTA), the union that bargains on their behalf, and want to stop paying the “agency fees” that the CTA bills to non-members. They say that since negotiating with the government over salary, benefits and working conditions is “quintessentially political”, it is a violation of dissenting teachers’ freedom of speech to be coerced to pay “tribute” to unions undertaking that bargaining. In the previous post, we analysed the aggrieved teachers’ brief to the justices. Now we will consider the respondents’ arguments in favour of the arrangement that governs public-sector unions in nearly half of the states.

There are two parties to Friedrichs v California Teachers Association who rise in defence of “agency fees”, also known as...Continue reading

Alabama’s chief justice still wants to ban same-sex marriage

Jue, 07/01/2016 - 18:42

WHEN the Supreme Court recognised a right for same-sex couples to marry in June 2015, the deep south took the news rather hard. No state was more piqued than Alabama, the least enthusiastic in the country about expanding marriage laws to include gays and lesbians. And no state has a chief justice as shamelessly recalcitrant as the cartoon character known as Roy Moore. On January 6th, Judge Moore—think of a clean-shaven Yosemite Sam with a gavel—ordered probate judges in Alabama to abide by a 134-page ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court issued on March 3rd according to which “probate judges have a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage licence contrary to the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment or Alabama Marriage Protection Act”. In other words: gay and lesbian couples need not apply. This 10-month-old ruling “remains in full force and effect” pending another ruling from the unhurried Alabama Supreme Court that will decide how last summer’s US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges impacts the law of...Continue reading

America’s economists are almost as divided as its politicians

Mié, 06/01/2016 - 16:26

ECONOMISTS pride themselves on their dispassionate analysis. A survey in the early 2000s found that nearly four-fifths of graduate economics students in top universities viewed their field as “more scientific” than other social sciences. Careful economics, then, should be impervious to politics. But a packed session at the American Economic Association’s vast annual convention, held from January 3rd-5th in San Francisco, showed that divisions among economists on partisan lines can be stark.

Start with the left. Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, a Nobel prize-winner for work in microeconomics, bemoaned low spending in the economy, which, he argued, is holding down wages. Hourly pay grew by only 2.3% in the last year, in spite of low unemployment of just 5% and sustained economic growth. “The malaise in which the country has been for eight years is likely to continue”, he predicted gloomily. Inequality is one of the factors holding back demand, says Mr Stiglitz, because rich people save more.

Others agree with his pessimistic forecast. One hot topic at the conference was “secular stagnation”, a thesis...Continue reading

Obama's new push for tougher gun controls

Mar, 05/01/2016 - 20:30

BARACK Obama has 380 days left in the Oval Office, and he seems determined to keep fighting for change. But as he begins the final year of his presidency, Mr Obama’s approach has changed radically from the compromising, bipartisan, let’s-talk-it-out style that marked the dawn of his White House stint in 2009. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he was a candidate for the Senate, Mr Obama famously said “there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America”. But on January 5th, in announcing executive actions to restrict gun access that bypass the GOP-held Congress completely, he was less ecumenical. Ninety percent of Americans supported a 2013 bill to expand background checks, he noted, and “90% of Democrats in the Senate voted for that idea”. But the modest, popular measure failed, he said, because 90% of Republicans voted against it.

“How did we get here?” Mr Obama asked, with a flash of incredulity and anger, flanked by parents...Continue reading

Can public employees be forced to pay union dues?

Lun, 04/01/2016 - 20:25

REBECCA Friedrichs, a government-school teacher in California for 28 years, wasn’t always a scourge of labour unions. A few years before volunteering to be the named plaintiff in a case challenging the power of unions to charge fees to non-members, Ms Friedrichs served on the executive board of her union’s local chapter. But she grew increasingly disillusioned with the California Teachers Association and is now at the centre of one of this year’s biggest Supreme Court cases.

On January 11th, when the justices hear arguments in Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, the future of public-sector unions in America will be on the table. Since 1977, when the Supreme Court decided Abood v Detroit Board of Education, states have been able to allow unions representing teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees to collect dues from everybody working under the contracts they hammer out with the government. No one is obliged to join a union—the...Continue reading

Bailing on the constitution

Jue, 31/12/2015 - 17:26

AMERICA incarcerates people awaiting trial at triple the world average. Every day, roughly 500,000 people who have been convicted of no crime sit in county jails. Some are there because a judge determined they were too dangerous to return to the streets. But the vast majority end up behind bars because they could not afford to post “bail”, a returnable payment designed to ensure they’ll show up for their court dates. In practice, this means that wealthy people like Bill Cosby (who wrote a quick check for $1m yesterday after being charged with sexual assault) remain free before their trials while the poor are locked up.

Money buys all kinds of things, so it is not surprising that people who have been charged with crimes do better when they have more of it. There are rather stark inequalities introduced by most states’ money-bail system, as an...Continue reading

Chicago's mayor vows to reduce the use of deadly force by police

Jue, 31/12/2015 - 05:37


SITTING in a hot, overcrowded room on the fifth floor of City Hall while presiding over a hastily convened press conference on December 30th, Mayor Rahm Emanuel looked tanned and rested. Little in his demeanour, and his unusually calm way of responding to journalists’ questions, betrayed the fact that the mayor is fighting for his political life. In the last few weeks calls for his resignation, from protesters in the street, church leaders and others, have grown louder every day.

Mr Emanuel had not planned to be in Chicago on the day before New Year’s Eve. He was on holiday with his family in Cuba over Christmas and intended to return to his hometown this weekend. But the calls for his resignation had reached such a pitch over the weekend that he cut short his trip and returned to Chicago on December 29th so that “he can continue the ongoing work of restoring accountability and trust in the Chicago Police Department”, in the words of Kelley Quinn, the mayor’s spokeswoman.

The reason for the intensifying outrage over the weekend was yet another tragic fatal shooting by police officers of two black Chicagoans, a...Continue reading

Patrick Buchanan on hard-right populism

Mié, 30/12/2015 - 21:22

A generation ago Patrick Buchanan ran for president with the same ideas Donald Trump uses today. Now he offers his view on whether hard-right populism can win in 2016Continue reading

Solitary confinement is cruel—but soon it will at least be more unusual

Mar, 22/12/2015 - 15:31

AMERICA imprisons 2.2m people—more than any other country in both real and relative terms. About 4.4% of those prisoners, on any given day, are serving time while virtually bereft of human contact. The conditions in solitary confinement are grim: prisoners sit alone in 6-by-10 ft windowless cells for all but an hour or so a day, eating meals that are, themselves, punitive. In many prisons, inmates are served a post-apocalyptic meal called Nutraloaf but known more popularly as “the brick” or “the loaf”—a dry, flavourless, 1100-calorie product that makes people gag. But mealtime may be the highlight of one’s day in solitary. A chorus of critics say that time in a “special housing unit” (or “SHU”) brings severe mental and emotional harm to prisoners without making prisons any safer for inmates or staff.  

Last week, a major agreement to tamp down the use of solitary confinement in the Empire state was reached...Continue reading

Civility from Democrats may leave Hillary Clinton ill-prepared for the fights to come

Dom, 20/12/2015 - 12:43

NO ONE advocated carpet-bombing anyone or making the sand anywhere glow. No one suggested that America kill the families of terrorists. Sure, there were barbs—about Hillary Clinton’s support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and from Martin O’Malley over his relative youth alongside Mrs Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. But outright name-calling came there none. At last night’s Democratic candidates’ debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, the level of violence, both rhetorical and threatened, was much lower than at the Republicans’ latest shoot-out.

Even the pre-match spat about a breach of the Clinton campaign’s voter data by aides to Mr Sanders—which had seemed set to inject some vitriol into the event—was peaceably resolved. Near the start of proceedings Mr Sanders pointed out that one of his campaign staffers had been fired over the incident, and apologised both to Mrs Clinton and to his own supporters for the tone-lowering. She in turn doubted that “the American people are all that interested in this.” Her opponents hurried to help bury a row even more recondite than the furore over her use of a private e-mail...Continue reading

A Vegas line-up that puts Ted Cruz in the middle

Mié, 16/12/2015 - 10:32

IN THE fifth televised Republican primary debate, held in Las Vegas on December 15th, Jeb Bush at last launched the serious assault on Donald Trump that no serious contender for the party’s presidential nomination yet had. The man who is still the Republicans’ front-runner is a “chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president,” said Mr Bush, even as Mr Trump obligingly illustrated why he might think that.

Belligerently, Mr Trump reiterated his recent suggestion that a good way to deter Islamic State members would be to kill—or at least to be “very, very firm with”—their families. When it was put to him that this might not be legal or moral, he sneered back: “So it’s all right for them to kill us, but not for us to kill them?” When asked to comment on the “triad”—the suite of land-, air- and sea-based nuclear arms that underpins America’s strategic defence—he blustered: “Nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” He appeared not to know—in a debate on foreign policy for which he had prepared—what the triad is."

And yet Mr Bush, who garbled his opening and closing...Continue reading

Will the Supreme Court patch a hole in its same-sex marriage ruling?

Mar, 15/12/2015 - 21:18

WHEN the Supreme Court ruled last summer that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to wed, Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasised the welfare of children as a central reason for expanding marriage laws. A right to marry “safeguards children and families”, he wrote. It “affords the permanency and stability important to children’s best interests”. No more, Justice Kennedy declared, will the offspring of gay and lesbian couples be “relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life”.

All well and good if the couple is married. But many gay couples are not hitched, and in some states, the partner lacking a biological connection to the child may have a hard time winning joint custody through “second-parent adoption”. This is the heart of a Scrabble-hand of a case, V.L. v E.L., that the Supreme Court stepped into on December 14th.

Continue reading

American Muslims in New Jersey talk about Donald Trump

Mar, 15/12/2015 - 20:58

“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, NJ, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”

Donald Trump’s claims, made in November, about Muslims in America celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers in Manhattan in 2001, were comprehensively debunked. But the Republican presidential candidate refused to back down. His supporters were even more specific, saying said that Muslims celebrated on a rooftop near Journal Square in Jersey City.

Journal Square is a bustling commercial district with a commuter train that runs regularly to New York City. The area has many Muslims: halal shops and restaurants line John F Kennedy Boulevard, a main thoroughfare which runs through the square. Jersey City itself is diverse; one third of its population was born overseas. At Hudson Community College, which faces Journal Square, there is a large number of Muslims students, among them Raad Basra.

The afternoon your correspondent met Mr Basra, he had just completed an English exam. The day before, Mr Trump said all Muslims should be banned...Continue reading