Archive

February 5th, 2016

Finding the path between Zika panic and complacency

    No matter how things play out with the fast-spreading Zika virus, people are likely to end up angry at public health authorities.

    It's possible the situation will become worse than expected, both worldwide and in the U.S., where some spread can't be ruled out. Zika may be blamed for some U.S. cases of microcephaly - the birth deformity tentatively linked to the outbreak in Brazil. If that happens, health officials will be slammed for downplaying danger, as they were during the 2014 Ebola crisis.

    Or the epidemic may turn out to be smaller than expected and may never spread within the U.S. In that case, the public will accuse the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization of scaremongering and overreaction, as happened following two fizzled flu outbreaks, bird flu in 2004 and H1N9 in 2009.

    It will be easy in hindsight to pinpoint how the authorities got it wrong, but for the time being they are doing one thing right. In their attempts to impart an appropriate level of concern, both the CDC and WHO are being straightforward with the public about how little is known.

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Can U.S. consumers thrive if corporations don't?

    U.S. workers and consumers (who are for the most part the same people) seem to be doing pretty well at the moment. Businesses, not so much. As Bloomberg reported last week:

    "Consumer spending grew last year by the most since 2005, in spite of a slight slackening in the fourth quarter. Nonresidential business investment, meanwhile, rose at its slowest pace since 2010 as oil and gas companies sharply curtailed spending."

    The story suggested this was a temporary juxtaposition; eventually consumers would pull businesses up, or businesses would drag consumers down. Most economists predict it will be the former and the U.S. economy won't fall into a recession, the story said. Either way, the assumption is that businesses and consumers will eventually get back in sync. That's how things have worked in the past.

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An inequality in well-being matters more than an income gap

    The hot topic in economic policy discussions is inequality. Lots of kinds of inequality have been increasing in the U.S. -- income, wealth, housing, longevity and almost everything else. New data has caused economists and the public to become more alarmed about the extent of the rise, and has allowed people to start having a productive discussion about causes and solutions.

    People on the political right, especially libertarians, are always asking why we should even care about inequality in the first place. That might sound insensitive, but it's actually a very good question. We might worry about inequality because an unequal society grows more slowly, or is more politically unfair or corrupt, or even is less healthy. But one big reason is simply that we care about our fellow citizens, and about other human beings in general. When one person has much more than another, it just feels wrong to many people.

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What Bernie Sanders gets about millennials

    Bernie Sanders is the oldest candidate in the presidential race, but as of now, he seems to be the younger generation's candidate. According to a recent survey, Sanders is favored by 46 percent of voters ages 18 to 34, where Hillary Clinton is preferred by 35 percent.

    What's going on here? Here are two stories, which offer some clues.

    In 2009, the vast majority of Republican senators opposed my nomination to serve as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Democratic senators were overwhelmingly supportive (with the exception of a few relative conservatives). Just one liberal threatened to join the opposition: Sanders, the Vermont senator.

    Before the vote, he agreed to talk to me about his objection. It was simple: I didn't want to regulate "the banks."

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The Trump foreign policy doctrine is revealed

    The whole world is struggling to decipher the worldview and guiding principles Donald Trump would apply as president. It may not be a prominent feature of his campaign, but his advisers say he does have a doctrine that informs his positions on foreign policy and national security.

    Some leading foreign policy pundits are convinced Trump is shooting from the hip on foreign policy, making up glib answers to serious questions like how to defeat the Islamic State or deal with an aggressive Vladimir Putin. Top Republican national security officials who advise other candidates routinely tell reporters they have not heard from the Trump campaign, which leads them to believe he has not sought any expert input before his provocative statements, like lashing out against China or Saudi Arabia.

    Trump's advisers say they're happy to be perplexing. The Washington foreign policy establishment has no idea what to make of Trump's string of declarations, such as his promises to "take" the Islamic State's oil, force Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border, or bar all Muslims from coming to the U.S.

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Rubio and Sanders are the real winners in Iowa

    By the numbers, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, by a millimeter, won the Iowa caucuses.  Still, the race for the top spot was not the big news of the night -- or, in Clinton's case, far into the following day, when the Associated Press finally called the race for her. The real winners were Marco Rubio, with his remarkably strong third-place finish, and Bernie Sanders, with his virtual tie.

      In the short term, Donald Trump was the biggest loser -- true of any front-runner but even truer of a candidate whose campaign raison d'etre is that he is a winner.  Yet in the longer term, if the legacy of Iowa is that it helps propel Rubio to the nomination -- and, sure, that's a big if at this point -- the even bigger loser could be Clinton, facing a general election challenger far more daunting than Trump or Cruz.

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Republicans have the toughest road to unity

    Iowa has exposed the schisms in both political parties. They are deeper, and probably more durable, among Republicans.

    As the caucuses kick off the 2016 presidential race Monday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a small lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- 45 percent to 42 percent -- though both candidates are very popular among the state's Democratic caucus-goers, according to the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll published this weekend.

    Among Republicans, billionaire Donald Trump is leading with 28 percent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has 23 percent and Florida Gov. Marco Rubio, 15 percent. But the divisions are more pronounced than for Democrats: Trump gets negative marks from supporters of the other leading contenders.

    "On the Democratic side, you just have a lot of mutual respect, says J. Ann Selzer, whose Iowa-based Selzer & Co. conducted the poll.

    "The Republican side is more of a bitter war," Selzer said.

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Political establishment can learn a few things from hockey's all-star enforcer

    Does this scenario sound familiar? In a popular uprising, voters rally behind an insurgent outsider candidate. The establishment panics and tries to quash the outsider's campaign. But voters are undeterred, rallying around their candidate by the tens of thousands and leading him to an upstart victory.

    Bernie Sanders? Donald Trump?

    Nope.

    I'm talking about a professional hockey player named John Scott.

    For those who don't follow hockey, Scott is a National Hockey League enforcer who was elected in a grass-roots revolution as captain of the Pacific Division team in the 2016 NHL All-Star Game.

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In Iowa, a final push of sheer raw emotion

    With candidates in both parties racing toward photo finishes in Monday's Iowa caucuses, the issues have receded from view. Instead, the final push is a contest of raw emotion, war, sports, animal magnetism and last-minute gimmicks. I've seen election campaigns up close in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other European countries, but I've never seen one get so personal.

    I wouldn't go so far as to predict the outcome, but the last pre-caucus poll, commissioned by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, meshes with my impressions.

    The final poll has usually called the winners correctly. This year, though, the spread between the leading Democratic candidates is within the 4 percent margin of error, and the top two Republicans' support differs by just 5 percentage points.

    Further data gives an edge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump, which fits what I've seen and heard on the campaign trail in these last frantic days.

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'Hand on the Bible' time for these climate deniers

    On behalf of a planet and its species, I’m asking a certain Texas grand jury if it still has time on its docket.

    I speak of the Harris County grand jury that turned the tables on hucksters who conspired to paint Planned Parenthood as a law-breaker.

    Instead of indicting Houston Planned Parenthood, the grand jury indicted two conniving videographers. David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt now will be tried for painting a lie about Planned Parenthood with their video-editing toys.

    Those of us who applaud this decision, just as we applaud the amazing work of Planned Parenthood, hereby ask the grand jury to consider another case. This, too, involves the same types of players: skilled ideological hit men.

    I got the idea from a piercing Washington Post commentary by Robert Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University.

    Brulle says guileful energy industry players who have seeded so much doubt about climate change and man’s role in it should be investigated.

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