Archive

January 23rd, 2016

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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January 22nd

What If?

    Just get me talking about the world today and I can pretty well ruin any dinner party. I don’t mean to, but I find it hard not to look around and wonder whether the recent turmoil in international markets isn’t just the product of tremors but rather of seismic shifts in the foundational pillars of the global system, with highly unpredictable consequences.

    What if a bunch of eras are ending all at once?

    What if we’re at the end of the 30-plus-year era of high growth in China — and therefore China’s ability to fuel global growth through its imports, exports and purchases of commodities will be much less frothy and reliable in the future?

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Too cautious about food? That can be dangerous

    Last year, eggs were declared safe. After demonizing the cholesterol in them for a generation, nutritionists finally acknowledged that there was overwhelming scientific evidence that eggs were not artery-clogging killers after all.

    But wait. What's this? The government's latest nutrition guidelines came out this month and they're not egg-friendly. They say people should consume as little cholesterol as possible. That's even stricter than the 2010 standard allowing 300 milligrams a day, about the amount in one egg.

    Scientists are supposed to change their minds when confronted with new evidence - whether it's reclassifying Pluto as not quite a planet or admitting that Neanderthals contributed to the modern human gene pool.

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Sanders' Single-Payer Plan Is a Distraction

    If you've successfully landed on the beaches, but your forces are still taking heavy fire, what do you do? Do you concentrate on trying to hold the line and make further advances or do you sit in a circle and design a better landing craft?

    The problem with Bernie Sanders' health care vision isn't the vision. His raw outline for a greatly simplified and less expensive health-care system is excellent in theory. The problem is the politics -- the reality of which battle-scarred Hillary Clinton clearly has the better grasp.

    This was the message Clinton tried to convey in the Sunday Democratic debate. Her most potent point on health-care reform centered on recalling the "public option" fiasco during the fight for the Affordable Care Act.

    The public option was to be a government-run health plan competing with the private offerings in the health-care exchanges. It was a no-brainer to keep the insurance companies on a shorter leash. But, as Clinton noted, "even when the Democrats were in charge of the Congress, we couldn't get the votes for that."

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