Archive

February 10th, 2016

Time to take the lead in Syria

    Of the critical global challenges faced by the Obama administration in its final year, Syria may be the most confounding.

    The brutal Syrian civil war has reached a crisis point, with more than 250,000 dead and 12 million Syrians homeless. The cancer of this war has metastasized into neighboring countries and the heart of Europe. It could destabilize the Middle East for a generation.

    We believe that President Obama can no longer avoid providing stronger American leadership to reverse this tidal wave of suffering and violence in the Levant. U.S. strategic interests and our humanitarian responsibilities as the world's strongest country dictate a change of strategy, as well as of heart, in Washington.

    Where the administration has done well, led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, is to launch new negotiations for elections, a transitional government and a cease-fire. Those talks will be difficult to sustain, however, and diplomacy alone is unlikely to be effective.

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The answer to old 'rent or buy?' question is your call

    Should you buy a house or rent? It's one of the most contentious topics among economists and econ writers, and there's still no general agreement. Recently, it was the subject of an online debate between Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University and Timothy B. Lee of Vox. Tabarrok gives reasons why renting is the right financial move, and Lee counters with reasons why buying is smart.

    I'll go over some of these arguments, and add my own thoughts, but here is a preview of my conclusion: If you really want to own a house, buy a house. If it isn't very important for you to own a house, don't do it just for the supposed financial benefits. With this rule of thumb, you can avoid all the complicated back-and-forth and probably get the decision right. But anyway, on to the pros and cons, which are interesting to think about.

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Sanders fights Clinton for 'progressive' with little progress

    The first hour of Thursday night's debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was full of fireworks -- Clinton clearly came out ready to brawl, and Sanders was eager to take her on. The debate was substantive. But it was also, I'm fairly sure, the least policy-specific hour of a Democratic presidential debate ever.

    Instead, the candidates debated ideology, party loyalty, the nature of power in a capitalist system, and other generalizations. They spent an inordinate time (egged on by the MSNBC moderators) discussing what counts toward being a "progressive" (the Democrats, unfortunately in my view, having settled exclusively on that word rather than good old-fashioned "liberal").

    In other words, they sounded a lot like Republicans. I mean, without the sideshow.

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People who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to endorse violence

    On Jan. 26, FBI agents made public a foiled plot against the Freemasons. Samy Mohamed Hamzeh was arrested with a machine gun and silencer. The FBI alleges that he intended to storm the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Milwaukee and kill upwards of 30 people. The complaint quotes him as saying:

    "They are all Masonic; they are playing with the world like a game, man, and we are like asses, we don't know what is going on, these are the ones who are fighting, these are the ones that needs to be killed, not the Shi'iat, because these are the ones who are against us, these are the ones who are making living for us like hell."

    So are people who are prone to believing conspiracy theories prone to violence as well?

    Recent events suggest they are. Robert Dear, who allegedly killed three and injured nine at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs on Nov. 28, 2015, had a history of spouting anti-government conspiracy theories. He encouraged his neighbors to install metal roofing on their homes to prevent the government from spying on them.

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I'm an atheist. So why can't I shake God?

    I spoke in tongues when I was a kid. I went to church twice a week with my mom, stepdad and five siblings. I prayed before every meal, every night before bed and at various times throughout the day. I believed in the Bible, and I feared hell. Until my mid-teens, I was a "born again" Christian who loved God with all her heart. These days, though, I'm an atheist with nothing to prove.

    The story of my departure from the church resembles those of many others who have abandoned the flock. When I was about 16, I started asking questions during services that my youth pastors couldn't or didn't want to answer: Why is it a sin to be gay? Why is it okay to spank children? Where does the Bible say we can't have premarital sex?

    Youth leaders at my church smugly told me, when they answered at all, that I must be struggling with some things in my own heart to be so concerned about these topics; sometimes they pointed to a vague Bible passage. When I persisted, I was told to just "have faith."

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I can't hate the Islamic State's teen soldiers

    As a journalist based in northern Iraq for the past six years, I've seen the war with the Islamic State closer than I'd like. In the summer of 2014, my best friend, a man I'd come to love and respect during my time reporting here, was taken prisoner by the militants. We were more like brothers than friends, and I haven't heard from him since.

    I was filming about 180 miles away on the evening he disappeared. I dropped everything and drove through the night to join a small group of his friends and family. We formed an ad-hoc rescue team, and while the militants stormed west across Iraq, we worked exhaustively to find him. (I can't say more about him, because doing so could put him in further danger.) We were driven by rage and desperation.

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February 9th

Who Hates Obamacare?

    Ted Cruz had a teachable moment in Iowa, although he himself will learn nothing from it. A voter told Cruz the story of his brother-in-law, a barber who had never been able to afford health insurance. He finally got insurance thanks to Obamacare — and discovered that it was too late. He had terminal cancer and nothing could be done.

    The voter asked how the candidate would replace the law that might have saved his brother-in-law if it had been in effect earlier. Needless to say, all he got was boilerplate about government regulations and the usual false claims that Obamacare has destroyed “millions of jobs” and caused premiums to “skyrocket.”

    For the record, job growth since the Affordable Care Act went fully into effect has been the best since the 1990s, and health costs have risen much more slowly than before.

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Hillary Clinton is the establishment

    After Thursday night's debate, I've got a piece of unsolicited advice for Hillary Clinton. Don't use this line again: "Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment."

    The problem with the remark is obvious. Clinton does not merely exemplify the establishment. She and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, are the Democratic Party establishment. We're in the realm of description, not characterization. That candidate Clinton could deliver her line with a straight face goes to the heart of her trustworthiness problem.

    She really believes she can put a line like that over on us?

    Just the night before, in the Derry, New Hampshire, town hall, Clinton had explained her motivation for running for president as "the concerns I had about the Republicans taking back the White House, because I think they wrecked what we achieved in the 1990s with 23 million new jobs and incomes going up for everybody. I did not want to see that happen again."

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GOP candidates slash and bash

    Heading into New Hampshire, the race for the nomination of the once-genteel Republican Party seems to have entered a kind of Mad Max phase.

    It is no surprise that Donald Trump is doing his best to create political mayhem. Trump was uncharacteristically subdued Monday night when he underperformed in Iowa, getting beaten by Ted Cruz and barely holding on to second place. But within 24 hours he was back in form, slashing and burning with abandon.

    Trump seized on Ben Carson's complaint that Cruz's representatives at the Iowa caucuses had cheated, falsely leading Carson supporters to believe that their candidate was pulling out of the race; the message was that if they wanted their votes to count, they should cast them for Cruz. Trump thundered on Twitter that the "state of Iowa" should nullify the results and order a do-over -- never mind that it is the Iowa Republican Party, not the state government, that runs the caucuses.

    "Oh that voter fraud, you know, these politicians are brutal," Trump said at a rally. "They are a bunch of dishonest cookies, I want to tell you."

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Good luck reaching conclusions about monetary policy

    With the U.S. economy mostly recovered from the Great Recession, arguments about monetary policy have died down a bit. But the lessons of the slow recovery are still percolating through the economics profession. The years 2008 through 2014 saw some monetary experiments that were unprecedented in the U.S. -- a long period of zero interest rates, several versions of quantitative easing, new types of forward guidance and the payment of interest on excess reserves. Although these experiments give us a lot of new information, the lessons are not clear, and continue to provoke spirited debate.

    One of the most interesting debaters is Narayana Kocherlakota, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Kocherlakota became famous for switching his outlook on macroeconomic policy -- once among the most hawkish of the inflation hawks, he now wants to use easy monetary policy to boost employment. Kocherlakota has recently begun to make his thoughts known on Twitter, and has started blogging as well.

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