Archive

January 29th, 2017

Texas tries to revoke some gay-marriage rights

    The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider a case about whether married gay city employees must be given spousal benefits. That's a terrible sign. The briefs openly urge the court to resist the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark gay marriage decision by reading it narrowly to say that gay people have a fundamental right to marry but no right to equal benefits. It's a legally deceptive argument, which the current justices in Washington would summarily reject. But it's dangerous all the same, because it shows that Donald Trump's election is spurring outright resistance to federal law and precedent. And the Texas justices, who are elected, have no excuse for agreeing to reconsider the case.

    The case, Pidgeon v. Turner, arose from a lawsuit trying to block the benefits that the city of Houston affords to the same-sex spouses of city employees. The case had no legal chance of success once the U.S. Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. That decision held both that marriage is a fundamental right and that the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution requires that it be extended equally to gay and straight couples.

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Smart Approaches, Not Strong-Arm Tactics, to Jobs

    I’ve actually been watching the early Trump presidency from London. (I would have gone to the moon, but I couldn’t get a ride.) Even from here I have vertigo.

    My head is swirling from “alternative facts,” trade deals canceled, pipelines initiated, Obamacare in the Twilight Zone and utterly bizarre rants about attendance on Inauguration Day and fake voters on Election Day. Whatever this cost Vladimir Putin, he’s already gotten his money’s worth — a chaos president. Pass the vodka.

    But moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats who opposed Donald Trump need to beware. He can make you so nuts — he can so vacuum your brains out — that you can’t think clearly about the most important questions today: What things are true even if Trump believes them, and therefore merit support? And where can Democrats offer smarter approaches on issues, like jobs, for instance — approaches that can connect to the guts of working-class voters as Trump did, but provide a smarter path forward.

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If fake news fools you, it can fool robots, too

    Uninformative as fake news may be, it's shedding light on an important limitation of the algorithms that have helped make the likes of Facebook and Google into multi-billion-dollar companies: They're no better than people at recognizing what is true or right.

    Remember Tay, the Microsoft bot that was supposed to converse breezily with regular folks on Twitter? People on Twitter are nuts, so within 16 hours it was spewing racist and anti-semitic obscenities and had to be yanked. More recently, Microsoft released an updated version called Zo, explicitly designed to avoid certain topics, on the smaller social network Kik. Zo's problem is that she doesn't make much sense.

    The lesson from these experiments: Algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence or whatever else you'd like to call such things are not good at general knowledge and understanding. They can avoid a blacklist of topics, or respond in some special way to a whitelist, but that's about it. They have no underlying model of the world that allows them to make nuanced distinctions between truth and falsehoods. Instead, they rely on pattern matching from a large corpus of consistently true information.

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I'm a nurse. And I'm terrified of what Republicans are planning to do to Medicaid.

    It's easy to feel neutral toward a program you have no experience with, but to me, Medicaid, the federal program that funds health care for nearly 70 million Americans in need, means a lot. Both of my children were delivered with Medi-Cal (California's jointly administered Medicaid program) benefits, and they relied on those same benefits growing up. As a young mother in nursing school, I'm not sure how else I would have paid for my own health care. And now, looking back on a career of providing health care as a nurse, I'm more worried than ever for the future of our country's health-care system.

    In my 25 years of nursing, I have cared for thousands of patients, many of whom relied on Medicaid. As a public health nurse, I know firsthand that seniors, children, veterans, and individuals with disabilities could not gain a foothold on a healthy life without it. And it matters to me that more Americans have greater health-care security.

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Help us, GOP, you're our only hope

    What we know so far is that the man is who he is. There is no larger, finer man inside him trying to get out. Everyone who is paying attention knows this. Flags flying at the Capitol, the U.S. Marine Band, gray eminences in black coats, and He Who Is Smarter Than Those With Intelligence delivers 16 minutes of hooey and horse hockey about corrupt politicians betraying the people, and American carnage, and patriotism healing our division, though the division is mainly about Himself and though love of country does not necessarily make people stupid.

    There might as well have been a 14-year-old boy at the lectern saying that he is in possession of the Golden Goblet that will drive the Gimlets from Fredonia and preserve the Sacred Marmite of Lord Numbskull and his Nimrods.

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Defining 'Forgotten Man' is key to Trump's success

    "The Forgotten Man" is unlikely to be forgotten in the Trump presidency. In his inaugural address, the new chief executive promised that "the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now." Trump was reprising a mention of "forgotten men and women" made back in November, in his victory speech.

    It's clear why Trump hopes to build a presidency on service to the "forgotten." The quality of the economic recovery after the financial crisis of 2008 was poor, and to this day many Americans feel they are not back where they were in 2007.

    It is all too obvious that the "too big to fail" doctrine favored Wall Street behemoths like Goldman Sachs, as has post-crash statute. Laws such as Dodd-Frank force all kinds of negative consequences upon smaller financial institutions -- call them forgotten banks -- as Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, noted at the confirmation hearing for Steven Mnuchin, the nominee for Treasury secretary and former Goldman executive.

    So who precisely is this Forgotten Man?

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Why the U.S. has a monopoly on jobless recoveries

    In a series of earlier columns, I suggested that the U.S. has systematically underestimated the intangible value of jobs while focusing too exclusively on economic efficiency. The real question is how can the U.S. turn that idea into real effective policy, without severely damaging the economy in the process. When looking for policy ideas, one place to start is other rich countries. And when we look at other developed nations, what we find is that in recent decades, they seem to do a better job putting people back to work after recessions.

    In the U.S., we've been seeing a phenomenon sometimes called the jobless recovery. There's a clear pattern to the prime-age employment-to-population ratio since 1948: Before the 1990s, every downward dip except for the early '70s looks sharp and angular, like a letter V. But after 1990, they all look rounded, like the letter U. Shifting from V-shaped to U-shaped recoveries means that the economy is taking longer and longer to put people back to work after bad times hit, leaving them to languish for years on the couch playing video games.

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"We call it Muslims 'R' Us": In Trump's America, they want to explain who they are

    There were gasps in the room, heads shaking.

    "This cannot be real," said a woman wearing an embroidered shalwar kameez the same shade of powder blue as the First Lady's inaugural outfit.

    "I can't believe it's actually happening," said another woman dressed in slacks and a turtleneck sweater.

    This group of American Muslims - PTA moms, neighborhood doctors, a banker, a professor among them - needed to be together the day it happened, the day Donald Trump became president.

    They gathered on Friday in a piece of their collective American dream, a remodeled 1951 suburban rancher in Northern Virginia, to watch the inauguration on television.

    "This is for me the first time that I have not felt good here," said Nina Rana, 74, who left her native Pakistan 50 years ago. Even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 did not make her feel uncomfortable.

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The NRA wants to suppress one of guns' most important safety features

    Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, chanced to be passing through the Fort Lauderdale airport on Jan. 6 when he heard what he described as "multiple gunshots ringing out" close by.

    "We all realized it was gunfire, and it was coming from the level below us at the escalator."

    Five people were killed, and six were injured. Fleischer and others could easily have walked straight into the line of fire had they not been able to hear those shots.

    Gunfire - loud, sharp, rude, abrupt - is an important safety feature of any firearm. From potential victims who seek to escape a mass shooting to a hiker being alerted to the presence of a hunter in the woods, the sound warns bystanders of potentially lethal danger. Yet gun advocates insist there is a greater danger: hearing loss by gun owners.

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The dealmaker in chief in a dangerous world

    Those seeking to extract meaning from Donald Trump's foreign policy declarations usually land on the idea that he's planning to make himself dealmaker in chief. The tough tweets aimed at China, the sweet come-ons directed toward Vladimir Putin, the threats of sky-high tariffs to be imposed, along with the sky-high wall, on Mexico - it's all part of the setup for the quite sensible bargains Trump intends to drive. The capper will be "the ultimate deal," as Trump put it in one interview: an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

    It's comforting to consider this theory, as it suggests that some of Trump's far-fetched rhetoric, which has appeared to presage war with North Korea, a rupture with Beijing over Taiwan and the dissolution of NATO, need not be taken seriously. Thereare just two problems: The deals Trump has been hinting at are wildly unrealistic; and attempting to make them happen could be dangerous as well as futile.

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