Archive

February 7th, 2016

Federal judges show sympathy for torture victims

    International human-rights litigation in the U.S. is still alive, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's best efforts to kill it. The latest evidence is a decision this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to allow part of a lawsuit alleging human-rights violations in Somalia in the 1980s to go forward. The case is thoroughly fascinating, on both the facts and the law. It sheds light not only on the state of human-rights law in the U.S., but also on the U.S. government's murky record of enabling violations by its military allies.

    The defendant is Yusuf Abdi Ali, a former colonel in the Somali national army under the regime of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who ruled from 1969 to 1991. Ali's nickname was reportedly "Tukeh," or "the Crow," said to derive from his sharp facial features. According to at least one human-rights group and (at one time) the U.S. government, Ali presided over the killing of hundreds and perhaps thousands of members of the Isaaq clan in northern Somalia between 1984 and the end of the decade.

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Corporate Japan needs to do more than apologize

    Last week, we were treated to a bout of speculation that Shigehisa Takada, chief executive officer of Takata Corp., would resign after the companies' faulty and lethal airbags led to a wave of auto recalls. Takada kept his job for the time being. But the focus on the possible resignation exposes deep flaws in Japan's corporate and political culture -- an overemphasis on punishment instead of prevention, and on individuals instead of organizations.

    As an example, take the wave of accounting fraud scandals that have swept Japan in the past several years. After Toshiba was found to have overstated profits by about $1.2 billion, CEO Hisao Tanaka resigned, along with eight board members. The same saga unfolded at camera manufacturer Olympus: a $1.7 billion fraud scandal in 2011 led to the chairman's resignation. The story is always the same.

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Clinton's a stout candidate in a shaky campaign

    The Hillary Clinton presidential quest is a puzzler.

    She won the Iowa caucuses by a hair, just enough to soften the impact if she loses the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. She trails in polls there but the race is probably closer than it looks. Her campaign has checked most of the political good- practice boxes. She's a superb debater, which will be on display again Thursday night, and she has a better chance than any other single candidate to become the next president.

    Yet she's a mediocre campaigner. There is more confusion than clarity to her message, and the controversy over a private Clinton email account won't go away.

    Aides insist that she's found her stride. Not yet. I've watched her on the stump four times in the past week and her performance is uneven. She often seems to be screaming. My wife says I'm holding her to a sexist double-standard - that I wouldn't say that about a man. But I'd say the same of her rival Bernie Sanders and would not say it about most of the scores of women whose campaigns I've covered for four decades.

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Clinton, Sanders peddle inferior estate-tax plans

    Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are trying to one-up each other over how best to tax dead millionaires and billionaires.

    This is part of their competition to show who cares more about economic inequality. But neither Democratic candidate's plan to increase estate taxes would get at the root of the problem: Few people pay these taxes anymore, thanks to myriad deductions, exclusions and loopholes that tax lawyers easily exploit.

    Even if the loopholes are closed, the estate tax is an ineffective way to close the economic divide created by the accumulation of wealth of those at the top of the income scale. Both Clinton and Sanders are overlooking a fairer and more productive way to tax inheritances.

    Clinton would increase the estate-tax rate to 45 percent from 40 percent and decrease the amount excluded from $5.45 million now to $3.5 million. Sanders would exclude the same amount but, not to be outdone, raise the top rate to 55 percent, with a special 65 percent rate for billionaires.

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February 6th

Iowa is over. Now it gets interesting

    That this is a year when everything is up for grabs was confirmed Monday night in Iowa, with two almost equally unacceptable outsiders -- Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump -- running 1 and 2 in Iowa's Republican caucuses. The party establishment would take their own lives if one of them actually wins the nomination.

    The surprise of the night was how well Sen. Marco Rubio did -- so well he gave a speech thanking his lord and savior Jesus Christ as if he'd won the whole thing.

    Maybe he has. Before Monday night, he was in no man's land, neither fish nor fowl, establishment or insurgent. His party had dismissed him as an Obama clone, an inexperienced first-term senator, his hair not gray enough, his boots too high, leaping in before his time. That's been a public and particular affront to his mentor Jeb Bush. You couldn't find their differences with a microscope. Having jumped the line, Rubio hadn't looked strong enough to challenge the unacceptable front-runners.

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Republicans find welcome message in Iowa caucuses

    The rest of the country can thank the voters of Iowa for two outcomes of their first-in-the nation caucuses. They have punctured the alleged inevitability of the presidential nominations of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Each may yet occur, but probably only after a long slog through the remaining state primary and caucus elections.

    A clearer picture may come next Tuesday, when New Hampshire voters have their say in the first primary. Trump will no longer be able to boast that everybody loves him, and Clinton faces polling showing that Sen. Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont holds a very substantial lead.

    Similarly significant is the very close third-place finish in Iowa of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who with 23.1 percent of the vote was on the heels of Cruz's 27.7 percent and Trump's 24.3. Three other centrist Republicans -- Jeb Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio -- have focused on New Hampshire to challenge Rubio for the party's establishment label, and they need to put up or shut up there.

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And Now, the Marco Memo

    Here we are, in the Marco Rubio Moment.

    The Republican establishment is thrilled: A moderate-sounding Gen X senator from a swing state! And one so good at spin he managed to give a victory speech in Iowa after he came in third. No wonder all the other candidates are jealous.

    “This isn’t a student council election, everybody. This is an election for president of the United States. Let’s get the boy in the bubble out of the bubble,” snarked Chris Christie. He was referring to Rubio’s tendency to be rather scripted in his appearances — one New Hampshire reporter compared him to “a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points.”

    Christie, pressing further — and when does Chris Christie not? — has also been saying that the speech Rubio sticks to is the same one he’s been giving since 2010. It’s true that there’s always the part about his parents, the striving Cuban immigrants. And you do get the feeling you’re supposed to vote for him because his dad and mom believed in the American dream.

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And the Oscar for Most Stunning Actress Goes to ...

    We are here not to discuss the complex #OscarsSoWhite controversy but to address another sore point with perhaps similar origins: the #OscarsSoGorgeous phenomenon.

    At the risk of running afoul of some ardent fan clubs, let us note that the Academy Awards for best actress tend to favor the young and beautiful, often for playing the down and out. Some older actresses survive the nominating process, but observe how many wouldn't be there had they not established their careers on earlier goddess roles.

    This helps explain why there are so few good parts for women who are dark and short -- or, for that matter, white but less than spectacular. As with the lack of black nominees, the perpetual dearth of non-beautiful actresses surely reflects the socializing preferences of the white men in charge.

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A theory of change to believe in

    If Republicans are engaged in a three-sided civil war, Democrats are having a spirited but rather civilized argument over a very large question: Who has the best theory about how progressive change happens?

    On the Republican side, the results in Iowa showed a party torn to pieces. Ted Cruz won because he understood from the start the importance of cornering the market on Christian conservatives who have long dominated Iowa's unusual process. Message discipline, thy name is Cruz.

    Donald Trump has created a new wing of the Republican Party by combining older GOP tendencies -- nationalism, nativism, racial backlash -- with 21st Century worries about American decline and the crushing of working-class incomes. He appeals to the angriest Republicans but not necessarily the most ideologically pure. A novel constituency proved harder to turn out in Iowa than polls and Trump's media boosters anticipated.

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A humble Trump? Sorry, 'loo-zahs'

    Ever since Donald Trump entered the Republican presidential race, I have been waiting to see him lose. I wanted to see how he would handle it. Humility, after all, is not an emotion with which the Donald appears to be intimately familiar.

    Remember when his rival Ben Carson, the retired brain surgeon, was running neck-in-neck with him in polls back in November, occasionally beating him? "How stupid are the people of Iowa?" Trump raged about Carson in a Fort Dodge rant. "How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?"

    What, I wondered, would be his reaction if the people of Iowa decide with their votes that they are not going to believe Trump's crap, either? Would he stand in stunned disbelief? Would he stagger off the stage babbling nonsense? Would he howl in protest about how he was robbed, perhaps by illegal immigrants?

    We found out Monday night after he decisively lost Iowa's Republican caucuses to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and finished only a whisper ahead of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Trump tried something that was different, even for him. Call it "humility lite."

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