Archive

May 28th, 2016

The red herring in prosecuting officers

    Why are successful prosecutions of police officers so rare? Monday's acquittal of Baltimore police officer Edward M. Nero in connection with the death of Freddie Gray again raises that sobering question - and some of the usual explanations don't apply here.

    While prosecutors have all too often been reluctant to bring cases against those with whom they work, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged the case promptly and aggressively. While jurors have all too often balked at convicting those sworn to protect them, Nero's case was tried before, and decided by, an experienced judge, who, as a federal civil rights prosecutor, had prosecuted police officers for violations of rights.

    Five officers remain to be tried, and there may yet be convictions, but the Nero acquittal reminds us of the limits of criminal prosecutions as vehicles for social change.

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Sore, Happy Feet on the Pacific Crest Trail

    Every spring or summer, in lieu of professional help, I ditch civilization for the therapy of the wilderness. I’ve just been backpacking with my 18-year-old daughter on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, abandoning our material world for an alternative reality in which the aim is to possess as little as possible — because if you have it, you lug it.

    Our lives were downsized to 10 pounds of possessions each, not counting food and water. We carried backpacks, sleeping bags, jackets, hats, a plastic groundsheet, a tarp in case of rain, a water filter and a tiny roll of duct tape for when things break.

    Few problems in life cannot be solved with duct tape.

    OK, I know I’m supposed to use my column to pontificate about Donald Trump and global crises. But as summer beckons, let me commend such wilderness escapes to all of you, with your loved ones, precisely to find a brief refuge from the pressures of the world.

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Republican Party got the voters it deserved

    Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle thinks people are exaggerating the Republican Party's responsibility for Donald Trump. Blaming the party, she concludes, "is like blaming the weatherman because it's raining, or an economist for a recession."

    True, most Republican party actors resisted the Trump takeover right up to the point, and in some cases even after, all his nomination opponents dropped out. But the Republican Party nevertheless bears plenty of responsibility for the rise of the reality-show star, and many conservatives have acknowledged shortcomings in the party that Trump exploited. The question is still what exactly paved the way for Trump.

    Republicans had encouraged, or at least tolerated, schoolyard taunts and far-fetched conspiracy talk long before Trump's campaign. He started out in Republican presidential politics by accusing the president of not being a U.S citizen, a slur that had been bandied about by many highly visible Republicans. He has now moved on to recycling conspiracy theories from 20 years ago about Hillary Clinton that were promoted at the time by talk-show hosts and Republican members of Congress.

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Putting Free Speech Out to Pasture

    Hard experience teaches that biotech companies, chemical corporations, and other agribusiness giants have no sense of respect for Mother Nature. Now, Rick Friday has learned they have no sense of humor either.

    Friday, a lifelong Iowa farmer, also happens to be a talented, self-taught cartoonist. For 21 years, he supplemented his cattle-raising income by drawing cartoons each week in an Iowa publication called Farm News.

    Friday really enjoyed this side job — until April 30.

    The day before, the News had published his drawing of two hard-hit farmers chatting by a fence about the low prices they were getting for their products. “I wish there were more profits in farming,” mused one.

    “There is,” exclaimed the other. “In year 2015, the CEOs of Monsanto, Dupont, Pioneer, and John Deere combined made more money than 2,129 Iowa farmers.”

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Our Poverty Myth

    If you’re poor, many Americans think, it’s your own fault. It’s a sign of your own moral failing.

    I don’t personally believe that, but the idea has roots in our culture going back centuries.

    In The Wealth of Nations, the foundational work of modern capitalism, Adam Smith extolled the virtues of working hard and being thrifty with money. That wasn’t just the way to get rich, he reasoned — it was morally righteous.

    Sociologist Max Weber took the idea further in describing what he called the Protestant work ethic.

    To Puritans who believed that one was either predestined for heaven or for hell, Weber wrote, working hard and accumulating wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Those who got rich, the Puritans thought, must have been chosen by God for heaven; those who were poor were damned.

    Even major American philanthropists have subscribed to this idea.

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Memorial Weekend Ranting

    Summer is upon us, and we are facing important travel decisions. Such as who to blame when we get stuck in interminable airport lines.

    So many options. There’s the government, but how many times can you can complain about Congress in the course of a lifetime? There’s the public — air traffic up 12 percent since 2011. But really, people, don’t blame yourself.

    Let’s pick a rant that’s good for you, good for me, good for the lines in security: Make the airlines stop charging fees for checked baggage.

    Seems simple, doesn’t it? Plus, if you do manage to make it to your flight, these are the same people who will be announcing there’s a $3 fee if you want a snack.

    The largest airlines charge $25 for the first checked bag, thus encouraging people to drag their belongings through the airport, clogging the X-ray lines and slowing the boarding process as everybody fights to cram one last rolling duffel into the overhead compartment.

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How Sanders and Clinton could heal their rift

    The acrimony between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, inflamed in recent weeks, is likely to be resolved with a series of compromises that will bring relative unity in the weeks after next month's final primaries.

    Limited conversations between supporters of the two candidates have been productive and both sides are guardedly optimistic, despite the sharp barbs the campaigns exchanged in recent weeks. With Clinton almost certain to be the Democratic nominee and polls showing her in a tight race with the presumptive Republican candidate, Donald Trump, Democrats are worried that internal friction could weaken the party in the general election.

    "It's going to take a conscious effort for the winning candidate to be gracious and the opposing candidate to see the larger goal," says Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, D, a Sanders supporter. Although Merkley hasn't had any conversations with the Clinton forces, he expressed confidence that "the road is being paved" for a rapprochement.

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For Obama, human rights begin at home

    First Cuba, now Vietnam.

    President Barack Obama drew the U.S. closer to Vietnam this week, traveling to Hanoi and lifting a decades-long U.S. ban on military sales to the communist regime and strategically located former foe. Human-rights advocates were not inspired.

    "Vietnam has demonstrated itself that it doesn't deserve the closer ties the U.S. is offering," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, to the Washington Post. In an open letter to Obama, Human Rights Watch called Vietnam a "police state" that is "among the most repressive" governments in the world.

    Obama's landmark visit to Cuba in March produced similar consternation over the Castro regime's long history of oppression while also providing eager conservatives with an opportunity, not to be missed, to use the words "Obama" and "Che" in the same sentence.

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Yes, there actually are people who believe the Clintons killed Vince Foster

    The latest thing Donald Trump is talking about not talking about is the 1993 death of White House attorney Vince Foster, which was ruled a suicide by multiple investigations but which "people" -- according to Trump -- believe was a murder orchestrated by the Clintons. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee told The Washington Post's Jose DelReal and Robert Costa that Foster's death was "very fishy."

    "I don't bring it up because I don't know enough to really discuss it," Trump said while bringing it up. "I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don't do that because I don't think it's fair."

    Riiight. Trump isn't talking about Vince Foster. He's just casually mentioning that a bunch of other people think his likely general election opponent and her husband had a guy killed. That's all.

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Why law didn't punish villains in financial crisis

    Historians of the future will want to know why almost no one went to jail in connection with the collapse of mortgage-backed securities that triggered the 2007-8 financial crisis. Monday's appeals court decision reversing a $1.2 billion fraud judgment against Bank of America will be an important part of the answer. To put it bluntly, the law failed -- because the law as it existed didn't properly anticipate or cover the events that occurred.

    The decision, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, was the result of an appeal by Bank of America from a judgment by federal district court Judge Jed Rakoff, the most outspoken judicial critic of how the legal system responded to the crisis.

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