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And I guess that I just don't know

Lun, 03/02/2014 - 19:45

"WHY didn't anyone lock her up?" snarls the protagonist of Caleb Crain's novel "Necessary Errors", on hearing that a friend, a talented poet, has committed suicide on her second attempt. Told that involuntary commitment is not always so easy, his anger turns towards public policy: "It should be."

Like many people, I reacted to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman by heroin overdose with a similar sense of unfocused outrage, as though we had just been insulted by the universe. Mr Hoffman was among the best of a generation of actors who over the past two decades have become so good, and have undertaken such challenging and surprising projects, that they seemed to be ripping open unconsidered elements of the human experience with each new film. From "Happiness" to "The Master", his characters were simultaneously self-hating and authoritative, sadistic and compassionate; he was a Generation-X Orson Welles, but with less ego and a...Continue reading

Legalise them, don't naturalise them

Sáb, 01/02/2014 - 00:36

IMMIGRATION reform was dead. Then it roared back to life. Then it fell into a deep sleep. And now it may have been roused again by the tender mercies of John Boehner and other senior House Republicans. 

It is far from clear that the "Standards for immigration reform" that Mr Boehner circulated to his members yesterday will lead to a bill in the House of Representatives (the Senate passed its own bill last summer, but that appears to be dead). Some Republicans will reject anything that offers a clear alternative to the mass deportation...Continue reading

Vicky Cristina Jerusalem

Vie, 31/01/2014 - 23:30

THE joy of a Scarlett Johansson performance lies in watching her vacillate evasively in the face of grave alternatives, sensing all the while, with delicious dread, that she will ultimately make the wrong choice. In "Match Point" we see her alternately provoke and resist Jonathan Rhys Meyers' adulterous craving for her, then helplessly give in. In "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" we watch her scattered quest for self-actualisation draw her step by step into a psychotic menage a trois with Javier Bardem* and Penelope Cruz. Ms Johansson projects a seductive combination of cleverness, empathy and poor appetite control; the characters who get involved with her already suspect they're in for a wild, shamefully enjoyable, probably disastrous ride, at the end of which they will have learned things about themselves they wish they didn't know. Her latest love triangle, pitting Oxfam, an international charity, against SodaStream, an Israeli home soda-machine company, has ended with Ms Johansson in the arms of the Israelis, and...Continue reading

Clowns to the left, jokers to the right

Vie, 31/01/2014 - 00:32

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH is supposed to have told his biographer that the bombastic triumphalism of the last movement of his Fifth Symphony, which Stalin compelled him to write, was actually a parody: "It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.'"

I thought of this (probably apocryphal) story Tuesday as Barack Obama strained to project an image of pragmatic, bipartisan optimism in his state-of-the-union address. Given how frustrating the past year has been for Mr Obama, one might have expected him to mount the podium and vow eternal vengeance on the Republican party, cursing its leadership to the deepest circles of hell. But nobody rewards a president for pouring out his indignation upon the opposition. The American people want sunny confidence from their leaders, and Mr Obama's calm demeanor is one of the reasons his popularity ratings aren't lower than they are, after a year in which Republicans have...Continue reading

The president's words of choice

Jue, 30/01/2014 - 19:04

BARACK OBAMA uses words like “I” and “me” and “my” all the time. This, at least, is what his critics have claimed for years, arguing that it confirms the president's terrible egocentricity. 

But is it true? Is the president some kind of semantic Pharoah who constantly makes references to himself? The answer is not hard to figure out; it's just a matter of counting words. Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent years combing through the president's speeches to find out if this allegation holds water. Again and again he found that, far from being a pronomial egomaniac, Mr Obama is actually a bit I-shy relative to other presidents.

Alas, people see what they want. This helps to explain why, on the eve of last night’s state-of-the-union address, a New Hampshire public-radio show called "Word of Mouth" asked (via Twitter) how many times Mr Obama would say “make no mistake”. When will the president shed this "verbal tick", the show wondered (perhaps leaving some to worry whether such "ticks" carry lyme disease, adding injury to insult).

But does the president...Continue reading

Apocalypse without zombies

Jue, 30/01/2014 - 17:18

IN HIS meditation on New York, Colson Whitehead wrote that a transplant becomes a real New Yorker "the first time you say, 'That used to be Munsey's,' or 'That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge'...when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now." By the same token, perhaps a transplant to the South becomes a real Southerner the first time he sees a national media story about the South and wonders, one eye twitching with hostility and suspicion, "Are they laughing at us?"

Some were, of course. And for Chicagoans or Minnesotans, the notion of two inches of snow shutting down a major city and creating a 20-hour traffic jam seems hard to believe. But Atlanta didn't shut down because cold white stuff starts falling from the sky makes southerners scratch their heads and say, "Golly gee whillikers". And it didn't shut down because we (yeah, I said "we") can't drive in the snow—Continue reading

Cut and paste

Jue, 30/01/2014 - 02:40

IN AN hour of speech two things stood out and neither had anything to do with politics. Barack Obama’s fifth state of the union speech, on January 28th, was largely a cut-and-paste job from his previous reports to Congress, a series of bullet-points that never joined together to form a picture. The president seemed rather bouncy, but his audience only became animated when he got to the subject of hoped-for triumphs at the winter Olympics, at which point chants of “USA!” filled the chamber.

The second moment came right at the end of the speech, when Mr Obama praised Cory Remsburg, an army ranger wounded in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb, which threw him face down into a ditch and planted shrapnel in his brain. Mr Remsburg, who was watching the speech from his seat next to the First Lady, stood to acknowledge the applause and waved, a gesture that made much of what had gone before seem trivial.

Given that he often seems at his most comfortable in front of a large crowd, the president’s reticence requires some explaining. The state of the union has sometimes contained memorable phrases—Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four...Continue reading

A healthy dose of redistribution

Mié, 29/01/2014 - 18:29

THE growing gap between rich and poor is a defining feature of 21st-century America. Barack Obama devoted time to the conundrum of income inequality in his state of the union speech last night, and pushed for raising the minimum wage. Yet he failed to trumpet a main way he is reducing inequality: Obamacare. Mr Obama did praise his health-care law, but its effect on redistributing income went undiscussed.

By one measure, income inequality has widened during Mr Obama's presidency. From 2009 to 2012 income for the top 1% rose by 31.4%, whereas the bottom 99% saw income rise by just 0.4%, according to a report from Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. However, this tally of income excludes taxes and transfers from the government, such as Social Security and health subsidies from Medicare, the health programme for the old, and Medicaid, the health programme for the poor. Americans received a whopping $1.5 trillion in net health-care subsidies in 2012, in the form of government programmes and employers' contributions to health insurance. That $1.5 trillion...Continue reading

Programming note

Mié, 29/01/2014 - 01:33

THIS is supposed to be a "year of action", according to President Barack Obama. Well, it will have to be: come next year, he will be waddling in lame-duck territory, after probably ceding midterm seats to the opposing Republicans in the House and possibly the Senate. Just what kind of action we're talking about will be set out in his State of the Union address this eveninng. Expect some words about education (particularly pre-school), the minimum wage and immigration. The speech will also be a good time for him to offer any flattering news he can find about Obamacare.

With a job-approval rating of 43%, the president comes to the podium tonight a humbled man. An intransigent Congress apparently doomed Mr Obama's top priorities from last year's speech (such as gun control). And his reputation has been hurt by bad press over government snooping and his big health-care initiative. More distressingly, it has seemed as though he is resigned to achieving little for the duration of his presidency, as anyone who has read David Remnick's New Yorker profile can attest.

So tonight's speech is important—perhaps less for...Continue reading

Mr Smith takes on Roe in Washington

Mié, 29/01/2014 - 00:12

REPUBLICANS these days tend to unite around two things: opposing abortion and rejecting Obamacare. It is fitting, then, that among the first items on the House agenda in 2014 is H.R. 7, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. The bill attacks both targets in one tidy package by reinforcing existing laws against federal funding of abortion and undermining a central provision of the Affordable Care Act. H.R. 7, introduced by Chris Smith of New Jersey and co-sponsored by over 170 House members, passed in the House this afternoon, 227 to 188. But it is unlikely to go anywhere, as it faces insurmountable opposition in the Senate and in the White House.

Why is Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, “proud to announce” that “the House will vote once and for all...Continue reading

Trust in numbers

Mar, 28/01/2014 - 17:25

WHAT percentage of Wyoming's population is black? Less than 1%, it turns out. Mississippi has the largest percentage of black residents, at 37%. Which states have the most children? Utah has the highest proportion (31% of Utahns are under 18), thanks to all those big Mormon families. Urban Washington, DC is the least child-friendly (only 17% of DC natives are kids), probably because most families prefer to live in the suburbs, where the schools are better and gardens are cheaper. What about unemployment? The highest rate is in Nevada, at 9% (despite all those casinos). The lowest is in North Dakota (2.6%), where they are enjoying a shale-energy boom.

In anticipation of the president's State of the Union address this eve, the wizards in our graphics department have created an interactive "Stats of the Union", which breaks down fascinating statistics on population, economy and political history state by state. Sit back, relax and be counted.

Rewriting the rules

Lun, 27/01/2014 - 17:49

HOW quickly things change. Just a few years ago California was the "ungovernable" state. These days, for some, it is a model of political productivity. How did this happen? The most obvious answer is that it's easy to get things done when a) all arms of government and the legislature are controlled by one party, and b) cheap money and a tech boom fill the pockets of the rich people that pay the tax bill.

But some would have us dig deeper into the slate of political reforms California has enacted in the last few years (something I didn't have space to explore in this week's Continue reading

Why poor Americans aren't up in arms

Vie, 24/01/2014 - 22:14

I WON'T be modest. I am gratified to discover, via my colleague's interesting post on inequality, that a paper I penned on the subject nearly five years ago made its way into Matt Miller's Washington Post column last week. Mr Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, asks why rising inequality has not provoked America's least-favoured classes to agitate for a remedy. By way of an answer, he agrees with my verdict: that access to better goods among the least well-off has ensured that material inequality is not as profound as income inequality. Basically, most people can afford a decent microwave, even if some have far more bells and whistles than others.

Affordable modern conveniences have taken some of the sting out of a relatively small income. This in turn has curbed the drive to seek causes of and cures for poverty's discomfort. So the gap between rich and poor is sometimes less...Continue reading

A thumb on the scales

Vie, 24/01/2014 - 18:57

THE NINTH circuit court of appeals made news this week when it ruled that discriminating against gays and lesbians during jury selection is unconstitutional. Sexuality, Judge Stephen Reinhardt held, is like race and gender: a personal characteristic lawyers may not consider when nixing jurors. “Permitting a strike based on sexual orientation,” he wrote, “would send the false message that gays and lesbians could not be trusted to reason fairly on issues of great import to the community or the nation.”

This is undoubtedly another positive development for gays and lesbians in America. But it is not quite as path-breaking as many observers are claiming, and it will almost certainly not “change the game on gay rights,” as...Continue reading

No carrots, only sticks

Vie, 24/01/2014 - 00:01

IT'S ALMOST hard to remember at this stage, but just after the Chris Christie bridge scandal broke, pundits quickly denounced it as as the kind of "nakedly partisan score-settling" that could destroy Mr Christie's carefully constructed bipartisan reputation. But as Timothy Noah quickly pointed out, and Jon Chait reiterates today, this got things exactly wrong: the scandal wasn't an example of excessive partisanship, but of a particular kind of bare-knuckles bipartisanship. It is still not entirely clear exactly what Mr Christie's staff was trying to achieve by ordering the lanes closed, and by now we've all moved on to claims by the mayor of Hoboken that Mr Christie threatened to short-change her city on federal relief for damage from Hurricane Sandy if she didn't endorse him. But whatever the details turn out to be, the big picture is that Mr Christie is getting in trouble for the...Continue reading

Ditching the vision thing

Jue, 23/01/2014 - 20:51

RORY STEWART, a former diplomat, soldier, old Afghan hand, coalition administrator in Iraq and now British member of parliament, made a shrewd point about foreign-policy “strategies” in a Guardian interview this month. When experts draw up clever lists of the things far-off places need to thrive—building up the rule of law, say, or better civil administration—they are often talking in tautologies.

"They pretend to be a plan, but they're actually just a description of an absence,” Mr Stewart explained. “Saying 'What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption' is just another way of saying: 'It's really dangerous and corrupt.' None of that actually tells you how it's done."

Mr Stewart’s gloom is very much in the spirit of the moment. Twelve years of attempted nation-building have marked America and allies such as Britain, especially when so much has been spent in blood and treasure to achieve relatively little in Continue reading

Easier, faster and better

Jue, 23/01/2014 - 15:37

AROUND two months after Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term, he established by executive order a ten-person bipartisan commission on election administration. American elections suffer from far too many solvable problems—long lines (more often faced by non-white voters than whites), archaic voting machines, byzantine absentee-voting rules. More worryingly, these problems are getting worse rather than better: many voting machines, for instance, were bought with federal funds in 2002. They are nearing the end of their operational lives with no additional funds coming to replace them. At a time of record foreign-born population, too many poll workers do not know their legal responsibilities to voters not proficient in English. This commission was charged with determining how to improve the running of American...Continue reading

California's comeback

Jue, 23/01/2014 - 01:31

IT WAS vintage Jerry Brown. On January 22nd California’s governor delivered a snappy (just 17 minutes) state-of-the-state address, his 11th, covering climate change, healthcare, the budget, immigration policy and much more. He quoted George Santayana, a dead philosopher, then joked that his pet dog was calling on Californians to “bark if you don't like deficits!”

Interviewed in his office afterwards, Mr Brown allowed himself to veer further off-base, citing Wittgenstein, Matthew Arnold and Buddhism as he explained his governing philosophy. A lifelong Democrat, he is nonetheless wary of politicians’ centralising or utopian impulses. He frets about legislation that expresses “an intolerance of difference”. He agrees that if he were European he would be a Eurosceptic.

The 75-year-old Mr Brown, America’s oldest governor, is not new to this. But during his first stint in charge of California, between 1975 and 1983, “Governor Moonbeam” was distracted by grandiose schemes or his own ambitions, including failed presidential bids. He made bad appointments and ignored legislators.

The second incarnation of Mr...Continue reading