Archive

September 28th, 2016

Five myths about the Middle Ages

    Most Americans get their ideas about the Middle Ages from popular culture, like "Game of Thrones," or from the inevitable rigmarole after a politician refers to "a crusade." In other words, it's all dragons, dastardly politics and religion-inspired violence. Yet, the European Middle Ages - a period spanning more than 1,000 years - was much richer (and weirder) than even some of the best fiction or political spin.

 

Myth No. 1

    Christianity and Islam were constantly in conflict then.

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Companies that discriminate fail (eventually)

    "The corporate world is a boys' club, and it'll always be a boys' club," said a banker who struck up a conversation with me a few years ago in a coffee shop near the university where I once taught. "Male managers are always going to hire men over women, because they feel more comfortable around men."

    "Aren't there some managers who just hire whoever's best for the job?," I asked.

    "Yeah, there are some," he said. "I don't know what's going on with those guys."

    Gary Becker might have had an idea of what was going on. For decades in the mid-20th century, the future Nobel-winning economist wrote about the economics of discrimination. His theory was, in a nutshell, that the people who make hiring decisions at companies are bigoted -- they'd rather work with people of their own race or gender. Essentially, this is the same explanation that the banker gave me in the coffee shop. According to Becker, bigoted employers will pay lower salaries to the people they don't like, resulting in gender and racial wage gaps.

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Clinton's stop-Trump pitch to millennials

    Democrats, fearful that third-party presidential candidates could attract enough millennials to cost Hillary Clinton key states are stepping up efforts to woo young voters with one message: Stop Trump.

    Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and Jill Stein, the left-wing Green Party aspirant, are attracting much of their support from younger voters. Some recent polls show them attracting a total of over 10 percent of the vote nationally and doing much better than that with millennials.

    "There are lots of potential Clinton voters who could be lost to these third-party candidates," acknowledges Geoff Garin, the pollster for Priorities USA, the Clinton Super PAC. "We are making a first-class effort to reach them through digital media" and saying "that their vote could mean Donald Trump is president."

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September 27th

Robert Downey Jr. honors the American Way

    Let's talk celebrities and politics. Joss Whedon (creator of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV show and director of the two blockbuster "Avengers" movies) has formed a pro-Clinton PAC with $1 million of his own money and is producing a series of videos with big Hollywood celebrities. The first one urges voters to register to vote and features movie and TV stars including Avengers Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo.

    Meanwhile, Donald Trump campaigned Tuesday with boxing promoter Don King and former college basketball coach Bobby Knight, while many are traveling to Ohio on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

    No, voters aren't going to base their vote choice on what some actor or sports hero tells them to do. The celebrities doing these things, whatever their intentions, are probably doing more to promote themselves than to promote their candidate. At best, the direct effects are really small.

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Climate change could be a tougher test than war

    Imagine an entirely plausible scenario for the effects of climate change in 2045. The Greenland ice sheet has melted entirely, adding 20 feet to the oceans. Unprecedented outbreaks of pests have ruined crops of corn, wheat and rice around the world, causing food shortages and riots. In the U.S., the army patrols major cities.

    In such a desperate situation, could the U.S. turn things around by rallying to the cause the way it did during World War II? A new analysis suggests the odds aren't good.

    As global carbon emissions keep increasing, the consequences of climate change are getting very real -- in temperature extremes, droughts, floods and rising sea levels. Even U.S. national security experts are concerned. The scale of the problem could grow quite suddenly if the Earth's climate moves past a key tipping point -- triggering a shift in ocean currents, for example. The worst issues may involve epidemics linked to emergent pathogens, or wars caused by large climate-associated human migrations.

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And Now, Presidential Dog Days

    I think it’s time to talk about the presidential candidates’ pets.

    Look, you need a break. And everybody — or almost everybody — likes an animal story. I’m not quite sure about Donald Trump, but we’ll get to him in a minute.

    Pets, particularly dogs, pop up all the time in White House lore. Richard Nixon might never have even gotten there if he hadn’t used Checkers the cocker spaniel as a diversion from a campaign finance scandal. Lyndon Johnson posed — for reasons we will never understand — picking up his beagle by the ears. The décor at one Obama White House holiday party was many variations on the theme of Bo. This tradition goes way back. James Garfield had a Newfoundland named Veto. Calvin Coolidge seems to have acquired four cats, seven birds, nine dogs, two lion cubs, a raccoon, a bear, a wallaby, an antelope and 13 ducks.

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Russia proves vote fraud can happen anywhere

    When Donald Trump suggested in August that the presidential vote might be rigged, his claim was dismissed by fact-checkers and experts who explained that large-scale electoral fraud is not possible in the U.S. Indeed, it hasn't taken place for generations. And yet it's useful to keep in mind how easy it is to subvert an election system: I know, I come from a country where it happens systematically.

    For 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had a largely fraud-free election system; international observers certified Russian elections as free and fair in the mid-1990s. In the 2000s, however, fraud became widespread, and it determined the outcome of the most recent elections for parliament, on Sept. 18.

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Can Donald Trump ever go too far?

    Democrat, Republican, or Independent, can't we all agree? This is the craziest presidential campaign we can remember. The two oldest presidential candidates ever. The two least popular candidates ever. The most qualified and least qualified candidates ever. And the first time ever that one candidate could say anything -- anything -- and get away with it.

    Indeed, more than anything else, the history of the 2016 presidential election will be remembered for the number of times the political commentariat has solemnly declared: "This is it! Donald Trump has finally gone too far" -- only to be proven wrong. And within days they were forced to respond to an even more outrageous outburst.

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Trump's assassination innuendo should disqualify him from presidency

    As Donald Trump's strategists try to soften his image, he has taken his assault against Hillary Clinton to a new level with a bizarre suggestion that would make her more vulnerable to violence from opponents, specifically fervent supporters of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

    Trump's lies are bad enough, such as his recent blatantly false charge that Clinton was the source and origin of his own "birther" conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. But Trump has outdone himself by suggesting that Clinton's Secret Service bodyguards should disarm themselves, which could leave her more vulnerable to assassination attempts.

    At a rally in Miami more than a week ago, Trump said this: "I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons. I think that they should disarm, immediately. Let's see what happens to her. Take the guns away, OK. It'll be very dangerous."

    Many in the crowd applauded and cheered, according to a New York Times report. Trump made the comment in the context of saying Clinton was out to "destroy your Second Amendment," a charge she has denied.

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You're not as rich as you think you are

    The idea that the world is awash in savings -- one factor driving the theory of secular stagnation -- is, on the surface, a persuasive one. Too bad it may not be true.

    Yes, the postwar generation is wealthier than any before it. But the ultimate value of any investment depends upon being able to convert it into cash and thus generate purchasing power. In fact, the world's accumulated wealth -- around $250 trillion, according to Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report -- is almost certainly incapable of realization at its paper value. The headline number thus vastly overstates the supposed savings glut.

    Most of these savings are held in two forms: real estate, primarily principal residences, and retirement portfolios that are invested in stocks and bonds.

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