Archive

November 5th, 2015

Congress finds a slush fund

    Americans in 2014 were 75 percent less likely to be victims of violent crime than in 1993, and 66 percent less likely to be victims of property crime. These figures, from a Justice Department survey, do not include homicide - but murder, too, is down significantly despite a recent uptick in some cities.

    So if there are fewer and fewer victims, why is the Justice Department setting aside more and more money for their exclusive benefit? Between 2000 and 2014, the Crime Victims Fund's balance grew from zero to $11.8 billion, about equal to Nicaragua's entire economic outputlast year.

    This incongruity is the subject for today's lesson in How Washington Really Works. Along the way, you'll also learn why the Republican Congress and President Obama slapped together their budget deal as they did.

    Mass incarceration is our criminal justice issue du jour. In the tough-on-crime days of 30 years ago, however, "victims' rights" was all the rage.

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Can Jeb Bush Even Spell Integrity?

    If you’re a presidential aspirant and you have to tell people you’re a person of integrity, chances are you’re not.

    Those odds get worse if you have to hire someone else to attest to your honor. How intriguing, then, that Kristy Campbell — a spokeswoman for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign — felt moved to tell us that “Jeb’s record” is “one of integrity.”

    This testimonial from a paid flack follows the still-evolving news story that Bush immediately cashed in on his name and state government contacts after leaving the Florida governor’s office in 2007. Jeb became a richly paid legislative consultant and board member to major corporations that had received lucrative benefits from his own administration.

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Big Oil Can’t Go On Like This

    Ensuring that our planet remains hospitable requires leaving about three-quarters of all oil, gas, and coal deposits underground or beneath the sea floor. And forgoing all those fossil fuels to avert a climate catastrophe means that loads of companies need to change the way they do business — or go out of business.

    So it’s a relief to see Big Oil begin to scale back. But BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, and their competitors aren’t doing that because they’re worried about the climate. They’re just scrambling to keep the industry’s relatively high dividends flowing in this era of cheap oil.

    “By the end of the year there will be about 4,000 fewer BP employees than at the start,” BP chief executive Bob Dudley said when he announced the company’s lousy performance between June and September. In addition to firing workers, the London-based company has slashed spending on new exploration and drilling to adjust to what this CEO calls a “new price environment.”

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Can Ben Carson really be a Barry Goldwater?

    No, the Republican presidential nomination fight this year is nothing like 1964, despite the speculationof veteran pollster Peter Hart and others. And while it's possible, it isn't especially likely the general election will wind up like 1964, either.

    Hart raised the possibility of such a connection in commenting on Ben Carson's rise in the polls (including a survey conducted by Hart's outfit) and on how enduring those gains might be. "What if the cake is baked?" he said. "This is not a status-quo electorate."

    But back in 1964 the Republican Party was a coalition of conservatives, moderates and liberals. Republicans of all ideological stripes were elected to Congress then. The conservatives opposed the foreign policy of engaging with the world through multinational treaties and organizations such as the United Nations. They opposed what would become the Great Society and, though they were nowhere near as explicitly bigoted as Democratic conservatives were on civil rights, they nevertheless opposed most civil-rights legislation.

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A harsh sentence for statutory rape

    Owen Labrie behaved despicably. As a senior at St. Paul's, the elite New Hampshire prep school, he lured a 15-year-old freshman into having sex with him, as part of a repulsive tradition known as "senior salute," in which graduating boys compete to "slay" the greatest number of girls.

     And yet, I find myself unsettled over the harshness of Labrie's sentence. Not so much the year in jail -- about that I remain hopelessly conflicted -- but about his lifetime branding as a sex offender. The laws used to prosecute his actions and land him on the sex offender registry were not intended for such situations, nor does the punishment fulfill the statutes' intended purpose.

     Labrie was charged with raping the freshman, but acquitted of that crime -- correctly so, in my view. The evidence was muddled about whether the girl clearly communicated her lack of consent. She seemed flattered by attention from the soccer captain on his way to Harvard on a full scholarship, and reluctant to protest because "I didn't want to come off as an inexperienced little girl. ... I was trying to be cool."

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What economists don't get about climate change

    Economists tend to see climate change as a big optimization problem: Weigh the potential costs of future disasters against the benefits of fossil-fueled economic growth, and find a price of carbon that will balance the two. Unfortunately, it's an illusory goal.

    Consider, for example, a recent study by Yale University's Kenneth Gillingham and colleagues. Using a collection of so- called "integrated" models of climate and the economy, they seek to get a better handle on how various uncertainties -- in weather, population growth and technological development -- might affect the price that policy makers should put on carbon. Their conclusion: No matter what happens, the optimal price in 2020 would probably be no more than about $50 per ton.

    The paper's appearance may be timed to influence policymakers at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which begins at the end of this month. It really shouldn't, because it feigns certainty in areas where none is to be had.

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The Catholic Church’s Sins Are Ours

    It’s fashionable among some conservatives to rail that there’s insufficient respect for religion in America and that religious people are marginalized, even vilified.

    That’s bunk. In more places and instances than not, they get special accommodation and the benefit of the doubt. Because they talk of God, they’re assumed to be good. There’s a reluctance to besmirch them, an unwillingness to cross them.

    The new movie “Spotlight,” based on real events, illuminates this brilliantly.

    “Spotlight” — which opens in New York, Los Angeles and Boston on Friday and nationwide later this month — chronicles the painstaking manner in which editors and writers at The Boston Globe documented a pattern of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and the concealment of these crimes by Catholic leaders.

    Because of the movie’s focus on the digging and dot-connecting that go into investigative reporting, it has invited comparisons to “All the President’s Men.”

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Speaker Ryan is the one who can't be trusted on immigration reform

    When it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, everything old is new again. All the obstruction and careless rhetoric about not trusting the president flung around by former House speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was picked up by new Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. And just because Ryan says it with such conviction doesn't make what he says true.

    Ryan made his unprompted assertion during an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd that aired Sunday on "Meet the Press." Let's unpack what Ryan said, shall we?

    "The president has proven himself untrustworthy on this issue, because he tried to unilaterally rewrite the law himself." The speaker is referring to the executive actions the president took a year ago to address some of the festering issues around illegal immigration.

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Remarkable turn for Incarceration Nation

    It’s not true that nothing gets done in Congress.

    You can’t have a resolution designating “National Day of the American Cowboy” and a designation of “Hockey is for Everyone Month” without bipartisan cooperation. Give our most embarrassing public institution some credit.

    Sure, generally what emanates from those corridors has all the functionality of a wad of gum under a bar stool. It’s not even good for display purposes. And yet, I can report that something miraculous – more miraculously, something bipartisan – is happening right now.

    Without any true mandate from well-fed and oblivious constituents, players from both sides of the aisle are addressing one of America’s most serious injustices.

    The Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted by a lopsided bipartisan margin – 15-5 – to reverse a tragically oppressive, generation-long build-up of our prison population.

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Finland may pay citizens just for being Finns

    Finland could become the first country to introduce a universal basic income.

    An official at the Finnish Social Insurance Institution, known as KELA, said last week that each Finn could receive 800 euros ($876) a month, tax free, that would replace existing benefits. Full implementation would be preceded by a pilot stage, during which the basic income payout would be 550 euros and some benefits would remain.

    KELA will present a proposal by November 2016, but for now the idea sounds unrealistic. Finland has one of the European Union's shakier economies. It has been in recession almost continually since mid-2012 and lacks growth opportunities. The traditionally strong pulp and paper industry is in decline and the tech sector hasn't lived up to expectations after Nokia lost its place as the mobile-phone market leader. Giving 800 euros a month to every Finn (the population is 5.4 million) would cost 52.2 billion euros a year, and the government projects revenue of 49.1 billion euros for 2016.

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