Archive

November 26th, 2015

Why not draw straws? Elections are all random

    I'll cheerfully admit that until last weekend I had no idea that Mississippi decides tied elections by drawing straws -- much less that other states flip a coin. The only comparable version of planned randomness I'd heard of was the ancient Greek practice of choosing annual leaders by lottery.

    My first instinct on hearing about the Mississippi State House election that was resolved Friday in favor of the Democratic candidate was that this arbitrary practice should obviously be changed.

    On reflection, I'm not so sure.

    A strong case can be made that elections should reflect the intentions of the voters, and that deciding them by reference to luck makes a mockery of the idea that the people are choosing.

    Yet simultaneously, elections in the real world turn on a range of random factors, such as weather, traffic and the uncertainty of individual voters' whims and willingness to turn out.

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Want to boost productivity? Raise minimum wages

    I've spent some time talking about the downsides of minimum-wage laws. But there is a big possible upside that I haven't mentioned, in part because it's pretty speculative. It's the idea that minimum wages improve productivity and innovation over the long run.

    Usually, it's detractors of the minimum wage who talk about the long term. Minimum-wage hikes tend to have only small or negligible effects on employment levels, but critics of setting pay floors have said that they slow long-term employment growth. But I'm now thinking about the even longer term, and about the effect of minimum wages on productivity rather than employment.

    In the long term, productivity comes from technology. Economists often treat technology as if it just appears out of nowhere, but in fact it comes from the innovative efforts of companies and researchers.

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The government has protected your security and privacy better than you think

    After 9/11, U.S. political leaders of all stripes demanded better intelligence and a greater ability to "connect the dots." Such a terrorist attack had to be prevented from happening again. Well, it has happened again, of course, repeatedly, in Paris, as well as in London, Madrid and, indeed, in Boston and nearly in Times Square. But until the recent brutality of the Islamic State, the pendulum of our response, naturally enough, had swung back toward privacy and away from national security. We must now rethink how far we want - and need - our government to go to keep us safe from people who unequivocally want to kill as many of us as cruelly as they can.

    In hindsight, our country's handling of the putative trade-off between national security and privacy after Sept. 11 has actually been reasonably reassuring. The lesson for us now is that by overlaying aggressive privacy safeguards and rigorous oversight onto the intelligence community's aggressive electronic surveillance, we can protect our values without compromising national security.

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Senate skips town - and responsibility

    The Senate left town last week, its work unfinished. Majority leader Mitch McConnell's partial government shutdown continues. Among other things, Republicans still refuse to take up many of Barack Obama's judicial and executive-branch nominations -- a roadblock that makes it hard for the courts and the federal government to work efficiently.

    Jennifer Bendery at HuffPost describes one particularly embarrassing example: The undersecretary of the Treasury in charge of the terrorism and financial crimes division hasn't been confirmed. Adam Szubin was nominated in mid-April, more than seven months ago. Republicans don't oppose him. Bendery reports that the Banking Committee chairman, Richard Shelby, praised Szubin at his confirmation hearing. And then? Nothing.

    The numbers: The Senate has confirmed 135 Obama nominees (including both executive branch and judicial) so far this year. By contrast, in 2007, when Democrats had just won the Senate, and a Republican president was in his seventh year in office, the Senate had confirmed 234 of George W. Bush's nominees through the end of November.

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Donald Trump is leading an increasingly fact-free 2016 campaign

    Let me start with this: I am rarely surprised by anything that happens in politics. Call it cynicism or pragmatism. But after spending two decades covering politics, I feel like nothing is shocking anymore.

    Except, that is, the remarkable disdain for facts in the context of this presidential campaign. Candidates have always done their best to bend numbers, statistics and stories to make themselves look as good -- or as not-bad - as possible. But there was almost always a line that wasn't crossed in years past, a sort of even-partisans-can-agree-on-this standard.

    Now, in large part because of Donald Trump's candidacy, that line has been smudged out of existence. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous quote that "you are entitled to your own opinion . . . but you are not entitled to your own facts" is no longer operative in this campaign. That is to the detriment of not only the people running for president but to all of us.

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Clinton's weaknesses hidden by Republican chaos

    There's cause for concern in Hillaryland, the constellation of Democratic advisers, supporters and politicians counting on the former secretary of state to lead the party to a sweeping victory next November.

    Hillary Clinton's nomination is almost a forgone conclusion, barring any unlikely legal or health issues. Democrats will offer a more coherent and unified front for the general election than fractious Republicans.

    Still, this optimism is based on the weakness of the opposition, and ignores the candidate's own glaring vulnerabilities.

    The worries of some Clinton insiders are focused on the general election. There is an "enthusiasm gap." She doesn't excite important constituencies: young people, independents, possibly even minority voters.

    To be sure, a number of women, especially middle-aged ones, are energized by the prospect of electing the first female U.S. president. That's a strong asset.

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Attacks on American Muslims are growing uglier by the day ... and they must stop

    Looks like fear - not turkey - is the main course being served in our country this week.

    Political opportunists running for president have been cooking up a heaping platter of anti-Muslim sentiment since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks on Paris. They've geared us up for an epic Hategiving with their ugly proposals to shut down mosques, register American Muslims and reject Syrian refugees who aren't Christians.

    If you don't think Muslims are under attack, take a look at what went down in the town of Fredericksburg last week.

    The Islamic Center of Fredericksburg, Virginia - a little brick building that looks like a bank branch office and has been around for 27 years - was skewered by a handful of seething people who see the center's expansion plans as a threat to the very fabric of America.

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Thanksgiving hypocrisy

    Thanksgiving is our holiday of refugee commemoration. We have no holiday to commemorate the first successful English settlement, Jamestown, which was a commercial and political venture, or the first French and Spanish settlements, which were also commercial and political. We celebrate only the arrival and survival of a band of Pilgrims seeking not only opportunity but also refuge. Of the many and varied American creation epics, this is the one we have chosen to celebrate.

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Health Reform Lives!

    To the right’s dismay, scare tactics — remember death panels? — and spurious legal challenges failed to protect the nation from the scourge of guaranteed health coverage. Still, Obamacare’s opponents insisted that it would implode in a “death spiral” of low enrollment and rising costs.

    But the law’s first two years of full implementation went remarkably well. The number of uninsured Americans dropped sharply, roughly in line with projections, while costs came in well below expectations. Opponents of reform could have reconsidered their position — but that hardly ever happens in modern politics. Instead, they doubled down on their forecasts of doom, and hyped every hint of bad news.

    I mention all of this to give you some perspective on recent developments that mark a break in the string of positive surprises. Yes, Obamacare has hit a few rough patches lately. But they’re much less significant than a lot of the reporting, let alone the right-wing reaction, would have you believe. Health reform is still a huge success story.

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Anti-Muslim Is Anti-American

    There seems to be no bottom to the cesspool of Islamophobic rhetoric coming from Republican candidates.

    The tone of anti-Muslim musings post-Paris attack has become so poisonous that it cannot portend anything positive.

    In the latest, the Republican front-runner said the United States would have “absolutely no choice” but to close some mosques. And, when asked by a reporter, he seemed to suggest he wouldn’t have a problem registering Muslims, which many have condemned, comparing it to the way Jews were once treated. (After heavy bipartisan criticism, he tried to walk back his remarks about the registry.)

    And then Dr. Ben Carson drew a tortured parallel between Syrian refugees, who are mostly Muslim, and “a rabid dog running around your neighborhood.”

    Robert McCaw, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Al-Jazeera that Carson’s remarks were “unthinkable,” saying, “There is only one thing you do with a rabid dog — and that’s put it down.”

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