Archive

September 28th, 2016

The difference between the Bushes and Trump

    It's hard to be a Bush these days. Liberals still condemn the most recent President Bush for "lying us into war" in Iraq. Even if you credit George W. Bush with benign intentions, his record is undeniably grim. In foreign policy, fiscal policy and much else -- including its catastrophic inattention to the aims and capabilities of Osama bin Laden and to the desperate pleas of a drowning city -- his administration was mostly a disaster.

    Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is easily mocked. He raised (and his super-PAC spent) an enormous sum in pursuit of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The famed "Bush family network" was activated. Yet the candidate was flat-footed and outmatched in debate against an opponent who proved spectacularly ignorant of public issues and whose most sophisticated techniques amounted to playground taunts. Bush's remarkable fundraising and unquestioned expertise got him nowhere.

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No, racism did not start with President Obama

    Days before the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture near the Washington Monument, a couple of bizarre political developments illustrated why we Americans need it.

    And I do mean all Americans. "Even if you think this isn't your story," as the museum's director Lonnie G. Bunch III recently told the Washington Post, "it is."

    That's a reasonable response to the cynical wags and trolls who pepper Internet comment threads with sarcastic objections like, "I thought segregation was over" and "When are we going to have a museum for white people?"

    We've got 'em, pal. But having visited museums of various sorts across this great land of ours, I am happy to report that the contributions made by Americans of color to our national narrative are increasingly included. Diversity is in. Conscientious curators like Bunch, former head of the Chicago Historical Society, have made a difference.

    Yet too many of us Americans still harbor woefully incomplete views of life on the other side of our racial divide.

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Government lawyers don't understand the Internet. That's a problem.

    Last year, the FBI nearly destroyed the life of an innocent physicist. In May 2015, agents arrested Xi Xiaoxing, the chairman of Temple University's physics department, and charged that he was sneaking Chinese scientists details about a piece of restricted research equipment known as a "pocket heater." An illustrious career seemed suddenly to implode. A few months later, though, the Justice Department dropped all the charges and made an embarrassing admission: It hadn't actually understood Xi's work. After defense experts examined his supposed "leaks," they pointed out that what he'd shared with Chinese colleagues wasn't a restricted engineering design but in fact a schematic for an altogether different type of device. The case helped lead earlier this year to new Justice Department restrictions that took power away from prosecutors in the field and centralized certain investigations in Washington, where they could receive more oversight from a specially trained team of lawyers.

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Five myths about the Middle Ages

    Most Americans get their ideas about the Middle Ages from popular culture, like "Game of Thrones," or from the inevitable rigmarole after a politician refers to "a crusade." In other words, it's all dragons, dastardly politics and religion-inspired violence. Yet, the European Middle Ages - a period spanning more than 1,000 years - was much richer (and weirder) than even some of the best fiction or political spin.

 

Myth No. 1

    Christianity and Islam were constantly in conflict then.

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Companies that discriminate fail (eventually)

    "The corporate world is a boys' club, and it'll always be a boys' club," said a banker who struck up a conversation with me a few years ago in a coffee shop near the university where I once taught. "Male managers are always going to hire men over women, because they feel more comfortable around men."

    "Aren't there some managers who just hire whoever's best for the job?," I asked.

    "Yeah, there are some," he said. "I don't know what's going on with those guys."

    Gary Becker might have had an idea of what was going on. For decades in the mid-20th century, the future Nobel-winning economist wrote about the economics of discrimination. His theory was, in a nutshell, that the people who make hiring decisions at companies are bigoted -- they'd rather work with people of their own race or gender. Essentially, this is the same explanation that the banker gave me in the coffee shop. According to Becker, bigoted employers will pay lower salaries to the people they don't like, resulting in gender and racial wage gaps.

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Clinton's stop-Trump pitch to millennials

    Democrats, fearful that third-party presidential candidates could attract enough millennials to cost Hillary Clinton key states are stepping up efforts to woo young voters with one message: Stop Trump.

    Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and Jill Stein, the left-wing Green Party aspirant, are attracting much of their support from younger voters. Some recent polls show them attracting a total of over 10 percent of the vote nationally and doing much better than that with millennials.

    "There are lots of potential Clinton voters who could be lost to these third-party candidates," acknowledges Geoff Garin, the pollster for Priorities USA, the Clinton Super PAC. "We are making a first-class effort to reach them through digital media" and saying "that their vote could mean Donald Trump is president."

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September 27th

Robert Downey Jr. honors the American Way

    Let's talk celebrities and politics. Joss Whedon (creator of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV show and director of the two blockbuster "Avengers" movies) has formed a pro-Clinton PAC with $1 million of his own money and is producing a series of videos with big Hollywood celebrities. The first one urges voters to register to vote and features movie and TV stars including Avengers Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo.

    Meanwhile, Donald Trump campaigned Tuesday with boxing promoter Don King and former college basketball coach Bobby Knight, while many are traveling to Ohio on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

    No, voters aren't going to base their vote choice on what some actor or sports hero tells them to do. The celebrities doing these things, whatever their intentions, are probably doing more to promote themselves than to promote their candidate. At best, the direct effects are really small.

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Climate change could be a tougher test than war

    Imagine an entirely plausible scenario for the effects of climate change in 2045. The Greenland ice sheet has melted entirely, adding 20 feet to the oceans. Unprecedented outbreaks of pests have ruined crops of corn, wheat and rice around the world, causing food shortages and riots. In the U.S., the army patrols major cities.

    In such a desperate situation, could the U.S. turn things around by rallying to the cause the way it did during World War II? A new analysis suggests the odds aren't good.

    As global carbon emissions keep increasing, the consequences of climate change are getting very real -- in temperature extremes, droughts, floods and rising sea levels. Even U.S. national security experts are concerned. The scale of the problem could grow quite suddenly if the Earth's climate moves past a key tipping point -- triggering a shift in ocean currents, for example. The worst issues may involve epidemics linked to emergent pathogens, or wars caused by large climate-associated human migrations.

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And Now, Presidential Dog Days

    I think it’s time to talk about the presidential candidates’ pets.

    Look, you need a break. And everybody — or almost everybody — likes an animal story. I’m not quite sure about Donald Trump, but we’ll get to him in a minute.

    Pets, particularly dogs, pop up all the time in White House lore. Richard Nixon might never have even gotten there if he hadn’t used Checkers the cocker spaniel as a diversion from a campaign finance scandal. Lyndon Johnson posed — for reasons we will never understand — picking up his beagle by the ears. The décor at one Obama White House holiday party was many variations on the theme of Bo. This tradition goes way back. James Garfield had a Newfoundland named Veto. Calvin Coolidge seems to have acquired four cats, seven birds, nine dogs, two lion cubs, a raccoon, a bear, a wallaby, an antelope and 13 ducks.

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Russia proves vote fraud can happen anywhere

    When Donald Trump suggested in August that the presidential vote might be rigged, his claim was dismissed by fact-checkers and experts who explained that large-scale electoral fraud is not possible in the U.S. Indeed, it hasn't taken place for generations. And yet it's useful to keep in mind how easy it is to subvert an election system: I know, I come from a country where it happens systematically.

    For 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had a largely fraud-free election system; international observers certified Russian elections as free and fair in the mid-1990s. In the 2000s, however, fraud became widespread, and it determined the outcome of the most recent elections for parliament, on Sept. 18.

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