American Daily: March 27, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

27 March 2014


Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, arguing the government's position, highlighted that if the Court ruled for Hobby Lobby, it would mark the first time a court granted an exemption that "extinguishe[d] the statutorily guaranteed benefits" of someone else: Hobby Lobby's employees. As Kagan noted, "Congress has made a judgement to provide an entitlement," in other words, the birth control coverage, "and that entitlement is to women" who are "harmed" if they are denied it. Justice Anthony Kennedy, thought to be the swing vote, asked Clement, "how would you suggest we think about the rights of employees?", noting that their religious beliefs might not square with those of their employer. But Justice Antonin Scalia questioned whether RFRA was even intended to take into account the interests of third parties at all.

The race to the bandwagon had begun. By Tuesday morning the Republican-run House Intelligence Committee was polishing and promoting the End Bulk Collection Act of 2014, which would grudgingly achieve much of what the White House grudgingly asked for. On Tuesday afternoon, Sens. Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, and Mark Udall strolled into a Senate hallway bustling with reporters to accept the NSA’s partial surrender.
  • How Stand Your Ground laws work for women.

But as Marissa Alexander faces a possible 60-year sentence in Florida for what she called a warning shot fired against her abusive husband – and on Friday filed a request for a new Stand Your Ground immunity hearing – it’s clear the definition of “a good woman with a gun” doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. And according to a new analysis of FBI homicide data, race plays a disproportionate role.

  • Why China needs the US in Afghanistan.
Chaos in Afghanistan, particularly Al Qaeda or other extremist terrorist groups returning, would be a blow to the U.S., but it would also be a disaster for China. Parts of China’s new economic plans (notably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) are already in doubt due to security concerns. Should the Afghan government (which is scheduled to elect a new president in April) collapse following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, it would further destabilize the entire region—posing a threat to China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt.”
Worse, China is worried that instability in Afghanistan (and Pakistan as well) will provide a training ground for terrorist groups seeking to split Xinjiang province off from the rest of China. Violent incidents in Xinjiang have already become increasingly common in recent years. Even more worrying, terrorist attacks have been carried out far from Xinjiang, including an October 2013 intentional car crash in Tiananmen Square as well as the March 1 knife attack in Kunming Railway Station.

Early polls often don’t foretell the eventual margins of the primaries, something that shouldn’t be surprising. But what if Clinton in fact wins the Democratic nomination in a landslide, while the Republican nominee does so only after a long and close race? As Karen Tumulty and Robert Costa reported in The Washington Post, GOP elders believe that scenario would lead to problems for their eventual candidate. Are they right? Could a Democratic sweep and a drawn-out Republican contest offer insight into the outcome of the general election?


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Oh cool. Janet Yellen agrees with me.

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

27 March 2014


Men's real wages in the US

A week back or so I posted the above graph to my other blog, commenting:

Krugman is talking inequality with reference to this chart, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen liberals who are discussing the issue use men’s wages as a base. (The point here being that, in real terms, 60 per cent of American men have seen their income fall over the past 40 years.) I think the idea is that if you use men’s wages as a measure, you’re accessing a controlled sample, since social changes haven’t altered men’s participation in the workforce and remuneration the way it has women’s. Ceteris Paribus.

But… why should men be the control? I mean, if we’re trying to gauge inequality, surely change in gender-induced inequality is just as meaningful as changes in class-induced inequality? Person A’s lower wage compared to Person B’s doesn’t become more excusable if Person A is a woman.

And, while in my brief search, I couldn’t find the exact data Krugman sourced, this similar set suggests that women’s wages have risen in real terms across all percentiles since 1973. (Though, dismally, for some they’ve fallen since 1979 — thanks Ronald Reagan.) That’s an important data point when considering inequality, and the liberal desire to draw attention to class-based inequality shouldn’t permit putting the thumb on the scale by comparing the situation of men now to the situation when women’s wages were even more artificially depressed than they are now.

One way to look at this, incidentally, is that as women have made gains, men have lost; men, forced to compete against new talent, are unable to maintain as high a living standard as they once did. But this doesn’t take into account the increased productivity from abandoning the inefficiencies of a workforce that doesn’t provide proper consideration to the talents of fifty per cent of its number.

Which brings me to a question about productivity: why isn’t gender equality a big part of the discussion of increasing productivity? If women’s wages are being artificially constrained (and they are), then that means the economy isn’t operating at peak efficiency. Men are, effectively, seeking rent on their penises. Considering American women earn 81 cents on the dollar compared to American men, addressing this disparity seems to be ripe grounds for easy gains in productivity. Jus spitballing, but, anyone interested in supply-side inefficiencies should probably be very interested in gender inequality, I reckon.

Not sure why the post never made it to this space, but anyway. It seems like I might have been on the right track, considering remarks Fed Chair Janet Yellen made at a Women's History Month reception in DC:

I think our economic success has been due in substantial part to the fuller participation and contribution of women to the economy. Their increasing participation in the workforce, particularly after 1970, was a major factor in sustaining growing family incomes. Making fuller use of the talents and efforts of women in the workplace has made us more productive and prosperous.

If I were to apply this lesson, I would hope that our nation continues to reap the benefits of greater participation by women in the economy and that we do everything that we can to foster that participation. Women have made great progress in many occupations and professions, but lag in others. In my own profession, there has been a gradual increase in the share of women in economics, but women still remain underrepresented at the highest levels in academia, in government and in business.

This seems pretty straightforward to me. If the inventor of the next Google or Facebook whatever fails to do so because she's shut out of the necessary professional network or because the culture in which she lives discourages her from fully capitalising on a good idea or expects her to take on a disproportionately larger share of domestic labour, that's one productivity-boosting product America misses out on. The same goes for pay disparities — talented women who expect to only earn only 77 cents on the dollar a man may be disincentivised from making full use of their talents.

That is: there are clear differences in labour conditions for men and women. Even if you for some reason think that's not unfair, it should be obvious that it's economically inefficient.


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American Daily: March 24, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

24 March 2014


To really understand whether these midterm-year elections are nationalized, we also need to know what happens when voters are filling out a ballot for governors and presidents at the same time. That’s what’s in the graph above. You can see that nationalization has been rising since the 1970s in these on-cycle elections, too, and that an increasingly close relationship between presidential and gubernatorial voting has tapered off only slightly in recent years. Comparing the left and right graphs, we reach a surprising conclusion: The nationalization of the gubernatorial vote appears even stronger today in midterm elections, where the presidential candidates don’t appear on the same ballot.

US foreign policy needs greater diversity of skill, ideas and experience. This means not only including more women, but working against the economic barriers that deter many talented young people — male and female — from entering the field.

If you need convincing that foreign policy needs new blood, look at the state of the world around you. The strongest argument against the status quo is the status quo itself.

  • States' continuing search for a palatable way to execute prisoners.
But today’s fight over transparency and lack of concern over botched executions are good reminders of the fundamental lie at the heart of lethal injection: It is a punishment that, by its very design, has always been rooted in secrecy rather than medical science. Never mind the rhetoric about “humane and dignified death.” However brutish the electric chair or gas chamber might appear by comparison, the only thing that truly sets lethal injection apart is that it was devised to mask what it was doing to its victims. As states have been forced to abandon that original design, lethal injection has been exposed for what it actually is: an experimental, unscientific form of premeditated killing.
The conservative book business has seen better days. Ten years ago, the genre was a major source of intellectual energy on the right, and the site of a publishing boom, with conservative imprints popping up at industry giants like Random House and Penguin. But after a decade of disruption, uneven sales, and fierce competition, many leading figures in the conservative literati fear the market has devolved into an echo of cable news, where an overcrowded field of preachers feverishly contends for the attention of the same choir.
  • How progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America's history and present.

Nor will pretending as though old debates are somehow new. For some reason there is a trenchant belief among many liberals and conservatives that discussions of American racism should began somewhere between the Moynihan Report and the Detroit riots. Thus Chait dates our dispute to the fights in the 70s between liberals. In fact we are carrying on an argument that is at least a century older.

The passage of time is important because it allows us to assess how those arguments have faired. I contend that my arguments have been born out, and the arguments of progressives like Chait and the president of the United States have not. Either Booker T. Washington was correct when he urged black people to forgo politics in favor eliminating “the criminal and loafing element of our people” or he wasn’t. Either W.E.B. Du Bois was correct when he claimed that correcting “the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes” should be the “first and primary” goal or he was not. The track record of progressive moral reform in the black community is knowable.


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American Daily: March 21, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

21 March 2014


The good news, which my wife and I have been surprised by as we’ve traveled in smaller-town America these past few months, is that once you look away from the national level, the American style of self-government can seem practical-minded, nonideological, future-oriented, and capable of compromise. These are of course the very traits we seem to have lost in our national politics.
  • Should Ruth Bader Ginsburg resign from the Supreme Court?
A great deal turns on who picks Ginsburg's successor. There are, for example, four likely votes to overturn Roe vs. Wade on the current court: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. If a Republican president selects Ginsburg's replacement, that justice easily could be the fifth vote needed to allow the government to prohibit all abortions. On many cases — including ones involving environmental law, healthcare, gay marriage, the death penalty and the rights of those in Guantanamo — the four liberal justices have joined with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for a progressive result.
Let me just state the obvious here: I have no idea what really went into Vox's decision, and whether the people doing the hiring really thought it would be super neat to have a gay Christian as a writer. Because we all know—right?—that there are a lot of gay Christian writers who don't fondly remember Jerry Falwell. (Also Christian does not necessariily mean evangelical. You know that. You read RD.) To be truly diverse, does a newsroom need a variety of religions, and a variety of views within those religions? Seems like an impossible, fraught task. How would you determine which religions had historically been excluded, as is more clearly the case with gender and race? How could you possibly define optimal religious diversity, and what would that look like, and how could you do it without getting sued?
  • Cool map of Bay Area public transportation by travel time
San Francisco transport
  • Barack Obama picks Michigan State to win the March Madness basketball tournament.

Obama also picked Michigan State over Delaware in the first round, despite any cheering for Delaware in the White House that might come from Vice President Joe Biden.

“I’ll let Biden fill out his own bracket, and if he wants Delaware over Michigan State, I’ll let him do it,” Obama said.


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Fred Phelps as American kitsch

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

21 March 2014


Fred Phelps

American kitsch is the bane of every serious America-watcher. (Even if, every now and then, we can't help but find it a little charming.) What do I mean by American kitsch? That cultural detritus that possesses all the hallmarks of Americana, that bears traits exemplifying the country's national psyche in some telling way, and yet is, on closer examination, entirely meaningless. Think of Fat Elvis — or, better yet, Fat Elvis–impersonators — snake handlers, certain rococo varieties of gun nut, child beauty pageant enthusiasts, plastic surgery disasters, those ignoramuses Jay Leno quizzes for his vox pop spots. Superficially, each seems to capture something essential about American culture: religion, capitalism, celebrity, insularity, appearance. But really, they're just grotesques: singularities that stand out even among their own countrymen. 

As far as American kitsch goes, Fred Phelps was among the least charming. If you're unaware, check the lede of the New York Times's obituary for why not too many folks are mourning the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church's death today:

The Rev. Fred Phelps, the virulently antigay preacher who drew wide, scornful attention for staging demonstrations at military funerals as a way to proclaim his belief that God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality, died here on Wednesday. He was 84.

Richard Kim has details of how Phelps did actually hurt the lives of real people, but as a national figure, he was about as meaingful as a porcelain Jesus on a Cadillac dashboard. He was a lurid collision of ugly Americana, as the photo above shows: a stern-jawed, greying cowboy in a big hat; tyranically puritanical; weaponising his First Amendment rights by making his essential characteristic public protest; obsessed with sexuality; perverting the language and iconography of patriotism to further his message — his favoured rhetorical tactic being to assail the United States itself for tolerating homosexuality as a nation; mercilessly appropriating the military to propagate his hatred. His public life was lived through the constitution, debated in the courtroom, and devoted to religion. When Kevin Smith caricatured him as a horror movie villain in 2011's Red State, making him effective only served to give him substance.

Everything about Fred Phelps was morbidly American, and yet his person says absolutely nothing about America. He was reviled by Americans from across the political and religious spectrum. It's doubtful that he ever persuaded anyone who didn't literally share his DNA. And now he's dead.

American kitsch.


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American Daily: March 19, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

19 March 2014


The other reason I say our election forecasts were overrated is because they didn’t represent the totality, or even the most important part, of our journalism at FiveThirtyEight. We also covered topics ranging from the increasing acceptance of gay marriage to the election of the new pope, along with subjects in sports, science, lifestyle and economics. Relatively little of this coverage entailed making predictions. Instead, it usually involved more preliminary steps in the data journalism process: collecting data, organizing data, exploring data for meaningful relationships, and so forth. Data journalists have the potential to add value in each of these ways, just as other types of journalists can add value by gathering evidence and writing stories.
House ideology
  • Republicans shouldn't get complacent about the midterms.
And even if Republicans succeed by taking the path of least resistance, they will be storing up future trouble. What if they win the Senate? In that case, Congress will have to move legislation. Republicans will have to come up with attractive conservative bills then, so that Obama will either feel it necessary to sign them or pay a political price for vetoing them. They will be in much better shape if they have campaigned on some of these ideas. That way they can say that the public knew what it would be getting by voting for Republicans. Republicans will also be better able to achieve unity among party congressmen, who will be more likely to feel that they're invested in these ideas as a group.
If Clinton announced on March 1, 2015, there would only be 10 months before the calendar turned to 2016. Given how much her candidacy -- or at least her decision-making about her candidacy -- has and will continue to freeze the field, there would be a mad scramble for donors, activists and key consultants in early states the likes of which we haven't seen in modern presidential history.

The NCAA Tournament bracket produces a web of matchups far more interesting than any basketball game: MASCOT BATTLES TO THE DEATH. Our goal is to systematically work through one-on-one matchups of school mascots until we establish a Final Four of mascots and eventually a champion. We know this is not an original idea, but ... well, someone has to do it, and we feel qualified.


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The limits of poli-sci

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

18 March 2014


The Gamble

I reviewed John Sides and Lynn Vavreck's The Gamble for American Review:

In many ways, The Gamble acts as a counter to the addictive and gossipy Game Change series Washington journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have penned during the past two campaigns (see Nicole Hemmer’s review). The contrast might even be deliberate; The Gamble reveals in its opening line that 68 individual moments during the 2012 campaign were described as “game-changers” somewhere in the American media, and Sides and Vavreck have a decidedly more sober view of electoral politics. “The continual search for game-changers treats a campaign like a boxing match, where the momentum may be shifting back and forth with every punch and the knockout blow could come at any moment,” they write. “In reality, there are few knockout punches, and most game-changers do not really change the game that much.”

This means — as the authors demonstrate with exhaustive reference to polling, modelling, and charts aplenty — that such widely touted news events as Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment or the “47% video” leaked to liberal website Mother Jones, which showed Mitt Romney dismissing close to half the American public as “dependent on the government,” had almost no impact on voters whatsoever. 

Also meaningless in terms of shifting voter opinion: any of Romney’s widely reported “gaffes,” the Obama campaign’s summer advertising blitz hammering Romney for his connection to private equity firm Bain Capital, and the disruptive effects of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast in the last week of October. 

On one level, I think this is a really important book, and it would be great if loads of people read it — especially people interested in American politics, and especially people professionally interested in American politics. (Though I'd much rather such people first read Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State; Talking Right; or Nixonland.) But on the other hand, for me it unexpectedly exposed the limits of political science — something I hinted at previously. Reading The Gamble, I started to think about the strengths of the Game Change books: how they portray the human side of politics, how even if elections aren't driven by personalities, politicians can be, how our first draft of history will inevitably be messy and impressionistic and foolish. Don't get me wrong, Halperin and Heilemann are exactly the kinds of reporters who would benefit having their exuberances tempered by Sides and Vavreck. But journalists exist for a reason, and though the authors of The Gamble are quite capable communicators (you don't write for WaPo if you're not), they're researchers first and writers second, and you can tell. And I firmly believe that good writing isn't window-dressing; how you say something is as meaningful as what you're saying.

The other thing is that if you paid attention to the right blogs throughout the campaign, a lot of this stuff isn't new. Which doesn't mean The Gamble isn't worthwhile — a book is more permanent than a blog post, and has a wider reach — but it does mean that for certain folks, its revelations are less stunning than might be supposed.


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American Daily: March 17, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 March 2014


Today’s Tucson is almost unrecognizable from the sleepy desert town of ages past. Arizona’s five C’s­—cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper—have transformed the region’s economy, thanks to Herculean efforts to farm the desert and to enact pro-growth policies in urban areas. But increased water pressure due to climate change is now making each of those five C’s obsolete. Case in point: A proposal for a massive copper mine south of Tucson has been vigorously debated, with water being at the heart of the opposition’s case.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to capture the Senate. That is a lot, but the playing field favours them. Senators serve staggered six-year terms: every two years, a third of them come up for re-election. This year that includes a clutch of Republican states that Democrats won in the rout of 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected president. Defending such places would be hard even if the economy were bubbling and Mr Obama’s approval rating were not a sickly 43%—only somewhat better than George W. Bush’s in 2006.
  • Did Netflix introduce America to the word "queue"?
Back in Netflix’s early years, users baffled by the word “queue” used to call customer service to ask, “What’s my kway-way?” recalls Netflix communications director Joris Evers. This isn’t a question Netflix hears much anymore—and they can probably take some credit for that.
The Winchester Mystery House is the creepiest house in Silicon Valley, and was built by Winchester Gun heiress Sarah Winchester – widow of William Wirt Winchester, son of the first president of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company — over a period of almost forty years. A veritable hive of 160 rooms, the mega mansion is a 6-acre labyrinth of false doors and stairs that lead absolutely nowhere — ad-hoc additions reportedly made by Winchester to confuse the evil spirits of people shot and killed by the firearms of her dead husband's namesake.

Thor's Well, OR

Thor's Well, Oregon


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American Daily: March 12, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

12 March 2014


Crimea’s planned March 16 referendum on whether it should leave Ukraine and join Russia is underhanded, dishonest, and absurd—and completely legitimate. Vladimir Putin has yet again maneuvered the West into a corner. Jujitsu-like, he is using one of our most prized institutions—international law—against us. This is not the first time, and so calls to punish Russia and start a Cold War II are understandable. Yet we should swallow our pride and let him bask in his victory. In the long run, it gets him nothing.
Syria presents an ambiguous test of Obama’s ideology. On the one hand, he did decide against intervention even in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe. On the other hand, Obama clearly did not make this decision on Realist grounds that the United States shouldn’t care about the massacre of Syrian civilians, but rather on the small-r realist grounds that we lacked any practical recourse. (I lean toward sharing this analysis, but it’s hard to hold a strong view in the absence of the kind of intelligence only the administration itself could access.) A prudential judgment that intervention was unlikely to work in this case, but that he'd be open to undertaking it if it could, is very different than believing it was not America’s business. Obama gave up trying to pass cap and trade after 2010, but that hardly puts him in the same category as an ideological opponent of cap and trade.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Joe – at the tender age of 26! – transformed political journalism with The Selling Of The President, the legendary expose of the cynicism of media optics in presidential campaigns – and, by the by, a lovely, ornery rebuke to the magisterial tomes of Theodore H White, as Ann Althouse notes. And the first thing to say is that the man could write. He couldn’t write a bad sentence. His narratives powered along; his prose as clear as it was vivid; his innate skill at telling a story sometimes reaching rare moments in non-fiction when you’re lost in what is, in effect, a factual novel.

During several weeks in January and February, aides said, Schumer and Alexander quietly orchestrated what both described as a “modest experiment” based on a simple premise: Senators should be able to debate, amend and pass legislation supported by members of both parties.

“I’ve only been here 14 years, and Alexander’s been there about 11,” Schumer said. “But we were there, both of us were there and remember when the Senate used to legislate, and thoroughly enjoyed it and wish it would return.”


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American Daily: March 11, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

11 March 2014


Satoshi Nakamoto stands at the end of his sunbaked driveway looking timorous. And annoyed.
He's wearing a rumpled T-shirt, old blue jeans and white gym socks, without shoes, like he has left the house in a hurry. His hair is unkempt, and he has the thousand-mile stare of someone who has gone weeks without sleep.
Putin didn't invade Crimea because the decadent West was aimlessly sunning itself on a warm beach somewhere. He invaded Crimea because America and the EU had been vigorously promoting their interests in a country with deep historical ties to Russia. He invaded because his hand-picked Ukrainian prime minister was losing, and the West was winning. He invaded because he felt that he had been outplayed by an aggressive geopolitical opponent and had run out of other options.

So rest assured that Texas boosterism will loom large again in the next presidential election, and not just because Rick Perry is showing clear signs of another run at the White House. Texas has indeed outperformed the nation as a whole in job creation during the Obama years. And it has done so with a state government under the total control of ever-more-conservative Republicans, who now hold up that fact as validation of their whole economic agenda. Progressives, and everyone earnestly interested in improving the nation’s economic performance, need to confront all this Texas bragging and find out what, if anything, it proves.

In fact, Seattle’s diversity is also lower than the nation’s as a whole. The diversity index for the United States is 56.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Even though Seattle, overall, doesn’t have a high degree of diversity, if you focus on its neighborhoods, a different picture emerges.
  • Colorado collected $2 million in tax from its first month of legal marijuana sales.

Colorado residents voted for an aggressive 25% tax on recreational marijuana in November 2013. Revenue also comes from a standard sales tax as well as license application fees.

Of the total revenue for the fiscal year, $40 million will go to public school construction. State lawmakers are currently debating what to do with the rest of the money.


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