Archive

April 23rd, 2016

Obama is right to urge Britons to stay in the EU

    This week, U.S. President Barack Obama will dive into a nest of vipers as venomous as anything Republicans can offer: Britain's debate over whether to leave the European Union. As far as campaigners for "Brexit" are concerned, he is a most unwelcome guest.

    Yet Obama is right to speak up. The U.S. has an interest in Britain remaining in the EU, and that gives him an obligation to articulate what that interest is. U.K. voters need to hear what he has to say, because proponents of leaving the EU have already involved the U.S. in their campaign.

    When he visits this week, Obama plans to say that the U.S. would prefer to see Britain stay in the EU. That's awkward for the "Out-ers." They argue that Britain should swap Europe for a tighter alliance with its true friends in the Anglosphere, above all the U.S. But if the friends who are supposed to welcome Britain think that's a daft idea, perhaps it also isn't a very good one.

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Obama administration urges states to revisit Iran laws

    After lifting international and federal sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program, the Barack Obama administration is turning its attention to state governments.

    On April 8, the State Department's lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, Stephen Mull, sent letters to the governors of all 50 states as well as some local officials. He asked them to reconsider any laws on the books that called for divesting state funds, such as pensions, from businesses interacting with Iran's economy, or laws that would deny contracts to companies that do business with Iran.

    The State Department has signaled this might be coming. Over the summer, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress he would be asking states not to interfere with the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which relaxes some economic sanctions.

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No country for old generals

    A handful of Republican activists are waging a long-shot campaign to persuade retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to run for president and save the GOP from potential electoral disaster this fall.

    On paper, they seem to have a strong argument. GOP front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are deeply unpopular with broad swaths of the voting public. Retired generals like Mattis, by contrast, convey an aura of competence and courage, inspiring confidence that they will keep the country safe in dangerous times. With no record in elected office, former generals have no political baggage to alienate voters, and they are associated with one of the few American institutions that still enjoys wide public support.

    But there has been no indication that the Republican leadership - or the country at large - is clamoring for a general to step into the race. There is also no sign that the 65-year-old Mattis wants the job or has the patience to enter the polarized and increasingly nasty political arena.

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Is God a pasta monster? That's a legal question

    What's a religion? The question is fundamental to the legal analysis of religious freedom, yet courts avoid addressing it. The Supreme Court has never given a concrete answer. The result: Courts don't claim to be able to define religion, but think they know it when they see it.

    The consequences can be surprising. Ten days ago I wrote about a case in which an appeals court expressed skepticism about whether a religion based on the use of traditional Native American hallucinatory substances was really a religion. And just last week a federal district court rejected a prisoner's religious-liberty claim on the ground that his faith, Pastafarianism, is a parody of religion rather than religion itself.

    The facts of the parody case are entertaining -- but they're also important. As it turns out, the adherents of the parody religion are engaging an important set of claims about religion. Their claims are both theological and constitutional. And they may press the courts to create new law on the topic of religious liberty.

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Deadly cars aren't a profit opportunity

    After a 17-year-old Texas woman became the 10th American killed by exploding Takata airbags last month, it was revealed that while the vehicle had been recalled, it had never been taken in for repair. This is tragic but not surprising: Only about a third of the nearly 29 million recalled Takata airbags have actually been replaced.

    This frustrating trend goes well beyond airbags. A year and a half after recalling a decade-old ignition-switch defect linked to the deaths of 124 people, GM had still repaired only 70 percent of the devices. Despite offering customers gift cards to Starbucks and Bass Pro Shops as inducements, GM did worse than the industry's 75 percent average recall repair rate after 18 months.

    The industry, which faces fines over unrepaired vehicles, has had so little luck convincing consumers to go in for recall repairs made that the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sent a plaint to the major insurance companies asking for "assistance in establishing a new way to provide vehicle owners with information about any open safety recalls that may affect their car or truck."

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America is nowhere close to having a debt crisis

    There are sometimes good reasons to be worried about the U.S. national debt. The debt has to be serviced, and that requires collecting taxes, which distort the economy. If government debt gets so large that the only way to avoid a default is to hold down interest rates forever, those low rates can eventually have negative effects on the economy. In the worst-case scenario, investors can lose their confidence in a government's ability to repay its debt, forcing the central bank to print money to fund the government, which raises the risk of inflation.

    The U.S. is nowhere near this point, however. The national debt is modest and sustainable, and the federal government's borrowing has been remarkably responsible.

    You wouldn't know this from reading the breathless debt hysterics in the media. Just recently, Time ran a cover story titled "The United States of Insolvency." It simultaneously ran other debt scare stories, such as one by Maya MacGuineas, who heads two think tanks devoted to lobbying for lower government debt. According to Time's article, every American owes about $43,000 because of the national debt.

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Sanders and the Deep South

    Bernie Sanders had an odd, and for me, unsettling comment at the Democratic debate in Brooklyn on Thursday night.

    When CNN’s Dana Bash asked if he planned to take his nomination fight to the Democratic convention if Hillary Clinton does not clinch the nomination with pledged delegates alone, Sanders responded:

    “Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South. No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact. But you know what? We’re out of the Deep South now. And we’re moving up.”

    He went on to tout having won seven of the last eight caucuses and primaries. (In fact, of those seven, all except Wisconsin were caucuses, which are undemocratic in their own right.)

    This wasn’t the first time in recent days that Sanders said something about voters in the Deep South that landed on my ear as belittling and dismissive.

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Robber Baron Recessions

    When Verizon workers went on strike last week, they were mainly protesting efforts to outsource work to low-wage, non-union contractors. But they were also angry about the company’s unwillingness to invest in its own business. In particular, Verizon has shown a remarkable lack of interest in expanding its Fios high-speed Internet network, despite strong demand.

    But why doesn’t Verizon want to invest? Probably because it doesn’t have to: many customers have no place else to go, so the company can treat its broadband business as a cash cow, with no need to spend money on providing better service (or, speaking from personal experience, on maintaining existing service).

    And Verizon’s case isn’t unique. In recent years many economists, including people like Larry Summers and yours truly, have come to the conclusion that growing monopoly power is a big problem for the U.S. economy — and not just because it raises profits at the expense of wages. Verizon-type stories, in which lack of competition reduces the incentive to invest, may contribute to persistent economic weakness.

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Obama's saddest legacy

    Shortly after the fall of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, to the Islamic State in June 2014, a delegation of senior officials from Iraqi Kurdistan visited Washington with a troubling question: From where, they asked, would the force come to retake the city? The Iraqi army was too shattered, and the Kurds were too weak, and outside powers such as Turkey and the United States were unwilling to commit ground forces.

    A lot has happened in the nearly two years since then. Among other things, the Obama administration has retrained nearly 20,000 Iraqi troops, dispatched some 5,000 U.S. trainers, Marines and special operations forces to the area, and launched more than 11,000 combat air sorties against Islamic State targets. Yet when another senior Kurdish delegation circulated through Washington last week, their question about Mosul was unchanged: Who is going to do this?

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April 20th

A Democratic flashback to 2008, or to 1980?

    Is the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders more like 2008 or 1980?

    In other words, more like the contest between Clinton and Barack Obama, a long, sometimes acrimonious fight that ultimately ended in a unified party winning the presidency?

    Or more like the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy, an ideological brawl that dragged on through the convention and eventually saw the incumbent Democratic president defeated?

    Democrats need to hope for 2008 and, for now, that race seems the more relevant precedent. Yet they have reasons to fear a 1980 repeat -- and some who lived through that campaign are having unwelcome flashbacks to its length, bitterness and disappointing result.

    The argument that 2016 more closely resembles 2008 rests on the important caution that, notwithstanding Thursday's gloves-off debate, hard-fought campaigns tend to get to this level of invective, if not beyond. These wounds always seem gaping at the time; they tend to heal faster than expected.

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