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Not so smart

Mar, 06/05/2014 - 06:45

SINCE January 1st 3,551 people have been killed by gun violence in America, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The victims include Endia Martin, a 14-year-old girl, who was shot in the back in Chicago last week after an argument with a former friend over a boy. The weapon that was used to kill Martin, a .38 special revolver, began as a legal gun, reports the Chicago Tribune, but somehow it made its way to into this adolescent tussle, turning a flare up between young girls into a deadly tragedy.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands? Sure, second-amendment hawks aren’t terribly keen on comprehensive background checks for buyers, but what if there was a way to build such safety measures into the guns...Continue reading

Revenge of the tiger mother

Lun, 05/05/2014 - 20:59

WHEN measured in terms of academic achievement, Asian Americans are a successful bunch. Forty-nine percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. This compares favourably against white Americans (30%), African-Americans (19%) and Latinos (13%). These racial disparities can be seen in school as well, and they increase when postgraduate degrees are thrown into the mix.

Amy Chua, a self-declared "tiger mother" who became famous for promoting the benefits of harsh parenting, would put this down to culture. She has argued that Chinese-American children statistically out-perform their peers because they are pushed harder at home. This is an argument she reiterated in a recent book, “The Triple Package”, written with her husband Jed Rubenfeld, a fellow law professor at Yale, in which she ascribes the success of different cultures in America...Continue reading

What you didn't miss

Sáb, 03/05/2014 - 20:50

SINCE arriving in Washington to write about politics, I have spent much more time trying to explain to people why things are not happening than why they are. This week has been no different. A plethora of things did not happen: there was no movement on immigration reform, nothing was done to improve the country's long-term fiscal outlook or to mend its crumbling roads and underperforming schools. Among these non-happenings was the Senate vote on raising the federal minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25 an hour. Democrats were unable to muster the votes to bring the question to the chamber, a disappointment softened by the knowledge that they can use Republican opposition on the campaign trail.

Raising the minimum wage is broadly popular: a Pew poll conducted last month found over 70% in favour of a rise to $10.10, as Democrats propose; a more recent Continue reading

Cruel, unusual and reprehensible

Jue, 01/05/2014 - 00:26

THE execution yesterday of Clayton Lockett (pictured), a man sentenced to death for a murder he committed in 1999, did not go as planned. What we know is this: Oklahoma officials injected Mr Lockett with an untested cocktail of drugs. He was declared unconscious ten minutes later, but three minutes after that he was seen struggling on the gurney. He lifted his head off the gurney, grunting and mumbling, calling out "Oh, man." He appeared to be in pain. Then the blinds to the execution chamber were lowered. They stopped the execution around 22 minutes after it began. Around 25 minutes later, he was pronounced dead, of a heart attack. The director of Oklahoma's corrections department said, "His vein exploded."

As we write in this week's paper, America is unusual among rich countries in that it still executes...Continue reading

Learning moment

Mié, 30/04/2014 - 17:28

IN THE bitter debate about charter schools, one of the myths perpetuated by critics is that charters are generously funded by rich donors. Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, mused in a recent op-ed that charter schools “claim to operate with more efficiency, but their budgets are augmented by an infusion of capital from billionaire philanthropists and hedge fund managers who know a lot about PR and very little about education.” Mr Nelson contends that charters are not more efficient with money, as charter proponents say, but just have more of it. 

This is wrong, and badly so. Research has been mounting that shows that charter schools have in fact less money than their public rivals. This financial imbalance is confirmed by a new report from the University of Arkansas, published in the Journal of School Choice. The study looks at the total available revenue for traditional and...Continue reading

There’s no app for that

Mié, 30/04/2014 - 16:01

SUPREME Court oral arguments, some scholars say, are all show. The justices don their robes, stroke their chins and lob their questions at silver-tongued lawyers for an hour, and then vote just the way they would have voted anyway. According to Jeffrey Segal and Harold Spaeth, political scientists who study the Court, judicial “attitudes”, not the subtleties of legal principles, matter most in the justices’ decisions. Oral argument does not “regularly, or even infrequently, [determine] who wins and who loses.”

If the justices entered the courtroom on April 28th sure of their votes in this year’s biggest and trickiest fourth-amendment cases, they hid their certainty brilliantly. After...Continue reading

Secret cocktails, hideous deaths

Mar, 29/04/2014 - 21:30

HOW do states kill people now that no one wants to sell them the drugs for lethal injections? Maya Foa, an activist, and Deborah Denno, a lawyer, explain

Continue reading

Everything old is new again

Mar, 29/04/2014 - 18:26

ONE of the key characters in Victor Pelevin's marvellous 2008 short story, "The Hall of the Singing Karyatids”, is described as a “political technologist”. The story concerns a bizarre scheme he has hatched to lure back to Russia an oligarch who owes his billions to the commercial exploitation of "military neuro-linguistic programming" techniques. Like much of Mr Pelevin's work, the story takes for granted that the reality we perceive is really a flimsy ideological hallucination cobbled together by various powerful actors interested in guiding our actions for reasons of their own. His work is more sophisticated than that of many latter-day Orwell imitators in that in his world different actors are simultaneously cobbling together incompatible hallucinations, and most of them are doing a hilariously inept job of it.

I thought of Mr Pelevin's "military neuro-linguistic programming" while reading Keith Darden's New York Times op-ed yesterday, "The War on Truth in Ukraine." Like many independent...Continue reading

A Grimm day for Republicans

Mar, 29/04/2014 - 00:13

MICHAEL GRIMM, a Republican congressman who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, turned himself in to federal authorities this morning. A former marine and one-time FBI agent, he was soon released on a $400,000 bond. A few hours later federal prosecutors unsealed a 20-count indictment against him. The charges relate to his health-food restaurant and include mail fraud, wire fraud, filing false taxes, hiring undocumented employees, conspiracy to defraud the United States, perjury and obstruction. He allegedly under-reported more than $1m of his restaurant’s sales and wages.

The indictment comes after a two-year investigation, sparked by allegations of dodgy political fund-raising. If convicted, he faces a long time behind bars. On the highest charges, he could be put away for 20 years.

“As a former FBI agent, Representative Grimm should understand the motto: fidelity, bravery and integrity,” said George Venizelos, the assistant director of the FBI, at a press conference this morning. “Yet he...Continue reading

Conservative estimate

Vie, 25/04/2014 - 19:55

WHAT happens to conservatism as a country's racial balance changes? Jonathan Chait, reviewing the "emerging Democratic majority" thesis in New York magazine, argued that as America becomes a more racially diverse country, American conservatism is ultimately "doomed".

I believe this because the virulent opposition to the welfare state we see here is almost completely unique among major conservative parties across the world. In no other advanced country do leading figures of governing parties propose the denial of medical care to their citizens or take their ideological inspiration from crackpots like Ayn Rand. America’s unique brand of ideological anti-statism is historically inseparable (as I recently argued) from the legacy of slavery. Whatever form America’s polyglot majority ultimately takes, it is hard to see the basis for its attraction to an ideology sociologically rooted in white...Continue reading

No hero

Vie, 25/04/2014 - 07:02

THERE should be plenty of conservative commentators feeling rather sheepish today after reading what Cliven Bundy, a man they had elevated to an avatar of righteous patriotism, had to say about welfare and race:

"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids—and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch—they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and...Continue reading

The last casualty of the cold war

Mié, 23/04/2014 - 20:24

MATTHEW YGLESIAS had an excellent piece at Vox on Monday pointing out a fundamental shift that has taken place over the past few years in our understanding of the economics of inequality. He begins by considering an "everything-you-need-to-know-about-economics" graduation speech by Thomas Sargent, a Nobel prize-winning economist, which included the line, "there are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency". But  Mr Yglesias notes that this statement is no longer a truism. We used to believe that trying to make an economy more egalitarian, while perhaps ethically pleasing, would lead to slower growth. But in the aftermath of Thomas Piketty's new book "Capital in the 21st Century", recent papers by economists at the IMF and a flood of research into the economic effects of inequality, it seems this assumption is either unsubstantiated or just plain...Continue reading

Minority retort

Mié, 23/04/2014 - 18:21

YESTERDAY, as expected, the Supreme Court upheld, by a 6-2 vote, a 2006 amendment to the Michigan state constitution banning race-sensitive admissions policies in public universities. With Justice Elena Kagan recused (she had worked on the case as United States solicitor general), eight justices took four different views on whether the federal constitution’s 14th-amendment guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws” permits Michigan voters to end race-based affirmative action programmes in their state. This decision will come as good news for opponents of affirmative action in seven other states that have enacted similar bans.

Let me briefly characterise those four positions in Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, before explaining why—despite the moral pull of...Continue reading

A juicy secret

Mar, 22/04/2014 - 23:29

WHAT happens when you get a traffic ticket? Probably much gnashing of teeth, perhaps a tongue-lashing from the spouse and a groaning eye-roll as you get your checkbook and slip a hundred of your hard-earned dollars into that orange envelope of shame. But what if you can't pay that ticket? Well, in some states, including Georgia, you get passed over to one of dozens of private-probation companies. Since 2001 private companies have overseen misdemeanant probation, which includes not just minor crimes such as shoplifting, petty theft and public drunkenness, but also speeding tickets and other traffic violations.

Penalties for such crimes rarely exceed a few hundred dollars, but of course not everyone has a few hundred dollars. That's where private-probation companies come in. I've written about these fees before, but here's a quick refresher: if you get hit with a $200 ticket you can't pay, then a private-probation company will let you pay it off in instalments, for a monthly fee. Then there may be additional fees for electronic...Continue reading

Enlightened intolerance

Mié, 16/04/2014 - 18:08

EARLIER this month Brandeis University rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women’s rights activist, saying its officials had not been fully aware of some her more scathing remarks on Islam. Conservatives have accused Brandeis of muzzling Ms Hirsi Ali and bowing to Muslim pressure groups. Liberals have wondered how the university could possibly have overlooked Ms Hirsi Ali’s condemnations, not just of radical Islam, but of Islam as such. At the risk of coming off as a postmodern multi-culti squish, it seems to me that this discussion suffers from a lack of cultural context—but not the cultural context you’re thinking of. The way Ms Hirsi Ali talks about Islam strikes American liberals as strangely intolerant, but it has its roots in the prevailing discourse on religious freedom and Islam in the country where Ms Hirsi Ali first began seriously tackling these issues: the Netherlands.

As Ms Hirsi Ali noted in an interview on Fox News, the most-cited of her objectionable statements on Islam came in a 2007 interview...Continue reading

Known unknown

Mié, 16/04/2014 - 17:43

AMERICANS filed their income taxes yesterday, swearing that “under penalties of perjury...to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete.”

Former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that his return may be none of the above. Yesterday his office released (via Twitter) a letter to the Internal Revenue Service in which he says: “I have absolutely no idea whether our tax returns and our tax payments are accurate.” (See below.)

“The tax code is so complex and the forms are so complicated, that I know I cannot have any confidence that I know what is being requested and therefore I cannot and do not know, and I suspect a great many Americans cannot know, whether or not their tax returns are accurate,” Mr Rumsfeld wrote.

Mr Rumsfeld was wrong about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but in this case he is clearly right. The American tax code is a "known unknown", in Rummiespeak. It is 70,000 pages long and might as well be written in Klingon. Few Americans have a clue whether they are complying with it. Some 90% of them (including Mr Rumsfeld) pay a tax accountant or use commercial software to help navigate it (see Economist articles Continue reading

Bill of health

Mié, 16/04/2014 - 16:35

IF DEMOCRATS and Republicans can agree on one thing, it is that Obamacare is hugely important. Democrats say it is a boon, Republicans that it amounts to the apocalypse. But knowing precisely what Obamacare does is rather difficult. The law’s knock-on effects—on the broader economy, on health-care businesses and on health, such as its effect on heart disease or cancer—may never be precisely quantified. It is even difficult to measure Obamacare’s progress towards its main goal, expanding insurance. Gallup, a pollster, is the latest group to make the attempt, presenting new data on April 16th.

The figure, if it could be precisely measured, would show how many people Obamacare has benefited. It would also help Democrats argue that Obamacare is a success or add fuel to Republicans’ fiery proclamations that it is a disaster. Changes in how the Census measures insurance will make it harder to quantify exactly how many people have gained coverage. Not surprisingly, however, both the health department and independent researchers continue to produce their own estimates. Importantly, the survey from Gallup is larger than those of many competitors—the company interviews about 15,000 Americans about their health each month.

Obamacare has been...Continue reading

Cross-Atlantic extremism

Sáb, 12/04/2014 - 18:36

I HAVE long had a sneaking suspicion that Tea Party voters and eurosceptics are more or less the same sorts of people, born on different sides of the Atlantic. Both are traditionalist movements driven by economic anxiety and mistrust of centralised government power. Both have received a huge political boost due to the financial crisis (or, as it played out in Europe, the euro crisis), with eurosceptic parties expected to reap large gains in this May's European Parliament elections. This week, I got a new opportunity to test my thesis. The Dutch-based research group Motivaction International has just come out with a new study of eurosceptic voters across five countries, showing that they share certain traits and values. So I asked Martijn Lampert, Motivaction's research director, whether they could extend this comparison to America's Tea Party voters. It turned out the eurosceptics data was drawn from a 20-country survey that also included 2,185 Americans, and the comparison is pretty interesting. It suggests that I'm partly right, but mostly wrong. Eurosceptics and Tea Party supporters...Continue reading

Now what?

Vie, 11/04/2014 - 18:49

IT WAS not a matter of if, but when. Kathleen Sebelius, Barack Obama’s health secretary, is one of the longest serving members of his cabinet. To compare her tenure to a rollercoaster ride would be generous, unless that rollercoaster jumped the tracks and careened into quicksand. So the announcement that she would resign is big news, but not surprising.

Obamacare’s deadline for having insurance, or paying a penalty, was April 1st. Mrs Sebelius had spent the past six months desperately trying to fix Obamacare’s insurance website and convince Americans that the law could help them, contrary to everything Republicans said. With the April deadline past, now is as good a time as any for her to resign. The main questions are whether it will have much practical or political impact.

The appointment of Sylvia Matthews Burwell, head of Mr...Continue reading

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