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Tea and sycophancy

Lun, 10/03/2014 - 06:23

ONE of the loudest cheers that greeted any speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a three-day shindig for the Republican Right that ended on March 8th, came when Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky warned the crowd that if they owned a mobile telephone they were under government surveillance. As the hall began to roar, Mr Paul thundered over the din: “I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business.”

Mr Paul’s oratory was well rewarded. As CPAC ended, he easily won a straw poll of putative 2016 presidential challengers, scooping nearly a third of all votes cast by CPAC attendees, far ahead of any rival (second place went to his fellow first-term senator and Tea Party darling, Ted Cruz of Texas).

It is traditional for journalists to be a bit sniffy about CPAC straw polls, and with reason. True, the gathering lures an all-star line-up of Republicans, who are granted just a few minutes each for some high-intensity pandering. (In one of CPAC’s more startling moments, Mitch McConnell, a Washington grandee and the Republican leader in the Senate, marched on stage waving a large rifle above his head).

But CPAC attracts a very specific slice of the conservative movement, and its straw polls have a woeful record of predicting actual presidential nominees. Half the voters in this year’s effort were aged...Continue reading

Down to the wire

Vie, 07/03/2014 - 17:53

THERE are 25 days until Obamacare’s turbulent enrolment comes to an end. If uninsured Americans want health coverage this year, they must sign up by April 1st. Barack Obama and his aides are doing what they can to encourage Americans to get coverage. The White House will place ads during this month’s college basketball tournament; yesterday morning Mr Obama made his plea to Hispanics in a town hall and on Spanish-speaking television; Kathleen Sebelius, the health secretary, has continued to tout Obamacare to anyone who will listen. But new figures published yesterday by McKinsey, a consultancy, show just how much work remains.

Since November McKinsey has surveyed Americans who are eligible to buy individual coverage in 2014—they are neither old enough to qualify for Medicare, poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, nor have coverage through their employers this year. At first glance, McKinsey’s newest report shows numbers moving in the right direction. Of those surveyed, 48% said they had enrolled in individual coverage, up from 37% in January, 31%...Continue reading

The dignity of toleration

Jue, 06/03/2014 - 17:37

A LITTLE more than 20 years ago, as a rising junior at the University of Northern Iowa, I moved in with my first gay flatmate. There would be two others in the coming years, during grad school in Maryland. It was an interesting time to live on the edge of gay men's lives. In 1993 I don't know that I'd even imagined the possibility of same-sex couples enjoying the privileges of state-sponsored matrimony. It did not seem to be a possibility my flatmate was interested in, probably for the same reason neither of us were much interested in booking a round a trip to Mars. I remember reading Andrew Sullivan's "Virtually Normal" a few years later, and how nice but fanciful the idea of legal gay marriage seemed to all of us then. If someone had told us that same-sex marriage would become legal in our state before we hit our forties, we wouldn't have believed it.

We certainly didn't imagine that in 2014 Colorado bakers and New...Continue reading

Once more unto the breach

Jue, 06/03/2014 - 03:26

VLADIMIR PUTIN works in mysterious ways. Whether or not Russia's president lives in "another world", as Angela Merkel observed, he certainly inhabits the alternate reality of Russian politics, which abides by terms and assumptions that often strike Americans as incomprehensible or mad. He also has a habit of telling demonstrable lies, such as his claim that the Russian troops in Crimea are not in fact Russian troops. But presuming that Mr Putin does have a rational strategy for intervening in Ukraine, today's op-ed by Ruslan Pukhov, head of a Russian defence think-tank, helpfully clarifies what it might be.

Mr. Putin’s aim is not a de jure separation of Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. That would be legally problematic and...Continue reading

Another two cents

Mié, 05/03/2014 - 15:52

ONE thing the House Democratic caucus does not get enough credit for is the extraordinary speed at which some of its members can read. House Republicans released a 200-page report examining federal anti-poverty programmes on March 3rd. Within a couple of hours it was being denounced by House Democrats as another heartless attack on the needy. This is a pity: the document, released by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee, is a useful attempt to gather research on 92 different federal programmes and figure out which ones work. Should you not have time to read the whole thing, I can report that it does not propose to get rid of the poor by making recipients of government aid fight to the death in front of a large TV audience.

In fact there is not a single proposal to cut spending on federal anti-poverty programmes in there. What the report does do is document how fragmented the federal government’s poverty programmes are. Having many different initiatives is not a bad thing in itself: poverty has lots of causes and they interact in...Continue reading

They use his blood to make Viagra

Mié, 05/03/2014 - 05:38

“GOOD Americans, when they die, go to Paris,” said Thomas Gold Appleton, an essayist and arts patron in 19th-century Boston. And good political journalists, when they die, go to Louisiana. Washington is certainly more important, but it takes itself a bit too seriously. National politics reward bland ambition; in Washington the colourful get bleached or go home.

Not so in Louisiana. Since the time of Huey Long, a barnstorming populist governor and senator in the 1920s and 1930s, Louisiana has produced a steady stream of charming, sweet-talking politicians, not all of whom have taxed themselves too heavily in following the letter of the law. Between 2001 and 2010, Louisiana had America’s highest rate of public-corruption convictions: roughly one for every 1,000 government employees.

Edwin Edwards (pictured), a four-term Democratic governor who also served three full terms in Congress, is among Louisiana’s highest-profile and sweetest-talking officials convicted on corruption charges. In 2000 he was found guilty on 17 counts of racketeering, fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering. He served eight years in federal...Continue reading

Death for the mentally disabled

Mar, 04/03/2014 - 16:22

WHEN Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he oversaw the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so feebleminded that he said he would save the pecan pie from his last meal “for later”. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that putting mentally retarded people to death was a “cruel and unusual” punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. But the justices left it up to the states to define retardation, and this has proven so difficult that on March 3rd the issue came before the Supreme Court again.

A Florida man named Freddie Lee Hall (pictured) was convicted in 1978, along with an accomplice, for the rape and murder of a pregnant woman and the murder of a police officer. He was sentenced to death. His lawyers are appealing that he is too mentally incapacitated to be executed.

For the bulk of the hour-long hearing, the justices quizzed Seth Waxman, representing Mr Hall, and Allen Winsor, Florida’s solicitor-general, about the role of statistics in defining intellectual disability. Florida’s test requires defendants to demonstrate both “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning” and impairments in...Continue reading

Beautiful minds

Sáb, 01/03/2014 - 02:00

THE health of American children is mediocre—they move too little and eat too much junk. But there was promising news this week when America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that obesity rates were flat for most children and dropped dramatically for those aged two to five. “I am thrilled,” declared Michelle Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” campaign has sought to fight childhood obesity. “With the participation of kids, parents, and communities in Let’s Move! these last four years, healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm.” Another less prominent report, however, brought more worrying news, not about the physical health of children, but about their mental health.

The Health Care Cost Institute, which pools data from insurers, reported broad spending trends for children covered by private insurance. Employer-sponsored private coverage is America’s single biggest source of health insurance. There are 43m children enrolled in company health plans. The institute examined insurance claims from 2009 to...Continue reading

The ham sandwich standard

Vie, 28/02/2014 - 23:10

WHEN the state accuses you of a crime and seizes your assets before trial, thus preventing you from hiring the counsel of your choice, what recourse do you have? That question is at the heart of Kaley v United States, a case the United States Supreme Court issued its decision on this week. The answer, worryingly, seems to be: None.

The case concerns an aspect of civil asset forfeiture (which we have written about before) that allows prosecutors to freeze an indicted defendant's assets before trial if they would be subject to seizure upon conviction. The question is whether defendants can challenge the forfeiture's legitimacy when it was based on a grand-jury indictment. A brief refresher: grand juries do not decide guilt or innocence; they simply decide whether enough evidence exists to charge a defendant with a crime, ie to indict him. Proceedings are usually closed to the public, and indeed to defense attorneys as well. Grand juries usually only hear...Continue reading

Long division

Vie, 28/02/2014 - 07:20

TIM DRAPER, a rich Silicon Valley investor who wants to divide California into six states, began his press conference this week with the word “Shit!”, as he toppled the microphones placed before him. That may also be how he ends his campaign. Even if he secures the 807,615 signatures he needs to place his idea on the ballot, and somehow manages to convince a majority of Californian voters to back it, it must still be approved by the Californian legislature as well as Congress. That will not happen.

Mr Draper, who made his fortune backing the likes of Skype and Baidu, is no fool; his motives in pursuing this quixotic dream are unclear. Still, even if his answer is silly, he is asking a good question. With 38m people of innumerable backgrounds working in sectors from marijuana to manufacturing, spread over 164,000 spectacularly diverse square miles, there is little to knit California together. Its icons—Hollywood, Silicon Valley, beaches—are regional, not statewide. The same goes for media markets and sports teams. There are vast health and income disparities across California; two of Mr Draper’s new states would...Continue reading

Inescapable truths

Jue, 27/02/2014 - 16:12

THE National Academies of Science (NAS) and the Royal Society—the elite scientific fellowships of America and Britain, respectively, respectively—released today a rather handy “Frequently Asked Questions” resource on climate change. It seems designed to act as a sort of counterbalance to op-ed pieces like this one by Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, which take aim at “those scientists who pretend to know exactly what [carbon-dioxide emissions] will cause in 20, 30 or 50 years.”

The scientists of Mr Krauthammer’s scorn don’t actually exist: No one pretends to such precision. But no matter, Mr Krauthammer’s real complaint is more general. His target is anyone who believes that “science is settled”—a belief he tries to ascribe to Barack Obama. “There is nothing more anti-scientific,” he says, “than the very idea that science is settled, static,...Continue reading

Scaling down

Mié, 26/02/2014 - 20:44

THERE have been hints recently that the steady expansion of America’s waistlines might have slowed. In some groups and in some places, such as New York City and Anchorage, obesity rates even seemed to be dipping. Whether these were harbingers of broader change remained anyone’s guess. On February 25th America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) brought new, wider evidence of progress.

Most promising, there was a 43% drop in obesity rates among young children aged two to five. In 2003-04 13.9% children were obese; in 2011-12 this number went down to 8.4%. As for everyone else, between 2003 and 2012 there was no significant change in obesity rates. Depressing as it might sound, this is actually something of a victory. Steady obesity rates are much better than rising ones.

Nevertheless, America is hardly healthy. More than one in three adults and one in six children were obese in 2011-12. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be obese than white ones. Extreme obesity is most common among middle-aged women and black people. For women...Continue reading

Stupid season

Mié, 26/02/2014 - 19:56

“I’M A very staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, but why talk about it?” said J. Allen Carnes in a recent interview with a state newspaper. “It has nothing to do with this job, unless you’re talking about hog eradication.” Similarly, he said, he would steer clear of the state’s debates about abortion and sexual ethics: “Abstinence doesn’t work for cows.” Mr Carnes is a farmer, the mayor of the small Texas town of Uvalde, and a candidate for state agriculture commissioner. He is also one of the few Republicans running in Texas this year who has not raced to convince voters of his far-right credentials in advance of the primary, which will be held on March 4th.

The Texas elections have drawn more national attention than usual this year, because Democrats have an unusually prominent candidate for governor in Wendy Davis (pictured), a state senator from Fort Worth who became a hero to the left last summer after filibustering a strict new abortion bill. In January...Continue reading

God damned it

Mar, 25/02/2014 - 17:24

THERE is a counter to every reformation, a backlash to every revolution, a yin to every yang. So it is no surprise that as gay rights march through the land, with same-sex nuptials now legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and the Defence of Marriage Act defanged, that opponents of homosexuality are pushing back. Their fight to straighten America’s spine from its perceived slouch toward Gomorrah carries a whiff of desperation. Bills to permit private parties to refuse to do business with gays and lesbians have faltered in Kansas, Idaho, Tennessee, South Dakota and Maine. But last week in Arizona, the state legislature approved a bill, SB 1062, redefining religious freedom to permit businesses to discriminate against gay clients. No...Continue reading

Revenge of the 99%

Lun, 24/02/2014 - 22:52

WHEN the news broke Friday that the bankrupt city of Detroit had filed its “plan of adjustment” for its creditors, many reacted with shock and horror. "A gut punch" is how AFSCME Council 25 described the cuts to their members' pensions. "Nonconfirmable" decried a committee that represents Detroit's retirees. It is not that there were any surprises, mind you. After all, many of the proposals had been hinted at and nobody doubts that the city cannot pay its debts. But expressing shock is all part of the art of the haggle. To act relieved is to undermine the prospect of a better deal.

General retirees are facing a 35% cut to their monthly pensions. Police and firefighters will face a smaller cut of 10%, as their pension pot is better funded. These figures will fall to 27% and 7% respectively if the two pension boards agree to back the plan. As bad as these figures sound, they fall well short of theContinue reading

Hit and run

Lun, 24/02/2014 - 19:41

MARISSA ALEXANDER says she feared for her life. Her husband, Rico Gray, had a history of violence. One tussle with him sent her to the hospital. In 2010 a heated argument in their home in Jacksonville, Florida, turned sinister when Mr Gray said “If I can’t have you, nobody going to have you.” So Ms Alexander ran to get her gun and fired a single warning shot at the wall. No one was hurt. Ms Alexander, a 31-year-old black mother of three, had never been arrested before, and she claims she shot her gun in self defence. Her lawyer invoked Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which defends the right for a person to “meet force with force, including deadly force” in a confrontation that seems life-threating. Yet the judge found “insufficient evidence” that deadly force was necessary. (The judge also refused to admit testimony from witnesses who could corroborate claims about Mr Gray’s violence). In 2012 Ms Alexander was charged with a felony assault with a gun, which earned her a mandatory 20-year prison sentence. The jury deliberated for 12 minutes. An appeals court has granted her a retrial, scheduled for July.

Compare Ms...Continue reading

Shale gas buys you happiness

Vie, 21/02/2014 - 06:59

"I'M depressed," complained Tony Soprano. That a macho, murdering mob boss could have pangs of existential angst was fascinating enough to sustain a television show. It also makes Tony a bit of an outlier in his home state of New Jersey, which has the lowest levels of depression in the country, according the latest State of American Well-Being Index, released on February 20th by Gallup, a polling company, and Healthways, a healthcare company. But while New Jersey may have fewer people checking out Sartre's "Nausea" from the library, the state ranks seventh in the country when it comes to how often residents feel angry—perhaps because of all the time spent sitting in traffic.

Based on interviews with more than 178,000 people from all 50 states, the Well-Being Index offers an interesting glimpse of the physical and mental health of the nation. It also spotlights the country's winners and losers. The results divide regionally, with Midwestern and Western states earning nine of the ten best scores in 2013, while Southern states have eight of the ten lowest. Massachusetts has the highest rate of residents with health insurance (which may bode well for Obamacare). Colorado, meanwhile, nearly always has the lowest obesity rate. 

Sitting pretty in first place now is North Dakota, which has...Continue reading

The threat to freedom

Jue, 20/02/2014 - 17:54

AMERICA and Europe, exhausted by futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and by their own financial crises, have over the past five years come to a tacit consensus that they lack the power and the political will to bring democracy to far-flung, failing authoritarian states. That seemed a sad but wise conclusion so long as those failing authoritarian states really were far-flung. Then, yesterday, the zone of failing authoritarian states arrived at our doorstep. The massacres of demonstrators in Kiev's Independence Square are as awful as anything that took place during the coup in Cairo last year or the initial crackdowns on demonstrations in Damascus two years ago. In Egypt and Syria, America and Europe have largely thrown up their hands, recognising that such states are simply too alien and too far away, in terms of political culture,...Continue reading

Darwin shmarwin

Mié, 19/02/2014 - 21:48

RICK BRATTIN, a Republican legislator from Missouri, offered a bill last month that would allow parents to pull their children out of high-school biology classes lest they be exposed to the concept of natural selection. Nearly 90 years since the public trial of John Scopes, a young schoolmaster accused of teaching evolution to Tennessee children, Missouri’s House Bill no. 1472 offers a more subtle, insidious approach to halting the spread of supposedly dangerous ideas.

Mr Brattin’s several previous attempts to battle the teaching of evolution did not survive initial hearings. Last year legislation to give “equal treatment” to the theory of intelligent design died in committee. It is hard to say whether this year’s salvo against Mr Darwin will gain more support. As a constitutional matter, at least, permitting parents to pull their kids out of class is less...Continue reading

Mind the gap

Mié, 19/02/2014 - 05:54

POLITICIANS rarely agree on anything these days, so it is impressive that so many are now rallying behind expanding pre-school (nursery, in British parlance). The benefits of early education are indeed striking, not least because children go through critical phases of development between the ages of three and five. Pre-school can help with numeracy, social skills and readiness for school. Many states now believe that early-learning programmes deliver better dividends than similar investments in university education—and the Continue reading