Archive

May 2nd, 2016

A Clinton-Warren ticket?

    Running mates? It's not even May, and already we're talking running mates? Then let me toss Elizabeth Warren's name into the mix.

    I'm making several assumptions here -- in a year when assuming anything is dangerous. First, I believe Ted Cruz's desperate gamble of adding Carly Fiorina to his "ticket" will fail. He was right to throw some kind of Hail Mary, but I don't see how Fiorina attracts enough new support for Cruz to win the Indiana primary on Tuesday. And if he loses there, he's pretty much toast.

    Donald Trump's landslide wins this week in the Northeast gave him a bigger haul of convention delegates than even his most optimistic boosters had expected. If momentum still counts for anything in politics, Trump has it. And if he wins Indiana -- polls show him with about a six-point lead -- his path to the Republican nomination looks wide enough to taxi the rest of the way in his Boeing 757.

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The Donald's entertainment value

    The chances of Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee for president have gone from impossible to probable, while Hillary Clinton's chances of being the Democrat have moved from likely to virtually certain. So, barring more surprises, it's probably going to be Hillary vs. The Donald in the fall.

    There is no mystery about Clinton. Those who support her as well as those who oppose her have little trouble explaining why. Trump is another matter. No one I know would even consider voting for Trump. So who are all these millions who support him? Why, they are working-class white men, we are told, who feel betrayed by the failure of both parties to deal with stagnant incomes, growing debts and shrinking possibilities for their retirements and their childrens' futures.

    It's a plausible theory. And it may help to explain Bernie Sanders. But no one has ever associated Trump with these blue-collar issues. How has he become the tribune of the people in this election? Is he just the one who got there first?

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May 1st

Confessions of a Luddite professor

    I had the good fortune on Wednesday to hear economist Robert Gordon talk about his magnum opus, "The Rise and Fall of American Economic Growth." Gordon has a somber tale to tell. He argues that U.S. economic growth ain't what it used to be, and that ain't gonna change over the next 25 years. This is due to myriad headwinds such as demographic slowdowns, rising inequality, fiscal constraints, and -- most important -- the failure of newer technologies to jumpstart economic growth the way that the Second Industrial Revolution did.

    It's his last point -- about the effect of information technology on productivity -- that prompts so much fierce debate. Economists are furiously debating whether the visible innovations in the information sector are leading to productivity advances that are going undetected in the current productivity statistics. On the one hand, the aggregate data suggests a serious productivity slowdown over the past decade. On the other hand, Google's chief economist, Hal Varian, insists that "there is a lack of appreciation for what's happening in Silicon Valley, because we don't have a good way to measure it."

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Some crimes can be forgotten

     The U.S. is supposed to be a nation of second chances, but for the 70 million Americans with a criminal record, we're not doing such a great job. Even among those whose crimes were nonviolent and committed long ago, too many still bear a scarlet letter. So it's encouraging to see many states now moving to expunge or seal the records of nonviolent crimes that aren't repeated.

    The stigma from a drug or other offense, even one committed in young adulthood, can linger for decades. In one recent experiment, job applicants randomly assigned a criminal record were half as likely as other applicants to get an offer of employment or even an interview request.

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Populism has run through US politics for a very long time

    Populism is hard to ignore in the current primary elections. Donald Trump, the self-described political outsider, is promising to "make America great again" by defending the people against Washington insiders, whom he portrays as self-interested, corrupt and incompetent. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont touts his track record as a longtime advocate of working people, ready to take on Wall Street and a corrupt campaign finance system.

    As a result, many pundits proclaim that this election is ushering in a new era of populist politics.

    But is populism really uncommon in U.S. presidential discourse? Our analysis of the past 12 presidential elections, presented in a forthcoming Social Forces article, suggests otherwise. Populism appears frequently in presidential campaigns, and it does so in a patterned and predictable way.

    What counts as populism?

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On Trump, gefilte fish, and world order

    I don't think it's a coincidence that I was eating my mother's gefilte fish while watching Donald Trump's foreign-policy address Wednesday afternoon. First, it was lunchtime; second, it is Passover; and third, the fish patties in front of me - an amalgam of lots of different ingredients (porgy, rockfish, matzo meal) that, mashed together, resemble nothing immediately recognizable as naturally occurring food - couldn't help but echo the strange consistency of the policy combinations Trump put forward.

    Punctuating his carefully scripted speech with Trumpian bursts of "believe me" and "very bad" - consider them bright bits of rhetorical magenta horseradish - Trump set out his vision of America in the world: America first, but America everywhere. America cutting down on its debt, but also expanding its standing army and revamping its nuclear arsenal. America standing up to China, but also striking an alliance with it. America supporting its allies, but also cracking down on them. America being restrained and judicious in its use of force, but also getting involved militarily and fighting to win.

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Is it time to revise our federal drug laws?

    In a letter this month to inquiring lawmakers, the Drug Enforcement Administration quietly announced that it will decide whether to change the federal status of marijuana "in the first half of 2016." The move excited legalization advocates and reminded everyone else of how convoluted our drug regulatory process can be.

    Under the Controlled Substances Act , enacted in 1970 while facing backlash against the recreational drug use of the 1960s, the federal government categorizes drugs based on their medical value and potential for abuse. If substances have no potential for abuse, they aren't controlled at all. If they do, they're classified in one of five schedules of decreasing severity.

    Drugs in Schedule I are deemed as having "no current accepted medical use" and a high potential for abuse -- the category where marijuana resides, alongside heroin, LSD, ecstasy and others. These drugs are regulated with extreme stringency in terms of access, research and supply.

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How racism and bias criminalized marijuana

    The Controlled Substances Act is not outdated. It is a law structured in a way meant to protect science, medicine, patients and the public. It is not absolutist. It has an administrative structure built into it to control for mistakes, new scientific discoveries and even evolving public or medical understanding.

    Today's federal drug laws appear to have done a disservice to marijuana, locking it into an inappropriate schedule where it is banned outright. But in reality, negative drug policy around marijuana is not the fault of the CSA. Instead, a variety of other factors -- mainly attributed to biased lawmakers -- have hindered the law from working properly when it comes to the drug.

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First rule of the veepstakes is do no harm

    Ted Cruz's decision to pick Carly Fiorina as his running mate kicked off the veepstakes season earlier than expected. But three months before the conventions, all the remaining candidates with a chance at their party's nomination should be working on their vice-presidential selections.

    Why? After all, running mates in the general election have a limited impact. There's no evidence they provide demographic help. (Picking a woman hasn't helped pick up votes from women, for example, no matter what Cruz was thinking when he chose Fiorina.) Nor has a presidential candidate ever successfully established his own story line through his choice of a No. 2.

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Entitlement reform, RIP

    As you have probably heard by now, the stakes in November's presidential election could not be higher. Control of the Supreme Court hangs in the balance. Ditto the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants. U.S. foreign policy could be in for its biggest shake-up since the Cold War.

    Yet in one crucial respect the election might make no difference at all.

    Seventy-five percent of planned federal spending between now and the end of the next two presidential terms is mandatory: Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, plus interest on the national debt, according to Congressional Budget Office forecasts. That money is going out the door no matter who's president.

    Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute has come up with an "Index of Fiscal Democracy" to express this vast, automatic commitment of resources, and the preemption of actual political choice it represents. The higher the index, the more possibilities we have for actually governing ourselves.

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