Archive

September 22nd, 2016

Why College Rankings Are a Joke

    Shortly before the newest U.S. News & World Report college rankings came out last week, I got a fresh glimpse of how ridiculous they can be — and of why panicked high school seniors and their status-conscious parents should not spend the next months obsessing over them.

    I was reporting a column on how few veterans are admitted to elite colleges and stumbled across a U.S. News subranking of top schools for veterans. Its irrelevance floored me. It merely mirrored the general rankings — same institutions, same order — minus the minority of prominent schools that don’t participate in certain federal education benefits for veterans.

    It didn’t take into account whether there were many — or, for that matter, any — veterans on a given campus. It didn’t reflect what support for them did or didn’t exist.

    It was just another way to package and peddle the overall U.S. News rankings, illustrating the extent to which they’re a marketing ploy. No wonder so many college presidents, provosts and deans of admissions express disdain for them. How sad that they participate in them nonetheless.

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Airbnb's anti-discrimination policy gets it right

    We have the right to pick and choose our friends, romantic partners and guests. And there are laws to ensure that hotels or restaurants can't discriminate on the basis of race or sex or national origin. What's less clear is which of these standards should apply to sharing-economy services such as Airbnb, which fall somewhere in between the public and private spheres: The host is renting space, but that space is otherwise private and the host often lives there.

    In general, the Civil Rights Act prohibits race and sex discrimination in "public accommodations" such as hotels and lunch counters. And the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in long-term rentals and sales. But courts haven't yet held that these federal laws cover an overnight stay in a private home.

    The policy that Airbnb announced this month goes beyond what the law may or may not require. It says that hosts can't discriminate on the basis of "race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status." It allows hosts to restrict their rentals to people of the same gender as the host -- if and only if the host shares living spaces with the guest.

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September 21st

Getting the balance right on infrastructure spending

    The big guns are coming out in the battle over infrastructure spending. Larry Summers, a celebrated Harvard economist and veteran policy adviser, has a new article making the case for spending more. Ed Glaeser, a brilliant and versatile colleague of Summers' who studies urban economics, has an article making the opposite case.

    Though both make many good points, I think Summers has the upper hand.

    First, there's one type of infrastructure spending that everyone should agree we need: repair and maintenance. Although Glaeser talks at length about high-speed rail and other new infrastructure, which may not pay off, even he recognizes that maintaining existing transportation networks is likely to yield high returns.

    A well-known 1988 Congressional Budget Office survey found that spending to maintain current highways in good shape produces returns of 30 percent to 40 percent.

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A better way to assess a candidate's health

    American voters have received, we are told, all they are going to get from their presidential candidates in the way of medical information. In light of Hillary Clinton's initially (and, if she had her way, permanently) undisclosed pneumonia, in light of Donald Trump's unhealthy body mass index and buffoonish physician, in light of both candidates' relatively advanced ages, this move-right-along admonition is unsettling and unsatisfying.

    Experts have raised reasonable questions about Clinton's medical care and history, including her record of blood clots and the use of the blood thinner Coumadin to treat them. And you don't have to be an expert to know that there are reasonable questions about Trump's health, given the willingness of his doctor to issue the assurance that "unequivocally" Trump "will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." No one should trust a doctor like that.

    One proposed solution would be for the candidates to submit to the "full McCain," a reference to the Arizona Republican senator's decision to allow reporters to review his full medical records, albeit for a single, three-hour window.

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Why Obama is giving old secrets to our allies

    When Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Chile in October to attend an international conference on ocean preservation, he carried something that had nothing to do with environmental collaboration. The computer disk he brought contained 282 newly-declassified records on Gen. Augusto Pinochet's role in a brazen act of international terrorism in Washington, D.C. The car bombing in Sheridan Circle that occurred 40 years ago this week took the lives of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his 25-year old colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Kerry personally handed the disk of documents to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

    Last month, when Kerry flew to Buenos Aires for trade talks, he carried another disk, this one loaded with 1,078 pages of records on the Argentine "dirty war" of repression during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Kerry gave those documents to President Mauricio Macri and promised "more to come in the future."

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Voters barely worry about their own health. Do they really care about the president's?

    The first of three planned presidential debates will take place at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26. Maybe it's good the debate is slated for a gym. If Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are really serious about proving their physical vigor and stamina, they can do laps in the arena while they answer questions.

    Clinton, of course, had to leave a 9/11 commemoration in New York early last Sunday, suffering from dehydration and a case of pneumonia. The infection had been diagnosed two days earlier, after she saw a doctor for a cough that had drawn intense interest from the ready-to-pounce conservative media. The only real health issue the illness raised is whether she had received the recommended vaccines to prevent pneumonia in people over 65 - something the 70-year-old Trump should be asked, as well.

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Trump's Birther Lie Gets Worse

    Wow. Donald Trump says President Barack Obama was born here. What a concession. No wonder he’s trending up in the polls.

    How did we get to this place, people? The big story of the day is that a candidate for president of the United States — a candidate who, according to The New York Times’ Upshot model, now has a one in four chance of being elected — admits he spent years telling the American people a stupendous lie. And even now, he won’t say he’s sorry.

    “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again,” Trump said abruptly and briefly on Friday. This was at his new Washington hotel, which he has been promoting with an avidity he has never devoted to, say, getting his immigration policy straight.

    Then Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton had been first to spread the rumor that Obama was not a native-born citizen. This is a lie. A lie that all the fact checkers in the world debunked when he started saying it long ago.

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To stop Trump, Democrats should focus on the fundamentals -- and get to work

    If Democrats want to beat Donald Trump, they need to get past the freak-out stage and get to work.

    In a sane and just world, this presidential race would be a walkover. Commentators would already be sketching out their postmortem analyses of an all-but-certain Hillary Clinton victory. Pare the contest down to its essentials: A former senator and secretary of state, eminently qualified to be president, is running against a dangerous demagogue who has never held public office and should not be allowed anywhere near the White House. Ought to be case closed.

    But it's not. Clinton's big lead in national polls following the party conventions, which approached double digits, has shrunk to about 2 points -- far too close for comfort. Trump has gained ground in swing-state polls as well. If the election were held tomorrow, Clinton would probably win. But Nov. 8 is many weeks away, and the recent trend line is hardly in her favor.

    Why has the race tightened? I've heard a lot of theories, but I'm not sure I really buy any of them.

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Paychecks haven't changed much in rural America

    In the mostly very positive report on U.S. income and poverty in 2015 that the Census Bureau released this week, there was one sour note. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

    "Income gains were spread across nearly all age groups, household types, regions and racial or ethnic groups. One exception: Incomes didn't rise for households living outside metropolitan areas."

    In fact, the Census Bureau reported that the median household income outside the nation's metropolitan areas fell from $45,534 in 2014 to $44,657 (both in 2015 dollars), although it didn't make a big deal out of that because the difference was less than the survey's margin of error. The increase in median household income inside metropolitan areas, from $55,920 in 2014 to $59,258, was way more than the margin of error.

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Mourning the Syria that might have been

    Earlier this week, when the latest ceasefire in Syria's long-running civil war took effect, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized the opportunity to embark on a triumphant tour of a place that has long defied him. He paid a visit to the city of Daraya, a Damascus suburb where rebels managed to resist his forces for four long years until they finally agreed to give up control in the last week of August.

    For those four years the government threw everything it had at Daraya. The troops surrounding it tried to starve it out, refusing to let aid convoys bring food to residents. Syrian helicopters pounded the city with barrel bombs, weapons of indiscriminate terror that have little or no military utility. In August, the Syrian air force used rockets and napalm to obliterate the city's last surviving hospital. Some observers believe this was part of a calculated effort to make the place completely uninhabitable.

    We've seen the same brutality in far too many places in this war. But there was something different about Daraya - something that helps to explain why Assad was so keen to celebrate its fall.

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