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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

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