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An antidote to blight

Lun, 15/06/2015 - 17:26

DEINDUSTRIALISATION, globalisation and technological advance have wreaked havoc in many cities in the Midwest. In Galena, a small town on the border of Iowa and Illinois, this disruption happened 150 years ago. The thriving lead-mining centre and Mississippi-river steamboat hub was then one of America's most important industrial cities. French settlers took over lead mines created by Native Americans, issuing the first leases in 1822. By the mid-19th century the town produced 85% of the nation’s lead and was bigger than Chicago. Industrialists built grand mansions and even miners lived in decent cottages. But the civil war changed everything, says Daryl Watson, a local historian. Zinc supplanted lead and railways trumped steamboats. With its impressive railway hub, Chicago swiftly surpassed Galena to become the biggest city in the region. 

In the last few decades, and in particular between 2000 and 2010, quite a few Midwestern cities have become notorious for post-industrial blight, but Galena hit this existential snag much earlier. How it managed to pull itself back from the brink offers a valuable lesson of how...Continue reading

Obama's agenda in the balance

Sáb, 13/06/2015 - 01:17

A FEW years ago a wise pollster—pondering how labels like left-wing and right-wing have been scrambled by globalisation—came up with a different way to sort voters in Western democracies. Electorates, he suggested, broadly divide into two groups, one of which sees change and the outside world as a threat, and a second which takes a more optimistic view, looking for opportunities to harness global forces and turn them to good ends. The pollster, Stefan Shakespeare of YouGov, calls these two camps “Drawbridge Up” and “Drawbridge Down” people.

Just after lunch on June 12th President Barack Obama was mugged by the Drawbridge Up bit of America, or at least by its elected representatives. A large majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by hard-right Republicans, voted to stall (and potentially kill) his hopes of reaching a big new free-trade pact between America and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Senate has already passed a bill that would allow Mr Obama to press ahead with TPP, and the House may return to the question as early as Tuesday.

Reflecting how trade...Continue reading

Executive chutzpah

Vie, 12/06/2015 - 21:39

ON MONDAY, just as the Supreme Court handed Barack Obama a resounding victory in a turf battle with Congress over foreign affairs, the president criticised the justices at a press conference in Krün, Germany, site of the G7 summit. In response to a reporter’s question about King v Burwell, the challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) set to be decided this month, Mr Obama said it would take a “twisted interpretation of four words in...a couple-thousand-page piece of legislation” for the court to eliminate tax subsidies for health insurance in the 34 states where the federal government operates health-care exchanges. King “should be an easy case,” he said. “Frankly, it probably shouldn’t even have been taken up.” The president’s defence of Obamacare (without specific mention of the case or the court) continued in a Continue reading

Doomsday machine

Vie, 12/06/2015 - 19:23

MY COLLEAGUE adheres to a theory about why the text of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, clearly authorises federal subsidies for health insurance purchased through exchanges set up by state governments, but not for insurance from exchanges set up by the federal government. This is the question at issue in King v Burwell, the Supreme Court case that could strike down Obamacare's subsidies in 34 states and force millions of Americans to lose their health insurance. The failure to explicitly authorise subsidies for health insurance from federal exchanges comes from a four-word phrase in the 900-page law, which refers to subsidies for insurance from exchanges "established by the state". The theory, advanced by the plaintiffs in the case, is that the authors of the law intended to use the threat of denial of subsidies to pressure states to set up their own exchanges. "It was, I think, very much part of the law's strategy to induce states to establish exchanges," my colleague writes. "Advocates of Obamacare now deny...Continue reading

Shall the fabric be unwoven?

Vie, 12/06/2015 - 05:26

BARACK OBAMA spoke before an assembly of health-care administrators Tuesday in Washington, DC, but his remarks were aimed squarely at the Supreme Court justices who are busily deciding the fate of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

"Five years in, what we are talking about is no longer just a law. It’s no longer just a theory. It isn’t even just about the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare," Mr Obama said. "This is now part of the fabric of how we care for one another. This is health care in America".

The issue before the court in King v Burwell is whether the text of the legislation must be strictly or loosely observed. As it is written, the law authorises the Internal Revenue Service to offer tax credits to Americans who buy health insurance on "exchanges", or online marketplaces, “established by the state.” Awkwardly, 34 states declined to set one up, despite an array of federal incentives to do so. So the feds stepped in to create marketplaces in these states themselves. This is where the trouble comes in. The law...Continue reading

No-glow zone

Mié, 10/06/2015 - 19:43

“GIVING up smoking is the easiest thing in the world,” quipped Mark Twain, “I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Twain was hardly alone in struggling to give up tobacco. New legislation in California is designed to ensure that many of the state’s youngest residents don’t pick up the habit in the first place.

On June 2nd California’s Senate approved a bill that would increase the age at which youngsters can buy cigarettes from 18 to 21. Lawmakers in Hawaii, Washington and Oregon are taking similar steps, and smokers in New York City already need to be 21 to legally puff away. Advocates argue that raising the smoking age discourages the habit. The experiences of certain states seem to support this idea.

In New Jersey, where smokers must be at least 19 years old, only 16.9% of people admit to the habit, the fifth-lowest smoking rate, according to Gallup, a polling firm. Alaska saw its share of smokers drop by more than six percentage points between 2008 and 2013—the biggest decline in the nation—after raising the age to 19 in 2007. The lowest smoking rate in the country belongs to...Continue reading

The Caitlyn Jenner moment

Mié, 10/06/2015 - 03:20

IT CANNOT have escaped your attention that the gold-medalist decathlete American hero of the 1976 Summer Olympics, Bruce Jenner, now prefers to be known as Caitlyn. Ms Jenner's Vanity Fair cover is already, as they say, "iconic". Ravishing at the age of 65, her expression is shy, pleading and coyly hopeful, her athlete's arms held behind her back like a St Sebastian.

As Bruce, Ms Jenner in recent years had been little more than an awkward auxiliary member of the famous-for-being-famous Kardashian clan. Last week, however, Caitlyn Jenner was the most famous person in the world, according to Google at least. Searches for Ms Jenner outpaced those of her step-daughter, Kim Kardashian, by a factor of seven, despite the news that Ms Kardashian is now expecting her...Continue reading

Presidential prerogative

Mar, 09/06/2015 - 02:55

MENACHEM ZIVOTOFSKY, an American boy born in Jerusalem in 2002, would like to list “Israel” as his place of birth on his passport. It is a “matter of conscience,” he says. A law passed by Congress in 2002 grants Israeli-Americans this right. But implying that Israel is sovereign over Jerusalem goes against a long-standing policy of the state department, which has stayed neutral on the question of who controls the holy city since 1948. The government argues that permitting Jerusalem-born Americans to list Israel on their passports imperils efforts to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Zivotofsky v Kerry was argued before the Supreme Court in November 2014. Though a line in a passport may seem trivial, this case touches on a particularly thorny issue of American foreign policy and considers a matter fundamental to America's constitutional structure: the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government.  

On June 8th the court sided with the executive. In a 6-3 ruling, the justices held that recognising foreign governments is the prerogative of the president and...Continue reading

Republicans go hog-wild in Iowa

Dom, 07/06/2015 - 00:57

POWERFUL, impressive and built around antique technology, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is a complicated symbol of national pride. Add a hefty dose of conservative politics and it is no surprise that clouds of nostalgia hung around today’s first annual Roast and Ride—a barbecue- and Harley-themed patriotic festival organised by Iowa’s freshman senator, Joni Ernst, as a salute to military veterans and speechifying contest for 2016 presidential hopefuls. The senator, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa national guard who served in Iraq, led a parade of over 300 vast, rumbling motorcycles from Des Moines to a country showground in Boone, in the heart of the state which will, early next year, hold the first nominating contest of the presidential season.

A lot of the bikers were military veterans, and the emotional legacies of war were on startlingly raw display as they set off. Riders wore t-shirts declaring “Freedom isn’t free”, or—in one case—comparing President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, while their baseball caps and jacket patches told of the units and campaigns in which they had served. They wrapped Senator Ernst, a small-framed but...Continue reading

In defence of Rick Perry's eyeglasses

Vie, 05/06/2015 - 23:58

RICK PERRY, a former Texas governor, yesterday threw his hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr Perry faces a steep uphill climb. In 2011 Mr Perry made a late but strong entrance into the GOP race, swiftly surpassing Mitt Romney to claim the lead in the polls. He was just as swiftly undone, however, by a string of gaffes culminating in his inability to recall, during a nationally televised debate, the third of three of government agencies he would shutter, should he be elected president. "Oops," he said, drawing a blank. That fateful moment, and the error-ridden campaign leading up to it, earned Mr Perry a reputation as a man of low cognitive wattage, unsuited to the intellectual rigours of the Oval Office. If Mr Perry is to stand a chance this election season, he must overcome not only an indictment on two counts of felony abuse of power, but his popular image as a swaggering airhead.

Which brings us to the subject of Mr Perry's eyeglasses. Mr Perry first appeared in...Continue reading


Jue, 04/06/2015 - 21:44

THIS week health insurers have begun revealing proposed rate increases to their health-care plans for 2016. These potential hikes, which in some cases exceed 30%, can be partly explained by the fact that insurers low-balled their prices in the early days of the Affordable Care Act in order to gain market share. But there is another reason: higher drug prices. Prescription drug spending increased 13.1% in 2015.

This rise is partly explained by some new drugs for Hepatitis C. More trouble is on the horizon. At the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago this week, scientists announced that new immuno-oncology drugs work in a wider range of cancers, and even better when given in combination. The problem is that these drugs are some of the most expensive the country has ever seen. 

“These drugs cost too much,” said Leonard Salz, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, in a high-profile speech at the meeting. At $295,000 a year, the price of combination therapy is unsustainable, he explained. At a big drug-sponsored conference, this was like swearing at a...Continue reading

Bias unveiled

Jue, 04/06/2015 - 05:04

SAMANTHA ELAUF was refused a job at Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing retailer, in 2008. She claims this decision was motivated by religious discrimination, as she was rejected only because she arrived at the interview wearing a hijab, or Muslim headscarf. On Monday the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in her favour. The case, Justice Antonin Scalia mused from the bench, was “really easy”.

But a closer look at the decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v Abercrombie & Fitch shows that the ruling is a little more complicated than Justice Scalia let on.

Abercrombie says Ms Elauf was denied a job because her headscarf violated the company’s "cap"-banning dress code, but claims the company did not know the scarf was religiously inspired. The 10th Circuit Court agreed that the onus was on the applicant to inform Abercrombie of her need for an exemption from the company dress code. But the Supreme Court saw things differently. As Justice Scalia explained, because Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids employment decisions informed by religious discrimination, “an applicant need only show that his...Continue reading

Let a little sunshine in

Mié, 03/06/2015 - 05:54

AFTER missing its deadline on Sunday, the Senate met on June 2nd to pass the USA Freedom Act, which replaces and reforms a lapsed provision of the Patriot Act, the law that regulates America’s snooping. Lawmakers largely avoided debate over sundry amendments, ensuring the same bill passed by the House last month went straight to Barack Obama, who swiftly signed it into law. This was a blow to hawks such as Mitch McConnell, the majority leader and a Kentucky Senator, who argue that the changes come at the expense of national security. Before the final vote on the bill, Mr McConnell took to the Senate floor to lament that it will “take one more tool away from those who defend our country every day.”

The USA Freedom Act will stop the indiscriminate harvesting of phone-call records by the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s signals intelligence branch. Under the revamped rule, call metadata records would be kept by phone companies, not the government. Federal officials will be required to request records using “a specific selection term” on the basis of “reasonable articulable suspicion” that the call information is linked to...Continue reading

Putting a cork in Common Core

Mar, 02/06/2015 - 14:39

“WE’RE doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue. And this is one of those areas where I’ve agreed more with the president than not,” said Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, in August 2013. The potential 2016 presidential candidate went on to criticise the “Republican opposition” to national education standards, calling it a “knee-jerk reaction” to anything the president likes. 

Alas, less than two years after Mr Christie’s refreshing break with his party on education reform, he seems to have had a change of heart. On May 28th he lambasted Common Core for bringing “only confusion and frustration”. Though the programme is still getting started, the governor seems inclined to shut it down, complaining that “instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones. And when we aren’t getting the job done for our children, we need to do something different.”

Backed by Bill and Melinda Gates and sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core education standards were...Continue reading

Rand Paul's libertarian street cred

Mar, 02/06/2015 - 01:02

IN A panel discussion at Harvard University on Saturday, Viet Dinh, who served as assistant attorney general in George W. Bush’s administration and was the chief architect of the USA Patriot Act, was asked whether it was true that Barack Obama’s national security policies were largely a continuation of Mr Bush’s. Yes, he replied, but not because of the choices Mr Obama or any other politician had made. The continuities existed because of a consensus in the law-enforcement, intelligence, and prosecutorial agencies regarding the tools they wanted in order to conduct the war on terror. “Even if Rand Paul becomes president, we won’t see a significant, seismic shift,” Mr Dinh said.

On Sunday night, Mr Paul did his best to put the lie to that claim by single-handedly forcing the expiration of parts of the Patriot Act. Mr Paul's filibuster will certainly burnish his credentials with libertarians. But the provisions of the act that have expired are limited. The most important of these regards the ability of the FBI or other agencies to collect and search bulk metadata on electronic communications without obtaining a warrant. Such...Continue reading

Lessons from the Rock

Sáb, 30/05/2015 - 16:21

IN THE 1978 film “Superman”, Lex Luthor, Superman’s tenacious villain, launched a nuclear missile at the San Andreas fault, which runs north to south through California. He hoped to trigger an earthquake so large that it would sink everything west of the fault into the Pacific. The resulting carnage would have handsomely benefited the rather conspicuously named Lex Luthor Incorporated, which had just purchased large swathes of land east of the fault. The missile did ultimately hit its mark, but Superman was able to prevent catastrophic damage by flying into a crevasse and personally stabilising the tectonic plates with his sheer brawn, Atlas-style.

In the newly released film “San Andreas” (pictured), the fault once again threatens to destroy the Golden State. The apocalyptic drama begins when a previously unknown fault near the Hoover Dam ruptures, triggering massive quakes along the San Andreas fault, reaching magnitudes of 9.1 in Southern California and 9.6 in Northern California. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as Chief Ray Gaines, a rescue-helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles fire department. When “the Big One” hits,...Continue reading

A laboured exemption

Jue, 28/05/2015 - 23:51

THE Los Angeles city council voted last week to raise the city's minimum wage from $9 to $15 per hour. Trade unions fought hard for the increase in the city's wage floor, which takes full effect by 2020. Now they're lobbying for a last-minute change to the law that would exempt unionised firms from the new proposals. On the surface, this is a puzzling development, and one that perhaps smacks of hypocrisy.

Rusty Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labour and a leader of the group pushing for the minimum-wage increase, justifies the exemption for union firms on the grounds that the unionised labour-force is already covered by collectively negotiated agreements, which are, presumably, already satisfactory to workers. According to Mr Hicks, a negotiated employment agreement "allows each party to prioritise what is important to them". Exempting unionised...Continue reading

Barriers ahead

Jue, 28/05/2015 - 06:49

A FEDERAL appeals court ruled on Tuesday against the Obama administration’s executive order to shield millions of immigrants from deportation. This decision is most immediately a blow to migrants who must continue to live in the shadows. Pundits add that this is a big setback for Barack Obama, as the president now may not see his big immigration plans take effect while he is in office. Republicans may be celebrating, as many have come out against the president’s policies for immigration reform. But for the many GOP candidates who are jockeying for position in the 2016 presidential field, the appeals-court ruling is bad news. Immigration will now be squarely on the agenda.

Candidates running for the White House...Continue reading

Love is in the air

Mié, 27/05/2015 - 18:52

LAST weekend Ireland became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by a national vote. Next month, when the Supreme Court rules on whether state bans on gay marriage are constitutional, America may become the 20th nation to legalise gay nuptials. Will the historic referendum in a country with a large Catholic majority have any effect on what the Supreme Court decides?

As a formal matter, foreign countries’ norms concerning individual rights have little bearing on the meaning of America’s constitution. Occasionally justices do make reference to international law in their decisions, however. Two relatively recent examples include Atkins v Virginia, in which the court ruled that mentally disabled offenders cannot be put to death, and Lawrence v Texas, a decision in 2003 that struck...Continue reading

Brewing trouble

Lun, 25/05/2015 - 20:10

CRAFT beer lovers wishing to sample the wares of the Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta must go to strange lengths to do so when visiting. After purchasing a memento glass for $10, the thirsty are awarded ten tickets to swap for samples of Sweetwater ales. More alcoholic choices require more tickets, and visitors can sip their blueberry wheat beer in the sun while listening to live music. Tours of the facilities reveal the impressive size of the fermentation tanks. Apparently if someone drank a gallon of beer a day from the largest of them, they’d still be guzzling 85 years from now.

But unlike patrons of wine-tastings at vineyards, who then may spring for a bottle or two of a choice vintage, visitors to Georgia's breweries have long had to return home tipsy but empty-handed. A law has banned Georgians from buying brew directly from breweries to sip it at home. But this changed on May 5th: patrons can now enjoy up to 36 ounces of beer at a craft brewery, and take another 72 ounces to go as a “free” souvenir (the equivalent of a six-pack), as long as they have paid enough for a tour.   

The new law has earned toasts...Continue reading