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It's chaos

Mar, 28/04/2015 - 06:19

WHAT is happening tonight in Baltimore is perhaps best described not as a riot but as anarchy. Though there are police lines, there are few protesters or people fighting the police or hurling stones. Indeed, where the police are lined up, the people standing around are mostly taking photos on their phones. Drive a few blocks in any direction, though, and suddenly it feels lawless. Groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies, stand on street corners next to derelict buildings, staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars. Young women hurry home carrying bags of stolen loot: food, clothes, and bottles of beer and liquor. On the occasional street here and there cars burn freely. Shops, of which there are not many in this abandoned corner of the inner city, are ravaged, their windows smashed, their shelves picked over. Cars hurtle through red lights at high speed, music blaring, boys leaning out of the windows. And everywhere the intense smell of smoke and the buzz of helicopters overhead.

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What the cops say

Lun, 27/04/2015 - 21:13

FEW doubt that there is something seriously wrong with policing in America. Far too many people, chiefly young black men, are dying at the hands of police. Every new police scandal invites more hand-wringing over a law-enforcement system that often seems racist and unjust. In Baltimore over the weekend protests over the mysterious death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old man who died while in police custody in Baltimore on April 19th, turned violent.

Yet few also doubt that most police officers are decent people who “risk their own safety for ours every single day,” as President Barack Obama put it recently. According to one poll, three quarters of people, including a majority of African Americans, say that they approve of the job being done by their local police department. Police officers in general seem to be thought of as decent people doing good work—and yet policing, as a practice, is widely distrusted. What explains this contradiction?

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They are coming, but will you build it?

Sáb, 25/04/2015 - 00:51

EVERY borough of New York City is growing. The city’s population has risen 4% to 8.5m since 2010, and is expected to reach 9m by 2030. Housing and accommodating all of these people is not easy. To meet this challenge, Michael Bloomberg introduced in 2007 PlaNYC, a 25-year blueprint for sustainably enlarging the city, which proved to be his crowning achievement as mayor. Before this plan, long-term visions for the Big Apple had been in short supply. Mr Bloomberg’s scheme called for new spending on infrastructure, more development along the waterfront and changes to zoning laws in around 40% of the city. The city expanded its recycling programme, cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 16% and planted 1m trees across the five boroughs.

The plan became a model for other cities around the world. Even Bill de Blasio, Mr Bloomberg’s successor in City Hall, called it “groundbreaking”. But the current mayor seems to think PlaNYC doesn’t go far enough. On April 22nd he unveiled his own grand design for “a strong and just city”,...Continue reading

Paying for poverty

Vie, 24/04/2015 - 19:08

VERA CHEEKS failed to halt at a ‘Stop’ sign in Georgia last year. Too poor to pay the ticket’s $135 fine, she was put on probation until she earned enough to cover the charge. But this came at a cost: her case was handled by a private firm, called Red Hills Community Probation, which charged an extra $132 for the privilege. The firm also told Ms Cheeks that she had to pay $50 immediately in order to avoid being sent to jail. Her fiancé ultimately rescued her with money from pawning her engagement ring and his gardening equipment.

Red Hills is now the target of two separate class-action lawsuits—one federal, one state—filed this month on behalf of Ms Cheeks and others. Both suits allege that Red Hills, acting on behalf of the government, wrongfully detained and jailed people who were too poor to afford court and probation fees. By some estimates, extra fees and surcharges on traffic fines add an extra 40% to the original ticket price. The ‘interest’ paid by a probationer comes to about 14% a month, and over 160% a year. “We’ve seen a pattern of private probation officers essentially holding people for ransom over...Continue reading

In the bin

Mié, 22/04/2015 - 23:25

TO PLACATE shareholders and shoppers, American companies are promising to use more recycled materials in their products. It’s a nice idea, but surprisingly hard to achieve. Coca-Cola committed to using at least 25% recycled plastic in its containers by 2015, but revised this downwards owing to scarce supply and high costs. Walmart is struggling to find the material to meet its goal to use 3 billion pounds of recycled plastic in its packaging and products by 2020. “The problem is supply,” explains Rob Kaplan of Walmart.

Most recycled materials should be cheaper than virgin commodities, but America throws too much stuff away. Low landfill fees and a fragmented waste-management system have kept the country’s recycling rate at around 34% for two decades—far lower than most rich countries. This waste comes at a cost. Making cans from recycled aluminium, the most valuable container material, requires 95% less energy and creates 90% less greenhouse-gas emissions than virgin stock, yet more than 40 billion aluminium cans hit America's landfills every year. The country chucks away $11.4 billion worth of recyclable containers and packaging...Continue reading

Fallout reaches the ivory tower

Mié, 22/04/2015 - 17:49

ON HOT battlefields and in coolly targeted killings, America has regularly used armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere for a decade and a half. In discussing drone strikes, it is easy to fall into abstraction. Take a speech by Harold Koh to the Oxford Union in 2013, after he'd left his position as the State Department's top lawyer: “Because drone technology is highly precise, if properly controlled, it could be more lawful and more consistent with human rights and humanitarian law than the alternatives.”

High precision sounds nice—and drone strikes are indeed more precise than the bombing technologies they have displaced. But they can still miss their target. An attack near the village of Datta Khel in North Wazirstan in 2010, for example, accidentally killed 42 people. "Body parts were scattered for...Continue reading

Let my people vote

Mar, 21/04/2015 - 16:47

EVERYONE seems to think the Supreme Court will declare a constitutional right to same-sex marriage this June. And so it may. But all the predictions, registered before the justices have even heard oral arguments on April 28th in four challenges to state gay marriage bans, are a bit premature. The case for finding a right to gay nuptials in the 14th amendment, which we outlined last week, is indeed strong. But the defences of bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee merit close consideration and will no doubt earn such a reading from the expected swing vote, Justice Anthony...Continue reading

Good-bye to a hard-nosed Chicagoan

Lun, 20/04/2015 - 21:09

SUNDAY worshippers at the Cathedral of the Holy Name, the seat of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago, entered the church below a white and purple funeral bunting. Under the church’s splendid wooden ceiling, near the massive granite altar, was a big photograph of Cardinal Francis George, a former Archbishop of Chicago. Many had come to pay their respects to a man who had been one of the most influential Catholics in the country. The cardinal died on April 17th, aged 78.

As the head of one of America’s biggest and most important archdioceses for 17 years, until 2014, Cardinal George was universally respected, even by those who disagreed with his conservative views. “He was an academic, a philosopher and an intellectual,” says Father Kenneth Simpson at St Clement, a vibrant parish in Lincoln Park, a posh part of Chicago.

Cardinal George served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010. Under his leadership the bishops adopted a “zero tolerance” policy to sexual abuse within the church, barring priests from the ministry who had been credibly accused of misdeeds. This...Continue reading

Leap of faith

Sáb, 18/04/2015 - 00:42

IN AMERICAN politics, candidates often write books as a way to sell themselves to voters. Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, is no exception. His latest, “Gods, Guns, Grits and Gravy”, was released in January, just as Mr Huckabee suspended his show on Fox News to prepare his bid for the Republican nomination for presidency. This evening he appeared on Fox News to declare that he will formally announce on May 6th his intention to run. But Mr Huckabee’s chances of winning are so remote that a cynic might presume his real intention is to sell more books.

Mr Huckabee’s pitch is for the religious vote. A southern Baptist minister, he is fiercely—indeed occasionally absurdly—socially conservative. He once compared the idea that Christians should accept gay marriage to being “like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli”. Last year he argued that legal abortion is worse than the Holocaust. In his book, he complains that Jay Z, a rapper, has moved from being a “husband to pimp by exploiting his wife [Beyoncé, a pop star] as a sex object”.

In the past, that made him...Continue reading

Nasty, brutish and long

Vie, 17/04/2015 - 21:23

PRESIDENTIAL campaigns are more costly and choreographed than ever before. They are grueling for both candidates and voters

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You'll be black and blue

Mié, 15/04/2015 - 23:04

RIKERS Island, New York City’s largest jail, is a tough place. Its notoriously grim conditions have inspired investigative reports, hand-wringing and rap songs. “This ain't a place that's crowded but there's room for you/Whether you're white or you're black, you'll be black and blue,” sang Kool G Rap, a hip-hop artist, in 1990. Rikers's reputation was never good, but lately it is getting worse.

The jail is facing countless charges of abuse and neglect. Its population has fallen by nearly half to 11,400 over the past two decades, thanks largely to the city’s fall in crime, but incidents of violence are on the rise. Corrections officers beat a mentally-ill inmate unconscious in September. Another inmate, a mentally-ill military veteran, died in an overheated cell in February 2014. In 2013 staff reportedly used force against adolescents 565 times, resulting in 1,057 injuries. Preet Bharara, a federal attorney, claims there is a “culture of violence” against young inmates at the jail. In December the Justice Department filed suit against the city over the mistreatment of juvenile prisoners on Rikers Island. Another suit is...Continue reading

What are Rubio's chances?

Mié, 15/04/2015 - 01:03

AS A general rule, if you read one election forecaster for American politics, you’ve read them all. Contrary to the desires of most journalists, who need drama to lure readers, most races aren’t close. And since quantitative models tend to rely on similar inputs—a generous helping of polls spiced with a dollop of “fundamental” factors such as the economy and fundraising—if one system misfires, others will probably err in the same way. On the eve of the 2012 presidential vote, the three best-known predictors got at least 49 of the 50 states right; two years later newcomers to this newly crowded field duly joined the chorus in forecasting a Republican takeover of the Senate. It’s hard to stick your neck out while staying true to the data.

So it is striking that two of the...Continue reading

Join the club

Mar, 14/04/2015 - 14:29

GROUCHO MARX thumbed his prodigious nose at any club that would have him as a member. The plaintiffs in four cases to be argued at the Supreme Court on April 28th take another view. Lawyers for April DeBoer, Jayne Rowse, Gregory Bourke, Timothy Love and a number of other gay and lesbian Americans will ask the justices to strike down their states’ bans on same-sex marriage. They will argue that the federal constitution protects their wish to marry, no matter what their state's laws or constitutions may say.

The eight merits briefs in these four cases, which will be known collectively as Obergefell v Hodges, weigh in at nearly 550 pages. Add in the dozens of amicus briefs from people and organisations who feel they have a stake in the outcome, and the justices (and journalists) have quite a lot of reading to...Continue reading

A question of trust

Vie, 03/04/2015 - 04:08

THE tentative agreement reached by America and other world powers that aims to thwart an Iranian rush to build a nuclear bomb is “not based on trust” but on unprecedented verification by outside monitors, President Barack Obama declared in the White House gardens on Thursday afternoon. Not for the first time, Mr Obama cast opponents of his nuclear diplomacy as war-mongers, telling Americans: “When you hear the inevitable critics of the deal sound off, ask them a simple question. Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world's major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?" The president’s problem is that the provisional deal still raises questions of trust, in more ways than one.

First, there are the hawkish Republicans in Congress and putative candidates for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, all of whom find it hard to trust Mr Obama. That camp was noisy in its initial responses to the news from the talks in Lausanne. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, a Republican who has legislation drafted and ready for a vote that would slap additional sanctions on...Continue reading

The mayor v Hanukkah Harry

Jue, 02/04/2015 - 17:42

LAST week, in the second of three debates before the run-off mayoral election on April 7th, Rahm Emanuel, the incumbent, was stuck playing defence. At times he seemed unable to find a riposte to the feisty verbal attacks lobbed at him by Jesus (Chuy) Garcia, his opponent. But on March 31st, in the third and final debate on live television, Chicago’s mayor was back on form.

“You are walking along all over the place like typical career politicians promising everything like 'Hanukkah Harry,'” said Mr Emanuel, earning a laugh from the audience. When Mr Garcia suggested that Mr Emanuel’s time on the board of Freddie Mac, a mortgage-insurance giant, contributed to the recession, the mayor earned another chuckle when he quipped, "Single-handedly, I ushered in the recession...only you and my mother think...Continue reading

Performance anxiety

Jue, 02/04/2015 - 00:43

CONVICTED of racketeering, 11 educators were handcuffed on April 1st for their roles in a cheating scandal within Atlanta’s public schools (APS) that stretches back to 2001. The criminal investigation that led to the beginning of the trial last August involved more than 50 schools and hundreds of interviews with pupils, parents and staff. One teacher was acquitted. 

And how did it all begin? Suspiciously high scores on the Criterion-Reference Competency Test, standardised exams that assess competency in maths, English and other skills, prompted first a local newspaper, and then Georgia’s former governor Sonny Perdue, to start asking questions. 

The improved performance of the 50,000 or so pupils who attended APS was indeed remarkable. At Parks Middle School, for example, the share of 13-year-olds who “exceeded expectations” concerning their mathematical ability rose from 1% to 46% in a single year. The head of APS during the period, Beverly Hall, was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in February 2009.

A gubernatorial investigation found in 2011, after looking closely at erasure marks on test sheets, that more than half of Atlanta’s elementary and middle schools contained classrooms with an average number of wrong-to-right corrections more than three standard deviations...Continue reading

Digital pioneers

Mar, 31/03/2015 - 19:57

WHEN Brian Balasia moved his business into the iconic, tangerine-coloured Guardian building in downtown Detroit ten years ago, the chief executive of Digerati was a rare specimen: a tech entrepreneur in Motor City—and a white, young professional who lived downtown. The centre of tech entrepreneurship then was Silicon Valley or maybe New York, so choosing a rapidly declining manufacturing town as launching pad seemed an eccentric choice. And nobody wanted to live downtown: Mr Belasia’s peers preferred the safety of leafy suburbs such a Grosse Pointe or “lily-white” Livonia.

Giving us a tour of the Guardian’s polychromatic splendours, Mr Belasia, a native Detroiter, reflects on how much downtown Detroit has changed in one decade, in particular in the years since Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013. When he moved in with his business only 7% of the Guardian was occupied, even though it has an enviable location right next to the river and is one of the...Continue reading

Supreme triangulation

Lun, 30/03/2015 - 21:36

ON MARCH 27th Ellen Pao lost her high-profile discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, a venture-capital firm in Silicon Valley. The jury did not buy her story that the firm's male partners had mistreated and fired her because of her sex. Earlier last week, the Supreme Court issued a less-noticed but potentially more consequential decision relating to women's rights in the workplace.

Peggy Young (pictured), a former driver for United Parcel Service (UPS), was rebuffed in 2006 when, on her doctor’s advice, she asked to be relieved from heavy lifting during her pregnancy. UPS told Ms Young that light-duty assignments are reserved for workers who lose their driver’s licences, are disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act, or sustain an injury on the job. Ms Young failed to...Continue reading

Republicans get their wish

Sáb, 28/03/2015 - 00:10

HARRY REID, the leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate, announced today that he will not seek re-election. The Nevada senator was not due to face voters again for nearly two years. Yet in the run up to the midterm elections in 2014, Americans watching television could easily have presumed that he was not only on the ballot, but also running in their state. A favourite bogey-man for Republicans, Mr Reid inspired countless attack ads urging viewers to “retire Harry Reid” in contests from Alaska to Wyoming. In a single one-hour campaign debate in Kansas, the sitting Republican senator invoked Mr Reid by name 20 times. But having lost the Senate majority, and with a tough election battle up ahead, Mr Reid has decided to call it a day. Republicans have been quick to cheer, though they have lost a favourite foil.

Republicans describe Mr Reid's reign as majority leader, between 2007 and 2014, as a dark chapter in Washington history. They accuse him of twisting Senate rules to ram through an outrageously partisan agenda. In their telling, Mr Reid left the chamber’s traditions of lofty debate...Continue reading

Getting nicer

Jue, 26/03/2015 - 21:09

DESPITE all the partisan bickering, Americans are an increasingly tolerant bunch. A new study published in Social Forces, an academic journal, finds that the country’s attitudes towards once-marginalised groups, such as communists, gays and atheists, have softened considerably since the 1970s. Using the General Social Survey, administered by the University of Chicago since 1972, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Nathan Carter and Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia measured how attitudes have changed over time. Their study draws from more than 35,000 responses over three decades. 

Since the survey began, the proportion of people who feel comfortable with a gay teacher has risen from 52% to 85%. More than three-quarters of respondents in 2012 had no problem with their local library carrying a book by an anti-religious author—up from 63% in the early 1970s. But this growing leniency has its limits: the share of people who would let a racist person speak publically dropped slightly, from...Continue reading

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