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Street Fight 2.0

Mié, 14/05/2014 - 19:37

ASKED last month to name his role model, Ras Baraka mentioned Marion Barry, a former mayor of Washington, DC best known for smoking crack and running a City Hall of staggering incompetence and corruption. Washingtonians remember Mr Barry as a terrible manager, but he sure gave a rousing speech. That is perhaps why Mr Baraka admires him. It is also why, on May 13th, Newark elected Mr Baraka as its new mayor with 54% of the vote.  

A charismatic speaker, he can quiet and excite a crowd like no one else in the city. “When I become mayor,” he often told voters, “we all become mayor.” How that would work in practice is unclear, but after his victory speech hundreds of his supporters marched down Broad Street to take City Hall. One exclaimed: “It’s ours again!”  

Mr Baraka (pictured), a school principal, is as close to African-American royalty as one can get in Newark. His late father was a poet who gave voice to the Black Power movement. In 2004, he helped broker peace between the Crips and the Bloods, two rival gangs. Spike Lee, a film-maker, and Lauryn Hill, a singer, supported him. So did Sharpe James, an...Continue reading

Playing favourites

Mar, 13/05/2014 - 18:25

JEROME FRANK, a mid-20th-century legal thinker, is said to have claimed that justice is a function of what the judge had for breakfast. Don’t let their black robes, serious miens and pledges of fealty to the law fool you, Mr Frank warned: judicial decisions are not cool applications of objective legal principles. Rather, they are manifestations of personal predilections and biases.

Mr Frank’s observation seems to apply all too well to today's Supreme Court. When ruling on big, controversial cases, the justices split fairly reliably along party lines dictated by their appointing presidents. It wasn’t always this way. Until 1937, as Adam Liptak of the New York Times reported last week, party simply wasn’t a factor in high-court decisions. Only in recent decades have party politics infiltrated the marble halls of the Supreme Court, and only in...Continue reading

Chronicling the abuse of authority

Mar, 13/05/2014 - 02:27

THE disclosures of Edward Snowden constitute perhaps the most notorious leak in history. America’s National Security Agency was so secretive that for decades even its existence was classified. Insiders joked that its initials stood for “no such agency”. That a 29-year-old contractor was able to steal tens of thousands of classified documents is not only astounding, but also unprecedented. Only recently had it become possible to fit so much material on an inexpensive digital chip.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the story in the British newspaper the Guardian, has now published an account of how the story landed on his lap. “No Place to Hide”, out today, also outlines the disclosures and considers what they mean.

The tale of how a geeky high-school dropout infiltrated the NSA’s most secretive core makes fascinating reading. The extent of surveillance Mr Snowden unveiled is itself deeply troubling. And the back-story of how Mr Greenwald and others scrambled to make this information public is inspiring. 

Mr...Continue reading

Not so fast

Lun, 12/05/2014 - 17:28

LAST August police arrested Adam Bush, a construction worker, on charges that he broke into a bar in Hankinson, North Dakota, and stole some cash. Their theory was that he took a large safe from the bar, pulled it over to a kayak, floated the kayak to his car and drove away with the safe. There were no witnesses, and according to a local radio station, even the state's attorney admitted the case was "highly circumstantial". A jury acquitted Mr Bush in April. His car, however, was not so lucky. A judge ruled that despite the acquittal, county sheriffs were entitled to keep Mr Bush's car, which was seized when he was arrested.

That is because civil-asset...Continue reading

Rules for the new tools

Mié, 07/05/2014 - 20:36

WHEN the internet was gathering steam in the mid 1990s, White House policy wonks got together under President Clinton’s nerdy aide, Ira Magaziner, to find ways to support it. Principles emerged like the "tax free internet" (ie, no punishing tariffs on ecommerce). Today, with big data in the headlines, a new gaggle of policy geeks have put forward a plan to harness technology while preserving privacy.

The 79-page report released by John Podesta, a counsellor to the president, on May 1st, makes six concrete recommendations. The most notable proposal is a federal law requiring companies to notify people if their personal information has been breached, to replace a raft of state laws. The report also calls for amending a 1986 law governing electronic communications so that protections for e-mails and content in the cloud are as strong as those that exist for their analogue equivalents. This would resolve several oddball rules, like the way e-mail older than 180 days is accessible to police without a...Continue reading

The Obama doctrine

Mié, 07/05/2014 - 20:16

A cautious, cerebral president favours diplomacy over military force. But America's allies may prefer a stronger hand

Niggling distinctions

Mar, 06/05/2014 - 19:17

“IN LANDMARK decision,” Andy Borowitz wrote of the justices’ 5-4 ruling in a religion-infused tiff in upstate New York, “Supreme Court strikes down main reason country was started”. Permitting a town to kick off its monthly board meetings with Christian prayers, for Mr Borowitz and the dissenters in Town of Greece v Galloway, is an abandonment of the rule against the “establishment of religion”, the first command of the first amendment to America’s constitution. In the eyes of a majority of the Supreme Court justices, however, the town’s tradition simply pays homage to the nation’s hallowed heritage of prayer in legislative settings. Tevye would be proud.

Only in America would a two-minute benediction at sparsely attended town meetings inspire 80 pages of heated and starkly contrasting judicial...Continue reading

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

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