Archive

February 2nd, 2016

A brilliant scientist steps on history's toes

    By any measure, Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, is one of the most important scientists in the world today. His science is groundbreaking, his institutional power is enormous, and his ethical reputation is sterling. Yet Lander now finds himself the target of immense criticism as a result of … trying to do history.

    Lander's essay "The Heroes of Crispr," recently published in the journal Cell, has been attacked for its failure to disclose his research center's stake in a massive patent fight over the extraordinary genome-editing technology Crispr/Cas9, as well as for downplaying the roles of two female scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who are on the other side of what's been called the biggest patent war in the history of biotech.

    What went wrong? The lesson of this kerfuffle isn't only, as some have proposed, that critics are jealous of Lander's influence or opposed to his big-science ideology and accomplishments. It's something more subtle and more interesting: There's a huge difference between doing your job and trying to write the history of that job.

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Plutocrats and Prejudice

    Every time you think that our political discourse can’t get any worse, it does. The Republican primary fight has devolved into a race to the bottom, achieving something you might have thought impossible: making George W. Bush look like a beacon of tolerance and statesmanship. But where is all the nastiness coming from?

    Well, there’s debate about that — and it’s a debate that is at the heart of the Democratic contest.

    Like many people, I’ve described the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an argument between competing theories of change, which it is. But underlying that argument is a deeper dispute about what’s wrong with America, what brought us to the state we’re in.

    To oversimplify a bit — but only, I think, a bit — the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

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Michael Bloomberg, perennial non-candidate

    Wall Street executives are nervous, and not just about the Chinese economy. They're nervous because, here at home, the battle for 2016 looks like it might end up stacked against them. On the Democratic side, the Senator from Wall Street is losing ground to Wall Street's arch-nemesis, Bernie Sanders. On the Republican side, unguided missile Donald Trump, who promises to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, leads the pack. Ted Cruz, no friend of Wall Street either, lurks close behind.

    Yes, Wall Street's nervous. So several financial titans have been making calls to the only man they believe can save them from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders. Wall Street's calling Michael Bloomberg. And, as first reported by The New York Times, Bloomberg is flattered. So flattered, in fact -- or is it so bored? -- that he's already dispatched aides to cobble together a strategy on how to run as an Independent candidate for president in 2016 -- in case Trump and Sanders, or Cruz and Sanders, become the major party nominees. And Bloomberg has indicated he's willing to spend $1 billion of his own money on such a Quixotic bid.

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February 1st

The long, painful road to Iowa

    Politics sometimes moves with lightning speed and in a clear direction. The rise of the New Deal coalition in the midst of the Great Depression is an example of how fast things can change.

    But often, currents of anxiety and rage swirl below the surface. Citizens, stunned by large events and torn by contradictory feelings, can't figure out immediately where they want to go.

     As voting in the 2016 presidential campaign begins, it's apparent that this strange and melodramatic contest was created by the second kind of history. This is the political upheaval that didn't immediately happen after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after the failure of the war in Iraq, after the Great Recession.

    Americans made the best sense they could of these events as they came along. The 9/11 tragedy called forth a spirit of national unity, but it quickly gave way to a renewed partisan acrimony after President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. Divisions worsened as the war bogged down. The Great Recession deepened the backlash against Bush and paved the way to President Obama's victory in 2008.

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The strange wind-up to the Iowa campaign

    Iowa Republicans are poised to brave the cold Monday night to vote in the first presidential precinct caucuses of 2016, apparently none the worse for wear after Donald Trump boycotted the final televised debate there.

    The political world did not collapse because of his absence, as he petulantly attended a rival rally of his own in Des Moines as a benefit for wounded warriors. He took a little verbal heat for playing politics with a noble cause, but only the results Monday night may indicate any substantial voter backlash.

    Instead, the customarily bombastic and aggressive Trump largely saved himself from being the prime target of either the Fox News moderators, who again asked tough questions, or of the other candidates who showed up.

    The attendees, and notably Floridians Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, still hoped to be the party's establishment alternative to the celebrity real-estate mogul, and benefited from more air time by virtue of Trump's absence. The debate lacked much of its spark without him but did provide more focus on the others.

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An Iowa To-Do List

    Iowa Republicans have a lot of choices Monday, none of whom bear any resemblance to the second coming of Abraham Lincoln.

    They’re not going to pick a paragon. But maybe they could at least get rid of somebody awful. Ted Cruz? Please, Iowa, if you could do anything to knock Ted Cruz out of the race, the country would be grateful. I know he has supporters. But the intensity of loathing among the rest of the population is very strong.

    In Iowa, Cruz has been attempting to overcome his personality handicap by visiting every single one of the state’s 99 counties. That’s a sort of tradition, among candidates who don’t know how to prioritize. It didn’t even work on television for Alicia Florrick’s husband on “The Good Wife.” Who, admittedly, was under the handicap of having gone to jail for using public funds to hire prostitutes.

    Probably Cruz felt that since he had failed to endorse Iowa’s most beloved government subsidy — the ethanol program — the least he could do was make his way to the town of Fenton, population 279.

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Why Cheap Oil Isn't Bad for the Environment

    It stood to reason that collapsing prices for oil would make clean energy relatively more expensive. That would dampen the public's craving to install solar panels and build wind turbines.

    Well, let's try to reason again. A lot of opposing forces are shaking the old assumptions. In the jaws of bargain oil, the U.S. Department of Energy expects Americans to increase their use of renewable power this year by almost 10 percent. Why is this time different?

    Consider solar power. Over the past 18 months, the price of oil has fallen by 75 percent, yet the installation of solar panels proceeds apace. The advocacy group Solar Foundation reports that jobs in solar energy increased last year by more than 20 percent. Most of them were for installers.

    As for wind power, Denmark-based Vestas, one of the big three wind-turbine companies, says that business continues to boom in North America, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Its stock price doubled last year.

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Don't rule out an Iowa caucuses surprise

    J. Ann Selzer, who has conducted polling on the Iowa caucuses since 1988, says the contests almost always yield surprises. With each election, it increasingly becomes more difficult to reliably predict the outcome, and this year is the toughest yet.

    Pollster.com lists 20 Iowa Republican caucus polls for January alone. Nate Silver's blog, FiveThirtyEight, bases its Iowa predictions on a weighted average of 19 polls. According to Selzer, who has done polls for Bloomberg and the Des Moines Register, the large number of surveys makes it more difficult to get reliable results: "With low incidence populations like the caucuses, I'm worried about polling fatigue."

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Trump vs. Cruz: Armageddon, Iowa-style

    "Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from this abyss."

    When Sen. Ted Cruz closed his prayerful plea to a crowd of about 150 people here late Tuesday night, the "abyss" he had in mind was something larger than the prospect of a Donald Trump victory in Monday's caucuses. But the final days of the battle for Iowa have come to resemble political Armageddon.

    In fact, it involves two overlapping struggles, beginning with the one for the ideological souls of conservative white evangelical Christians. Are they still motivated, as Cruz hopes, by traditional issues such as abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty? Will solidarity push them toward a candidate who uses evangelical language and comfortably invokes Scripture?

    Or has Trump redefined social conservatism by returning to a harder form of backlash politics that shaped the late 1960s and early '70s? Trump draws in evangelicals on the basis of shared anger and resentment rather than shared faith.

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Jeb Bush's nerdy decency

    Jeb Bush has a cold. "I'm losing my voice, which is not a great sign, but we'll get through this," he tells the employees gathered in the cafeteria of Nationwide Insurance here.

     We'll get through this -- kind of a melancholy epigraph for the Bush 2016 campaign, don't you think? Bush on the campaign trail exudes a kind of nerdy decency, or maybe decent nerdiness -- whatever. It's appealing, but jarringly out of step with the angry, high-decibel atmosphere of this campaign season.

    Bush launches into his remarks, complimenting Iowans on having the least credit card debt per individual of any state, and then he really gets going.

     "All other issues pale in comparison if we don't deal with the structural deficits that we face," he says. Between coughs and sips from a water bottle, he touches on "historical run rates" and the prospect of debt service under rising interest rates. "Imagine if we got to 300 basis points more," he observes.

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