Archive

November 13th, 2015

Policing free speech at the University of Missouri

    At the embattled University of Missouri, where the president and chancellor are stepping down, university police sent students an e-mail Tuesday urging them to call and report if they "witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech." The e-mail urged witnesses to provide descriptions of the speakers and, if safe, snap pictures of them with their phones.

    The First Amendment applies at a state university campus, and those who speak hatefully or hurtfully can't be criminally punished. But they can be penalized or expelled if they create an environment that's hostile on the basis of race or sex. There's a serious tension between these interests, and the Missouri e-mail raises a pressing question: Does the use of campus police to enforce anti-discrimination advance the goal of knowledge or detract from it?

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Paying for Patriotism

    I go to a lot of Major League Baseball games. I really love the sport.

    Yet if you’ve been to a baseball game in the last decade, you’ve probably noticed some changes. National Guard members now perform flag ceremonies between innings. Military recruits are enlisted right on the field. Surprise reunions of deployed men and women and their families play out before an audience of thousands.

    The games have morphed into choreographed patriotic events. Who’s paying for this hoopla? As it turns out, the Pentagon.

    Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake announced recently that over the past four years alone, the Pentagon has shelled out at least $6.8 million for Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and other sports leagues to “honor” troops with cheap stunts at sporting events. The details are listed in a new Senate report.

    The total tally may top $10 million — and even reach $100 million, if you count the military’s marketing deals with NASCAR.

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Mizzou, Yale and Free Speech

    On university campuses across the country, from Mizzou to Yale, we have two noble forces colliding with explosive force.

    One is a concern for minority or marginalized students and faculty members, who are often left feeling as outsiders in ways that damage everyone’s education. At the University of Missouri, a black professor, Cynthia Frisby, wrote, “I have been called the N-word too many times to count.”

    The problem is not just racists who use epithets but also administrators who seem to acquiesce. That’s why Mizzou students — especially football players — used their clout to oust the university system’s president. They showed leadership in trying to rectify a failure of leadership.

    But moral voices can also become sanctimonious bullies.

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Latest debate shows Republicans running in place

    The fourth Republican presidential debate left the spirited, crazy-quilt contest in the same place it was the day before.

    Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, the fastest-rising Republican candidates, were supposed to be the targets Tuesday night; they weren't touched.

    Carson artfully deflected questions raised about alleged inaccuracies in his life story. He didn't seem comfortable answering an Islamic-terrorism query, but didn't seem hurt by it either.

    Rubio swatted away mild challenges to his positions and escaped personal scrutiny. Issue was taken with his proposal for an expensive child-care tax credit, but no sparks flew.

    The other front-runner, Donald Trump, took a few gratuitous shots at rivals, as is his style, and repeated his protectionist tirades against China and Mexico and his vow to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. Conceivably the businessman-showman, who has appeared to be popular with working class voters, might have created a problem when he suggested that wages were too high.

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Goldbugs take center stage at Republican debate

    Tuesday night's Republican debate on the Fox Business Network was the best debate of the season so far. The moderators asked good, tough questions that elicited differences on issues and weaknesses in policy positions without trying to place themselves, scoring points off the candidates, at the center of the show. It featured a substantial confrontation between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul over interventionist foreign policy, a tension within the Republican that deserves to be aired. All of the candidates were better prepared, though Ben Carson and Jeb Bush still conspicuously failed to shine.

    It also featured that eternal stalwart of the Republican fringe: carping about how the Federal Reserve is destroying the value of the dollar.

    "[A]s the Federal Reserve destroys the value of the currency," said Rand Paul, "what you're finding is that, if you're poor, if you make $20,000 a year and you have three or four kids, and you're trying to get by, as your prices rise or as the value of the dollar shrinks, these are the people that are hurt the worst"

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Future robots won't own you. You'll own the robot.

    The robots are not taking our jobs. Yet.

    There are few if any signs of this occurring. If robots were replacing us, we'd see significant increases in productivity, but productivity growth is slow everywhere in the world right now. If a mass replacement of humans by machines were happening it would probably cause a large investment boom. Instead, we're seeing an investment drought in rich countries, as companies sit on cash. In addition, there is little evidence that capital-labor substitutability -- the economics term for employers' ability to replace humans with machines -- is increasing.

    But that doesn't mean that the rise-of-the-robots scenario is unthinkable. It isn't happening today, but it's something that might take place 50, 75 or 100 years in the future. It would be an unprecedented change and maybe not all that worrisome: previous technological revolutions always ended up making the mass of humanity more valuable, not less. But technological progress often causes unprecedented things to happen. The Industrial Revolution was unlike anything that had gone before -- it broke all the so-called laws of economics. Those laws could be broken again.

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Debate shows Rubio's gift for avoiding traps

    If you want a headline for Tuesday night's Republican debate in terms of the horse race, it's this: Nothing much happened, and therefore the march of Republican party actors toward Marco Rubio most likely will continue.

    Oh, plenty happened, both in the matinee and the main event. Lots of candidates got in their prepared zingers; plenty of candidates did a good job discussing substantive policies; even more candidates sounded foolish on various subjects. But I recently noted that Rubio was moving up rapidly in endorsements from Republicans. Since then, he's added another senator and three more members of the House. It's still not certain that the party has decided for him, but it's looking better and better.

    And nothing on Tuesday night should change that. His debate skills are solid. He's especially good at knowing exactly which prepared answer to match to which question -- far better than any of his competitors, if not quite as good so far as Hillary Clinton (who, after all, has a lot more experience at this part of the game).

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College is not for coddling

    Trigger warning: I'm about to commit a micro-aggression. Maybe a macro one. Here goes: Yale students worked up over an email about Halloween costumes, grow up. Learn some manners. Develop some sense of judgment and proportion.

    The Yalies are all spun up over Halloween costumes -- specifically, an administrator's suggestion that an official email cautioning against offensive outfits was unwise and, indeed, infantilizing. The email, from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis, was caveated and respectful.

    Still, she wondered, "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious? ... And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power?"

    Her husband Nicholas, the Silliman College master, suggested an alternate approach, Christakis wrote. "If you don't like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

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Carson's character is his 2016 campaign

    In the race for the Republican nomination for president, Ben Carson is running an "outsider" campaign, has no significant experience in politics or government and reveals little interest in, or understanding of, large swaths of public policy. Donald Trump is running similarly, with a nearly identical lack of experience or obvious interest in governing. Carson has said some things in books and elsewhere that appear to be misremembered, or possibly untrue. Trump has said some things in books and elsewhere that likewise appear untrue.

    In the end, Carson could lose support if his personal narrative proves untrustworthy. Trump? If he falters, it probably won't be due to re-evaluations of his character.

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Candidates tar legitimate press coverage with 'gotcha' epithet

    As the presidential campaign season intensifies, managers for the various competitors and some of the candidates themselves have angrily turned on the moderators and the television networks that host the debates.

    Predictable whining has come from the GOP front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and others over supposedly "gotcha" questions meant to pin them down on this or that statement or contention about their records. Scrutiny of Trump's past business bankruptcies and of Carson's boasts of a combative childhood on Detroit's mean streets have been cited as unfair or irresponsible.

    Trump has largely fielded his questions as an accomplished counterpuncher accustomed to such verbal assaults and has been ready, willing and able to dish out as much or more than received, in his famously bullying style.

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