Archive

May 20th, 2016

Obama offers civics lesson for Trump and Sanders supporters

    Another commencement, another opportunity for President Barack Obama to urge the nation's graduates to participate fully in the political process. He cannot say it often enough, especially during a presidential campaign when two candidates -- one from the left and one from the right -- brazenly use the frustrations of the electorate to peddle quick fixes that will only feed its cynicism.

    "Passion is vital, but you've got to have a strategy," Obama said May 7 at Howard University. "And your plan better include voting -- not just some of the time, but all the time." Sunday, at Rutgers University, the president repeated that message. He, again, lamented the low turnout of young voters. But this time he hammered home how their lack of participation contributes to the lack of progress on issues they care about.

    "Apathy has consequences. It determines who our Congress is. It determines what policies they prioritize," the president said. He acknowledged the menace of big money and lobbyists on the nation's politics. And then he said something that runs counter to the campaign message of Donald Trump and especially Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

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Memo to Trump: U.S. debt 'shall not be questioned'

    Donald Trump got into hot water last week for suggesting that the U.S. could effectively repudiate some of its debt, offering to give the holders of its securities something less than what they are owed. The presumptive Republican nominee eventually backpedaled, claiming that the U.S. would "never have to default because you print the money."

    In Trump's defense, similar ideas have been floated by serious politicians before and even by Democrats. Unfortunately for him, however, the last genuine debate on this question, immediately after the Civil War, ended with a change to the Constitution meant to settle the question forever. (Although the question did arise in 2011 and 2013 when Republicans threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, the legal argument wasn't put to the test.)

    When the founders drafted the Constitution, payments on the national debt weren't enshrined as sacrosanct. That's probably because the fledgling U.S. had already effectively defaulted on scads of obligations incurred during the Revolution.

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Another judge's flawed attack against Obamacare

    The Affordable Care Act is being subjected to judicial torment. The latest agony is last week's ruling by a federal judge that the law failed to appropriate funds needed to help cover low- to middle-income people.

    The case, brought by Republican members of Congress, shouldn't have been allowed to go forward in the first place, because a dispute between Congress and the president about the scope of appropriations isn't a matter for the courts. It's also wrong on the merits, since it assumes that legislation should be interpreted to thwart itself. The Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court will probably overturn it.

    But what really matters about the ruling is that it shows how the judiciary can continue to fight an indefinite rearguard action against legislation unpopular with one party. When the Supreme Court struck down the first New Deal in 1936, it did it in essentially one swift blow -- after which Frank Delano Roosevelt retooled and passed the second New Deal.

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May 19th

George Zimmerman is a good example of bad problem

    George Zimmerman is a moral outlier, a public danger and more than a little creepy. He generated more grotesque attention this week when he sought to auction the gun with which he killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 as the black teenager was walking home.

    In September, Zimmerman retweeted a photo of Martin's corpse. This week, when he listed his Kel-Tec PF-9 handgun for sale, he said: "I am honored and humbled to announce the sale of an American Firearm Icon." Martin's parents, who have endured not only the senseless killing of their son and the bitter aftertaste of justice denied, but also Zimmerman's subsequent outrages, maintained a dignified silence.

    Zimmerman's Wikipedia entry reads like a rap sheet -- court-sanctioned anger-management classes, restraining order, domestic violence claims, allegations of threatening, at different times, both his wife and girlfriend with a gun. All this, of course, in addition to shooting dead a teenager walking through a residential neighborhood armed with a package of Skittles.

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Trump and Ryan as avatars of Gingrich and Kemp

    Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan will eventually patch together a rapprochement.

    It won't be real, but not because of their well-established substantive differences on trade, immigration or entitlements. After all, Trump seems flexible on any and all issues; hard-core principles are not an obstacle.

    But the two Republican leaders have profoundly different approaches to politics: On one side, an optimistic conservatism that reaches out and is inclusive; on the other, one that seeks to energize an angry and alienated conservative base, including by playing to racial and ethnic fears.

    The Trump-Ryan schism can be best understood by looking at two proxies: former Congressman Jack Kemp, who was Ryan's mentor and political role model, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is being considered as Trump's running mate.

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How we're losing the other climate fight

    The proposal boiled down to just three paragraphs in the Federal Register: Would it be a good idea, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wondered, if Washington gave states a financial incentive to pass building codes, better protecting their residents against the effects of climate change?

    That was in January. By March, the response from states was clear: No, it would not be a good idea. Not good at all.

    Just as there is a political economy of fighting climate change, there turns out to be a political economy of adapting to it. And navigating it could be just as hard.

    FEMA's proposal looked modest enough. Rather than continue to provide federal assistance once the president declares a disaster, the agency suggested making states responsible for an initial share of the costs -- in other words, a deductible. States could lower that deductible by taking basic steps to prepare for disasters, such as passing tougher (or any) building codes, establishing their own disaster funds, or buying private insurance on government buildings.

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What we need are bathrooms for all

    I am a young trans man, and I think I can make common cause with social conservatives on bathrooms.

    To be sure, first there's going to be litigation. There's going to be a lot of yelling and screaming. Indeed, for the past several months, transgender activists and social conservatives have been engaged in a public spat about which bathrooms those of various gender identities should be allowed to use. But after North Carolina and the Justice Department are done duking it out, there will still be lots of people - including social conservatives and me - who are afraid to use public bathrooms.

    I have a solution to this problem: gender-neutral, single-user bathrooms.

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What really happened at the Trump-Ryan meeting

    On Thursday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., emerged from what he called a "great conversation" with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump that served as "a very positive step toward unification." He admitted, however, that there was no way they could possibly overcome their disagreements in just 45 minutes and that it was important they be really unified, not fake-unified.

    What follows are, doubtless, excerpts from the meeting.

    ---

    In the middle of the night Paul Ryan awoke in his cell in a cold sweat, screaming about principles. The guards opened the door.

    "Paul," Reince Priebus asked him, very gently, as they led him down the long hallway of the Ministry of Truth, "what are your true feelings about Donald Trump?"

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The upside to lowering urban inequality

    Discussions of inequality often focus on income and wealth distribution. But what's the right geographic unit to look at when we compare income and wealth? Inequality has risen in the U.S. and much of Europe, while it has fallen around the world thanks to rapid growth in developing countries.

    But perhaps there's a third level that deserves more attention: local and urban inequality. Instead of comparing income levels across the country or the world, maybe we should be looking at the disparities between people who live next to each other.

    One reason urban inequality is so important is that this is how most people experience the phenomenon on a daily basis -- in cities, rich, middle-class and poor people are in constant contact. Experiments and other studies clearly show that people care about their status relative to reference groups, and one important reference group is the people who live nearby. That makes intuitive sense. If some rich person in Switzerland is buying a mansion, I only perceive it as a statistic on paper, but every time I see someone walk into a restaurant that I can't afford, it reminds me of my lower economic status.

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Donald Trump is following all the rules for a reality TV villain

    Six months before Bill Clinton was elected president for the first time, "The Real World" debuted on MTV, signaling the beginning of the network's retreat from music videos and its embrace of reality programming. (To be more specific, the series debuted on May 21, 1992, the same day Clinton made a campaign speech that addressed the debate over family values and noted "TV's crass commercialism and glorification of selfishness and violence.")

    By the time Clinton was preparing to leave the White House eight years later, reality TV was starting to infiltrate mainstream pop culture, thanks largely to the success of CBS's "Survivor." In the 2000s, as reality shows swelled in number and transformed from mere trend into a diverse, Emmy-recognized genre, critics repeatedly wondered whether the "Bachelors," "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and "Jersey Shores" of television were debasing our society. In the early days of the reality era, many people were convinced that they could hear the distant clip-clop of the Four Horsemen -- or at least a warning that, someday, Honey Boo Boo would come.

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