Archive

April 4th, 2016

This time the Yugoslav tribunal got it wrong

    A United Nations court in The Hague has acquitted Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian nationalist whose volunteers helped to start the war in Croatia in 1991, of all charges. It isn't the "not guilty" verdict that's shocking or necessarily wrong. It is the tribunal's reasoning, which contradicts much of what this court has taught us about the war over the last two decades.

    The verdict comes just days after the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia sentenced former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years in jail for war crimes he committed during the attempt to create a Greater Serbia by clearing the territory of non-Serbs. The big difference between the two men is that Karadzic was in charge. He had a clear chain of command through which his orders could be carried out. Seselj's position, as a Belgrade parliamentarian who sent volunteers to fight at the front, was less clear-cut.

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There's a way out of Republicans' dead end

    Big Business is having big doubts about its traditional political allies. Sen. Ted Cruz, who not long ago was considered the most offensive presidential candidate imaginable, is now the best-case scenario. Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues his march toward collecting the most delegates for the Republican presidential nomination in July, by which time it's doubtful there will be an American woman or racial minority whom he hasn't alienated.

    The New York Times reports that companies including Coca-Cola, Google and Xerox are under organized pressure to keep their distance from a GOP convention that could be very ugly -- and very bad for business.

    "'These are Maalox months for everyone,' said Bruce Haynes, a public relations consultant at Purple Strategies, a Virginia-based bipartisan communications firm. "If this is going to look like 1968, there will be people that say, 'That's not where I want my product placement,' " he added, referring to clashes between police officers and protesters at the Democratic convention in Chicago."

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The Sanders hustle

    Sen. Bernie Sanders's ongoing hustle of the Democratic Party was revealed at the very end of his interview with Rachel Maddow on Wednesday.

    Lauding the Independent from Vermont's fundraising prowess, the MSNBC anchor asked Sanders when he might start applying his considerable abilities to benefit the Democratic Party. In his response, Sanders pointed out that the average $27 contribution to his presidential campaign is "a very different way of raising money than Secretary Clinton has pursued." So, Maddow pressed him.

    MADDOW: Well, obviously your priority is the nomination, but I mean you raised Secretary Clinton there. She has been fundraising both for the nomination and for the Democratic Party. At some point, do you think -- do you foresee a time during this campaign when you'll start doing that?

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The great Trump distortion

    The evidence is in and it shows that the dominant media narratives about 2016 are wrong. Our country is not roiled with across-the-board discontent, and Donald Trump is not the most important voice in our politics. Turmoil in one of our political parties is being misread as reflecting a deep crisis well beyond its boundaries.

    The most revealing and underplayed development of the week is Gallup's finding that President Obama's approval rating hit 53 percent (not once, but three times). This was its highest level since April 2013. If the people of the United States had lost all confidence in their institutions, the president wouldn't be enjoying such a surge in popularity.

    Compare the current incumbent, first, to George W. Bush. His approval rating at this point in his presidency was 32 percent, on its way down to 28 percent a few weeks later. And in a comparable period in 1988, Ronald Reagan's approval stood at 50 percent. Note that the incumbent party was routed in 2008 but comfortably held on to the White House 20 years earlier.

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The Democratic presidential race isn't close

    One of CNN's on-screen headlines on Wednesday was "Democratic Race Tight Without Superdelegates." That is not true.

    How bad is it for Bernie Sanders? A new survey in Wisconsin released today by the highly respected Marquette Law poll gave the Vermont senator a solid lead, 49 percent, to 44 percent for Hillary Clinton -- which is terrible news for Sanders if he hopes to capture the nomination. That's because he would need to win by a much larger margin in Wisconsin -- Nate Silver estimates a 16-percentage-point landslide -- to get on pace to finish with more pledged delegates than Clinton.

    And that's not the worst of it. In New York, where Sanders would need to win by 4 percentage points, the polls have him 20 points behind Clinton. The situation is even worse in Pennsylvania.

    Of course, the polls can change, but there's no particular reason to believe they will. And polls can be wrong, as they were in Michigan (where Sanders won despite a large polling lead for Clinton). Still, the polls have been accurate in most states this year.

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The cellphone gun: A bad idea

    A Minnesota entrepreneur named Kirk Kjellberg has generated a lot of Internet traffic with his proposed Ideal Conceal Pistol, which resembles a mobile phone until the user clicks a safety, causing a handle to swing down and revealing a trigger. In gun mode, the device has two barrels that each fire a .380-caliber bullet. It's supposed to be a derringer for the digital age.

    In an interview, the voluble Kjellberg explains that his aha moment came on the way to the men's room in a restaurant. A little boy noticed the handgun, legally if imperfectly concealed beneath Kjellberg's jacket. "Mommy, that guy's got a gun!" the boy shouted. "Everyone turned to look, and it caused a lot of fuss," Kjellberg says. "I thought to myself there has to be a better way."

    This isn't it.

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April 3rd

What if Clinton isn't indicted?

    This may sound strange coming from someone who doesn't expect Hillary Clinton to be indicted and doesn't think she should be, but I've been worrying about what will happen if she isn't.

    There is a school of people -- a big school, judging from my email -- for whom there are only two possibilities:

    Either Clinton is charged with a crime for mishandling classified information on her private server -- an outcome, this group thinks, that should be devastatingly obvious to anyone with half a brain. Or the Justice Department will squelch the indictment out of a politically motivated desire to protect the likely Democratic presidential nominee. The only disagreement here involves whether Attorney General Loretta Lynch will act on her own or under orders from President Obama.

    Heads, she's indicted; tails, they're corrupt. For this crowd, there is no outcome here that contemplates independent, sober-minded prosecutors looking at the facts and the law and reaching a contrary conclusion.

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Nightmare nominee: Nobody likes Donald Trump. Not even white men.

    Donald Trump would be "the least popular major party nominee in modern times," Thursday's Washington Post headline blares. That sounds pretty bad! But if you dig into the demographic breakdown of The Washington Post's new analysis of this month's polling, which looks at Trump's favorability across a range of voter groups, it looks even worse.

    The numbers are simply amazing: Trump is viewed unfavorably by at least 80 percent of some of the groups that Republican strategists had hoped the GOP might improve among: young voters and Latinos. He's viewed unfavorably by three out of four moderates. That GOP autopsy into what went wrong in 2012 has been torn to shreds and scattered to the winds from the top of Trump Tower.

    Just as bad, this new polling further undercuts the already weak case for an implausible Trump victory: the idea that he can win by making surprise inroads in relatively white states in the industrial Midwest, thus riding a wave of working class white anger into the White House. Trump is viewed unfavorably by a narrow majority of non-college whites (52 percent).

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Speaker Ryan takes on You-Know-Who

    "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling strongly objects to those who compare Lord Voldemort, the "Dark Lord" who is Potter's archenemy in Rowling's novels, to Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.

    As Potter fans know, Voldemort strikes so much fear into the hearts of other wizards that they refer to him only as "You-Know-Who" or "He Who Must Not Be Named."

    Some Twitter users compared Trump to Voldemort in December after the billionaire developer and TV reality show star proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

    "How horrible," Rowling responded in a tweet of her own. "Voldemort was nowhere near as bad."

    Grant this much to Ms. Rowling: She has standards.

    Yet, the Trump/Voldemort comparison seemed to take on new life last week after an important "address on the state of American politics" by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

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Neuroscience is cracking the code for handling risk

    How do human beings behave in response to risk? That is one of the most fundamental unanswered questions of our time. A general theory of decision-making amid uncertainty would be the kind of scientific advance that comes only a few times a century. Risk is central to financial and insurance markets. It affects the consumption, saving and business investment that moves the global economy. Understanding human behavior in the face of risk would let us reduce accidents, retire more comfortably, get cheaper health insurance and maybe even avoid recessions.

    A number of our smartest scientists have tried to develop a general theory of risk behavior. John von Neumann, the pioneering mathematician and physicist, took a crack at it back in 1944, when he developed the theory of expected utility along with Oskar Morgenstern. According to this simple theory, people value a possible outcome by multiplying the probability that something happens by the amount they would like it to happen. This beautiful idea underlies much of modern economic theory, but unfortunately it doesn't work well in most situations.

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