Archive

March 24th, 2016

How Putin's Syria gamble has already paid off

    Vladimir Putin says he is withdrawing most Russian forces from Syria because his "objectives" have been achieved. How to judge that boast?

    On such goals as keeping the dictator Bashar al-Assad in power, increasing Russian influence in the Middle East, restoring Moscow's seat at the table of global power, and sending a message of strength to Islamic extremists inside Russia's own borders, the jury is still out.

    But it's not too early to consider Russian success on another front: showcasing military strength to potential adversaries, allies and arms buyers. "Essentially, Russia is using their incursion into Syria as an operational proving ground," retired Air Force Gen. David Deptula told the New York Times last year. And Moscow proved quite a bit.

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Five myths about spin

    The left and the right don't agree on much today. But it's easy to find a consensus that an excess of spin is ruining politics. Spin -- the deliberate crafting of words and images for political effect -- is everywhere, from the scripted laugh lines that candidates trot out in debates, to the artful circumlocutions of press secretaries, to the slick ads and viral videos that flicker across our screens.

    Don't get spun, even about spin. Some of the conventional wisdom about the practice is false or exaggerated. Unpacking these five common misperceptions might help us to see more clearly the role that spin plays in our politics, for good and for ill -- and to think of it as something neither feared nor lamented, but more thoroughly appreciated and understood.

 

    1. Spin is new to our times.

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Crackpot Party Crackup

    Long ago and far away, in the days when white men in power ties and women in funny hats gathered in air-conditioned caverns to hammer out the Republican Party platform, it was a predictable affair. The Republican Party was for less taxes and less government, free trade and free people, a scolding of victims and grievance-mongers, and a vision of social norms circa 1952.

    As time went on, they let the cranks and the racists in, the fact-deniers and the extreme gun nuts, the xenophobes and the nature-haters, because the big tent could take in all that extra gas without overheating. They would tolerate “those people,” who you picture looking like that dude who sucker-punched a protester at a Trump rally, because they needed them.

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Companies should experiment with minimum pay raises

    Recently, McDonald's decided to raise wages for many of its hourly restaurant workers. The rise is modest, from about $9 to about $10, but already the company's executives claim that they are seeing improvements in service quality:

    "It has done what we expected it to -- 90 day turnover rates are down, our survey scores are up-we have more staff in restaurants," McDonald's U.S. president, Mike Andres, told analysts at a UBS conference... "So far we're pleased with it."

    So far the company's financial results haven't suffered -- just the opposite; sales are rising.

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Campuses could use safe spaces for free speech

    Tennessee state Rep. Martin Daniel, R, stirred outrage this week when he said the First Amendment should give Islamic State the right to recruit on state campuses. He's wrong about the First Amendment, which doesn't prevent bans on coordinated recruitment. But the bill he was defending, which would create designated zones for free speech at state-funded Tennessee universities, isn't such a bad idea.

    The law governing free speech on campuses is much more restrictive than the law that applies on a street corner or in a park. We may be approaching a time where there would be a benefit to designating safe spaces for free speech, protected from the regulatory requirements of the Department of Education and the norms of campus life.

    Start with Daniel, his bill and his misstep. The bill, called the "Tennessee Student Free Speech Protection Act," designates all outdoor spaces at Tennessee universities as "traditional public forums," spaces where free speech would be protected to the highest degree under the First Amendment.

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After 1968, Nixon helped end political violence. This time, Trump can't.

    On Oct. 24, 1968, at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, in the very heartland of the "intellectual morons," as the third-party presidential candidate George Wallace was given to say, Wallace told a cheering overflow crowd of 20,000 about a protester who had laid down in front of Lyndon B. Johnson's limousine. His take was this: "When November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it'll be the last one they ever lay down in front of." Protesters shouted in the arena. "After November 5, you anarchists are through in this country," he told the demonstrators. "You'd better have your say now." Outside the hall, Wallace supporters and adversaries clashed with each other and with the police, while inside, officers rescued a group of black protesters surrounded by Wallaceites who chanted: "Kill 'em! Kill 'em!"

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50 Ways to Leave The Donald

    Rational Republicans are desperately trying to figure out a way to get rid of Donald Trump. Their desperation is so great, you’d expect someone to release a herd of crocodiles on Mar-a-Lago.

    Taking an even more dire route, the former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed Ted Cruz. That was a little embarrassing for Graham, who had joked, just a few weeks ago: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.”

    And if you endorsed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, people would — stare at you blankly? Move their desks to the other side of the room? Cruz, the only senator left in the race, now has the solid support of two colleagues. If it keeps going like this, by summer he’ll have enough friends to fill a closet. Even Mitt Romney, who announced he’d be voting for Cruz in the Utah caucuses, made it clear that wasn’t an “endorsement” or anything.

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'Too big to fail' is an empty phrase

    There is a fundamental weakness in the position of those who insist that the only way to deal with financial institutions that are "too big to fail" is to break them up: their acknowledgment that the central question of how big is "too big" is too hard to answer. This is rarely made explicit, but it is universal. Across the ideological range from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve, the "break 'em up" advocates scrupulously avoid suggesting any size beyond which banks must not be allowed to exist.

    The reason for this glaring omission - which renders their argument of little practical use for makers of actual decisions - is clear, once the focus is on the meaning of "too big to fail," as opposed to its invocation as a general expression of distrust of banks. The issue is how to avoid a situation in which an institution has incurred so much debt that its inability to pay threatens the stability of the financial system. In other words, how do we prevent a repetition of the damage caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008? Therein lies their dilemma.

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The crime wave that wasn't

    In an era of bitter partisanship, politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum seem to agree on one thing: Our prison system is broken. With less than 5 percent of the world's population yet nearly 25 percent of the world's prison inmates, the United States spends too much money locking up too many people for too long.

    Some fear that reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and letting low-level offenders back on the streets - key components of prison reform - could produce a new and devastating crime wave. Such dire predictions were common in 2011 when California embarked on a massive experiment in prison downsizing.

    But five years later, California's experience offers powerful evidence that no such crime wave is likely to occur.

    In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California's wildly overcrowded prisons were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by some 33,000 people in two years. In response, the state enacted the controversial California Public Safety Realignment law, known in legislative shorthand as AB 109.

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Republican Elite’s Reign of Disdain

    “Sire, the peasants are revolting!”

    “Yes, they are, aren’t they?”

    It’s an old joke, but it seems highly relevant to the current situation within the Republican Party. As an angry base rejects establishment candidates in favor of you-know-who, a significant part of the party’s elite blames not itself, but the moral and character failings of the voters.

    There has been a lot of buzz over the past few days about an article by Kevin Williamson in National Review, vigorously defended by other members of the magazine’s staff, denying that the white working class — “the heart of Trump’s support” — is in any sense a victim of external forces. A lot has gone wrong in these Americans’ lives — “the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy” — but “nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.”

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