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When liberals and libertarians quibble

Mié, 22/01/2014 - 21:13

LIBERAL-LIBERTARIAN cage fights can be fun, but Sean Wilentz's scattershot attack on Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange in this month's New Republic is pretty thin stuff. Fortunately, though, it has served as the pretext for an intriguing essay by Will Wilkinson (a fellow blogger on DiA). Mr Wilkinson wonders why some liberals have begun defending repressive government practices on the grounds that criticising such practices seems too libertarian. (This is a pretty good description of what was wrong with Mr Wilentz's article.) Even if liberals think the libertarian critique of the state is wrong, why would that lead them to defend state actions that liberalism should condemn? "There’s something about the libertarian-liberal dialectic that leads liberals to confuse the identification of the illegitimate, illiberal practices of the actually-existing state with the libertarian argument against the very possibility of [a] legitimate state," Mr Wilkinson writes.

This is an interesting argument, but I think Mr Wilkinson makes a few moves that...Continue reading

Baby Bao Bao brings in the bucks

Mar, 21/01/2014 - 21:56

AS THE adoring public greets the latest panda to be born in captivity, our correspondent takes a closer look at the cost of cuteness

Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?

Mar, 21/01/2014 - 20:24

MATT MILLER of the Washington Post has a hunch: there hasn’t been a “broader revolt” of the underclass against rising income inequality, he writes, because the poor don’t experience inequality as intolerable. Pointing to a Cato Institute report by Will Wilkinson (a fellow blogger for DiA) from 2009, Mr Miller suggests that “technology’s impact on quality and prices complicates the way people perceive these matters and how we should judge them”:

That’s because the surging income gap often masks a narrowing difference in the actual consumption experiences of the rich and the rest of us. 'At the turn of the 20th century, only the mega-rich had refrigerators or cars,' [Wilkinson] wrote. 'But refrigerators are now all but universal in the United States, even as refrigerator...Continue reading

Healthier, not healthy

Mar, 21/01/2014 - 18:19

THE overweight American, slurping a bucket of soda in his car, is an international stereotype. Thankfully, fewer Americans fit the mould. Obesity rates among adults were flat from 2011 to 2012 in every state but Arkansas. And obesity rates among poor young children declined in 18 states from 2008 to 2011. This month brought new data that may help explain why.

On January 8th 16 top food companies announced that they had fulfilled their promise to sell 1 trillion fewer calories in 2012 than they had in 2007. Indeed the companies surpassed their goal, reducing the number of calories by 6.4 trillion, according to an independent review funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a respected health philanthropy. And on January 16th America’s agriculture department published a Continue reading

A judicially sanctioned extortion racket

Lun, 20/01/2014 - 21:55

A COUPLE of months ago I wrote an article about the use of fees and fines in the criminal-justice system, particularly the fees imposed by private-probation companies. It's easy to see the promise of such companies, particularly for states such as Georgia, which has a lot of counties (156—more than any state other than Texas), many of which have very little tax base to pay for services. Private-probation companies take the hassle and cost of supervising misdemeanants on probation away from local government. Over a two-year period they directed over $200m into county coffers. Supporters will argue that is money that counties may otherwise not have seen: misdemeanant probationers, because their crimes generally are not all that dangerous, receive less supervision than more dangerous offenders, and so often fall through the cracks.

It works like this: say you get a $200 speeding ticket, and you don't have the money to pay it. You are placed on...Continue reading

It turns out disenfranchising people is unconstitutional

Lun, 20/01/2014 - 18:48

DURING the 2012 presidential election I accompanied some canvassers going door to door in Philadelphia. Their aim was to remind people in this pivotal swing state to vote and to vote Democrat. Again and again, the big concern among the folks opening their doors was the state's new and very strict voter-ID law, which required voters to provide a government-issued picture ID. The law would have made it impossible for hundreds of thousands—some say 750,000—of people to vote, most of them likely to vote Democratic. Not even government-issued welfare cards and military identification cards were acceptable. Plenty of older Philadelphians, many of them black, do not even have a birth certificate.  

Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania's Republican governor, signed this cynical law in March 2012, alleging it would prevent voter fraud. “We need to ensure that our elections are fair,” he argued, though the state had witnessed precious few incidents of voter fraud. Democrats complained that the law disenfranchised...Continue reading

Walking a tightrope

Sáb, 18/01/2014 - 15:25

BARACK OBAMA’S speech about reforming America’s intelligence agencies was long, calm and professorial. The president defended the National Security Agency and its staff, who he said worked in obscurity to keep everyone else safe. He also announced substantial changes to the way agencies will gather and store intelligence, which if carried out would be the biggest attempt to codify American spying since the aftermath of Watergate.

Recent revelations about the extent and approach of America's spying—courtesy of Edward Snowden—have put Mr Obama in a tough spot. As a presidential candidate, he criticised the view that security must come at the expense of liberty. But as snooper in chief, he has been in the unenviable position of having to both rationalise the NSA's choices and plot a new direction forward. Perhaps surprisingly, given the president's fumbling of late, Mr Obama managed to walk this fine line with something like grace.

The government, he said, will only spy on friends and allies if there is a compelling justification for doing...Continue reading

Those crazy class-conscious leftists

Vie, 17/01/2014 - 22:38

DAVID BROOKS warns us that the current anxiety about income inequality is self-defeating. "Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out," he writes. "America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness." Mr Brooks is quite right that this sort of thing has a long history. I was immediately reminded of a passage of precisely such class-conscious rabble-rousing that I happened to re-read just the other day:

[T]he most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser...Continue reading

Nuclear core

Jue, 16/01/2014 - 19:22

THIS year anyone with any interest in education will find it hard to ignore the growing, and often nonsensical, row over the common-core standards, due to be fully introduced in the 2014-15 school year. As anxiety has grown over the introduction of these new performance measures, critics from both the left and right have piled in to attack them. These complaints range from fair critiques over some botched implementations, hysterical nonsense and downright lies. And as the year progresses, parts of the right will continue to wage a...Continue reading

Roadblocks on the path to redistribution

Jue, 16/01/2014 - 00:18

A NEW study suggests why policies to strengthen government safety nets may look popular in America, but are rarely election-winning. We speak to one of the authors

Tuned in, turned off

Mié, 15/01/2014 - 20:02

"IT'S always my turn," Maci, a tired young mother, complains to her loafing boyfriend when their baby needs a nappy-change, during an episode of "16 and Pregnant", a reality TV show about teenagers with tots. "16 and Pregnant", which started airing on MTV in 2009, and its spinoff series "Teen Mom", are big hits—and, if new research is to be believed, they are also an effective form of birth control.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that "16 and Pregnant" helped reduce teenage births in America by 5.7% in the 18 months following its release. The two authors, Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College, tracked Google searches about the show and birth control, along with Tweets, all of which spiked when the show went out.

It portrayed teenage parenthood realistically, with young mothers suffering sleepless nights, howling brats, money worries and the blank incomprehension of their still-partying childless contemporaries. According to the authors, seeing all this drudgery helped deter young viewers from becoming mothers—although the study only affirms that it...Continue reading

Obama rebuked

Mar, 14/01/2014 - 19:39

TO APPOINT people to certain important posts, the president needs the “advice and consent” of the Senate. The constitution offers a small loophole, however: the president may “fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” Through this loophole successive commanders-in-chief—and especially Barack Obama—have driven an 18-wheel truck.

On January 13th the Supreme Court heard arguments about the scope of the president’s power to make recess appointments. National Labour Relations Board v Noel Canning asks whether Mr Obama’s three appointments on January 4th 2012 to the NLRB, the five-member federal agency that resolves disputes between companies and workers, were constitutional. Mr Obama says that the Senate was in recess that day, so the appointments were legitimate. But under the Senate’s own rules, it was in session.

Noel Canning, a soft-drink bottler in Washington state, claims it was harmed by...Continue reading

An uphill battle

Lun, 13/01/2014 - 18:05

TEXAS, where expansive highways teem with trucks and tank-like Hummers, hardly seems like a good place for bicycles. Cities sprawl for hundreds of miles, and bike lanes are rare. Intrepid cyclists are rarer still.

Some Texas cities want to change this. San Antonio plans to triple bike-able and walk-able streets by 2020. Dallas, long thought the worst city for bicycles in America, has unveiled ambitious plans for a new network of more than 1,100 miles of bike lanes over the next ten years. Since 2011 four Texan cities have begun bike-sharing schemes, most recently in Austin just before Christmas. Advocates...Continue reading

Yearning for briefs and fees

Dom, 12/01/2014 - 23:28

SERGIO GARCÍA was just ten years old when he decided to become a lawyer. On a visit to the mayor’s office in the Mexican town of Panindicuaro, he met the relatives of some inmates in the jail next door, who told him that prisoners were freed only if they paid a bribe. “I thought, ‘This isn’t right,’” he says. “'People should get the justice they deserve, not the justice they can afford. I’m going to defend these people one day’.”

It would be 26 years before Mr García would achieve his dream. He entered the United States illegally in 1994, when his father, against his wishes, ordered him to move and made him cross the border hidden in a pickup truck. Mr García learned English and received full scholarship offers from Stanford and Berkeley. However, the universities rescinded the financial aid after learning his status. Instead, he attended a community college while supporting himself as a farm labourer, and then paid for law school on credit cards until they maxed out.

Mr García says he did not expect his lack of a visa to prevent him from practicing as a lawyer. The California State Bar, which grants law...Continue reading

Treachery and its consequences

Vie, 10/01/2014 - 18:52

I MUST respectfully disagree with my colleague W.W. Edward Snowden deserves neither applause nor clemency. As Josh Barro rightly argues in Business Insider:

For America's intelligence and diplomatic apparatus to work, it needs to be able to do secret things whose disclosure would be damaging to American interests. And it needs to be able to bind government employees and contractors to not to make those disclosures. Snowden broke his commitment to safeguard a wide variety of secrets, many of whose disclosure was in no apparent public interest.

Mr Snowden has done some good. He has highlighted the NSA’s sloppy security procedures and the danger of “contractorisation”. He has stoked a necessary debate about the nature of meta-data and has shown that using legal means to arm-twist American internet and technology companies into cooperating with the NSA can back-fire.

But these benefits are far outweighed by the harm. Here are a few examples of such disclosures:

  • how the NSA intercepts e-mails, phone calls and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan; an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan;
  • e-mail intercepts regarding...Continue reading

A case for clemency for Snowden

Vie, 10/01/2014 - 15:08

JOSH BARRO of Business Insider argues that Edward Snowden ought not to be allowed to return to America "without serving a long prison sentence". Mr Barro writes:

For America's intelligence and diplomatic apparatus to work, it needs to be able to do secret things whose disclosure would be damaging to American interests. And it needs to be able to bind government employees and contractors to not to make those disclosures. Snowden broke his commitment to safeguard a wide variety of secrets, many of whose disclosure was in no apparent public interest.

Mr Barro worries that clemency for Mr Snowden would send the wrong message to potential whistleblower who might make disclosures potentially damaging to American interests, presumably as judged by America's intelligence and diplomatic apparatus:

The sentence in such an offer has to be long enough to deter future Snowdens from...Continue reading

Feds v flutes

Jue, 09/01/2014 - 19:15

A STEAMSHIP pulled into New York’s harbour 87 years ago, whereupon customs officials seized a long, sinuous bronze object. It looked to them like a manufactured piece of metal, subject to stiff duties—they classified it, eventually, with “kitchen utensils and hospital supplies”. The object’s creator protested that it was a work of art, and therefore exempt from such tariffs. At trial the judges took a shine to the shiny lump, calling it “beautiful”, “symmetrical” and a “work of art”. Today Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculptures are displayed in museums across the world.

Boujemaa Razgui, alas, received no trial. On December 22nd Mr Razgui, a reed-flautist who plays with several ensembles including the Boston Camerata, returned from his native Morocco to Boston, where he lives. According to Mr Razgui—whose account was first reported by Slipped Disc, a classical-music blog written by Norman Lebrecht (an occasional critic in our pages)—he carried in his checked baggage 13 flutes he had carved...Continue reading

Everything was political

Jue, 09/01/2014 - 14:12

ALWAYS keep an eye on the quiet ones. Robert Gates, a Washington veteran who served as George W. Bush’s final defence secretary and stayed on as Barack Obama’s first, has written an incendiary memoir that belies his reputation as an inscrutable, unflappable team player (Team Obama even nicknamed him “Yoda”, after the Jedi master from “Star Wars”).

As a rare bipartisan figure in a polarised capital, who served eight presidents in his day, Mr Gates has startled Washington by revealing the passions beneath his poker face. He betrays real loathing for Congress (most members are parochial, incompetent, rude, thin-skinned, self-serving and hypocritical, is his verdict). He talks of congressional hearings turned into kangaroo courts by members “in a permanent state of outrage”. At the same time, Mr Gates, CIA chief during the presidency of the elder George Bush, confesses to the almost-debilitating grief that he came to feel over military casualties.

His book, entitled, simply, “Duty”, shows contempt for many in Mr Obama’s inner circle. Special disdain is reserved for Vice-President Joe Biden, who was “wrong on...Continue reading

A bridge too far?

Jue, 09/01/2014 - 02:12

CHRIS CHRISTIE, New Jersey’s Republican governor, revels in his reputation as a bully. Fans praise his habit of picking fights as “straight talk”. And New Jersey, home to “The Sopranos”, tends to favour grit over guff. So new evidence that staff in his office vindictively schemed to snarl traffic in a rival’s district has something of a ho-hum quality. A scandal without sex or blood? Could this really hurt a politician who won re-election in November by 22 points? Yes, it could.

The story is water-cooler ready, which does not help the governor. In September the Port Authority closed two lanes of traffic on a bridge that links New Jersey with Manhattan for a so-called “traffic study”. The weeklong traffic jam that resulted was hardest on commuters in Fort Lee, a nearby suburb run by Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who refused to endorse Mr Christie in the election. Besides being a nuisance, the gridlock also reportedly kept ambulances from reaching an unconscious 91-year-old woman, who later died. State Democrats cried foul. On January 8th they found their smoking gun: e-mails from Bridget Anne Kelly, a senior Christie staffer, to the...Continue reading

End of the party?

Mié, 08/01/2014 - 18:07

FOR two decades, American voters have hankered to proclaim themselves Independent, even as the two mainstream parties have felt little risk of being pushed aside. Indeed, Michael Bloomberg—who was a Democrat until he ran for office as mayor of New York in 2001, then a Republican from 2001 to 2007 and now considers himself an Independent—explored the idea of running for president as an Independent only to conclude it was folly. But a survey today from Gallup shows the astounding degree to which Americans are losing interest in classic party affiliations.

A record 42% of people consider themselves Independent, compared to Democrat (31%) or Republican (25%). That's a huge shift from just a decade ago, when affiliations were divided around a third for each. The chart below shows how Americans' dissatisfaction with the parties is nothing new. (Note the surge in independents around the time of Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign.) The spike in Independents is eating more into the GOP, which has seen party moderates sidelined by extremists. The data suggest that there may be a place for a Bloomberg presidential bid after all.

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