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Zeal and hypocrisy

Mié, 11/06/2014 - 19:58

ALABAMA'S Women’s Health and Safety Act sounds innocuous enough. The new law, which takes effect July 1st, requires doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. This will protect women and make abortions safer, claims the state attorney general's office. Actually, this is bunk. In fact the law will simply force several abortion clinics to close, as it is practically impossible for the doctors on staff to gain the relevant privileges, owing to either residency requirements (most doctors travel from out of state and work one or two days a week) or hospital prejudice (few care to be associated with abortion providers). Fewer clinics—along with other barriers to access—will only serve to make the procedure less safe, by creating longer wait times and potentially forcing women to delay abortions until later in their pregnancies.

Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider, filed a lawsuit against the state last year contending the law would force clinics in the state’s three biggest cities to close. Critics of the law say it conflicts with the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v....Continue reading

A shocking defeat

Mié, 11/06/2014 - 07:18

DURING his rapid ascent in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader (ie, the number two Republican in the House, after the Speaker), seemed more interested in getting ahead than getting things done. This view, nursed especially by Tea Partiers and libertarians furious with Washington, finally caught up with Mr Cantor in a primary election on Tuesday, when he lost the nomination to the Virginia seat he first won in 2000.

With this shocking defeat, Mr Cantor has become the biggest casualty this year of what has been dubbed a civil war within the Republican party, between business-friendly centrists and right-wing insurrectionists. He is also the first House majority leader to be defeated for nomination since the office was created 115 years ago.

Mr Cantor had openly angled to become the next Speaker of the House, and was not above undercutting John Boehner, who fills the job now. Yet he was defeated by David Brat, a slightly goofy Tea Party-backed economics professor. Mr Brat's victory was convincing, albeit on a typically low primary turnout. Mr Cantor's supporters may not have realised that he...Continue reading

End of the age of dinosaurs

Mié, 11/06/2014 - 00:02

DESPITE the earthquakes of reform that have rattled public education in recent years, there are parts of the system that still resemble “The Lost World”, where prehistoric creatures still roam. A long-standing demand of education reformers has been that it should be easier for schools to fire bad teachers. The terms in many teacher contracts forbid this. Most schools when making cuts are forced to fire the newest teachers rather than the worst ones—a policy is better known as "last in, first out". The result is that a lot of bad (and often expensive) teachers linger in the system. 

Having lousy teachers is terrible for children and their future prospects. Pupils assigned to better teachers are more likely to go to college and earn decent salaries, and are less likely to be teenage mothers, according to work published in 2011. If teachers in grades 4 to 8 are ranked according to ability, and the bottom 5% are replaced with teachers of average quality, a...Continue reading

Zombieland

Mar, 10/06/2014 - 08:26

CONSERVATIVES complain that "Obamacore" is just another federal-government takeover, this time of public education. Leftists wring their hands over yet more standardised testing and greater scrutiny of teachers. The Common Core educational standards have become so politically fraught that it is easy to forget why so many states decided to adopt them in the first place. Six years ago school academics were a mess, the Washington Post reminds us. Different states had different standards, and high-school diplomas had lost all meaning; as many as 40% of college freshmen needed remedial classes, and American students were falling behind their foreign competitors. America's fragmented education system also "stifled innovation", according to Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, a school-standards evangelist, as textbook publishers and software developers could cater to many small markets...Continue reading

Who's your daddy

Vie, 06/06/2014 - 21:57

YOU'LL SEE him in art classes with his toddler. Or in the playgrounds on weekday mornings. He cuts a lonely and gently rumpled figure among clots of easily gossiping mothers in their Pilates gear. The stay-at-home dad is a rapidly growing phenomenon among America's parents. The number of fathers who do not go to work has risen markedly in recent years and stood at 2m in 2012, up from 1.1m in 1989, according to new data from a Pew survey.

Part of the story is the recession. Peak Dad was actually reached in 2012 when 2.2m were at home, which was 16% of primary carers. Since then many have returned to paid work. Nonetheless, the long-term trends show stay-at-home dads are increasing. Only 21% say their main reason to be at home is to care for...Continue reading

Binge blues

Vie, 06/06/2014 - 17:48

IS COLORADO'S bold experiment with marijuana legalisation going wrong? It certainly went a little hazy for Maureen Dowd, a columnist whose opinions have enlivened the pages of the New York Times for nearly 20 years now. Back in January Ms Dowd found herself holed up in her room at the Denver Four Seasons, with only a marijuana-infused "caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar" for company. Visiting Colorado to report on its "social revolution", Ms Dowd, laudably committed to the cause of immersive journalism, had decided to get high. She then proceeded to make what some readers will recognise as a classic schoolboy error. 

"I nibbled off the end," she writes, "and then, when nothing happened, nibbled some more... What could go wrong with a bite or two?" The question, of course, answers itself, and sure enough Ms Dowd soon finds herself "curled up in a hallucinatory state" for hours. Like an extra from a Cheech and Chong movie, she becomes...Continue reading

Food fight

Jue, 05/06/2014 - 22:08

ON THE face of things, school meals are one of a few success stories in modern American policymaking. Five years ago it was clear that children, like grownups, needed to eat less sugar, salt and fat in their diets. Given that many children consume half of their daily calories at school, these meals seemed a good place to start.

So in 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which set higher nutritional standards for meals, based on recommendations from scientists. With the help of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents "school nutrition professionals", the act demanded healthier meals in exchange for an increase in federal spending on school lunches. Now, however, the SNA has changed its tune. It says the rules are expensive and difficult to implement, and it wants temporary waivers to the rules for any school-meals programme that has been losing money for six months. The SNA adds that school canteens...Continue reading

Claws in the dirt

Mié, 04/06/2014 - 19:55

WHAT would life in America be like if the Clean Air Act of 1970 had never been passed? In terms of breathing, an activity that's easy to overlook until it becomes difficult, it would probably resemble life in many of today's developing countries, where factories and cars are multiplying unhindered by environmental regulations. In Hanoi, where I lived in the mid- to late 2000s, the importance of breathing really started to make itself felt five or six years ago, and at that point a number of my friends decided to leave. By the time my wife and I left too, at the end of 2010, our then 8-year-old daughter had a persistent thick yellow slime in her throat that she would periodically cough up (it went away after about a year living in the clean air of the Netherlands). Things are even worse in large Chinese cities, where coal fumes, auto exhaust, smog and particulate matter are so coruscating that most Americans would consider raising a family there an act of child abuse. Rich people send their children to private schools with pressurised domes over the sports fields. Every well-off family owns an air purifier. Poor people cannot...Continue reading

Can the GOP woo black voters?

Mié, 04/06/2014 - 15:30

QUICK: what is a bigger waste of time, playing the New York Lottery or trying to persuade African Americans to vote for Republicans? Looking at the odds, you have a 1 in 14.71 chance of winning a prize in the Mega Millions drawing (no, not the jackpot, silly). Compare this to data from the 2012 presidential election, when only 5% of black voters (1 in 20) pulled the lever for Mitt Romney, and you have your answer. The lottery is the decidedly better bet.

Republicans are undeterred. Reince Preibus, chair of the Republican National Committee, is pouring time and resources into rescuing his party from its awful showing among racial minorities in recent elections. Here is a report from McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed:

After...Continue reading

Ogle like Vogel

Mar, 03/06/2014 - 23:53

KEN VOGEL, a reporter for Politico whose working method involves sneaking into political fundraisers and seeing how long he can mooch around before being thrown out, has a book out today. Much has been written already about the effects of Citizens United, a decision made by the Supreme Court in 2010 that unleashed a lot of electoral spending by outside groups (ie, entities not directly connected to candidates). “Big Money” is a highly entertaining account of the adventures of billionaires in politics. In Mr Vogel's hands, this obscure world seems both vivid and a little mundane, full of powerpoint presentations, hotel conference rooms and business-casual shindigs where politicians flirt with rich donors. Indeed, it would all seem rather tedious if there were not so much money involved.

Worries about the influence of rich people on democracy are as old as elections. Athenian olive oil moguls surely tried to fix the occasional ostracism. And the last few presidential cycles have provided...Continue reading

Hardly a Bond villain

Mar, 03/06/2014 - 19:11

IF YOU are going to be impregnated by your best friend’s husband, better if that friend isn’t a microbiologist. That is the lesson Myrlinda Haynes of Norristown, Pennsylvania learned when a vengeful Carol Anne Bond tried to injure her at least two dozen times by spreading caustic chemicals on her car door, doorknob and mailbox. In all but one of the incidents, Ms Haynes avoided harm: the bright-orange potassium dichromate and the arsenic compound were easy to spot. Her only physical suffering was a minor chemical burn on her thumb, which she treated by rinsing her hand in water.

No one doubts that Ms Bond behaved badly. But she is not the sort of threat American lawmakers had in mind when they passed the the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998, under which Ms Bond was charged with two counts of possessing and using a chemical weapon. In Bond v United States, the Supreme Court considered whether this law “deal[ing] with crimes of deadly seriousness” extended to “a purely local crime: an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover.”

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Ms...Continue reading

Obama's green gamble

Mar, 03/06/2014 - 02:36

BARACK OBAMA'S determination to act on climate change has been clear to anyone watching the president's major speeches in recent years. In his state-of-the-union address last year, for example, Mr Obama urged Congress to pass a "market-based solution to climate change", warning that if it failed to do so he would act alone. A couple of years earlier a cap-and-trade bill had died in the Senate; by 2013 it was already clear that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had no interest in passing new laws. Thus did Mr Obama turn to his executive toolbox.

Lurking inside was something rather useful: the Clean Air Act, signed by Richard Nixon back in 1970. Today Gina McCarthy, head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, announced that by 2030 America's power stations must reduce their...Continue reading

The best campaign spot this year

Lun, 02/06/2014 - 11:47

ON JUNE 3rd Iowa holds its Senate primary elections. If a previously unknown state senator called Joni Ernst wins the Republican nomination, it will be because her campaign put out the best political ad of the year so far, propelling her to instant fame. 

"Squeal" is like a haiku (albeit about castrating hogs rather than watching the cherry blossoms fall). It crams a tonne of emotion into very few words. And it strokes Iowa voters on nearly all their sweet spots in a mere 30 seconds.

In this video, The Economist explains how a great ad works:

Continue reading

Lies, damned lies and statistics

Dom, 01/06/2014 - 22:04

“DO YOU know what the ‘Hunger Games’ movies are about?” Rush Limbaugh asked his listeners earlier this week. “It’s teenagers killing other teenagers!” Elliot Rodger, the disturbed 22-year-old who went on a shooting rampage last week in California, using three semiautomatic handguns  guns he bought legally, was surely no stranger to the thrilling books and Hollywood franchise. His father, Peter Rodger, worked on the films. Indeed, while “everybody on the left” is using the murders to “advance their political agenda, in this case to get rid of the Second Amendment”, who is minding Hollywood’s little shop of horrors? “Why not blame Hollywood movies here?” Mr Limbaugh sneered.

The debate over the roots of America’s gun violence is sadly predictable. A big, tragic event ensures everyone takes their places and rattles off memorised lines. On one side are the folks who complain (rather convincingly, mind) that...Continue reading

No quick fix

Sáb, 31/05/2014 - 07:24

ERIC SHINSEKI, a brave man who did a poor job of running a government department that was already dysfunctional, has resigned. As others have noted, replacing the boss of the Department for Veterans Affairs (VA) is unlikely to fix the place. Nor will it do much to deflect blame from the president. Republican strategists around the country are surely eager to juxtapose clips of Barack Obama campaigning on promises to fix the VA with footage of patients committing suicide over delays in treatment and poor care (all collected on a useful map by the American Legion). This would be damaging for any president. For one whose biggest domestic achievement is health-care reform, it is damning.

Voters can expect to hear a lot about the VA scandal for the next two years. Together with Benghazi and Obamacare it will form an incantation chanted by GOP candidates, a short-hand for Obama's incompetence and federal mismanagement. Some may characterise it as...Continue reading

No, this is not what Obamacare will look like

Vie, 30/05/2014 - 00:36

AMERICA'S biggest experiment in government-run medicine has had a bad week. No, not the Affordable Care Act (ie, Obamacare), but the department of Veterans Affairs (VA). On May 28th the VA’s acting inspector-general, Richard Griffin, issued a damning report on allegations against a VA health centre in Phoenix. New patients waited an average of 115 days for their first appointment, and 1,700 veterans were not even on the centre’s official waiting list, leaving them “at risk of being forgotten”. Keeping veterans off the list was strategic, as it “significantly understated the time new patents waited for their primary care appointment... which is one of the factors considered for awards and salary increases” for the centre’s staff.

The scandal has prompted three types of responses: two of them sensible, one much less so. The first is justifiable outrage at the VA. Eric Shinseki, the head of the VA, said the actions described in the report were “reprehensible” in a defensive Continue reading

The waiting game

Jue, 29/05/2014 - 15:19

ON Tuesday, the Supreme Court told Florida it must reconsider whether Freddie Lee Hall, a man with an IQ in the 70s who killed a pregnant newlywed in 1978, is intellectually able enough to be executed. The justices ruled 5-4 that Florida’s rigid cutoff score of 70 on intelligence tests—with no accounting for measurement error or other evidence of impaired functioning—is incompatible with the Court’s ban on executing convicts with mental retardation. "[T]o impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person,” Justice Anthony Kennedy (pictured) wrote in the majority opinion, “violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being."

The result in Hall v Florida was no surprise. Reporting on the oral argument in March, we wrote that “[t]he four liberal justices, along with the swing voter, Anthony Kennedy, were inclined to” reject Florida’s hard-line...Continue reading

Cutting through the nonsense

Mar, 27/05/2014 - 13:47

ONE of the most offensive critiques of the argument for paying reparations to African-Americans is the notion that black people are owed nothing because they are better off in America than they would be in Africa. The claim pops up all the time, and recently reared its head in our comments section in response to my colleague's post on Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent article on reparations in the Atlantic. It's an absurd response, but for moderately interesting reasons. People often employ counterfactuals when making judgments about history: would the world have been better off if the Soviet Union had remained intact? If the British Empire had not ruled India? If the atom bomb had not been dropped on Hiroshima? And so forth. Indeed, ever since David Hume, philosophers have treated counterfactuals as a key element of the very concept of causality: "A causes C"...Continue reading

Curious ambitions

Dom, 25/05/2014 - 18:15

CAN you be a national politician in America if you have no interest in running for the presidency? This question struck Lexington as he watched Senator Elizabeth Warren deliver a tub-thumping speech on May 22nd to a conference of trade-union organisers, leftish activists and allies in Washington, DC.

The conference was entitled “The New Populism” and Mrs Warren delivered. A former Harvard professor, expert in bankruptcy law and long-time campaigner for tougher regulation of banks, she has developed a nationwide following among the Democratic Party’s grassroots since her election to the Senate in 2012 to represent Massachusetts. YouTube videos of her roughing up bankers and other bigwigs at Senate hearings have gone viral. She recently published a book of memoirs, “A Fighting Chance”, linking her upbringing by struggling middle-class parents...Continue reading

Why the sheriff should follow the law

Vie, 23/05/2014 - 23:45

VIETNAM is apparently seriously considering taking its maritime territorial dispute with China to an international court, which should please the United States. American diplomats scolded China earlier this month for starting the row by deploying an oil rig in disputed waters, leading to clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese ships; the diplomats said China's behaviour "undermines peace and stability in the region". Washington doesn't take a position on the territorial dispute itself, but wants it resolved according to international law, and it considers China's aggressive claims over nearly the entire South China Sea to be baseless. Just as in the conflict in Ukraine, where Barack Obama calls Russian intervention a threat "to our very international order", and in Syria, where America yesterday voted for Continue reading

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