Archive

September 29th, 2016

In praise of good government geeks

    Especially in an election year, federal employees make a tempting target. They are, in the popular imagining, entitled and entrenched, unresponsive to the public for whom they work and uninterested in anything but collecting a paycheck and a cushy pension. You never hear the phrase "bureaucrats in Washington" in a sentence that ends on a positive note.

    The antidote to this unwarranted and corrosive derision arrives every year in the form of the Partnership for Public Service and its Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Better known as the Sammies, the awards recognize the best of America's public servants -- people you've never heard of, who never expected you'd hear of them, but who work long hours for less pay than they could receive in the private sector, to make this a better country and to keep its citizens healthier, safer and more prosperous.

    They tend -- sorry folks -- to be more than a bit nerdy and even more obsessive. The Sammies are Oscars for good government geeks.

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September 28th

How 'if you see something, say something' became our national motto

    This past week, Harry Bains became something of an American hero when he, in his words, "saw something and said something." The New Jersey bar owner spotted Ahmad Khan Rahami, the alleged terrorist charged with littering bombs across New York and New Jersey, sleeping in the doorway of his business. He immediately called the cops.

    "If you see something, say something" has become the unofficial slogan of post-9/11 America. The mantra, posted on billboards and public transportation, turns us all into amateur anti-terrorism crusaders. Any of us, it suggests, could foil the next Osama bin Laden, as long as we stay alert.

    That's not always a good thing. The expression makes us vigilant, but it also makes us paranoid. It's turned us into a country of people who see danger lurking inside every forgotten backpack, making an incredibly remote risk feel imminent. Americans shouldn't be encouraged to live in unreasonable fear.

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How Obama reduced the income gap

    Everyone talks about income inequality these days. President Barack Obama has actually done something about it.

    In terms of the talk, the broad outlines of the story are familiar: In 1979, the top 1 percent of U.S. families received 7 percent of all after-tax income. By 2007, that share had more than doubled to nearly 17 percent. The falling share of income going to everybody else, together with slower productivity, led to disappointing income growth for working- and middle-class families.

    The Obama administration's success in undoing some of this inequality, although reflected in the recent, welcome census report, is less well-known. Most notably, tax changes enacted during this administration have increased the share of income going to the bottom 99 percent of families by more than the tax changes in any administration since at least 1960.

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How to Cover a Charlatan Like Trump

    With presidential debates approaching, we in journalism are locked in a fierce dispute: How should we report on a duplicitous demagogue?

    Traditionally, U.S. reporters respond to a controversy by quoting people on each side and letting the public decide. Some of us have argued that this approach hasn’t worked in this election cycle and that we in the media (particularly some in cable television) have enabled a charlatan by handing him the microphone and not adequately fact-checking what he says.

    If a known con artist peddles a potion that he claims will make people lose 25 pounds and enjoy a better sex life, we don’t just quote the man and a critic; we find ways to signal to readers that he’s a fraud. Why should it be different when the con man runs for president?

    Frankly, we should be discomfited that many Americans have absorbed the idea that Hillary Clinton is less honest than Donald Trump, giving Trump an edge in polls of trustworthiness.

    Hello? There is no comparison.

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A D.C. sidewalk tour of slavery and the black struggle

    This weekend, Washington is the place to be - to see and be seen - at the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Twenty-five years from now, there will be no African American in the United States who was not in this city on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Just as 53 years after the event, there are no African Americans who did not participate in the 1963 March on Washington. And, yes, there is no adult African-American male alive who was not on hand for the Million Man March in 1995.

    Of such stuff history, legacy and myth are made.

    There are, to be sure, other galleries with exhibitions, programs and collections that document African-American life, history and culture. But the African American Museum's opening will go down as a seminal moment, not only for its more than 100-year journey to the historic Mall but also for its achievements in architectural building design, collections and artful presentations.

    The story of slavery and freedom told so movingly inside the museum, however, is also a painful and shameful narrative heard beyond the building's grounds.

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Two types of gun laws: one for blacks and one for whites

    If you are a black man in America, exercising your constitutional right to keep and bear arms can be fatal. You might think the National Rifle Association and its amen chorus would be outraged, but apparently they believe Second Amendment rights are for whites only.

    In reaching that conclusion I am accepting, for the sake of argument, the account given by the Charlotte, North Carolina, police of how they came to fatally shoot Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday. Scott's killing prompted two nights of violent protests that led Gov. Pat McCrory to declare a state of emergency. On Friday, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shot and killed Terence Crutcher -- an unarmed black man -- and the two incidents gave tragic new impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Scott's relatives claim he was unarmed as well. But let's assume that police are telling the truth and he had a handgun. What reason was there for officers to confront him?

    North Carolina, after all, is an open-carry state. A citizen has the right to walk around armed if he or she chooses to do so. The mere fact that someone has a firearm is no reason for police to take action.

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Trump politics of nostalgia are here to stay

    A hankering for a past in which white supremacy and overt sexism were accepted features of daily life has made Donald Trump the most toxic presidential candidate since George Wallace. But the politics of nostalgia, which he embodies and advances, isn't a new package; Trump has simply wrapped it in barbed wire. And even if his campaign ends up short of the White House, nostalgia could still have a long political run.

    The most profound demographic change in America is surely the rapid progression, fueled by immigration, to a nonwhite majority sometime near the middle of this century. That single fact explains much of U.S. politics right now, as Republicans seek to restrict (nonwhite) immigration and make it more difficult (for nonwhites) to vote while their nominee for president makes blatantly racial appeals for votes.

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The Fed's mission is to escape Jupiter

    Over the past couple decades, the Bank of Japan has tried time and again to get interest rates up from zero, only to discover that the zero bound has a peculiarly strong gravitational pull. Although I hope the new measures it announced this week will help, its past experience holds an important lesson for central banks everywhere.

    When interest rates are already near zero, everyone knows that the central bank can't do a lot more to fight adverse shocks. The sense of vulnerability makes any fear of a downturn more likely to become self-fulfilling, as people and businesses cut back on spending. With this constant drag of downside risk, escaping the zero lower bound is like trying to leave Jupiter instead of Earth: The economic rocket has to go a lot faster.

    The metaphor is relevant for the U.S. Federal Reserve. True, the Fed lifted off from its self-imposed quarter-percentage-point lower bound last December. But that's nothing more than igniting the rocket. It must pass through many phases before the launch can be called successful.

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The difference between the Bushes and Trump

    It's hard to be a Bush these days. Liberals still condemn the most recent President Bush for "lying us into war" in Iraq. Even if you credit George W. Bush with benign intentions, his record is undeniably grim. In foreign policy, fiscal policy and much else -- including its catastrophic inattention to the aims and capabilities of Osama bin Laden and to the desperate pleas of a drowning city -- his administration was mostly a disaster.

    Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is easily mocked. He raised (and his super-PAC spent) an enormous sum in pursuit of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The famed "Bush family network" was activated. Yet the candidate was flat-footed and outmatched in debate against an opponent who proved spectacularly ignorant of public issues and whose most sophisticated techniques amounted to playground taunts. Bush's remarkable fundraising and unquestioned expertise got him nowhere.

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No, racism did not start with President Obama

    Days before the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture near the Washington Monument, a couple of bizarre political developments illustrated why we Americans need it.

    And I do mean all Americans. "Even if you think this isn't your story," as the museum's director Lonnie G. Bunch III recently told the Washington Post, "it is."

    That's a reasonable response to the cynical wags and trolls who pepper Internet comment threads with sarcastic objections like, "I thought segregation was over" and "When are we going to have a museum for white people?"

    We've got 'em, pal. But having visited museums of various sorts across this great land of ours, I am happy to report that the contributions made by Americans of color to our national narrative are increasingly included. Diversity is in. Conscientious curators like Bunch, former head of the Chicago Historical Society, have made a difference.

    Yet too many of us Americans still harbor woefully incomplete views of life on the other side of our racial divide.

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