Archive

February 3rd, 2016

The GOP’s Holy War

    In the final, furious days of campaigning here, it was sometimes hard to tell whether this state’s Republicans were poised to vote for a president or a preacher, a commander or a crusader.

    The references to religion were expansive. The talk of it was excessive. A few candidates didn’t just profess the supposed purity of their own faith. They questioned rivals’ piety, with Ted Cruz inevitably leading the way.

    A rally of his devolved into an inquisition of Donald Trump. Speakers mocked Trump’s occasional claims of devout Christianity. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, pointedly recalled Trump’s admission last summer that he never really does penance.

    Cruz, in contrast, “probably gets up every morning and asks God for forgiveness at least a couple of times, even before breakfast,” Perry told the audience.

    The evangelist or the apostate: That’s how the choice was framed. And it underscored the extent to which the Iowa caucuses have turned into an unsettling holy war.

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Pictures that are worth a thousand data points

    From recording police shootings and political protests to capturing street style and celebrity selfies, ubiquitous smart-phone cameras have become a new type of media, changing how the public sees the world.

    The same tools are now systematically collecting new kinds of economically valuable data -- peering into hard-to-reach places, identifying emerging trends and providing a check on official numbers. Particularly useful in developing countries, this grassroots data collection may, like the phones themselves, allow formerly lagging countries to leapfrog 20th-century approaches and establish flexible, nuanced and decentralized ways of answering economic questions.

    Founded in 2012, the San Francisco-based startup Premise began by looking for a way to supplement official price indices with a quick-turnaround measure of inflation and relative currency values. It needed "a scalable, cost-effective way to collect a lot of price data," chief executive David Soloff said in an interview. The answer was an Android app and more than 30,000 smart-phone-wielding contractors in 32 countries.

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Here’s the Beauty of Trump

    The White House has a strange, mind-warping effect on its occupants.

    Presidents are exalted and fawned over. Their every whim is indulged and their image is endlessly and lovingly replicated on every wall. Reaching the pinnacle of power, raised up on the shoulders of Americans to the highest office, often has the perverse consequence of making presidents more paranoid, introverted, insecure, reckless or downright nuts.

    So what would happen if Donald Trump, a clinical narcissist with a thin skin, touchy temperament and taste for flattery, got into the Oval Office?

    I call Trump to tell him my fears. Given that he already likes to start sentences, “Here’s the beauty of me,” wouldn’t we be risking a narcissistic explosion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

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Why you should be grateful for flat-Earthers

    When I was a freshman at Stanford, a physics instructor introduced the topic of relativity by exploding our brains with the following problem: Take a railroad car straight up 50 miles and then drop it. Given that the Earth is curved, shouldn't the ends of the car fall faster than the middle? Shouldn't the stress this places on the railroad car cause it to break into pieces? And if we think all parts of the railroad car fall at a constant speed, why isn't that evidence that the Earth is flat?

    That magnificent morning (I'll explain the adjective shortly) came to mind in the wake of the brouhaha between the eminent physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and the rapper B.o.B. over that very question. To make a long story short, B.o.B. argues that the Earth is indeed flat. He's asserted on Twitter that the rest of us have been "tremendously deceived" and that he is "going up against the greatest liars in history." For what he seems to view as an act of heroic dissent, the rapper has been mocked endlessly.

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Who had the worst week in Washington? Fox News' Roger Ailes

    This past week, Fox News honcho Roger Ailes learned the same lesson the entire GOP field has come to understand in this campaign: When you fight with Donald Trump, you lose.

    Trump began the week by flirting, yet again, with the idea of skipping Thursday's presidential debate on Fox, citing past "unfair" treatment from moderator Megyn Kelly. He even put up a Twitter poll asking his millions of followers what they thought he should do.

    Then Fox did this: "We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president," said a news release, apparently written by Ailes. "A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings."

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The rising pull of the 'change' candidates

Whoever wins Monday in Iowa, and whoever eventually wins the presidential nominations, one thing is already clear: Traditional politics and politicians have failed.

    That glaring fact is still difficult for the establishments of both parties to grasp. I mean, surely Republicans will realize they cannot possibly nominate a populist tycoon, with zero experience in government, who vows to round up and expel 11 million people. Of course it will dawn on Democrats that it is inconceivable to have a self-declared socialist as their standard-bearer. Inevitably the planets will return to their normal orbits and everything will go back to the way it should be.

    Anyone thinking along these lines, I believe, is in for an unpleasant surprise.

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The quiet consensus against Palestinian democracy

    It's rare these days to find anything that Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. and Israel agree on. And yet when it comes to elections there is a quiet consensus against Palestinians choosing their leaders.

    The last time they did was 10 years ago, on Jan. 25, 2006: elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Since then, Palestinian politics have been stuck, while much of the Arab world convulsed in revolution. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is today in the 11th year of a four- year term. Hamas has ruled Gaza since taking the strip by force in 2007.

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The Insurgent vs. The Insider: What Sanders and Clinton can learn from each other

    A steady drip of comments just before the Iowa caucuses has left little doubt: Many former Obama aides consider Hillary Clinton his natural heir. The boss himself has weighed in obliquely, though he has been careful to remain even-handed. "Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose," President Obama told Politico a week ago. "I think Hillary came in with the both privilege -- and burden -- of being perceived as the front-runner." But one former staffer put it pretty directly, saying that Bernie Sanders' campaign "resembles Howard Dean's a lot more than it resembles Barack Obama's."

    It was a clear shorthand for "insurgent who lost" -- fair enough. Obama's the insurgent who won, right?

    But that isn't really the whole story. The Obama organization's strength eight years ago came from its unlikely and somehow functional mix of insurgents and insiders. This time, the two leading Democrats are each succeeding in only half of that equation -- and that's a problem they will both need to solve to have the best chance at winning a general election.

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February 2nd

China trade shock for U.S. workers was avoidable

    In a piece earlier this week, I discussed some of the evidence that American workers have been hurt by free trade since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2000. I criticized economists for presenting a far too glib and confident public case for free trade when scholarly research has begun to show a more mixed picture.

    But that still leaves an enormous question unanswered. What policy steps could the U. S. and other industrialized countries have taken to blunt the worst effects of trade with China? Did policy makers err, or was China's entry into the global trading system simply an unforeseen negative shock to U.S. workers, like a hurricane or volcano? What might have been done differently?

    One thing the U.S. could have done -- had Europe and Japan helped -- is to block China from entering the global trading system. The developed nations, had they so chosen, could have shut China out of the WTO and arranged systems of tariffs to keep Chinese goods out of their markets.

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The Grand Old Party in crisis

    As the Republican Party seeks an electable presidential nominee amid the current reign of public anger and hostility, it seems oblivious to the depth of its internal crisis.

    On the eve of the Iowa precinct caucuses, the GOP appears split in its allegiance and preference between billionaire celebrity Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But Trump is criticized for questionable loyalty to conservative principles, and Cruz is conspicuously despised among Senate GOP colleagues as a self-aggrandizing opportunist.

    Meanwhile, a half-dozen or more others seek to be a consensus alternative, representing what once was considered the moderate establishment center of the party. But there is no such consensus, as each one claims to be the party's only hope to regain its senses, and the presidency in November.

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