Archive

February 13th, 2016

Public campaign funding is so broken that candidates turned down $292 million in free money

    Sometimes, prosperity can be a sign of failure. Take the $292 million pot of taxpayer dollars that politicians are refusing to touch.

    For years after the public fund for presidential candidates was established in 1974, the biggest worry for its minders at the Federal Election Commission was whether there'd be enough money for all the candidates. Now, despite a sharp decline in the number of people participating in the $3 tax return check-off that funds the program (down from a high of 28 percent in 1977 to less than 6 percent last year), the fund has been growing steadily - because candidates don't want the money anymore.

    Former president George W. Bush began the exodus from the public finance system in 2000, when he refused to take matching funds for the primaries and caucuses. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first candidate to decline public financing in the general election. This year, only one presidential contender sought and qualified for public financing: Martin O'Malley, who has already dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination.

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Oregon is the picture of rosy economic health

    The biggest recent news from Oregon has nothing to do with the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge near the high-desert town of Burns. It's about the state's economic health, the most improved in the United States last year.

    The 27th-largest state, with almost 4 million people, had the best-performing economy in the nation measured by employment, home prices, personal income, tax revenues, mortgage delinquency and the publicly traded equity of its companies, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

    By punching well above its weight in half a dozen comparisons that make up Bloomberg's Economic Evaluation of States, Oregon's economic health index rose the most through the first three quarters of 2015, according to the most recent Bloomberg data. The closest two rivals for No. 1, North Carolina and Michigan, were at least a full percentage point behind Oregon, failing to achieve the same consistency of improvement across the six business, financial and industrial values in the index.

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New Hampshire won't determine anything

    Here is my prediction for New Hampshire: It settles nothing. Despite the most intense eight days of the campaign so far, New Hampshire will end the way it started. Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will win comfortably. New Hampshire will fail to play the role it has so often, that of winnowing the field, and its reputation as a place for dramatic comebacks will be tarnished: A Trump win won't count for much of a turnaround after his second-place win in Iowa.

    Trump has been more lucky than good in New Hampshire. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did the wet work on Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and left him as flummoxed as Arnold Schwarzenegger in this scene from "Total Recall." Rubio, like Schwarzenegger, thought he could sneak through by repeating the same talking points, but he got caught, and what followed wasn't pretty. Advantage: Trump, because any coalescing around Rubio as the Trump alternative is stalled.

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New Hampshire tests candidates on addiction

    Melissa Crews has always voted Democratic, though her husband is a staunch Republican. This year, the family split is coming to an end: Melissa is switching sides, and heroin is the principal reason.

    Crews is board chair at Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, a nonprofit she helped set up last year to battle the state's heroin epidemic. New Hampshire was third in the nation in death rates from overdoses in 2014 (the latest year for which data are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and in the top 10 for the use of illicit drugs other than marijuana. People who work for local nonprofits fighting the rising drug use say at least 100,000 of the state's 1.3 million people need help with addictions.

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Kasich is the Republicans' establishment outsider

    John Kasich doesn't need an exclamation point in his logo. Riding around New Hampshire on his campaign bus -- a blend of camper, office and food court -- the Ohio governor was so charged up last week that even when he sat down to talk, he remained coiled, as if ready to jump into action if we got a flat tire.

    This is glory time for Kasich. Often in danger of being relegated to the kiddie-table debate of Republican candidates, he is now polling at No. 2 with an asterisk in New Hampshire (it's the new No. 1, with the Trump discount). During his last presidential foray, in 2000, he was so unknown outside Washington that voters thought that he'd come to an event "to shovel the snow." Running as a compassionate conservative, he ran smack into another better-financed one named George W. Bush and quickly dropped his bid.

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Iraqi militia war crimes are becoming U.S.'s problem

    Since Iraq began sending tens of thousands of volunteer fighters in 2014 to battle the Islamic State, evidence has mounted that some of these militias have committed atrocities against civilians. But so far, the Iraqi legal system has turned a blind eye.

    Basam Ridha, the Washington representative of what are officially called the Popular Mobilization Forces, told me last week that no Iraqi suspected of murder, torture or arson against the civilian population has been prosecuted by courts or sent to prison. Instead, suspects have usually been detained at military bases for a few weeks and then set free.

    Ridha does not dispute the accusations of abuses by the largely Shiite volunteer forces. "I am not saying it's not happening; it does happen," he told me. "We do have revenges; some of these people volunteer because they lost their loved ones. That's going to happen; we can't stop this."

    He also acknowledged that investigations into these cases have not produced results: "No one has gone to jail. They go inside prison, inside the military camp and usually they get let go."

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February 12th

Palestinian attacks wound Israel's reputation

    Palestinians' recent attacks on Israelis are, at first blush, not an existential threat to Israel. Horrific as the losses are, the future of the state is not in question.

    Or so it seems. But in a closer look, it appears that this round of violence is costing Israel more than the human toll. As the Palestinians clearly intend, the renewed conflict is doing serious damage to Israel's international standing.

    One of the first indications of this swing in public opinion was a comment by Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, who laid part of the blame for November's terrorist attacks in Paris on Israel. "To counteract the radicalization we must go back to the situation such as the one in the Middle East of which not the least the Palestinians see that there is no future: We must either accept a desperate situation or resort to violence," she said not particularly coherently on Swedish television.

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Financial markets don't work as well as we thought

    One of the big unanswered questions in the finance world is: Do returns reflect risk or mispricing? Defenders of the efficient markets hypothesis say that you can't get higher returns without taking more risk, while behavioral finance says that there are often unexploited anomalies that will let wise, patient, or deep-pocketed investors beat the market without taking on more risk.

    This debate is very relevant to the use of factor models. These models, which are used to design investment portfolios with specific characteristics, have been one of the most successful methods to come out of academic finance in the past 40 years. Most financial institutions, and all of the sophisticated ones, now use factor models to measure their risk. Many also use them to optimize their returns. For example, so- called smart beta investing strategies, one of the most popular investing fads of the past decade, are mostly just the application of factor models. You can also now buy exchange- traded funds that take advantage of a wide array of factors.

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Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton

    I’m 51. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.

    I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

    Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her?

    I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

    I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

    That’s right, “Democratic socialism” is a known aphrodisiac: the oyster of politics. There’s nothing like denunciations of oligarchs to put you in the mood.

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A guide for voters torn between Trump and Sanders

    Believe it or not, some voters in New Hampshire and other early-voting states can't make up their minds between Donald Trump, the poll leader among Republicans, and Bernie Sanders, who has a big edge among Democrats.

    The candidates share qualities that are major motivators for voters in this presidential election: outsiderism and freedom from the influence racket that ties lawmakers' hands. Corporate donors, lobbyists and Wall Streeters have no claims on their campaigns. Domineering super PACs have no chains on their souls.

    But there are huge differences between the bombastic billionaire and disheveled socialist. Immigration is a good example. Sure, they agree that the middle class has been dealt a bad hand, and blame porous borders that have let low-paid immigrant workers flow in and displace Americans from good- paying jobs.

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