Archive

April 23rd, 2016

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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What Clinton and Sanders owe progressives

    Compared with the ferocious fractiousness of the Republican campaign, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are operating by rules inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the gentle animal-loving holy man whom Pat Buchanan once derided as "the pacifist with the pigeons."

    But with the GOP setting a very high standard for political brutality, that's not saying much.

    Any doubt that Clinton and Sanders are fed up with each other was put to rest in last Thursday's debate. In big block type, the New York Daily News proclaimed them "Brooklyn Brawlers." They went at each other as if there would be no tomorrow after New York votes. That's pretty much true.

     You sensed from Sanders' aggressiveness that he knows he's on the edge of effective elimination. If he does win on Tuesday, he'd throw the Democratic race into turmoil and make Clinton's path to the nomination much rockier. A Clinton victory in New York, which polls suggest is more likely, would all but seal the deal for her.

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Hillary Is Not Sorry

    It’s hard not to feel sorry for Hillary Clinton. She is hearing ghostly footsteps.

    She’s having her inevitability challenged a second time by a moralizing senator with few accomplishments who chides her on her bad judgment on Iraq and special-interest money, breezily rakes in millions in small donations online, draws tens of thousands to rock-star rallies and gets more votes from young women.

    But at least last time, it was a dazzling newcomer who also offered the chance to break a barrier. This time, Hillary is trying to fend off a choleric 74-year-old democratic socialist.

    Some close to the campaign say that those ghostly footsteps have made Hillary restive. The déjà vu has exasperated Bill Clinton, who griped to an audience in New York on Friday that young supporters of Bernie Sanders get excited because it sounds good to say, “Just shoot every third person on Wall Street and everything will be fine.”

    At the Brooklyn debate, there was acrimony, cacophony, sanctimony and, naturally, baloney.

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Animal Cruelty or the Price of Dinner?

    This month a man in Orlando, Florida, dangled a dog by the scruff of its neck over a second-floor balcony, threatening to drop it 12 feet to the ground.

    Onlookers intervened and tried to rescue the dog. Someone posted a video of the dangling dog on Facebook, and the clip went viral. Galvanized by public outrage, the police combed the area and Tuesday announced that a 23-year-old man named Ransom May II had been arrested on a charge of cruelty to animals. The arrest made news nationwide.

    Meanwhile, in the United States this year, almost 9 billion chickens will be dangled upside down on conveyor belts and slaughtered; when the process doesn’t work properly, the birds are scalded alive.

    Hmm. So scaring one dog stirs more reaction than far worse treatment of billions of chickens.

    Look, I don’t believe in reincarnation. But if I’m wrong, let’s hope you and I are fated to come back as puppies and not as chickens.

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