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Slowly, slowly

Mié, 17/09/2014 - 18:17

THE economic recovery since the Great Recession has been subdued by historic standards. Typical families have born the brunt of this sluggish growth, thanks to rising inequality. But there are signs that even if things aren’t getting better for these families, they have stopped getting worse. On September 16th the Census Bureau reported that real (that is inflation-adjusted) median household income rose 0.3% in 2013 from 2012, the first increase since 2007. Poverty also fell for the first time since 2006: 14.5% of families lived below the poverty line, defined as $24,028 for a family of four, down from 15% in 2012.

The gains aren’t much. In fact, the 0.3% increase is statistically insignificant and barely begins to dig the typical family out its post-recession hole. The median income is still 8% lower than in 2007.

The report doesn’t get into why median incomes rose. There two likely causes. One is a decline in inflation thanks to falling energy prices, which helps bolster real incomes. Inflation...Continue reading

Shelved

Mié, 17/09/2014 - 17:03

THE central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is an impressive building—its neoclassical facade looming over most of a block. But inside, though chandeliers still hang from the ceilings and the floors are of polished marble, there is a feeling of neglect. A musty taste hangs in the air; many of the books are rather battered. “The building opened in 1927 and we’ve really not touched it since then,” says Siobhan Reardon, the library’s president and director. “And you can tell.”

That, happily, is now changing. On September 11th Philadelphia announced it had secured a $25m grant from the William Penn foundation to update its old libraries. Yet libraries in general are struggling. Americans tell pollsters they love them, but fewer use them. In June the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency, published data showing that library visitor numbers have declined in recent years. Polling published on September 10th by the Pew Research Center, a think tank, revealed that more people say they are going to the library less than going more, with a sharp gap among the young.

This is not...Continue reading

Analysts and evangelists

Mar, 16/09/2014 - 21:50

A RECENT article by Ezra Klein on the theme of "How political science conquered Washington" has sent Thomas Frank, a progressive firebrand and author of "What's the Matter with Kansas", into a tizzy. "Nearly every aspect of this argument annoyed me", Mr Frank confesses. Mr Klein's piece heralds the rising influence within Washington of academic political science and, by implication, the rising influence of Ezra Klein (pictured), who trucks in punched-up popularisations of the otherwise dry stuff. Mr Frank is not impressed. "The characteristic failing of D.C. isn’t that it ignores these herds of experts," he writes, "it’s that it attends to them with a gaping credulity that they do not deserve."

As an example of gaping credulity, Mr Frank points to the...Continue reading

Once more unto the breach

Lun, 15/09/2014 - 05:45

THE one thing about Hillary Clinton that currently excites Iowa Democrats is the idea that she might seek the presidency. For the moment, it probably does not matter that her return to Iowa on September 14th—her first visit after her shock third-place finish in the state’s 2008 Democratic caucus, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards—felt a little underwhelming. But the former secretary of state will soon need to start exciting people with more than the simple thought of her candidacy. Voters can't help but be a little curious about what she might actually do with the country’s highest office.

The former senator and first lady’s return took place on a fine, fresh autumn afternoon. The setting was carefully controlled and studiously welcoming—a gentle return to a state that had wounded her (Lexington describes the tricky semiotics of the event here).

Mrs Clinton was the guest star at the 37th and final “Harkin Steak Fry”, a combined outdoor picnic, political fundraiser and gathering of the clans for...Continue reading

Riling the juggernaut

Lun, 15/09/2014 - 00:00

HERE'S a simple question: would Barack Obama have gone on prime-time TV to announce a new military campaign in Iraq and Syria had Islamic State (IS) not distributed savvily-produced videos depicting the beheadings of two American journalists?

I doubt it. Mr Obama's political opponents were quick to put the IS propaganda videos to use as evidence of the sort of terrifying monsters that flourish under the president's feckless foreign policy. Without this publicity, the nefarious activities of IS in Syria and Iraq would have remained a minor news story for most Americans, and Mr Obama would not have felt the political pressure to spell out an aggressive plan to combat it.

As the Washington Post reported on...Continue reading

She's in harness now

Dom, 14/09/2014 - 01:50

“WE WANT to alternate ‘Ready’ and ‘Thank You Tom!’ signs all the way down,” volunteers were told by a staffer for Ready For Hillary, the shadow presidential campaign machine being built by fans of Hillary Clinton, should she decide to seek the White House in 2016. The instruction was well-advised. The scene was a lovely, sun-dappled field outside Indianola, Iowa. The time was lunchtime on Saturday, September 13th, a day before the annual “Harkin Steak Fry”, a giant festival of steak grilling and political fundraising hosted by the Democratic senator for Iowa, Tom Harkin. 

Senator Harkin, who is retiring this year, has gently lobbed a rock into the swirling waters of 2016-speculation by inviting Mrs Clinton and her husband to speak. For the former secretary of state, senator and First Lady, it marks Continue reading

High anxiety

Sáb, 13/09/2014 - 22:07

AN NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll this week revealed a collapse in American public confidence that the country is safer than before the September 11th attacks. Analysts traced that collapse directly to news reports of the beheading of two American journalists by the murderous fanatics of the Islamic State (IS).

The shift in sentiment was dramatic enough when viewed as rows of numbers on a pollsters’ table. Unexpectedly, Lexington was then able to see that mood of alarm in the flesh. While in Texas researching a piece about long-term trends on the southern border, your columnist was able to tour Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stations on the bridges between El Paso and its Mexican neighbour, Ciudad Juárez, on September 11th. Travelling to each of the four bridges, it became clear that something was up. Each crossing was all but deserted (pictured above). The cause, it turned out, was an internet-fuelled panic that IS terror cells are hiding in Juárez and planning attacks, possibly to coincide...Continue reading

Let the right ones in

Vie, 12/09/2014 - 18:38

LATINO immigration advocates are furious at Barack Obama for reneging on his pledge to take executive action on immigration before the end of the summer, reports Dara Lind at Vox. The question is how to get Democrats to pay attention to Latino demands for immigration reform, when doing so could alienate white voters in crucial Republican-leaning constituencies, and Latino voters already tend to vote for Democrats. The most effective model America has seen in recent years of how an already-committed minority constituency can drive its party's policies is that of the Tea Party, which staged rallies, won media attention, and (most importantly) ran right-wing candidates in primary elections to force concessions from incumbents. But some immigration activists are looking to a different model: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual (LGBT) movement. Frank Sharry of America's Voice, an...Continue reading

Suicide attacks changed everything

Jue, 11/09/2014 - 22:47

PEOPLE seem to be having trouble figuring out how to commemorate September 11th this year. I spent the morning thinking about George Packer's piece on the new documentary "Last Days in Vietnam", in which he reflects on how different America's response to the near-disintegration of its former client state in Iraq has been from the way it handled the collapse of its client state in South Vietnam. In April 1975 Congress rejected the appeals of president Gerald Ford for a package of last-ditch military aid to the Saigon regime in the face of the advancing North Vietnamese Army. In Iraq, in contrast, Barack Obama just committed to an indefinite military campaign to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Congress seems likely to approve that intervention if it comes up for a vote. Yet, as Mr Packer writes, in Vietnam America frantically evacuated tens of thousands of locals who had helped during the war as the Communists advanced. In Iraq, however, America has left many collaborating locals to suffer violent...Continue reading

Still clouded by dust

Jue, 11/09/2014 - 19:01

NOT all of the victims of the September 11th attacks died on the day the towers fell. The collapse of the World Trade Centre buildings spewed a deadly mix of glass fibres, pulverised cement, asbestos, lead and a host of carcinogens from oil and petrol into the air. Around 400,000 people who worked and lived in Lower Manhattan were exposed, including many students attending nearby Stuvesant High School. Some 30,000 first responders and volunteers who raced to the area are now sick. Their ailments include respiratory disease, pulmonary illnesses and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease.

In the days after the attacks, Congress created a compensation fund for the families of those lost and for the injured. But it took years for symptoms of illnesses caused by the cloud of toxins to appear, long after the compensation fund closed in 2004. Many are sick or disabled, and can no longer work. Some are already dead.

James Zadroga was a police officer who worked for more than 450 hours in the rubble. Within weeks he had developed a cough, and was eventually unable to live without an oxygen tank. In January 2006 he became the first person to die from exposure to the Ground Zero dust, when he succumbed to respiratory disease. Since then, more than 130 firefighters and police officers have died from 9/11-related illnesses. Last week the fire department added 13 new names to its...Continue reading

Back to Iraq

Jue, 11/09/2014 - 09:16

BARACK OBAMA’s prime-time address of September 10th, bracing America for an open-ended campaign against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, marked a stunning turnaround for a cautious president, a once-again-hawkish Republican Party and—most strikingly—for a public galvanised by the beheading of two American journalists, after ignoring soaring death tolls in the Arab world (see chart). Mr Obama’s presidency is on the line, as critics ask whether he knows how to keep Americans safe.

When he proudly declared in 2011 that America's war in Iraq would soon be over, Mr Obama can hardly have imagined that, three years later, public opinion would oblige him to deliver an address from the White House, assuring the country that almost 500 American troops will head to Iraq to join hundreds already there, where they will support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with advice, training, intelligence and equipment. New Iraqi national guard units in Sunni towns will also receive support, he said. Allies on the ground would be backed by “systematic” air strikes against IS in Syria as well as Iraq. American combat troops would not fight on foreign soil,...Continue reading

Tall order

Jue, 11/09/2014 - 04:39

LAYING out a military strategy toward the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in his speech to the nation on Wednesday night, Barack Obama spun out a string of nuanced messages. He sought to portray the danger of the ruthless insurgent army as a potential, but not an imminent, threat to the United States. He warned jihadists “if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven” in either Iraq or Syria. Yet he pledged no boots on the ground in either country, and just 475 more American troops to supply, train and assist the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Moreover, he promised that America would not be going it alone but proceeding with a “broad coalition” of other nations.

The mission to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS carries significant risks and will keep American military pilots busy. While warning that “it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL [an alternate abbreviation of the group's name],” Mr Obama wisely provided no whiff of a timetable. Nonetheless, he did not explain how air power alone could realistically achieve the mission, even after years of strikes. Zack Beauchamp explains the depth of the challenge at Vox. While...Continue reading

Too far, too fast?

Dom, 07/09/2014 - 23:04

THE cascade of rulings invalidating state-level same-sex marriage prohibitions now includes decisions from three federal appellate courts. Last Thursday the seventh circuit court of appeals thwarted gay marriage bans in Wisconsin and Indiana, joining the fourth and tenth circuit courts that have issued recent rulings nullifying one man-one woman marriage laws in Virginia, Utah and Oklahoma. The fifth and sixth circuits are up next. The Supreme Court is widely expected to review decisions from one or more of these jurisdictions in the coming year.

As speculation turns to how the justices will handle the tidal wave of judicial support for same-sex marriage that their United States v Windsor decision gutting the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) set off a year ago, it might be natural to assume that we’re gearing up for another 4-4 right-left split, with Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle. How Justice Kennedy would rule is indeed an open and highly interesting question, but I think it is premature to assume that the court’s four liberals—Stephen...Continue reading

Standard operating procedure exposed

Sáb, 06/09/2014 - 03:15

DURING his successful campaign for governor of Virginia in 2009, Bob McDonnell ran as an ordinary kid from the suburbs of Washington. The fact that he was in position to win an office previously held by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry made clear, he said, that anything was possible with hard work, grit and determination. Unfortunately, the perseverance and attention to detail that elevated him to the governor’s office served him less well when he deployed them for the purposes of illicit enrichment. On September 4th Mr McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in Richmond federal court on 11 corruption charges, stemming from $177,000 in gifts, trips and sweetheart loans. He plans to appeal, but assuming the verdict stands faces up to 20 years in jail.

Mr McDonnell, once seen as a rising Republican star, was undone by his relationship with Jonnie Williams Sr, a businessman whose company sold a dietary supplement called Anatabloc. It is derived from tobacco, historically a leading cash crop in the state, and Mr Williams wanted Virginia to approve research of the product in government-run teaching hospitals and to make it available to government...Continue reading

Pandering and other sins

Jue, 04/09/2014 - 00:39

AMERICA'S two-party system is a creaking monstrosity that has helped bring its politics to a grinding halt. The country urgently needs a nationally competitive third party (if not a fourth and a fifth) to crack up its frozen ideological landscape, and to shift incentives away from the politics of total resistance and towards deal-making and compromise. That said, it is not entirely clear just how big a role the two-party system plays in creating America's policy paralysis. Many factors have combined to hobble American governance. How important is the two-party system, specifically?

Salomon Orellana, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, thinks it plays a big role. In a post at the Monkey Cage, Mr Orellana argues that in two-party systems, politicians tend to "pander", promising voters easy material gains without corresponding costs. He applies this theory to the issue of climate change.

 

In two-party systems, when one party panders on material comfort (e.g., “gasoline prices have risen under the current government”) or even survival (e.g., “carbon taxes will cost jobs”) versus doing something about climate change, the other party feels great pressure to follow suit. This dynamic also tends to reduce...Continue reading

Why the Democrats will probably lose

Lun, 01/09/2014 - 20:08

NOT all the major polling models give Republicans a clear edge to capture the Senate this autumn, but most do. The New York Times’ “The Upshot” puts the chances at 65%, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight most recently called it “in the neighborhood of 60-40” and the Washington Post’s “Election Lab” gives the GOP a 51% shot. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium is the outlier, giving the Democrats a 70% chance of holding the majority. The obvious reasons for the GOP’s advantage are technical, as we wrote earlier this month. More vulnerable Democrats are up for re-election this year than vulnerable Republicans. The GOP needs to take away six seats from the Democrats, and is already nearly assured of winning three; of the six or seven competitive races (depending on who’s counting), Republicans must win just three to gain a majority. Add in Barack Obama’s...Continue reading

Slap-shots and tolerance

Dom, 31/08/2014 - 14:23

I GREW up in the 1980s rooting for the Washington Capitals, a hockey team that at the time was best described as hopeless. Over the past decade I have enjoyed the exploits of a much better version of that team, graced with a captain, forward* Alex Ovechkin (pictured), who last year led the NHL in goals for the second year in a row. Mr Ovechkin is a Russian who got his start playing for Dynamo Moscow, and yesterday, as Zack Beauchamp of Vox noticed, he put up an Instagram picture that seems to advance a pro-Russian position on the conflict in Ukraine. In the picture, Mr Ovechkin holds up a sign bearing the hashtag #savechildrenfromfascism. Beside it, he writes (in Russian): "Our grandfathers and grandmothers saw all the horrors of fascism! We will not allow it in our time!" Outside Russia, the question of which side in the conflict has more fascist characteristics is considered...Continue reading

Fight the powers that be

Vie, 29/08/2014 - 00:40

WHAT do America's right-wing tea-partiers and left-wing progressives have in common? Enough, says the journalist Clive Crook, that they can both usefully be called liberals—in the global sense of the word. In a review of our former colleague Edmund Fawcett's book "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea", Mr Crook approves of the work's identification of four basic characteristics of liberalism: "acceptance of conflict, resistance to power, belief in progress and civic respect." America's right and left both broadly adhere to these liberal principles, and that separates their ideologies from authoritarian, totalitarian or theocratic ones.

Mr Crook is right that there are certain core values accepted on both the right and left sides of American politics. I'm particularly interested in the second one on this list, "resistance to power". One of the reasons why Americans have periodically been able to attain bipartisan agreement on foreign policy is that both parties can be rallied to oppose dictatorial or oppressive regimes. Broad bipartisan majorities supported America's...Continue reading

Arbitrary and capricious

Jue, 28/08/2014 - 05:20

OVER 1.3 billion people, nearly the population of China, are now active Facebook users. That means a whopping 18% of the world's population logs on to the site at least once a month. The social network is the largest community ever: a place where ideas, stories, images and perspectives are communicated instantly and widely across national, geographical and ideological boundaries.  

But whenever a public forum for dialogue is established, rules arise, and Facebook is no exception. The website maintains a list of community standards “[t]o balance the needs and interests of a global population.” Facebook prohibits threats of violence to oneself or others, bullying and harassment, hate speech, graphic content and nudity. You might argue with these categories—an interesting debate has recently sprung up over how social media sites should handle beheadings and other images of extreme violence—but because it is a private organisation, not a government, Facebook has no obligation to publish anything it does not want to broadcast. The First...Continue reading

The ice-cream man cometh

Mié, 27/08/2014 - 09:45

LAST night Doug Ducey, Arizona’s treasurer and a former head of Cold Stone Creamery, a chain of ice-cream parlours, emerged victorious in a six-way Republican primary with 37% of the vote to become the party's candidate for November's gubernatorial race. This put him more than 15 points ahead of the second-place finisher, Scott Smith, and more than 20 points in front of Christine Jones, a former executive at GoDaddy, a web-hosting firm based in Scottsdale.

Immigration was the most prominent issue of the race, and provided momentum to Mr Ducey’s once flagging campaign after national concern erupted over the number of children entering America illegally in June. He wants more fences, satellites and guards to keep immigrants from crossing the border, and more police and prosecutors to crack down on those who make it over. He decried the federal government’s “botched” handling of border security but kept quiet on thornier questions of immigration reform and paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to America as kids. While Mr Smith eventually won the backing of Arizona’s outgoing governor, Jan Brewer (pictured), Mr...Continue reading

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