Archive

January 23rd, 2016

Obama Takes a Walk on the Greener Side

    Until now, President Barack Obama has embraced gas and oil fracking, encouraged the construction of new nuclear reactors, and hailed government investment in wind and solar power. In keeping with this “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, he’d call for climate action one minute and sign off on measures destined to boost carbon pollution the next.

    Suddenly, it looks like Obama may have ditched his inherently contradictory approach.

    “We’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy,” he asserted during his final State of the Union address. “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

    Just three days later, the Obama administration moved in that direction by declaring a three-year moratorium on new leases to mine coal from federal land.

    Obama’s speech also cast switching to renewable energy and phasing out fossil fuels in a business-friendly light.

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Let’s Put Prison Sentences on Probation

    You may have heard there’s a growing political movement against mass incarceration. Someone should clue in the judges.

    In the past 30 years, federal judges have turned to imprisonment — as opposed to probation — as the punishment of choice for even minor crimes, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. During that same period, federal cases have tripled in number.

    The Pew study reports that “nine in 10 federal offenders received prison sentences in 2014, up from less than half in 1980, as the use of probation steadily declined.” Despite the ballooning number of cases in that time, 2014 saw 2,300 fewer probation sentences than 1980.

    Part of the fault lies with the draconian mandatory minimum sentences that Congress passed in the 1980s and 1990s as it ratcheted up the so-called war on drugs. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a group at Harvard Law School in mid-January that these laws have had a “devastating effect on poor communities, and were a drastic and ineffective response to the drug scourge of the 1980s.”

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Justices only tinker with death-penalty rules

    Any remaining suspicion that the Supreme Court is soft on the death penalty should be dispelled by Wednesday's judgment in two cases challenging capital sentences in Kansas. In an 8-1 decision, the justices reinstated two death sentences that had been overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court.

    The state court had said that jurors must be told expressly that mitigating circumstances introduced by the defense didn't need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, as findings for the prosecution must be proved. But the U.S. Supreme Court said no such instruction was necessary. Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, which means that the other three liberals joined the opinion, including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who've said they think the death penalty in general is unconstitutional.

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Judging a bribe is hard if it's unsuccessful

    Who put the quid in the quid pro quo? Was it the same person who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong? The Supreme Court said Friday that it would consider a version of this eternal question in the appeal of Bob McDonnell, the convicted former governor of Virginia.

    To be specific, the court will decide whether the federal crime of bribing an official requires that the official actually do something specific in return for the bribe, or whether it's enough for the official to do his usual job while generally hoping to influence policy in favor of the person who gave the bribe. The issue has major significance for all public officials -- and for the private actors who hope to influence them, whether legally or illegally.

    The basic facts of McDonnell's case: Jonnie Williams Sr., the chief executive of Star Scientific, a dietary supplement company, hoped to get public universities in Virginia to test a tobacco-based anti-inflammatory product called Anatabloc. Granted immunity by the court, Williams testified that, in pursuit of that goal, he gave McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, more than $175,000 worth of gifts, including a Rolex watch.

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If you want to 'change the world,' keep it to yourself

    Whenever I hear people saying they want to "change the world," I get suspicious. Do they want to change it for the better or for the worse? If it's the former, what makes them think they know enough to do that? Wouldn't it be more realistic and less arrogant to try to change their companies or their neighborhoods -- or maybe just themselves?

    Still, it's a popular goal. There are books, college courses and conferences on how to do it. There's also a new documentary film called "How to Change the World" (it's about the origins of Greenpeace), and a not-so-new Eric Clapton song called "Change the World" (I think it's about love). In a related and timely vein, the World Economic Forum, meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week, tells us that it is "committed to improving the state of the world."

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Cruz outshines Trump on the trail

    Donald Trump says Ted Cruz is a "nasty guy." The Texan's Senate colleagues agree. Yet here's the surprise from watching Cruz on the campaign trail: Ideology aside, he comes off as ... rather likable.

    To watch Trump and Cruz campaign here is to witness the difference between a reality TV performer and a disciplined politician. With apologies to the artists, Trump is Jackson Pollock to Cruz's Rembrandt. One splatters paint with no coherent pattern, the other dabs with evident skill, albeit in notably dark tones.

    Trump's riff of a stump speech is all poll numbers (terrific) and crowd sizes (record), interspersed with millimeter-deep detours into policy. Common Core is terrible; the border wall will be great; he knows how to negotiate trade deals.

    At one point at Concord High School on Monday, Trump paused when interrupted by a loud, high-pitched yelp. "What was that, was that a dog?" he asked. "Hillary," an audience member shouted.

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Clinton wants voters to take Sanders seriously

    Hillary Clinton has an unusual message to Democratic voters about Bernie Sanders: Take him seriously.

    The Clinton campaign, facing a tougher-than-anticipated struggle, believes that an element of her opponent's appeal is that he's the perfect send-a-message vehicle. That's why, starting with last Sunday night's debate on NBC, she's seeking to paint the Vermont socialist as a risky standard-bearer for Democrats in their effort to retain the White House.

    Both candidates are viewed favorably by most Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the first two presidential nominating contests in early February. Clinton's aim is to make people think twice about voting for her opponent, for example by suggesting that a Sanders candidacy would help Republicans win the general election.

    It's a tough sell. In the debate, Sanders effectively played to the party's base by repeating his support for universal health care and his charge that Wall Street and the political system are corrupt. He also pointed to polls that showed him running stronger than Clinton against Donald Trump.

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Bernie Sanders Campaign Prompts Hippie-Era Flashbacks

    Unpack your old tie-dyed T-shirts, roll yourself a fat doobie and warm up the ancient VW bus. We're going to do Woodstock and the 1972 presidential election all over again. And this time, the hippies are going to win! Four years of peace, love, and single-payer health care.

    But do take care to clear the path for Bernie Sanders. Because if he steps in something the dog left behind, he's going to blame Wall Street and start yelling and waving his arms around.

    And you know how much that upsets Republican congressmen who are otherwise so eager to oblige his plans to soak the rich and give everybody free college, free health care, free Bubble Up and rainbow stew, as the old Merle Haggard song had it.

    OK, so I'm being a smart aleck. I was moved to satire by a couple of moments from last week's Democratic and Republican presidential debates. First, Sen. Sanders, boasting about a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that shows him beating Donald Trump by 15 points at 54 to 39 (Hillary Clinton tops Trump only 51-41).

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America the Unfair?

    Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders don’t agree on much. Nor do the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the armed ranchers who seized public lands in Oregon. But in the insurgent presidential campaigns and in social activism across the spectrum, a common thread is people angry at the way this country is no longer working for many ordinary citizens.

    And they’re right: The system is often fundamentally unfair, and ordinary voices are often unheard.

    It’s easy (and appropriate!) to roll one’s eyes at Trump, for a demagogic tycoon is not the natural leader of a revolution of the disenfranchised. But the populist frustration is understandable. One of the most remarkable political science studies in recent years upended everything rosy we learned in civics classes.

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A vanishing line separates politics and sports

    To an outsider, the biggest question of the 2016 U.S. presidential election may be how the country came to be stuck with such an imperfect field of candidates. Higher percentages of potential voters view the front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, unfavorably than favorably. The net favorability ratings of the current field are the lowest in recent history.

    A popular explanation is that people are fed up with politics as usual, but even the candidate who has done better than others at riding this discontent -- Trump -- is disliked by most voters.

    I have my own theory: Over time, U.S. presidential elections have evolved into a sports event, and that has affected the self-selection of candidates.

    Americans are obsessed with sports, particularly with statistics. Soccer fans in Europe and Latin America care far less about players' and teams' stats than do baseball and football fans. That carries over to politics, producing superstitions such as the "Redskins Rule" (if the Washington Redskins lose in their final home game before the presidential vote, the incumbent will lose).

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