Archive

June 6th, 2016

Clinton takes on the 'blame America first' Republicans

    If President Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, were alive to see Hillary Clinton's speech on Thursday, I imagine she would smile.

    Clinton has done to Donald Trump what Kirkpatrick did to Clinton's party back in 1984. Clinton questioned the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's love of country and asked why he was so nice to the dictators who hate it.

    It was a theme of Clinton's major address in San Diego. "If Donald gets his way, they will be celebrating in the Kremlin;" "I don't understand Donald's bizarre fascination with dictators who don't like America;" "I will leave it to the psychologists to explain his affection for tyrants," and so on.

    In most election years it is the Republicans who do this kind of thing. It was an important line of attack for Richard Nixon. But the true master of the genre was Kirkpatrick, the foreign policy sage who got Reagan's attention with an essay in Commentary Magazine that derided Jimmy Carter's hostility toward authoritarian allies of America.

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The jobs recovery doesn't have to be over

    After U.S. employers turned in their worst hiring performance in almost six years, the people responsible for managing the economy must be wondering: Are businesses running up against the limits of how many jobs they can create?

    It doesn't have to be that way.

    The May jobs report offers troubling signals that the U.S. economy may be nearing its capacity to generate jobs. Nonfarm employers added only 38,000 workers -- a number that, even accounting for a Verizon Communications strike that took about 35,000 people off payrolls, fell far short of expectations. The unemployment rate declined to 4.7 percent, the lowest since November 2007, due to a drop in the number of people seeking work actively enough to be counted as unemployed. That's well below the level that economists see as full employment, the point at which further hiring tends to push up wages and inflation.

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Okay, that was a lousy jobs report. Now what are we gonna do about it?

    Yeah. . .okay. . .that was a really disappointing jobs report that came out Friday morning. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

    Expectations, which are typically just a rear-view mirror exercise in this case, were for around 160,000 net new payroll jobs. Instead, we got 38,000, the worst month of job gains since late 2010, the point at which post-recession job growth finally got going. The unemployment rate actually fell sharply in May, from 5 percent to 4.7 percent, but for the wrong reason: not because people got jobs, but because they left the labor force.

    The monthly data are noisy, and this month's jobs count took a hit of about 35,000 from the strike against Verizon. But the trend over the past three months amounts to less than 120,000 jobs per month, well below the 200,000/month trend we'd gotten used to.

    Still, we don't want to overreact, and while these lousy numbers are consistent with a real growth rate of less than 1 percent in the first quarter of the year, the second quarter is tracking at north of 2 percent. So things could certainly improve.

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Sentencing the worst of the worst

    Capital punishment in the United States is on the wane. Fewer people, 49, were sentenced to death in 2015 than in any year since the Supreme Court reauthorized the ultimate sanction in 1976; only 28 were executed, the fewest in 20 years.

    States find it harder to obtain lethal-injection drugs, especially now that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has barred the use of its products. A recent Supreme Court ruling overturned the death sentence of a black man in Georgia on the grounds that prosecutors improperly kept African Americans off the jury.

    A death-penalty abolitionist, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, has given Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic presidential race; she, in turn, has voiced only qualified backing for capital punishment. And polls show downward movement in support for the death penalty.

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The licenses that get in the way of new jobs

    I've met too many people who want to work but aren't given a shot. Often, that's because licensing and certification requirements create obstacles to joining skilled professions where no or lower barriers should exist.

    A couple of years ago, my office identified a clear example in Delaware's barber and cosmetology industries, which used to require either paying for 1,500 hours of instruction or spending 3,000 hours as an apprentice to earn a license - the equivalent of about a year of schooling or two years as an apprentice. That wasn't necessary to succeed in these fields, and the rules kept some good people out of these professions because it was either too expensive or took too long to become qualified. To address those issues, we came up with a third option that allows people to combine on-the-job experience with a shorter school program.

    Meanwhile, research across the country has suggested that there is a lack of access to work in certain legal and health services that don't require a law or medical degree, such as providing defense in eviction cases and basic primary-care services, because of overly burdensome licensing laws.

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No one is quite sure what causes big recessions

    There is an important, but quiet debate in the economics profession about what leads to big recessions: wealth or debt.

    Almost everyone agrees, at this point, that the Great Recession of 2007-09 was caused by the financial system. But that leaves the question of what, exactly, happens in a financial system that leads an economy to crash. Formal economic models of financial shocks are not very realistic. They usually assume the harm comes from disruption to the banking system, which acts like a supply bottleneck that chokes off economic activity. But the Great Recession and similar episodes look very much like demand shocks, with low inflation and lots of spare capacity.

    So economists are asking what kind of financial disasters have the biggest impact on demand. Roughly, the two answers are wealth effects and debt overhangs. The wealth-effects school holds that when asset bubbles pop, people suddenly feel poorer. This causes them to cut spending, which sends demand crashing. The debt-overhang school believes that people have sudden shifts in their willingness to take on debt -- when they go into balance-sheet repair mode, they stop spending.

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Past time for U.S military to open its doors to Sikhs

    On Veterans Day last year, twenty-seven retired U.S. generals, 105 members of Congress, and 15 senators signed a letter demanding that the Pentagon lift the ban prohibiting American Sikhs from serving in the military. But the ban persists.

    Their arguments, like all the other arguments in favor of lifting the ban, are based on the American ideals of inclusion, diversity, and religious tolerance. While I am in favor of diversity, inclusion, and religious tolerance, I would like to make the argument from another perspective - that of concern about the credibility of the American narrative. It is in the strategic and pragmatic best interests of the United States to allow observant Sikhs to serve in the military while bearded and turbaned.

    Sikhs served in the U.S. military from WW1 until 1981 when new regulations requiring uniformity of facial hair and headgear forced them to decide between violating their faith or serving their country - a very un-American choice to have to make.

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From the Dalai Lama, a pipe dream for Europe's refugees

    The Dalai Lama is one of the most admired people in the world; he is also the world's most famous refugee. That makes his recent comments to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung -- that Germany has too many Muslim refugees -- both surprising and controversial; perhaps more so than they should be.

    Taken out of context, the Dalai Lama's words in the interview with the German daily seem to fit right in with messages from the anti-immigrant Alternative fuer Deutschland party. "There are now too many," he said. "Europe, for example Germany, cannot be an Arab land. Germany is Germany."

    It's as important, though, that he said two other things. One essentially signifies approval of Chancellor Angela Merkel's initial urge to accept the escapees from the Syrian war: "If we look into the face of each individual refugee, especially the children and the women, we will feel their suffering. A person who is doing somewhat better has the responsibility to help them."

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Cell phones, cancer and the anatomy of a health scare

    The latest study supposedly linking cell-phone radiation to cancer was meant to serve the public good. But its effect on the public has been bad. The $25 million government-funded experiment produced confusion and scary headlines, but little in the way of useful information -- beyond perhaps an indication of where the science publicity machine is broken.

    This wasn't necessarily a case of bad science. The researchers, from the National Toxicology Program, subjected one group of rats to high doses of radiation of a frequency similar to that emitted by cell phones. Following accepted protocol, they compared the radiation-exposed rats to a control group. The pathologists looking for cancer didn't know which animals came from which group.

    But last week, the scientists released partial, unpublished results in a rush, suggesting some public health urgency. They claimed to have identified a link between the radiation and a type of brain cancer called a glioma as well as a non-malignant growth called a schwannoma. Adding fuel to their health scare, they offered up sound bites such as "breakthrough" and "game changer."

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June 5th

How to how to fix the apathy problem in schools

    Any discussion about the problems in American education -- and what is to blame for these problems - will likely include one or all of the usual suspects: inadequate and unequal funding, a lack of resources, underpaid and overworked teachers, over-testing, poverty and heavy-handed legislation.

    As a teacher and the mother of four public-school-educated children, I can tell you that all of these things have negatively impacted our schools. All of these things are problems.

    But there is another problem, one that is plaguing many of America's classrooms and jeopardizing the future of our children, yet it is rarely addressed - at least not as it should be. That problem is apathy. In classrooms all over the country, the teacher cares more about her students' grades, learning and futures than they do.

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