Archive

February 13th, 2016

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Valentine's Day

    Valentine's Day is upon us. And to think we are still recuperating from Groundhog Day. That's February for you, a gray month of no big flashy celebrations, at least not until President's Day.

    The busier many of us get, the less our demand for outside stimuli. But for those needing to set chronological coordinates, Valentine's Day delivers.

    Valentine's Day, the event, evokes responses ranging from love to hate. It is often held in contempt by the ultra-sophisticated and the partner-less, which are two groups that can overlap. They dismiss the day as a merchandising hook for purveyors of chocolate, flowers or heart-shaped anything -- and a shot-in-the-arm for restaurateurs on a (preferably) non-weekend night. (Is that so bad?)

    One reason to like Valentine's Day is that it's an occasion for which people get dressed up. One reason to dislike Valentine's Day is that only the women get dressed up. This is a generalization, I know, but go to a nice restaurant and observe the ladies in sparkles and manicures and their male partners in un-pressed jeans, their shirts hanging out.

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Why people confess to crimes they didn't commit

    An economics professor made the audacious suggestion a few years ago that the medieval practice of trial by ordeal "worked" because innocent people were more likely than guilty ones to pick up pieces of hot iron or plunge their bare hands into boiling oil. The practice depended on suspects having unwavering faith that God would save the truly innocent from third-degree burns. And the priests in charge could temper the heat, just in case God wasn't paying attention.

    Likewise, less brutal means of psychological manipulation in U.S. criminal investigations may "work" to elicit confessions, but there's a growing scientific case that currently acceptable tactics aren't conducive to discovering the truth.

    The recent mass distribution of videotaped interrogations, such as the ones featured in the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," reveal that confessions aren't always spontaneous acts of contrition, motivated by the need for a clear conscience. The interrogation process can still be something of an ordeal, with confessions coaxed by combinations of psychological pressure, deception and sheer exhaustion.

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Why James Madison would have backed Phoenix's Satanists

    The Phoenix City Council has voted to no longer to begin its meetings with a public prayer. Sounds like a victory for the separation of church and state, right? Maybe even the influence of Justice Elena Kagan's dissent in the Town of Greece case, in which the court's majority allowed such prayers to continue?

    Think again. The Phoenix City Council is banning prayer so that self-described Satanists won't have a chance to give one. The decision isn't about tolerance but intolerance. In the end, that's a good thing, a sign of the establishment clause working -- and of James Madison's First Amendment logic in action.

    The law as clarified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2014 case is the backdrop against which events have unfolded. According to the justices' interpretation of the First Amendment, the city council can hold public prayer at the beginning of its sessions. Congress does it, after all -- and has from the very beginning.

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Why 5 tech companies are undisruptable

    We live in an age of rapid technological change and disruption. Launching revolutionary startups is cheaper and easier than ever. No established company is safe. Except for, you know, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google (Alphabet, if you prefer). Oh, and maybe Microsoft.

    The notion that the biggest tech companies have an unsurmountable advantage is in fashion. "The period where tech startups can readily disrupt larger tech companies is ending," Jessica Lessin wrote last week at The Information. Twitter co- founder and Medium Chief Executive Officer Ev Williams chimed in, arguing that while "it's easier to start a company than ever before, it's harder to compete."

    And last month, New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo anointed the companies listed above "the Frightful Five": "By just about every measure worth collecting, these five American consumer technology companies are getting larger, more entrenched in their own sectors, more powerful in new sectors and better insulated against surprising competition from upstarts."

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What would Founding Founders say about assault weapons?

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has struck down Maryland's law regulating assault weapons, creating a split with the 2nd Circuit, which upheld similar laws in New York and Connecticut. That split could, and probably should, lead the U.S. Supreme Court to take up and decide the issue. It's time therefore to ask: How should the justices treat the question? In particular, what does the right to bear arms, created to preserve a "well-regulated militia," say about assault weapons today?

    The key issue in the 4th Circuit's opinion last week was: Does the Second Amendment even apply to assault weapons? When the 2nd Circuit addressed the issue in October, it assumed without deciding that the amendment applied. To its credit, the 4th Circuit addressed the issue head on, and said the answer was yes, it did apply.

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What Republicans lose if Jeb Bush fails

    There's an opening in the Republican race for president. Businessman Donald Trump seems to be losing interest after losing Iowa. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz may be the top choice of conservative Christians who support carpet-bombing, but he still unnerves many mainline conservatives.

    Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's plans to ride message discipline and policy pliability into consensus support from the party's corporate elite suffered a setback on Saturday night at the Republican debate in New Hampshire. (The Wall Street Journal editorial board, a pillar of that elite, said that Rubio's "gutting by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Saturday was as complete as any we've seen.") Former surgeon Ben Carson appears ready to take his assiduously compiled list of donors and head off for a lucrative retirement.

    "If this were a script," Florida writer Carl Hiaasen wrote last week, "you would now write in a timely entrance by the seasoned, well-credentialed Jeb Bush."

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What money won’t buy, and what it will

    Jeb Bush didn’t exactly get skunked in Iowa. But, well, his 2.9 percent showing meant – let’s put the calculator to it, as political savant Nate Silver did: The $14.9 million he spent on advertising alone there meant he harvested one vote for every $2,844.

    It would have been better for Jeb to have spent it all on corn.

    We’ve been led to assume the contrary, but in presidential politics, as the Beatles once sang, money can’t buy you love.

    The two super PACs Karl Rove assembled to influence the 2012 elections raised a stunning $175 million and accomplished almost nothing.

    Indeed, that year PACs on both sides spent $14 billion. In the presidential race, all that gold didn’t move the needle. Barack Obama entered the 2012 campaign with a 3-point lead in the polls. He won with a margin of, yes, 3 percent.

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The Many Mideast Solutions

    In December at the Brookings Saban Forum on the Middle East, Atlantic magazine reporter Jeff Goldberg asked right-wing former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this provocative question: “Things are shifting radically not only in non-Jewish America but in Jewish America as it concerns Israel and its reputation. My question is: (A) Do you care? (B) What are you going to do about it? And (C) how important is it to you?”

    “To speak frankly, I don’t care,” Lieberman responded, adding that Israel lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Give Lieberman credit for honesty.

    That conversation came back to me as I listened to the Democratic and Republican debates when they briefly veered into foreign policy, with candidates spouting the usual platitudes about standing with our Israeli and Sunni Arab allies. Here’s a news flash: You can retire those platitudes. Whoever becomes the next president will have to deal with a totally different Middle East.

    It will be a Middle East shaped by struggle over a one-state solution, a no-state solution, a non-state solution and a rogue-state solution.

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Stop whining about Iowa, N.H. going first in primaries

    Every four years we hear it: the many, many complaints that Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of the nation yet they get to go first in presidential voting. Black, Hispanic and Asian voters are scarce. There are no major cities.

    But if you accept that the parties choose nominees, it doesn't matter which states vote first. And Iowa and New Hampshire are really national, not local, battles.

    It isn't as if a representative sample of all Democratic or Republican voters chooses the parties' nominees anywhere. Those with clout are the most active members, at the state and national levels -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, donors and activists, formal party officials and staff, party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press.

    Volunteers who travel to Iowa or New Hampshire to participate have the time to do so and, unless campaigns subsidize it, the money to afford it. Campaign staff and political consultants have complex incentives they do not share with ordinary voters, and the donors have their own motives.

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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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