Archive

September 19th, 2016

A loophole ends privacy of Social Security numbers

    Federal law is supposed to protect the privacy of your Social Security number from government inquiries -- but apparently that doesn't extend to a check on whether you've paid back taxes and child support. In a decision with worrying implications for those who oppose a single national identification number, a divided federal appeals court has rejected a lawyer's refusal to submit his Social Security number along with his renewal of Maryland bar membership.

    The state says it needs Social Security numbers to make sure lawyers' child support and taxes are up to date. The court's majority said that was enough to fit the Social Security number under the federal law that allows states to use your number for tax purposes. That definition is so loose that it enables states to ask for your Social Security number pretty much whenever they want -- even when their records have been hacked.

    The test case was initiated by a Washington-based lawyer named Michael Tankersley, who is a member in good standing of the Maryland bar. He got legal help from the watchdog group Public Citizen, which among other things is interested in promoting privacy-rights litigation.

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When a Crackpot Seeks Office

    One of the mental traps that we all fall into, journalists included, is to perceive politics through narratives.

    President Gerald Ford had been a star football player, yet somehow we in the media developed a narrative of him as a klutz — so that every time he stumbled, a clip was on the evening news. Likewise, we in the media wrongly portrayed President Jimmy Carter as a bumbling lightweight, even as he tackled the toughest challenges, from recognizing China to returning the Panama Canal.

    Then in 2000, we painted Al Gore as inauthentic and having a penchant for self-aggrandizing exaggerations, and the most memorable element of the presidential debates that year became not George W. Bush’s misstatements but Gore’s dramatic sighs.

    I bring up this checkered track record because I wonder if once again our collective reporting isn’t fueling misperceptions.

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We'd know if they were too ill to lead

    For centuries, prognosis was the principal thing doctors could offer to patients. They couldn't heal much, but they could say what was likely to happen. Their art was knowing the natural history of disease and imparting that knowledge in an authoritative way.

    Today, medicine is awash in treatments that work, but the expectation that doctors can foretell the future has changed little. Every presidential election season, the candidates are asked to bring forth their doctors and medical records to, in effect, attest to their good health for the next four years.

    That's happening in the current campaign, especially this week as Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, takes a break to recover from what is presumably a case of community-acquired pneumonia.

    Such infections can be caused by a long list of viruses or bacteria; it's often hard to identify the pathogen even if you look carefully. Diabetes, emphysema, cirrhosis and other chronic illnesses increase a person's chance of developing pneumonia, but in one-fifth of cases there's no underlying problem. Age, however, is an indisputable risk.

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Voters have a right to know about nominees' health

    The 2016 political campaign, heretofore marked by concerns over Republican Donald Trump's temperament and knowledge to be president, has suddenly pivoted to whether Hillary Clinton's health is up to the same challenge.

    Her forced interruption to her campaign over the weekend dramatically focused attention on a question that Trump had sought to make central issue: whether Clinton lacks the stamina for the job.

    In purely political terms, her failure to disclose that her doctor had diagnosed her with what is called walking pneumonia only unscored her penchant for personal secrecy, which has long plagued her political career.

    Aides sought to defend that failure as evidence of Clinton's gritty determination to "power through" the immediate difficulty and continue her strenuous schedule, despite medical advice to take a few days off the trail to recuperate.

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Understanding Hillary

   I saw Hillary once working a rope line for more than an hour, a Secret Service man holding her firmly by the hips as she leaned over the rope and reached into the mass of arms and hands reaching out to her. She had learned the art of encountering the crowd and making it look personal. It was not glamorous work, more like picking fruit, and it took the sort of discipline your mother instills in you: those people waited to see you so by gosh you can treat them right.

    So it's no surprise she pushed herself to the point of collapse the other day. What's odd is the perspective, expressed in several stories, that her determination to keep going reveals a "lack of transparency" -- that she should've announced she had pneumonia and gone home and crawled into bed.

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September 18th

Google isn't swaying voters, but it could

    Long before artificial intelligence brings about the singularity, algorithms are having an influence over our most important decisions, including which candidate to back in elections. The danger this could go too far is real and we probably need some well-considered regulatory intervention.

    Earlier this week, the U.S. psychologist Robert Epstein published a harsh article about Google's alleged manipulation of its search suggestion feature. When you start typing in Google's search window, it suggests ways to autocomplete the request. Epstein showed, for example, that when a user entered "Hillary Clinton is...," Google suggested finishing the sentence with "is winning" or "is awesome." Other search engines, Bing and Yahoo, completed the sentence differently: "Hillary Clinton is a liar."

    Epstein went on to give other examples of the purported bias and claimed that his research showed that the manipulation of search suggestions could "shift between 800,000 and 3.2 million votes" in the U.S. presidential election.

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Trump’s ‘Deplorable’ Deflections

    In August 2015, The New York Daily News published an exclusive report on a 1991 letter that Donald Trump wrote to the chairman of the state Assembly’s Committee on Cities, complaining about disabled veterans vending their wares on Fifth Avenue, home of Trump Tower in Manhattan.

    A New York state law dating from 1894 “allowed disabled veterans to work as sidewalk peddlers in New York City regardless of municipal rules,” as The New York Times wrote in 1991.

    But Trump was not empathetic to these wounded warriors’ plight, at least not on Fifth Avenue. He saw them and their vending as an eyesore.

    The Daily Beast published its own report on Trump’s efforts to get the veterans booted from this tony part of Manhattan, quoting Trump’s letter as reading:

    “While disabled veterans should be given every opportunity to earn a living, is it fair to do so to the detriment of the city as a whole or its taxpaying citizens and businesses?”

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Trump Talks, but Can He Tango?

    Thoughts while watching Rick Perry do the cha-cha on “Dancing With the Stars”:

    “My name is Rick Perry and I’m the governor of the great state of Texas. I am — I’m not the governor of the great state of Texas. That’s not right. I’m the former governor,” he said in a taped introduction.

    Yes! It was definitely Rick Perry. The man who gave the nation the “oops” presidential debate was back, dancing on a map of Texas, to a song about Texas, which was sung by the group Little Texas. There was a theme there somewhere.

    Do you think Barack Obama was watching? The president hasn’t mentioned “Dancing With the Stars” recently. But he’s been beseeching the country not to confuse low-rent entertainment with high-end politics. “We cannot afford suddenly to treat this like a reality TV show,” he said this week while campaigning for the ailing Hillary Clinton.

    Meanwhile, Donald Trump responds to requests for the release of his medical records by taping an episode of “The Dr. Oz Show.”

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Trump's child-care entitlement is, yes, progress

    Donald Trump is taking an entire chapter from Hillary Clinton's "I'm in it for the kids" playbook.

    Hoping to improve his appeal to women voters, Trump on Tuesday proposed that the federal government guarantee six weeks of paid maternal leave. And to make good on his daughter Ivanka's promises at this summer's Republican convention, he would let families deduct some child-care expenses from their income taxes.

    The details left many left-of-center think tanks, women's groups and child-care advocates cold. They complained, for example, that Trump's plan would allow paid leave from work to only mothers, not fathers, possibly widening the gender-pay gap and signaling that women are solely responsible for staying home to care for newborns (read: forgoing salaries and career advancement). They also criticized Trump for not doing enough for low-income families and for failing to say how he'd pay for it all.

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Send facts, not rumors, on Clinton's health -- and Trump's

    Hillary Clinton kept her pneumonia diagnosis under wraps for two days because she "didn't think it was going to be that big a deal." Right. That's what she used to say about her private email server.

    Yes, I know Clinton's email server is an obsession that her rivals on the right will not let go. Fear and loathing motivate great political fundraising. But as I have written before, the former secretary of state knew that she and her ex-president husband had an abundance of political enemies before she gave them more ammunition to use against her.

    What irritated me most about the news that Clinton really was ill with pneumonia, forcing her to leave the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony in New York early, is how it gave a moment of undeserved "I told you so" satisfaction to the industry of conspiracy theorists.

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