Archive

May 20th, 2016

U.S. rig numbers say growth can't keep on truckin'

    A couple of months ago, I looked through the data on goods being shipped across the world's oceans and reached the conclusion that the various indexes were signaling bad news for the global economy. A reader suggested taking a similar look at what's happening on the highways of North America, particularly with regard to demand for trucks used to haul goods around the country. The numbers suggest hauliers in the world's biggest economy aren't exactly bursting with optimism about the outlook.

    The website truckinginfo.com says U.S. fleet operators have "no additional need for capacity, and that "the market may not have bottomed out yet as activity is expected to remain soft during the slower summer order season."

    Orders for Class 8 trucks -- vehicles with gross weight ratings exceeding 33,000 pounds (15,000 kilograms) -- slumped to their lowest level in six years in April, after dropping 16 percent in the month and by 39 percent in the past year. Operators ordered just 13,500 new vehicles last month, down from a peak of almost 46,000 in October 2014.

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There won't be a deal in Obamacare religion fight

    The Supreme Court's do-over on the question of religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive care mandate is bizarre, but it reflects the weirdness of an eight-justice court.

    Unable to resolve the question, but unwilling to leave a patchwork of different results in different circuits, the justices told various appeals courts to try again. Most likely, the lower courts will split again, and the issue will come back to the Supreme Court. By then, there might be nine justices to decide it.

    The writing was on the wall for a weird result. After oral arguments, the justices tried to force a compromise by telling lawyers for the government and the religious groups seeking the exemption to engage in further briefing. The court's goal was to produce a compromise, but when the briefs came in, there was none to be had.

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The dangerous insecurity of Donald Trump

    Donald Trump's opponents in the primaries were right to call him a con artist, a narcissist and a pathological liar. Just ask "John Miller."

    That's one of the names Trump used with journalists to burnish his status as a bold-faced Manhattan celebrity; he also called himself "John Barron." Both personae were supposedly publicists who just wanted to explain what a wonderful guy Mr. Trump was and how beautiful women seemed unable to resist his charms.

    Last week, The Washington Post ran a story about the "Miller" and "Barron" ruses, which took place years ago, and posted a 1991 recording of "Miller" explaining why Trump was dumping Marla Maples. "He's coming out of a marriage, and he's starting to do tremendously well financially," the imaginary publicist says to a reporter from People magazine. "Actresses just call to see if they can go out with him and things." Madonna is ostentatiously name-dropped as someone who "wanted to go out with him."

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Government just got more power, which is good

    Here's the most important legal principle that you've probably never heard of: If a regulation issued by a government agency turns out to be ambiguous, the agency, not the court, gets to resolve the ambiguity. It's called the Auer principle, after the 1977 Supreme Court decision that established it. (This is different from Chevron deference, which gives agencies deference in interpreting statutes.)

    For the past five years, the Auer principle has been under sustained assault from the conservative justices, who have argued that it is a violation of the separation of powers and an unacceptable aggrandizement of executive authority. Few people have noticed, but on Monday the court made it clear that Auer is going to be with us for the long time. For the next president -- whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump -- there's a big reason to celebrate. The rest of us should be celebrating along with them.

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First-generation college students need strong networks of support

    I started gasping for air. The doctor stared at me uncomfortably, offered water and then slipped out of the room.

    I was alone.

    I could feel the beginning of an anxiety attack coming on because the doctor had just informed me that I might have pneumonia. I would never find out if her suspicions were correct because the only way to check is to perform an X-ray, an action that my Medicaid insurance would only cover if I were shipped to the hospital in an ambulance.

    I blamed myself. I should've gone to the doctor earlier; I should've accepted the out-of-pocket costs from the campus health center; I should've taken out more loans to cover these costs. Overwhelmed, my mind and body could only respond with an anxiety attack.

    Now, a year later, I have left that sense of helplessness behind on another university campus. As a transfer to Georgetown University, I left behind my old school that did not provide a support network for first-generation college students. Now on a new campus, I still face problems paying health insurance bills by myself.

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Clinton, Trump vie to be working-class heroes

    Hillary Clinton's campaign website lists 31 issues, in alphabetical order from "Alzheimer's" to "Workforce and Skills," for which she has explicit policies. "Taxes" with a "T" is not one.

    Yet there's little question about what direction Clinton has in mind for her overall tax policy. After describing her idea to make college more affordable, for instance, she adds the following: "This plan will cost around $350 billion over 10 years -- and will be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers."

    The American economy of the past four decades has been sufficiently varied to merit multiple, conflicting descriptions, from "hollowed out" to "innovative." But the general direction in which economic gains have flowed over that period is indisputable: upward.

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What do we really want Facebook to be?

    As you probably know, Facebook has been under fire for the way it edits its Trending Topics. Gizmodo reported earlier this month that trending news editors at the social network had purposefully suppressed news from a conservative political viewpoint. Facebook confirmed that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is going to meet with top conservatives in California - including Glenn Beck and Arthur Brooks - in response to the claims, which Facebook has denied.

    Although many pixels have been spilled over what Facebook did, with what intent and to what effect, to me, the real question should be what do we want Facebook to be, anyway?

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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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