Archive

February 3rd, 2016

Iowa’s Black Caucusgoers

    On Monday, Iowans will become the first people in the nation to officially express their choices for the next president of the United States.

    But what interested me in particular was that a subset of those voters will be black. And since black voters in national polls are overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelming prefer Hillary Clinton to her rivals, it seemed important to explore how these voters are processing this election cycle and its candidates.

    Over three days in Des Moines — from Friday to Sunday — I interviewed more than 30 black people, and spoke briefly to many more at a black church, a black-owned barbershop, a popular soul food restaurant and at African-American social events.

    My first impression from these conversations was that there existed a staggering level of ambivalence and absence of enthusiasm. A surprising number of people said they were undecided and started an answer with the clause, “If I had to choose ...”

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Bush's journey from front-runner to straggler

    The biggest stories of this young political year are the surprising surges of the outsider presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Close behind is the possible collapse of the once-formidable front- runner, Jeb Bush.

    Only a year ago, the Washington cognoscenti, the less politically sophisticated big donors and the London oddsmakers all figured that the son and brother of presidents was a solid favorite to clinch the Republican nomination. Six months ago, the former Florida governor thought he had a real shot at winning Iowa, the first nominating contest. Yet as the state's voters prepare to gather for the traditional caucuses on Monday night, he barely registers in the polls.

    There is already a debate in Republican circles over what went wrong: Was he just a bad candidate? Was he ill-served by the chief strategist of the richly funded Bush super-PAC? Or was this just a bad year for any establishment figure?

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What a true cancer 'moonshot' entails

    Like many oncologists and cancer researchers, I rolled my eyes when I first heard about Vice President Biden's cancer "moonshot," but not because of the noble goal. I was among the many people who were deeply sorry to hear about the death of the vice president's son Beau from cancer last year. And I, too, have mourned the untimely deaths from the disease of people close to me. Those of us who care for cancer patients would give nearly anything to be able to cure all those with cancer or, at a minimum, to greatly extend their lives. Today, we can sometimes do this, but sadly those circumstances remain far too limited.

    But a cancer moonshot evokes a sense of deja vu. The 1970s ushered in the War on Cancer, which was largely unsuccessful at generating better treatments. In 2003, it was then-National Cancer Institute head Andrew Von Eschenbachassuring then-Sen. Arlen Specter that, for just $600 million a year, we could rid the world of cancer five years ahead of 2015, the target at that time. Now here were Biden and the Obama administration making another tall promise. Did we really need this again?

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The GOP’s Holy War

    In the final, furious days of campaigning here, it was sometimes hard to tell whether this state’s Republicans were poised to vote for a president or a preacher, a commander or a crusader.

    The references to religion were expansive. The talk of it was excessive. A few candidates didn’t just profess the supposed purity of their own faith. They questioned rivals’ piety, with Ted Cruz inevitably leading the way.

    A rally of his devolved into an inquisition of Donald Trump. Speakers mocked Trump’s occasional claims of devout Christianity. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, pointedly recalled Trump’s admission last summer that he never really does penance.

    Cruz, in contrast, “probably gets up every morning and asks God for forgiveness at least a couple of times, even before breakfast,” Perry told the audience.

    The evangelist or the apostate: That’s how the choice was framed. And it underscored the extent to which the Iowa caucuses have turned into an unsettling holy war.

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Government Keeps Rural West Going

    The 187,000 acres on which sits the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge never belonged to the state of Oregon, much less the band of cowboy exhibitionists who'd taken it over. This and other federal lands were acquired through conquest over, purchases from or treaties with Mexico, Russia, Spain, England, France and Native Americans.

    The federal government lets loggers, ranchers and other businesses make a subsidized living off public land, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The fees ranchers pay for grazing on federal land are considerably below those charged by private landowners. The government loses money on nearly all timber sales on public land.

    Now that we've gotten this off our chests, let's sympathize with the hardworking people of the rural West, losing a beautiful way of life to harsh economic realities. The growing poverty in the sparsely populated high desert of south central Oregon is shared by communities far from the region's booming cities.

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Pictures that are worth a thousand data points

    From recording police shootings and political protests to capturing street style and celebrity selfies, ubiquitous smart-phone cameras have become a new type of media, changing how the public sees the world.

    The same tools are now systematically collecting new kinds of economically valuable data -- peering into hard-to-reach places, identifying emerging trends and providing a check on official numbers. Particularly useful in developing countries, this grassroots data collection may, like the phones themselves, allow formerly lagging countries to leapfrog 20th-century approaches and establish flexible, nuanced and decentralized ways of answering economic questions.

    Founded in 2012, the San Francisco-based startup Premise began by looking for a way to supplement official price indices with a quick-turnaround measure of inflation and relative currency values. It needed "a scalable, cost-effective way to collect a lot of price data," chief executive David Soloff said in an interview. The answer was an Android app and more than 30,000 smart-phone-wielding contractors in 32 countries.

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Here’s the Beauty of Trump

    The White House has a strange, mind-warping effect on its occupants.

    Presidents are exalted and fawned over. Their every whim is indulged and their image is endlessly and lovingly replicated on every wall. Reaching the pinnacle of power, raised up on the shoulders of Americans to the highest office, often has the perverse consequence of making presidents more paranoid, introverted, insecure, reckless or downright nuts.

    So what would happen if Donald Trump, a clinical narcissist with a thin skin, touchy temperament and taste for flattery, got into the Oval Office?

    I call Trump to tell him my fears. Given that he already likes to start sentences, “Here’s the beauty of me,” wouldn’t we be risking a narcissistic explosion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

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Why you should be grateful for flat-Earthers

    When I was a freshman at Stanford, a physics instructor introduced the topic of relativity by exploding our brains with the following problem: Take a railroad car straight up 50 miles and then drop it. Given that the Earth is curved, shouldn't the ends of the car fall faster than the middle? Shouldn't the stress this places on the railroad car cause it to break into pieces? And if we think all parts of the railroad car fall at a constant speed, why isn't that evidence that the Earth is flat?

    That magnificent morning (I'll explain the adjective shortly) came to mind in the wake of the brouhaha between the eminent physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and the rapper B.o.B. over that very question. To make a long story short, B.o.B. argues that the Earth is indeed flat. He's asserted on Twitter that the rest of us have been "tremendously deceived" and that he is "going up against the greatest liars in history." For what he seems to view as an act of heroic dissent, the rapper has been mocked endlessly.

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Who had the worst week in Washington? Fox News' Roger Ailes

    This past week, Fox News honcho Roger Ailes learned the same lesson the entire GOP field has come to understand in this campaign: When you fight with Donald Trump, you lose.

    Trump began the week by flirting, yet again, with the idea of skipping Thursday's presidential debate on Fox, citing past "unfair" treatment from moderator Megyn Kelly. He even put up a Twitter poll asking his millions of followers what they thought he should do.

    Then Fox did this: "We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president," said a news release, apparently written by Ailes. "A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings."

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The rising pull of the 'change' candidates

Whoever wins Monday in Iowa, and whoever eventually wins the presidential nominations, one thing is already clear: Traditional politics and politicians have failed.

    That glaring fact is still difficult for the establishments of both parties to grasp. I mean, surely Republicans will realize they cannot possibly nominate a populist tycoon, with zero experience in government, who vows to round up and expel 11 million people. Of course it will dawn on Democrats that it is inconceivable to have a self-declared socialist as their standard-bearer. Inevitably the planets will return to their normal orbits and everything will go back to the way it should be.

    Anyone thinking along these lines, I believe, is in for an unpleasant surprise.

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