Archive

September 11th, 2016

The damage Trump has wrought in Virginia

    It's been clear that the Virginia GOP establishment despises Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. But an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Sunday morning underlined just how despised he really is.

    With a buttoned-down air of privilege and calm, the conservative newspaper has steadfastly endorsed Republican candidates since at least 1980 and Ronald Reagan. This time around, it is backing Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico who is by turns described as "hard-right" and "fiscally conservative and socially liberal."

    The editorial argued that neither Trump nor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is suited to be head of state. The editors wrote that Trump "has demonstrated again and again that he thinks few people aside from his own magnificent self have any worth whatsoever." Clinton "not only lies with abandon; once caught, she then lies about having lied."

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Sorry folks, veterans are not necessarily experts on foreign policy

    There was something a little icky about last night's "Commander in Chief Forum," though it took me a while to put my finger on it.

    Was it Donald Trump's hair, or his fawning over Vladimir Putin? No, these particular forms of ickiness are nothing new. For the same reason, it can't have been Hillary Clinton's insistence on using the passive voice when describing her decision to use a private email server ("It was something that should not have been done.") That's also old ickiness.

    In the end, it was the event itself.

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Snowden is turning into a liability for Putin

    Edward Snowden is increasingly unhappy with the situation in Russia, where he has lived for more than three years. President Vladimir Putin once welcomed the National Security Agency contractor for his propaganda value, but he may be wondering if it's all been worth it.

    Snowden arrived in Moscow in June 2013. That was almost a year before the Crimea annexation, and Russia could still try to sell itself to radical leftists who admired Snowden as the lesser evil, compared with the Big Brother U.S. Putin talked a lot about Snowden showing obvious delight for thumbing his nose at the U.S., which had tried to intercept the whistle-blower. He described Snowden as a "weird guy," an idealist, who was safe in Russia even though he had no secrets to pass on.

    After Crimea, though, such statements started to appear hollow. "Russia is not the kind of country that hands over fighters for human rights," Putin said at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in May 2014. That the Russian president could talk about human rights after faking a secession referendum in Crimea would have been funny if it weren't so manipulative.

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Mother Teresa ain't so saintly

    Heresy comes in different shapes and sizes. In many ways, like pornography, it depends on the eye of the beholder. But if not buying the idea that Mother Teresa is now Saint Teresa counts as heresy, call me a heretic.

    Unlike most of her critics, I'm willing to admit that Mother Teresa was a wonderful person who lived a saintly life devoted to helping the poor, in India and around the world. It's just too bad Pope Francis had to mess it up by declaring her a saint.

    Let's face it, the whole concept of sainthood is so medieval, dating back to the days when uneducated masses actually believed in angels, dragons, leprechauns, and miracles. The vast majority of today's educated faithful only laugh at the idea that there's a little band of saints floating around somewhere, just waiting, when called on, to intervene in human affairs in ways that defy reason or science.

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How Russia could spark a U.S. electoral disaster

    "U.S. investigates potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections." To those unused to this kind of story, I can imagine that headline, from The Washington Post this week, seemed strange. A secret Russian plot to throw a U.S. election through a massive hack of the electoral system? It sounds like a thriller, or a movie starring Harrison Ford.

    In fact, the scenario under investigation has already taken place, in whole or in part, in other countries. Quite a bit of the story is already unfolding in public; strictly speaking, it's not "secret" or "covert" at all. But because most Americans haven't seen this kind of game played before (most Americans, quite wisely, don't follow political news from Central Europe or Ukraine), I think the scenario needs to be fully spelled out. And so, based on Russia's past tactics in other countries, assuming it acts more or less the same way it acts elsewhere, here's what could happen over the next two months:

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Driving is at a crossroads (sorry!)

    Remember "Peak Car"? Vehicle miles traveled per capita hit an all-time high of just over 10,000 a year in 2004 - then declined for nine straight years, spawning a belief that the car-happy United States might have finally maxed out on driving. Baby boomers were retiring, millennials liked walkable cities, and more workers telecommuted. Futurists touted lower emissions of carbon dioxide and less valuable time wasted in traffic.

    Well, as anyone who rode the interstates this summer can attest, cars are back. Vehicle miles traveled per capita rose in 2014, 2015 and in the first half of 2016, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

    Cheap gas is one reason: A gallon of regular cost an average of$2.24 during the week ending Aug. 29 - about the same, in inflation-adjusted terms, as in 2004. A bigger factor, though, is the slow, steady economic recovery. As Eric Sundquist and Chris McCahill of the University of Wisconsin's State Smart Transportation Initiative have shown, driving correlates even more strongly with gross domestic product growth than with gas prices.

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Computing the social value of Uber. (It's high.)

    How much would be lost if Uber simply went away? That's actually happened in Austin, Texas, and the service has faced legal troubles in France, Spain, Germany and parts of India.

    How much is really at stake? A new paper by Peter Cohen, Robert Hahn, Jonathan Hall, Steven Levitt (of "Freakonomics" fame) and Robert Metcalfe comes up with a pretty good, dollars-and-cents measure of how much UberX, the main Uber service, is improving the lives of its users.

    Based on their study, here are a few ways of framing the value of Uber ride services to Americans:

    - For a typical dollar spent by consumers on UberX, they receive $1.60 worth of gain.

    That's an unusually high amount of "consumer surplus," as it is called by economists. It means there aren't that many close substitutes for Uber at prevailing prices, as moving people around is something the U.S. does not do especially well.

    - UberX produces daily social value of about $18 million.

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Britain's experts are invested in disaster

    David Davis, the U.K.'s new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, made a statement to the House of Commons this week on the meaning of "Brexit means Brexit." Commentators were roundly unimpressed. If I may be allowed to say, their apparent determination to be unimpressed is beginning to grate.

    To be sure, the complaints were partly justified: Davis could have said more about basic objectives. But Britain is at the start of a long negotiation. Neither he nor anybody else can know, much less dictate, the outcome. At this point it's ridiculous to demand a detailed description of Britain's future relationship with the EU.

    The press continues to focus on the government's declared aim of restoring national control of immigration policy -- contrary to the EU's core principle of free movement of workers -- while maintaining maximum access to the union's single market. The EU's standard position has been that you cannot have both. To be a member of the single market you have to accept free movement.

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As a mental health provider, I ask all my patients about guns. Here's why.

    Few topics stir more controvery in this country than guns. Mass shootings and urban gun violence inflame public passions. Gun control measures divide our political leaders, and elections often hinge on candidates' views of guns.

    I struggle with issues related to firearms every day, but in a different way. To me, it's not about politics or elections. It's part of my daily job. As a mental health provider, I have to ask all my patients about guns.

    I spend many of my days and nights caring for patients with psychiatric crises in emergency departments. We address a variety of clinical problems, from hallucinations to delusions to addiction. Suicidality is one of the more common ones. Too often, patients want to hurt themselves or have already tried to do so.

    So why do I ask about guns?

    Because when I think about how patients might harm themselves, guns frighten me the most. As a resident physician in psychiatry, I see some pretty terrible things. Suicidal patients talk about hanging themselves, overdosing, throwing themselves into traffic, and a host of other awful ways to end their lives.

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September 10th

Roger Ailes' empty lawsuit threatens free speech

    The defamation lawsuit that Roger Ailes's lawyer is threatening against New York magazine would seem to have no chance of legal success.

    So why has the former chairman of Fox News bothered to hire the lawyer who brought down Gawker on behalf of Hulk Hogan? The answer is that the threat puts the magazine on the defensive -- and that's a problem for free speech. The First Amendment has been interpreted to protect even defamatory speech against public figures. But as the Hogan case shows, not every court applies the constitutional standard correctly. In that environment, even legally empty threats have a chilling effect.

    First, the law: under the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision, a libel case against a public figure can only succeed if the defamatory statements are both false and made with actual malice. Malice means that either the publication knew the statements were false or else recklessly disregarded the truth.

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