Archive

September 22nd, 2016

Trump starts sweeping out his barn

    As Donald Trump heads into the last seven weeks of the presidential campaign, he is trying to clean up the various lies, exaggerations, insults and bigotries that have fueled his White House bid from the start.

    His latest effort is his very tardy attempt to get off the table his wholly unfounded claim that Barack Obama was not a native-born American, and hence illegally elected president in 2008, long after Obama produced the official certificate verifying his birth in Hawaii..

    Almost laughably, Trump treated his admission of gross error as merely a minor matter of no consequence, as if he were correcting a misspelling. He declared he had chosen not to continue the smear, perhaps in the vain hope of boosting his dismal support among African-American voters.

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Trump quits 'birtherism,' but not lying

    News Flash: Donald Trump now believes that President Barack Obama was born in the country of which he is president.

    That news may be a relief to the president, although I doubt that he was losing much sleep over it.

    After a night of oddly competing statements from Trump and his own campaign team, the Republican presidential nominee's announced three things at his new Washington, D.C., hotel.

    Two of those things were false. "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy," he declared on Friday morning. "I finished it. I finished it."

    No, there's no evidence that his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton or her campaign had anything to do with starting birtherism, as PolitiFact found in 2015.

    But the bizarre "birther" movement was fading in 2011 when Trump, the TV star and real estate developer, gave it new life through his well-developed capacity for self-promotion.

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Americans, stop talking yourselves down

    I arrived in the United States in 1996 as a foreign correspondent for the Economist. Like many young journalists from Europe, I was instantly won over by the country's infectious optimism. By most objective measures, the United States was as unequal, class-bound and divided as my own Britain; but it differed fundamentally in its outlook. For some strange reason, nearly all Americans perceived themselves as "middle class." They believed, without asking for evidence, that things were improving - or that if they weren't, they would. It was as though the entire nation had been subjected to a particularly uplifting course of cognitive behavioral therapy. Smother feelings of resentment. Will yourself to be upbeat.

    Two decades later, Americans are in danger of succumbing to the opposite mentality. The sunny affability of Ronald Reagan has been displaced by Donald Trump's dystopian rants about the United States "losing"; the nation's real challenges are blown out of all proportion by a toxic public discourse that accentuates the negative. Suddenly, privileged, cosmopolitan Americans are obsessed with how much they are resented by their compatriots. A supposedly classless society is seized by its internal divisions.

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Would You Hide a Jew From the Nazis?

    When representatives from the United States and other countries gathered in Evian, France, in 1938 to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis caused by the Nazis, they exuded sympathy for Jews — and excuses about why they couldn’t admit them. Unto the breach stepped a 33-year-old woman from Massachusetts named Martha Sharp.

    With steely nerve, she led one anti-Nazi journalist through police checkpoints in Nazi-occupied Prague to safety by pretending that he was her husband.

    Another time, she smuggled prominent Jewish opponents of Nazism, including a leading surgeon and two journalists, by train through Germany, by pretending that they were her household workers.

    “If the Gestapo should charge us with assisting the refugees to escape, prison would be a light sentence,” she later wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Torture and death were the usual punishments.”

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Why College Rankings Are a Joke

    Shortly before the newest U.S. News & World Report college rankings came out last week, I got a fresh glimpse of how ridiculous they can be — and of why panicked high school seniors and their status-conscious parents should not spend the next months obsessing over them.

    I was reporting a column on how few veterans are admitted to elite colleges and stumbled across a U.S. News subranking of top schools for veterans. Its irrelevance floored me. It merely mirrored the general rankings — same institutions, same order — minus the minority of prominent schools that don’t participate in certain federal education benefits for veterans.

    It didn’t take into account whether there were many — or, for that matter, any — veterans on a given campus. It didn’t reflect what support for them did or didn’t exist.

    It was just another way to package and peddle the overall U.S. News rankings, illustrating the extent to which they’re a marketing ploy. No wonder so many college presidents, provosts and deans of admissions express disdain for them. How sad that they participate in them nonetheless.

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Airbnb's anti-discrimination policy gets it right

    We have the right to pick and choose our friends, romantic partners and guests. And there are laws to ensure that hotels or restaurants can't discriminate on the basis of race or sex or national origin. What's less clear is which of these standards should apply to sharing-economy services such as Airbnb, which fall somewhere in between the public and private spheres: The host is renting space, but that space is otherwise private and the host often lives there.

    In general, the Civil Rights Act prohibits race and sex discrimination in "public accommodations" such as hotels and lunch counters. And the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in long-term rentals and sales. But courts haven't yet held that these federal laws cover an overnight stay in a private home.

    The policy that Airbnb announced this month goes beyond what the law may or may not require. It says that hosts can't discriminate on the basis of "race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status." It allows hosts to restrict their rentals to people of the same gender as the host -- if and only if the host shares living spaces with the guest.

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September 21st

Getting the balance right on infrastructure spending

    The big guns are coming out in the battle over infrastructure spending. Larry Summers, a celebrated Harvard economist and veteran policy adviser, has a new article making the case for spending more. Ed Glaeser, a brilliant and versatile colleague of Summers' who studies urban economics, has an article making the opposite case.

    Though both make many good points, I think Summers has the upper hand.

    First, there's one type of infrastructure spending that everyone should agree we need: repair and maintenance. Although Glaeser talks at length about high-speed rail and other new infrastructure, which may not pay off, even he recognizes that maintaining existing transportation networks is likely to yield high returns.

    A well-known 1988 Congressional Budget Office survey found that spending to maintain current highways in good shape produces returns of 30 percent to 40 percent.

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A better way to assess a candidate's health

    American voters have received, we are told, all they are going to get from their presidential candidates in the way of medical information. In light of Hillary Clinton's initially (and, if she had her way, permanently) undisclosed pneumonia, in light of Donald Trump's unhealthy body mass index and buffoonish physician, in light of both candidates' relatively advanced ages, this move-right-along admonition is unsettling and unsatisfying.

    Experts have raised reasonable questions about Clinton's medical care and history, including her record of blood clots and the use of the blood thinner Coumadin to treat them. And you don't have to be an expert to know that there are reasonable questions about Trump's health, given the willingness of his doctor to issue the assurance that "unequivocally" Trump "will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." No one should trust a doctor like that.

    One proposed solution would be for the candidates to submit to the "full McCain," a reference to the Arizona Republican senator's decision to allow reporters to review his full medical records, albeit for a single, three-hour window.

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Why Obama is giving old secrets to our allies

    When Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Chile in October to attend an international conference on ocean preservation, he carried something that had nothing to do with environmental collaboration. The computer disk he brought contained 282 newly-declassified records on Gen. Augusto Pinochet's role in a brazen act of international terrorism in Washington, D.C. The car bombing in Sheridan Circle that occurred 40 years ago this week took the lives of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his 25-year old colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Kerry personally handed the disk of documents to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

    Last month, when Kerry flew to Buenos Aires for trade talks, he carried another disk, this one loaded with 1,078 pages of records on the Argentine "dirty war" of repression during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Kerry gave those documents to President Mauricio Macri and promised "more to come in the future."

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Voters barely worry about their own health. Do they really care about the president's?

    The first of three planned presidential debates will take place at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26. Maybe it's good the debate is slated for a gym. If Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are really serious about proving their physical vigor and stamina, they can do laps in the arena while they answer questions.

    Clinton, of course, had to leave a 9/11 commemoration in New York early last Sunday, suffering from dehydration and a case of pneumonia. The infection had been diagnosed two days earlier, after she saw a doctor for a cough that had drawn intense interest from the ready-to-pounce conservative media. The only real health issue the illness raised is whether she had received the recommended vaccines to prevent pneumonia in people over 65 - something the 70-year-old Trump should be asked, as well.

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