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What experts say, and what people hear

Jue, 05/02/2015 - 16:47

EVERY day seems to bring a new story of a politician saying something stupid or evasive about vaccines. Rand Paul frets that they might cause mental disorders. Chris Christie said that his own children had taken their shots but that "parents need to have some measure of choice". Barack Obama, who once waffled on this subject, has declared his strong support for vaccinating children against measles, as has Hillary Clinton. The airwaves and the internet are filled with discussions about whether or not vaccines are safe. Health officials are worried that the discussion itself could scare more parents into shunning them.

This actually happened in Britain in 2002, after the idea of a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism was first publicised. Despite plentiful scientific evidence that the MMR vaccine was safe, and that it was used...Continue reading

Tales from the crypt

Jue, 05/02/2015 - 00:53

TIME is up for the Dread Pirate Roberts. Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old Texan physics graduate accused of setting up the first major drugs marketplace on the web, the Silk Road, has been found guilty of all seven drugs-trafficking charges in a Manhattan court room today. And so comes to a close one of the first great criminal cases in this new era of internet-enabled crime.

Mr Ulbricht’s crime was the sort of thing that in other industries would have made him a millionaire. He saw the potential of combining Tor, a technology devised by the US Naval Laboratory which makes it possible to host a website without revealing where the servers are, with Bitcoin, a currency that can be exchanged online without relying on banks. The website he created, the Silk Road, essentially functioned like an Amazon for illegal drugs. By using encryption and Bitcoin, buyers...Continue reading

Resorting to freedom

Mié, 04/02/2015 - 19:42

MEASLES outbreaks in California and other western states, due in part to a trend in parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, have raised the question of whether vaccinations against certain diseases ought to be made mandatory. Given his libertarian streak, it is not surprising that Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky who will probably run for president, believes that vaccinations ought to remain voluntary. Nevertheless, a few of his comments on the subject on CNBC's "Closing Bell" on Monday provide a telling glimpse into his worldview. 

Mr Paul, a Duke University-trained ophthalmologist, favours vaccination. But he questioned the wisdom of vaccinating infants and worried aloud about "tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines". Mr Paul earned a lot of flack for this remark,...Continue reading

Surprisingly expensive

Mié, 04/02/2015 - 15:45

DETROIT may be one of the only cities in the rich world where it is possible for someone on a fairly modest income to buy a street. At the edges of Boston-Edison, a historic district of gorgeous old houses built as one of the city’s first wealthy suburbs between about 1900 and 1930, so low has the cost of housing fallen that fairly grand houses can be acquired simply for the cost of back property taxes. A local reporter who showed me around is in the middle of building his own empire—buying up abandoned homes and renovating them. Copying him was extremely tempting.

But the cost of such attractive housing is so low because people don’t want it. And one of the things I simply had not appreciated about struggling cities like Detroit before visiting is that a lot of the reason why housing is so cheap is because in other respects, life is surprisingly expensive. Even for relatively well-off yuppies who are gradually gentrifying some parts of the city, cheap housing is only barely compensation for other costs. Together with more obvious problems such as poor schools and high crime, it is one of the reasons why despite all of the investment...Continue reading

Resistance bands

Mar, 03/02/2015 - 17:08

WITH the Supreme Court set to decide this June whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, some conservatives in southern and western states are seeing the writing on the wall. As Adam Liptak reported last week in the New York Times, officials in Alabama, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah are taking preventive action in case the justices vote to permit same-sex nuptials nationwide.

Some of the moves will not survive the barest of judicial scrutiny. Bills barring state officials from issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples, for example, or withholding their pay for doing so, are clear violations of federal court rulings holding the opposite. Alabama’s chief justice, the irrepressible Roy Moore, faces an ethics complaint for defying a...Continue reading

Driving Miss Daisy

Sáb, 31/01/2015 - 20:41

A WOMAN walking alone on I-285, one of Atlanta’s busiest roads, was struck and killed horribly on January 22nd. Her remains scattered across lanes of westbound traffic because drivers did not realise what the debris was. The fatality led to the road’s closure for several hours that morning, snarling up commutes for thousands of weary workers.

One of the most sprawling cities in America, Atlanta covers 4,280 square kilometres and houses around 2.5m people. Sporadic stations line its light-rail network, MARTA, causing many to shun its services. And well-to-do types prefer the air-conditioned comfort of their SUVs to battling for a seat on public buses. All this means local commuters spend an average of over 50 hours a year stuck in traffic.

Overall, transport around the city sees 7.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per resident released every year. This dwarfs the emissions released in European cities of a similar size. For every inhabitant of Barcelona, a city of 2.8m people covering just 162 kilometres squared, only 0.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced in this way.

Atlanta’s commuters are like most in the nation,...Continue reading

Hard problems

Vie, 30/01/2015 - 19:25

NICHOLAS KRISTOF last weekend wrote a touching remembrance of a recently deceased school friend, Kevin Green, a kind, hard-working man whose economic struggles took a toll on his health. "The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure," Mr Kristof writes, "but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs". He goes on:

Lots of Americans would have seen Kevin—obese with a huge gray beard, surviving on disability and food stamps—as a moocher. They would have been harshly judgmental: Why don’t you look after your health? Why did you father two kids outside of marriage?

That acerbic condescension reflects one of this country’s fundamental problems: an empathy gap. It reflects the delusion on the part of many affluent Americans that those like Kevin are lazy or living cushy lives. A poll released this month by the Pew Research Center found that wealthy Americans mostly agree that “poor people today have it easy because they can get...Continue reading

Why locking up leakers makes sense

Jue, 29/01/2015 - 05:22

JAMES RISEN was prepared to go to jail to protect his source. In 2006 the New York Times reporter (pictured) published a book that revealed a covert American plot, in which a former Russian scientist fed flawed nuclear component designs to Iran. It claimed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had bungled the operation. The Justice Department promptly began investigating who had leaked the classified information, and identified Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee who was suing the agency for racial discrimination, as the likely culprit. It duly subpoenaed Mr Risen, the only witness to this illegal disclosure. But he refused to name his contact, to whom he had promised anonymity.

The last time prosecutors tried to make a reporter reveal a source, Judith Miller, who also wrote for the Times, spent 85 days in jail in 2005 for keeping mum. Barack Obama’s administration has pursued leakers with unprecedented aggression: the government has charged nine alleged leakers on his watch, compared with three under all previous presidents. Mr Risen challenged the subpoena, claiming that freedom of the press exempted journalists...Continue reading

Unearthing Moscow’s moles

Mar, 27/01/2015 - 21:58

HOW American sanctions might bite on Russian banks is a matter of great interest to the Kremlin. So Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, asked one of its undercover agents in New York to find out, prosecutors claim. Evgeny Buryakov was outwardly an executive at Vnesheconombank, a Russian state-owned financial agency. But in real life he was allegedly “Zhenya”—working closely with two Russian intelligence officers who were working undercover as diplomats, also in New York. 

Mr Buryakov’s mission involved collecting economic intelligence and spotting potential sources. It has ended in disaster. On January 26th news broke of his arrest by the FBI. He faces trial and, if found guilty, up to 15 years in prison. His alleged colleagues have left America.

As always with spy stories, questions outnumber answers. What gave the FBI their first clue? Was it  good surveillance, a cryptographic breakthrough, success in penetrating the Russian spy service or sloppy tradecraft by Vladimir Putin’s snoops? The FBI’s evidence suggests a lengthy period of observation. The three men communicated with brief...Continue reading

Caught in the middle

Mar, 27/01/2015 - 15:49

NEARLY 21 years ago, Justice Harry Blackmun declared he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” In his last few months on the Supreme Court before retiring in the summer of 1994, Justice Blackmun abandoned his previous view that capital punishment was consistent with the Constitution. "The death penalty experiment,” he concluded at the age of 85, “has failed." It is a “delusion” to think otherwise.

Justice Blackmun’s prediction that the court would eventually reach this conclusion has not come to pass. Yet America is marching away from the death penalty. The number of executions rose from 31 in 1994 to a peak of 98 in 1999, then began dropping as more and more states declared death penalty moratoriums or abolished it altogether. In 2014, of the...Continue reading

What's holding women back?

Vie, 23/01/2015 - 17:36

IN 2015 the promise of gender equality seems closer than ever. A new report by the Pew Research Centre shows that the majority of Americans think women are just as capable of being good political and business leaders as men. They are perceived as indistinguishable from their male peers when it comes to leadership qualities such as intelligence and capacity for innovation. On other qualities—honesty, fairness, compassion and willingness to compromise—many Americans actually judge women as superior.

It’s tempting to read the report as a sign of progress. After all, the 114th Congress includes a record number of women (104) serving in the House and Senate. On the corporate front, 26 women now lead as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; that’s up from zero in 1995. But, in fact, the 104 congresswomen only make up 19% of Congress and the female CEOs are only 5% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. 

In short, the numbers are creeping along, but they’re still staggeringly low. The success of a Hillary Clinton or a Mary Barra is...Continue reading

Nostalgia for Nixon

Jue, 22/01/2015 - 23:02

WHILE watching the pantomime that is the president’s state of the union address, I couldn’t help but feel for John Boehner. As with any bit of political theatre, a lot of the drama is in the choreography: when to clap or look dour, stand up or roll eyes. As the Republican speaker of the House, Mr Boehner had the dubious honour of sitting directly behind the president for this annual address, on an elevated platform alongside Joe Biden, the vice president. For the entirety of Barack Obama’s hour-long speech, Mr Boehner’s job was apparently to wear a Noh theatre mask of disdain, and to take care to not inadvertently clap for something he doesn’t approve of. Playing it safe, he appeared to sit on his hands for most of the address, reluctant to endorse anything that didn’t feature words like “trade”, “veteran” or “9/11”. It is a tricky thing to be first violin when you hate the...Continue reading

Keep calm and gavel on

Jue, 22/01/2015 - 05:35

THE stone-faced marshals call for quiet at the beginning of every Supreme Court hearing, and the audience complies. Same as usual today, until a woman near the back of the courtroom rose to her feet and shouted, “I rise on behalf of democracy; overturn Citizens United!” Two officers immediately pounced on the woman, grabbing her and, apparently (I heard later), throwing her to the ground just outside the courtroom where her head hit the floor with a thud. Then a man arose, holding up a finger and yelling, “One person, one vote!” He too was grabbed. A third declared, “We are the 99%!” This repeated itself four more times, until seven audience members had had their brief say (including one in Spanish) and were roughed up—a little more savagely than you’re imagining—and tossed out of the room. After the shouting and banging and such, order returned to the court.

It was a stunning moment of human whack-a-mole, and an awkward one for the chief justice, John Roberts. “Our second order of business this morning,” he...Continue reading

Behind the pantomime

Mié, 21/01/2015 - 17:52

AS MY colleague wrote yesterday, the fact that there is virtually no chance of any of the priorities outlined in Barack Obama's State of the Union address becoming law during his administration renders the entire affair a sort of pantomime. As predicted, Republican responses to the speech ranged from dismissal to anger—or rather, mock anger; since it has always been clear that Republicans would reject anything Mr Obama were to offer up, their condemnations of his failure to reach out were pantomime too. Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, inadvertently captured the circular logic of the situation: “For him, it’s all 2016 partisan politics now, and Republicans shouldn’t waste time debating the merits of the president’s political talking points.” Of course, if Republicans are unwilling to debate...Continue reading

Of beards and brevity

Mié, 21/01/2015 - 02:33

THE ECONOMIST tries to provide readers with concise, to-the-point prose. It seems we have something to learn from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose concurring opinion today in Holt v Hobbs, a religious liberty case involving a Muslim inmate’s beard, came in at 65 words, including references and parentheticals. The justices held unanimously that there is no compelling reason for Arkansas prisons to deny Gregory Holt’s request to wear a half-inch beard, which he regards as his religious duty. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act, Mr Holt can grow his beard. The state’s justifications for shearing Mr Holt’s face against his will—preventing prisoners from hiding contraband like SIM cards and blades in their whiskers and ensuring that prison guards can readily identify inmates—are, in the court’s view, spurious.

Justice Ginsburg signed on to Justice Alito’s opinion but wrote separately to emphasise that Mr Holt’s demand is fundamentally different from the claim put forward in last year’s controversial Burwell v Hobby...Continue reading

Political pantomime

Mar, 20/01/2015 - 22:28

IN 1999 Bill Clinton gave his seventh state of the union address. America’s economy was not just recovering, but in the middle of a decade-long boom. For the first time since the 1960s (and the only time since), the federal budget was in surplus. Mr Clinton himself was not in as good shape—he had not yet been acquitted under his impeachment for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But he was fighting back, and he could still try to lay out a plan. “We are on course for budget surpluses for the next 25 years”, said the president. “I propose that we make the historic decision to invest the surplus to save Social Security.”

That is the sort of context through which to see Barack Obama’s own seventh state of the union address, which will take place on Capitol Hill this evening. Read now, Mr Clinton’s speech has an impossibly upbeat air that borders on delusional. Indeed, so do many state of the union addresses, especially those given at the end of a presidency, when few presidents have any ability to push through radical legislation....Continue reading

Live-tweeting the speech

Mar, 20/01/2015 - 20:34

PRESIDENT Barack Obama will be delivering his 6th state of the union speech tonight. Though the address comes just as many new Republican Senators and Congressman decorate their offices on Capitol Hill, having taken control of the Senate and held on to the House in the recent midterm elections, the president appears reluctant to play the lame duck. He has used his executive powers to shield millions of migrants from deportation, has started to dismantle the (remarkably ineffective) embargo against Cuba, and has madeContinue reading

Good God

Mar, 20/01/2015 - 17:10

“EVER wondered what would have happened if Eve would have said ‘You need to talk to my husband?’” If the answer is yes, and you think that Adam would have outsmarted Eden’s serpent, you should probably continue reading “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” The 2013 book, by the former chief of Atlanta’s fire department, Kelvin Cochran, lays out his conservative Christian views, defining “uncleanness,” for example, as “whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality and all other forms of sexual perversion.”

The book is full of commentary on the tension between depravity and the divine. But in the eyes of Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, Mr Cochran’s real sin was handing out copies of his self-published tome at work. Though a fire department report into the matter found that no employee “had been treated unfairly by Chief Cochran on the basis of his religious beliefs," it concluded that the book had “compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.” First suspended from the fire department in November, Mr Cochran’s dismissal...Continue reading

Jockeying for position

Dom, 18/01/2015 - 20:52

WHILE covering various races in the run up to the midterm election last year, I kept running into Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor. One week I spied him in Michigan, the next I saw him in Illinois and then I think it was back in Michigan. We could have car-pooled. As head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), Mr Christie spent a lot of time and money campaigning for his fellow Republicans. The RGA spent $130m on 2014’s elections, including about $14m in Michigan and a whopping $19m in Florida. He helped defend most of the Republican gubernatorial incumbents and even helped win seats in Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois, all states with voters that lean Democratic (not unlike his home state). Most everywhere he went he was greeted with loud cheers—sometimes louder than the candidate he was campaigning for. Occasionally he was treated like a rock star. The reception he received even in blue states like Illinois made me realise that Bridge-gate—a year-old scandal over lane...Continue reading

The Supremes take the plunge

Sáb, 17/01/2015 - 15:57

TWO decades ago, hardly anyone imagined that gay couples could wed. This year, America's Supreme Court looks ever more likely to declare same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right. On January 16th the court agreed to consider this explosive question, and also the related one of whether states must recognise same-sex marriages performed in other states.

A Sixth Circuit Court decision upholding four state bans on gay nuptials in November is what nudged the justices to jump in. Four earlier circuit court decisions had gone the other way—knocking down gay marriage bans on the basis of US v Windsor, a 2013 case in which the Supremes invalidated the core of Bill...Continue reading