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Updated: 2017-01-17T00:00:00-05:00


Remy: Closer (New at Reason)


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Remy finds common ground between Trump supporters and protesters at the inauguration.

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Remy: Closer (Trump Inauguration Remix)


Remy finds common ground between Trump supporters and protesters at the inauguration.

Parody of "Closer" by The Chainsmokers
Written and Performed by Remy.
Music tracks by by Ben Karlstrom and Stickzz. Mastered by Ben Karlstrom.
Produced and Edited by Austin Bragg.

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Lord, we thank you for this day and please protect us
From anything that might lead or affect us astray
Kids, make sure you read your Bibles, it's the best word
You can't be watching nothing with the "S" word, okay?

You know it breaks my heart
Our culture is so coarsened! Clinton was the start, and
Eight years, more debt
We need to get back to the tenets of small government!
That's why I came to cheer and watch
A statist who likes to grab crotch...

So give me more disclosure of entitlement proposals
I used to say we can't afford
Tax my trade and close the border
Give crude language the exposure
That up 'til now I abhorred
While I'm not a total poser
You could say I'm getting closer

You! Look at all you people out here nodding!
While soon there's gonna be a lot of bombing, we grieve
Trump!? That guy just gives the pot a stirring motion
I haven't seen such terrible emotions since New Year's Eve.

You know it broke my heart
The wars are never-ending--George Bush was the start and
Don Trump / Mike Pence?
We need to stop the droning, it's just common sense

Those are things I'll protest and scream
Unless, you know, it hurts my team...
So hand me a pink poster because now I'm an opposer
Of the bombings and the wars
That for eight years I glossed over
My memory is as selective as
Meryl Streep's I suppose
Pass that stuff we brought from Boulder
You could say I'm getting closer

You could say we're getting closer.
You could say we're getting closer.


Paul Ehrlich Addressing Vatican Conference on Biodiversity.


Forty-nine years ago, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University scared the bejesus out of much of the world when he predicted that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation. In his doomsday bestseller The Population Bomb, Ehrlich wrote, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." Since Ehrlich wrote those words, the world's population has more than doubled. Yet people consume more calories per capita while living longer on a cleaner planet. Ehrlich's jeremiad did not come true for a number of reasons. The Green Revolution massively increased agricultural productivity, affordable contraceptives made family planning easier, plummeting infant mortality has reduced the need for "spare" children, and rising incomes increased the opportunity cost for women who opt to stay at home with their children rather than enter the labor market—hence massive fall in global fertility rate. That said, Ehrlich's predictions were not without consequences. "In addition to China's one-child rule," Ehrlich must be held partially responsible for "abhorrent campaigns of forced sterilization in Indira Gandhi's India and Alberto Fujimori's Peru." Surely a man with that much to answer for has been relegated to the fringes of society? Not on your life! In fact, next month Ehrlich will be addressing a Vatican workshop on "Biological Extinction." Judging by the promotional material, he will feel right at home. According to the Vatican, measures of human consumption have "calculated that in about 1970 we were using about 70 percent of the Earth's sustainable capacity, and now...we are using about 156 percent. Nevertheless there are 800 million people chronically malnourished and 100 million on the verge of starvation at any one time. How have such imbalances, both among contemporaries and between the present and future generations come about, and how are they sustained? The problems wouldn't go away if we had another 56 percent of the Earth to take care of our needs, but we could at least stop eating into the productive capacity of the Earth progressively as the years go by." Human settlement and agriculture have been the traditional enemy of nature and biodiversity. Thankfully, urbanization (over half of humanity lives in cities already) and falling fertility rates (there is a distinct possibility that earth's human population will start declining during the course of the 21st century) will return some of the world's surface back to nature. This trend will be greatly enhanced by improvements in agricultural yields. As Jesse H. Ausubel of Rockefeller University points out, "if the world farmer reaches the average yield of today's U.S. corn grower during the next 70 years, 10 billion people eating as people now on average do will need only half of today's cropland. The land spared exceeds Amazonia. This will happen if farmers sustain the yearly 2 percent worldwide yield growth of grains achieved since 1960, in other words if social learning continues as usual." If the Vatican wanted to get a real sense of the future of biodiversity on earth, it should have invited Ausubel instead of Ehrlich. [...]

Since Obama Took Office, Debt Has Nearly Doubled


(image) Barack Obama likes to brag about how he brought federal deficits down, and that's true: In FY 2010 (the first year covered by an Obama administration budget) the deficit was just under $1.3 trillion, while in FY 2017 (the final year covered by an Obama administration budget) the deficit will be just over $500 billion. The federal debt, on the other hand, has almost doubled over his eight years, as this chart shows.


Politicians Make Bootlegging Great Again


When Prohibition ended in 1933, my great-grandfather, Giuseppe Marano, thought his money-making glory days were over. Having made a good living selling alcoholic beverages to willing buyers at a time when that business was illegal across the country, he and his cohorts certainly viewed the passage of the 21st Amendment as the end of a very profitable era. Except that it really wasn't. Politicians may have formally dumped the national ban on booze, but in many places they've imposed enough foolish restrictions to keep bootlegging a going concern. On the first day of this year, it became a class 4 felony in Illinois—up from a business offense carrying a fine—to import 45 liters or more of liquor into the state without a license. The same minimum one-year prison sentence applies to bringing in more than 108 liters of wine or 118 liters of beer without government paperwork. The law passed as a nudge-and-wink scheme between politicians who resent the loss of tax revenue when beverages are brought in across the state line, and local liquor distributors who bristle when out of state competitors elbow in on their action. "Many out-of-state businesses are not compliant with Illinois tax laws, which undercuts Illinois businesses, depriving our state of money that could be going toward improving our schools, roads and social services," Karin Lijana Matura, executive director of Wine and Spirits Distributors of Illinois, an industry trade group, told WQAD. The legislation came in response to a thriving illegal cross-border trade as Illinois residents place orders with businesses—many in Indiana—for liquor, wine, and beer unavailable or just extremely pricey through their state's tightly regulated and protected cartel. "Alcohol is much more expensive in Illinois than it is in Indiana," reported a Chicago ABC affiliate in 2015. "And it is even pricier in Cook County, where the tax rate on liquor is more than five times higher than it is in the Hoosier state." The result is that "a six-bottle case of vodka that costs $167 in Indiana costs $226 in Illinois and is $18 more than that in Cook County." Indeed, Illinois taxed distilled spirits at $8.55 per gallon, compared to the $2.68 imposed by Indiana, according to the Tax Foundation. Taxes are also lower in neighboring Missouri and Wisconsin. The Illinois Policy Institute notes that Cook County adds another $2.50 per gallon to the price of a bottle of cheer, and Chicago tags on an extra $2.68 per gallon. Wine is taxed at $1.39 per gallon, a tad higher than the $0.25 rate in Wisconsin. Beer isn't leaned on quite so heavily by the tax man, but Illinois still imposes a higher rate than most of its neighbors at $0.23 per gallon, compared to $0.12 in Indiana, and $0.06 in Missouri and Wisconsin. And that's assuming you can even find the beverage of your choice to have an opportunity to balk at the price. Chicago "is one of the last contested territories for the nation's two beer giants…which wage a proxy war through licensed distributors" and squeeze out small competitors, Crain's Chicago Business pointed out a few years ago. Federal and state law makes it difficult for small players to bypass established distributors. So opposition to the new Illinois law found fertile ground among consumers with tastes that couldn't be satisfied locally, "particularly from residents who purchased hard-to-find wine from out-of-state retailers," according to the Chicago Tribune. "Other states allow out-of-state retailers to obtain a direct shipping license, providing both oversight and valuable tax revenue. We think this is the right approach for Illinois—creating competition, consumer choice, and revenue to help balance our state's budget," their petition said. All they wanted was a chance to legally place orders online with businesses that carry their drinks of choice and have the goods shipped to their homes. But they lost, and the tax man and distribution cartel got their p[...]

California Legislator Doubles Down on Dubious Child Prositution Claims


California Republicans face a discouraging dilemma, as GOP numbers wither in the state Capitol. Democrats gained supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, which leaves the remaining Republicans virtually no power to stop anything and little more than a bully pulpit for their policies. How will they handle this bleak situation? They have few good choices, but it's still hard to understand the approach taken by Assemblyman Travis Allen. The likable and normally low-key Huntington Beach Republican is trying out a new role as the legislature's bomb-thrower. He is getting widespread social-media attention for his latest article, but his over-the-top rhetoric may turn himself—and the party—into something taken even less seriously, and not just by Capitol Democrats. Allen grabbed the spotlight in late December with a column in the Washington Examiner headlined, "California Democrats legalize child prostitution." This wasn't some headline writer's overstatement. Allen wrote, "Beginning on Jan. 1, prostitution by minors will be legal in California. Yes, you read that right. ... So teenage girls (and boys) in California will soon be free to have sex in exchange for money without fear of arrest or prosecution." The assemblyman argued that Senate Bill 1322 is part of "wave after wave of laws taking effect that are well-intentioned but disastrous embodiments of progressive utopianism." I'm no fan of progressivism and spend much of my time in Sacramento writing about the disastrous policies pushed by the majority party. But it might help Republicans' cause if they didn't misrepresent a reasonable law for some cheap partisan gain. The Sacramento Bee ran a prominent piece declaring Allen's claim "misleading." "Those soliciting the sex and those arranging the clients can still be charged with crimes," wrote Christopher Cadelago. "People caught having sexual conduct with minors can be charged with penalties ranging from misdemeanors to felonies carrying life terms, depending on the ages of those involved and the individual circumstances of the offenses." Politifact wrote that "Allen's specific claim, and the column in general, is grossly misleading. We rate Allen's claim Pants On Fire." As I wrote for the San Diego Union-Tribune about a previous legislative effort, "Currently, these kids are arrested and thrown into the juvenile court system. The 'johns' typically receive a slap on the wrist. These legislators and activists want the children treated as victims, and provided with shelter and help, and the johns treated as sex predators." The law certainly could backfire, but its goal was not to "legalize" sex with minors. It's to focus prosecution on pimps and johns and get social service help for these kids, who are abuse victims. "This bill creates a model for services provided... through the juvenile dependency and treatment process, rather reliance on the juvenile delinquency court system," according to the Senate bill analysis. "Providing services to sexually exploited minors more quickly and directly than under current practice may be effective." The law passed mostly on a partisan basis, but it had the support of a small number of Republicans, including a former California Highway Patrol officer. Allen's column acknowledges the law is well-intentioned and makes some reasonable arguments, but the initial overstatement leaves readers with the wrong impression. Moreover, it led to a spate of overheated postings that went viral. CalWatchdog detailed the backlash against, and quotes from the conservative RedState blog, which called the Allen piece an "unsubstantiated hot take" because of Allen's claim "law enforcement can't interfere with minors engaged in prostitution." But it's increasingly hard to disseminate facts in a world of narrative-driven commentary. Allen has stood by his column. "The facts are absolutely clear," he told me. "The law that is now in place ... is that p[...]

How to Replace Obamacare


You can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting someone who has made fun of congressional Republicans for not having a plan to replace Obamacare. And the critics are right: Republicans don't have a plan. They have a whole bunch of plans. House Speaker Paul Ryan has one. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has another. HHS nominee Tom Price not only has a plan, he has a bill: The Empowering Patients First Act. The trouble is that Republicans haven't collated all those plans into one single, omnibus proposal. To some degree, that's their own fault. The GOP has painted itself into a corner. Republicans had a whale of a good time mocking President Obama's claims that under the Affordable Care Act, if you liked your doctor or health plan you would be able to keep them. That turned out to be untrue for millions of people, a fact that Republicans took great delight in repeating. But repealing Obamacare also would cause millions of people to lose coverage—many more, in fact, than lost it through Obamacare's passage. The GOP might find this awkward. On the other hand, Democrats can make too much of the point. Many Americans bought insurance under duress, and might not be brokenhearted at no longer having to pay for something they didn't want in the first place. Still, even many conservative Trump supporters might be unhappy if they lost coverage due to ACA repeal. Indeed, as the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell recently pointed out, "there's an entire subgenre of journalism" devoted to seeking out and interviewing Trump supporters who could lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed. (Somebody's gotta teach those rubes a lesson, apparently.) Polls do show widespread public support for several provisions of the ACA, because—let's be fair—the law does try to address things about health care in the U.S. that Americans don't like, such as not being able to afford insurance or getting turned down because of an existing medical condition. The trouble is that Obamacare tries to solve those problems with a gargantuan law that tries to regulate the entire health-care system through central planning. Many Americans don't like that, either. Nor should they. People need food as much as they need medical care—and yet somehow the U.S. manages to feed everybody without employer-sponsored food plans and state-run food-purchase collectives and a federal Ministry of Eating and a Center for Breakfast and Lunch Services and so forth. The government helps the very poorest by giving them food vouchers, but Washington doesn't micromanage every grocery store and farmer's market. It's almost as if there were some kind of "invisible hand" at work. When Republicans do get around to collating their proposals, what should they include? The first order of business should be to fix what has been called the original sin of U.S. health care: WWII-era decisions, driven by wage and price controls, that exempted fringe benefits such as health coverage from those controls, then treated employer-provided health insurance as wage income for the purpose of collective bargaining—but not for the purpose of taxation. This led to several harmful results: It created an incentive to expand health insurance more than necessary. It reduced the incentive for patients to price-shop for medical care. It left the self-employed at a disadvantage. And it stunted the growth of wages. (It's no coincidence that wages have stagnated as the costs of employer-provided health care have soared.) It also led to the loss of "portability": If you change jobs, you can't take your coverage with you. To begin addressing those issues, Congress should eliminate the tax preference for employer-provided insurance and replace it with a standard income-tax deduction for health insurance from any source. To help the poor, couple it with a refundable tax credit—i.e., a subsidy. Obamacare tries to solve the problem of[...]

Obama's Betrayal of Believers


On June 26, 2006, then–Sen. Barack Obama took the stage at a conference hosted by the Christian social justice organization Sojourners and gave what would become the defining speech on religion of his young career. With Americans increasingly curious about this rock-star politician with the funny name, Obama discussed how he had found a deep faith during his time working with black church leaders as a community organizer in Chicago. "The questions I had didn't magically disappear," he said. "But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will and dedicated myself to discovering His truth." It was enough to give many Christians hope that the future president would have their backs. But a decade later, as Obama's tenure at the White House draws to a close, those who believe in the importance of religious liberty and free association have few reasons to celebrate. Despite his protestations on that day that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square," many will remember his presidency for the many times he insisted that his fellow religionists do just that. 1. Early in his first term, to get some key pro-life lawmakers to support the Affordable Care Act, Obama signed an executive order reaffirming his support for the Hyde Amendment, a policy that prohibits federal dollars from paying for abortions. Six years later—and without a word of objection from the president—the Democrats wrote into their official platform a call for that restriction to be repealed. 2. The federal Office of Civil Rights recently took the authority upon itself to issue what it considers to be binding guidance requiring public schools to let children use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identities instead of their anatomical sex. By foreclosing the possibility of locally tailored solutions, the move angered more than a few parents who think they should have some say in the rules that govern their kids' schools. Enforcement of the requirement has been temporarily stayed and the Supreme Court is set to hear the case in the coming year. 3. For the time being, sexual orientation is not considered a "protected class" at the federal level. But during Obama's terms in office, several states were emboldened to expand their anti-discrimination laws in ways that implicitly targeted Christian organizations. In Massachusetts, for example, an all-girls private high school was forced to settle for an undisclosed amount with a man whose job offer was rescinded after the school learned he was married to another man. And in New York, a couple was fined $13,000 for declining to host a same-sex wedding on their family farm. Other examples abound. 4. In May 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a regulation prohibiting discrimination under Obamacare based not just on sex but also on gender identity. As a result, some medical professionals worry they may be forced to participate in sex reassignment surgeries and related treatments, even if doing so runs contrary to their ethical beliefs or their medical judgment about what's best for the patient. In August, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a lawsuit challenging the rule. 5. In March 2014, Obama's solicitor general argued before the Supreme Court of the United States that family-owned businesses should be required to provide their employees with free access to emergency contraceptives, even when those business owners have conscience-based objections to doing so. That position did not hold sway with the justices, who ruled later that summer in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the contraception mandate—at least as applied to closely held corporations—was indeed a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 6.[...]

One Cheer for Justice Sotomayor


When President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to replace the retiring Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2009, he listed Sotomayor's work as a New York City prosecutor as one of her biggest qualifications for the job. "Sonia learned what crime can do to a family and a community," Obama declared, "and what it takes to fight it."

For libertarians, it was an ominous statement. Would Sotomayor turn out to be yet another Supreme Court justice with an unduly deferential attitude toward law enforcement? It looked like a distinct possibility. As New York University law professor Kenji Yoshino told the Los Angeles Times in June 2009, "I think her experience as a prosecutor balances out her liberal tendencies."

But Sotomayor defied that expectation. In fact, over the past seven years, she has distinguished herself as one of the Supreme Court's most outspoken critics of police misconduct and one of its most consistent champions of the Fourth Amendment.

Take the 2015 case of Mullenix v. Luna, in which the Court granted qualified immunity to a police officer who used deadly force to end a high-speed car chase. In a lone dissent, Sotomayor lambasted her colleagues for "sanctioning a 'shoot first, think later' approach to policing [that] renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow."

That same year, during oral arguments in Rodriguez v. United States, Sotomayor practically read the riot act to a Justice Department lawyer who insisted that police officers be granted wide leeway to employ drug-sniffing dogs during traffic stops. "We can't keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement," said an exasperated Sotomayor. "What you're proposing," she lectured the government lawyer, is an approach that's "purely to help the police get more criminals, yes. But then the Fourth Amendment becomes a useless piece of paper."

Regrettably, Sotomayor is not always so vigilant when it comes to other parts of the Bill of Rights. In 2010, for instance, she dissented in McDonald v. Chicago, the landmark case in which the Second Amendment was first held to be applicable against state and local governments. In 2015, in Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sotomayor dissented when the Court ruled against the USDA because it took raisins from raisin farmers without paying them just compensation as required by the Fifth Amendment.

As President Obama likes to say, let me be clear: Sonia Sotomayor is no libertarian. But she has turned out to be a good friend to the Fourth Amendment. That deserves a cheer.


The Surprising Truth About Gun Silencers


In The Godfather, a Mafioso prepping young Michael Corleone to assassinate some rivals gives him a pistol for the job. After firing a bullet into the wall, Michael complains, "Ow! My ears!" His friend says, "Yeah, I left it noisy. That way, it scares any pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders away." The Corleones would have had little interest in a bill allowing gun owners to obtain silencers without the federal permits required since 1934. Some people like the deafening boom of a gunshot. Most shooters don't, and the National Rifle Association is pressing for enactment of the Hearing Protection Act, which also has the endorsement of Donald Trump Jr., an avid trophy hunter. The proposal horrifies gun control advocates, who see it as a favor to homicidal maniacs. The Violence Policy Center in Washington argues that silencers pose a grave danger to public safety because they "enable mass shooters and other murderers to kill a greater number of victims more efficiently." Some perspective is in order. Right now, getting a federal permit requires a $200 fee, an extensive background check and a wait of several months. Possession of a silencer without a permit is a felony that carries a 10-year prison sentence. Under the proposed change, silencers would be treated like ordinary guns. Criminals would be ineligible, since they can't pass the required federal background check for purchases. Only law-abiding adults would have legal access. The industry prefers the term "suppressor" because the devices don't eliminate the noise; they merely diminish it. The American Suppressor Association attests, "On average, suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by 20-35 decibels, roughly the same sound reduction as earplugs or earmuffs." A shot from a 9 mm pistol equipped with a silencer is about as loud as a thunderclap. Recreational shooters and hunters would like to have silencers because they don't want to damage their hearing but dislike using ear protection. If the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had been around in the 1930s, gun rights lawyer Stephen Halbrook quipped to The Washington Post, it probably would have mandated their use. Silencers also reduce the recoil and improve the accuracy of guns. For the average gun owner, there is no downside. There are collateral benefits, too. In rural and unincorporated areas where shooting is allowed, they minimize the disturbance to neighbors and wildlife. It's not hard to imagine how they could be deployed for bad purposes. Yet there are some 900,000 registered silencers in this country, and they are rarely used in crimes. Chicago has a lot of bloodshed, including 762 homicides and more than 3,500 shootings last year, but silencers figure in little or any of it. Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, told me, "We seldom recover silencers. Sometimes you may get a gun with a makeshift silencer, but even that is rare." A report last year by the VPC cites a handful of shootings in which silencers were used. But the paucity of examples confirms that they are not of great interest to criminals. An earlier study by Paul A. Clark published in the Western Criminology Review found only two federal court cases involving the use of a silencer in a murder between 1995 and 2005. He also unearthed eight cases in which "a silencer was actively used during commission of a crime but not used to physically injure anyone." That works out to one serious silencer-related crime per year, in a country that in 2005 had 16,740 homicides and 417,000 robberies. Supporters of the status quo say this merely proves the effectiveness of strict regulation. But improvised versions can be fashioned out of flashlights, oil filters or metal conduit. YouTube has numerous videos providing guidance for the do-it-yourselfer. If silencers were [...]

Presidential Portraits



The Peace Prize Winner Who Waged War


When he was first elected president, many observers, up to and including the Norwegian Nobel Committee, believed Barack Obama would represent a substantive departure from the foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush. On the campaign trail, the then–senator from Illinois promised to bring the Iraq War to an end within 16 months. In reality, it ended in December 2011, as agreed upon in the status of forces agreement Bush made with Iraq in 2008, and only after Obama tried and failed to keep a 10,000-strong residual force there past the withdrawal date. On the eve of Election Day 2016, there were about 5,000 U.S. soldiers in that country. Many were embedded with Iraqi troops or otherwise engaged in the military campaign to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS, a group that evolved out of Al Qaeda in Iraq—itself a product of and one of the primary combatants in the post-invasion phase of the war. The number of Americans in the country has crept upward since June 2014, when Obama sent troops there at the request of the Iraqi government. The deployment came just two and a half years after the withdrawal that was supposed to mark the conclusion of the war in Iraq. Candidate Obama promised a "robust" diplomatic effort aimed toward Iraq and its neighbors (including Syria and Iran) to ensure the countries' stability. Instead, the U.S. continues to press for regime change in Syria while keeping diplomatic engagement with Iran limited largely to the status of the latter's nuclear program. U.S. troops and other American military assets are involved both in the fight against ISIS in Syria and in supporting the rebellion to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. There are troops and other assets in Libya, whose previous government was overthrown during a U.S.-led intervention into the country's civil war; in Somalia, where the U.S. has had an on-again, off-again military presence since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1993, and where the U.S. is currently fighting Al-Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate; in Yemen, where the U.S.-and-Saudi-backed government-in-exile is trying to retake control of the country; in West Africa, where the U.S. is assisting in the fight against Boko Haram, a Nigerian terror group with ties to Al Qaeda and ISIS; and in Uganda and its neighbors, where the U.S. is assisting in the war with Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. According to the most recent War Powers report from Obama to Congress, we also have troops deployed in Turkey and Djibouti (to support efforts in the Middle East), Cuba (Guantanamo Bay remains open nearly eight years after Obama signed an executive order to close it), Egypt (where we've been since 1981), Kosovo (where we've been since 1999), and Jordan (where 2,200 American troops are assisting the government). Finally, more than 8,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. That war, begun in October 2001 as a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, has now lasted longer than the American Civil War and the entirety of World War I and World War II. President Obama has repeatedly postponed the date of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; the final drawdown is currently scheduled for sometime after he leaves office. Obama promised to take the Afghan war more seriously, but a surge in troops and diplomatic personnel early in his presidency changed little on the ground, and the Afghan government seems no more capable now than it was eight years ago of governing the country without the assistance of foreign military powers. Any opportunity created by the deployments was squandered by bureaucratic infighting, as detailed in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 2012 book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. According to the committee that awarded him t[...]



(image) Contradicting President Barack Obama's upbeat public comments about his November Oval Office meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, here we seem to get a glimpse into the lame duck president's grave disappointment and concern for the unraveling of his legacy. His face and wide open left hand suggest a man letting go.


Finally: The Case Against Hamilton


I don't think there's a slight bit of hyperbole or exaggeration involved when I say that Hamilton, the awful musical that millionaire New Yorkers are required by law to throw away thousands watching, represents everything that was wrong with America in 2016. Allow me to make the case. First, there's the music. I'm admittedly not much of a hip-hop aficionado, but I know shit from Shinola. From my perspective the art form has more or less been going downhill since Strictly Business (the EPMD record, not the Tommy Davidson vehicle), but there have been some highlights worth mentioning, mostly thanks to Ice Cube and an army of Wu bangers. The point I'm trying to make is that, even to untrained ears such as mine, Hamilton is particularly bad. On first take, I thought it sounded a bit like a University of Iowa freshman—the kind who only listens to "real hip-hop"—attempting his first mixtape. One of my Twitter followers corrected me, however. It's closer to a Braintree elementary school making a rap song for parents' night. The latter description hints not merely at the simple, formulaic quality of the material, but also the cloying, bourgeois quality of it all. From the reference to "ten-dollar Founding Father without a father" to "when the British taxed our tea we got frisky," the whole affair sounds more like something made by precocious children than a professional composer. We have Lin-Manuel Miranda to blame for this cultural atrocity, a scion of a psychologist and an advisor to New York mayor Ed Koch, who attended the same elementary and high school as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Sure, he got bullied by Immortal Technique in school, but how much street cred is that really worth? After this he attended Wesleyan University, a top-10-ranked school that costs $65,000 a year, according to Forbes, before making his mark writing jingles for noted prostitute-enthusiast Eliot Spitzer's 2006 campaign. The original version of Hamilton debuted at a Vassar College workshop. All this is, of course, an attempt to firmly establish Miranda's street cred, which is unassailable. Some are irritated about the people who aren't white playing white people, but I'm not. The whole production plays so fast and loose with the truth that it's hard to pick any particular piece to criticize, there's a reality correlation approximating that of the Weekly World News. At the top of the list, though, has to be casting Alexander Hamilton as some sort of proto-multicultural progressive. That's either stupidity or mendacity, take your pick. Hamilton was, if anything, the most aristocratic of the Founding Fathers, the closest thing to a Colonial Tory. You know that electoral college you've been gnashing your teeth over for the last couple months? Guess whose idea that was? Of course, shit music and feels-over-reals weren't the whole problem with America in 2016—and they aren't the biggest deal facing us in 2017, either. No, the worst thing about this present moment in time is the smugness with which zillionaires and their sycophants on the coasts piss all over anyone who does actual work for a living. That's not just one of the main reasons that Trump won the election. That attitude makes for garbage art. Historically speaking, you've got high art and folk art, each with their own set of aesthetic guidelines and measuring sticks. What's historically anomalous is commercial art—art that exists not due to the patronage of cultured elites or through the unrewarded efforts of the hoi polloi. It's art that exists to make money. Art that exists to make money isn't a bad thing. A lot of the best music of the 20th century was commercial art. The Beatles are probably one of a handful of thing[...]

The Perils and Promise of International Food Safety


"China's top leadership has called for more efforts to ensure food safety," a China-based news service reported last week, "noting there are still many problems despite an improving food safety situation." By most accounts, it appears the problematic-but-improving characterization of China's current food-safety situation is an accurate one. A recent report found nearly half-a-million food-safety violations reported in the country through the third quarter of 2016. That's evidence of serious problems, no doubt. But it's also the product of stepped-up enforcement, which helps reveal (and, hopefully, mitigate) such problems. In his recent remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for stricter regulations and enforcement to help turn the tide against food-safety issues. One thing Xi didn't stress, it appears, is ability of the food industry itself to improve the culture and climate of food safety. That's an important omission. While regulations and enforcement are necessary tools to promote food safety, the private sector plays a pivotal role in protecting consumers around the globe. In 2014, for example, Walmart set out to pump nearly $50 million into its food-safety efforts in China. In 2016, the company pledged an additional $25 million there over five years. Increased food-safety expectations created by a giant like Walmart have the ability to resonate beyond the company and its suppliers, helping to change the broader food-safety culture. "U.S. companies are responding to food safety challenges in China in ways that are collaborative and innovative, and help promote food security across the whole supply chain," a recent report by a U.S.-China nonprofit found. Given our increasingly globalized economy, questions about the proper level of food-safety regulations and the role of the private sector in ensuring a safe food supply aren't limited to China. Many ongoing fears over the looming Brexit pertain to what Great Britain's food-safety rules—currently based mostly in EU law—should look like after the schism. If Great Britain opts to loosen its rules, for example, doing so could help those who produce food for sale domestically but harm their ability to sell in other countries, including across the EU. That's because rules there—as in the U.S.—require those abroad that wish to enter the local market to meet standards similar to or exactly the same as domestic producers must meet. Food-safety issues can also cross borders, even in cases where the food in question does not. For every domestic story about gluten-free labeling regulations in the U.S., you're as likely to find a similar story in a place like Ireland. For every story about a controversy over raw milk sales in the U.S., you'll probably find a similar tale abroad. While countries like China lag behind the U.S. in terms of food safety outcomes, food-safety concerns can cut both ways. U.S. beef producers have been excluded previously from international markets—including China—over fears about mad cow disease. And in lectures I've given to visiting Chinese food-safety regulators about the history and evolution of the U.S. food-safety system, I've noted nearly uniform disbelief about a handful of things these regulators had assumed—incorrectly, it turns out—their FDA peers have done and do to protect U.S. consumers. Even as the global food supply has become safer thanks to a combination of public and private rules and enforcement, it's possible food-safety bans may only increase in the coming years. If, for example, the administration of president-elect Donald Trump indeed decides to practice trade war, one can almost be certain a result of those disputes will [...]

Barack Obama, Gun Salesman



Obama's Belated Drug War Retreat


Before moving into the White House, Barack Obama described the war on drugs as "an utter failure," candidly discussed his own youthful drug use, criticized our excessively punitive criminal justice system, called for the decriminalization of marijuana, and rejected federal interference with state-authorized medical use of the plant. But with the exception of a crack sentencing reform bill he signed in 2010, Obama's first term was a big disappointment for those who expected him to de-escalate the war on drugs.

Some reformers held out hope that once Obama was safely re-elected, he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective. To some extent, those optimists were proven right. During his second term, Obama tolerated state-level legalization of marijuana, talked honestly about the relative hazards of alcohol and marijuana, removed barriers to medical marijuana research, shortened more than 1,000 drug offenders' sentences, and spoke out against draconian drug penalties.

During Obama's first term, the promises to respect state policy choices were contradicted by medical marijuana raids, prosecutions, and forfeiture actions. But the 2012 elections, when voters in Colorado and Washington approved initiatives that legalized marijuana for recreational use, presented him with a moment of truth: He could try to stop legalization, or he could step back and let states go their own way. By choosing the latter route, he hastened the collapse of pot prohibition instead of wasting resources on a doomed effort to prevent it.

Obama further undermined prohibition by publicly conceding that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. But he was not prepared to change marijuana's legal status at the federal level, whether through administrative action or by urging Congress to act. Although marijuana remains in Schedule I, the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act, the Obama administration did take steps to facilitate studies of the plant's medical applications, removing an extra level of bureaucratic review and allowing independent production of cannabis for research.

After issuing just one commutation during his first term and a total of 20 in 2013 and 2014, Obama tried to make up for lost time by approving a lot more in his last two years. As of December 1, his total was 1,024, almost all involving nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom had received life sentences. He emphasized that Congress had the power to help thousands more by approving retroactive sentencing reforms, a bipartisan effort that fizzled in 2016 amid legislators' pre-election anxieties.

The Obama administration's crackdown on painkiller prescriptions hurt bona fide patients and fed the demand for heroin. But its response to the "opioid epidemic" emphasized treatment and harm reduction rather than punishment. As with marijuana legalization, it's what Obama didn't do that mattered most.


The Young Pope: Entertaining but Incoherent


The Young Pope. HBO. Sunday, January 15, 9 p.m. Television's last excursion into papal politics—Showtime's The Borgias, in which Renaissance bad boys Alexander VI (better known to history by his birth name, Rodrigo Borgia) and Guiliano della Rovere (the future Julius II, the guy who bullied Michaelangelo over painting the Sistine Chapel) boinked and butchered their way across Europe—was debauched. The newest one, HBO's The Young Pope, is merely dazed: stylistically, narratively, theologically. Part soap opera, part jeremiad, and part dark comedy, its various incarnations don't always mesh very well. It strives for epic magnificence and falls well short of coherence. And yet it's kind of entertaining. In short, it's the 2016 of TV series. Watch it, enjoy it, but don't be surprised if you wake up with a hangover that feels like a Vladimir Putin lobotomy. An Italian-British-American co-production, The Young Pope has already aired in Rome with big ratings, though that doesn't necessarily mean much in a country driven to distraction by even the most mildly tittilatory material about the Vatican. Work has already begun on a second season, though HBO continues to bill it as a miniseries ("limited series," in current jargon), which suggests the network isn't convinced Americans will be quite as unhinged to see that the pope actually takes his shirt off at night. The title character is 47-year-old Lenny Belardo, the youngest pope since the 11th century, and the first American. (Naturally, he's played by a Brit, Jude Law.) Belardo's election was an upset managed by the Vatican's secretary of state, the sinister Cardinal Voiello (Italian film veteran Silvio Orlando), who wanted a charismatic but pliant pope—a "telegenic puppet," in the words of one church cynic—to carry out his agenda. Belardo predictably follows Hollywood rules about unpredictable proteges, kicking his sponsors in their holy butts. He puts Voiello to work making his coffee while choosing as his senior adviser a maternal nun (Diane Keaton, looking about as comfortable as a nun as Mary Tyler Moore did in Change of Habit) from the orphanage where he was dumped by hippie parents. And he alarms the Vatican's powerful marketing arm by forbidding the use of his image to sell trinkets—even firing the official Vatican photographer and demanding that all his public appearances be made in a carefully shadowed environment where his face can't be seen. But if The Young Pope's title and set-up had you expecting a warm parable about a quirky kid dumping stodgy church doctrine in favor of a warmly liberal new Catholicism that embraces Cuban peasant cooperatives and Code Pink, you're taking communion with the wrong show. Belardo's first act after sacking the Vatican photographer is to bring back the papal tiara, an act of flamboyance that hints his reticence about his image is less about abnegation of human ego than a fear of being recognized in connection with some past transgression. He upbraids and demotes a senior member of the curia for being gay and reams the papal cook for overfamiliarity. ("I do not appreciate friendly relationships. I'm a great fan of formal ones.") Even his chosen regnal name, Pius XIII, has dubious connotations; it's a provocative reminder of Piuses XI and XII, who played footsie with Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s. Certainly Belardo's ideas on spirituality would impress Mussolini in their style, if not content: Belardo wants the members of his church worshiping "24 hours a day, your hearts and minds full of God. And no room for free will. No room for liberty. No room for ema[...]

Why Aren't More Americans Moving?


"I believe that each of us who has his place to make should go where men are wanted, and where employment is not bestowed as alms," advised New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in a famous 1871 letter. "Of course, I say to all who are in want of work, Go West!" Basically, Greeley was telling Americans to pick up and go to where the jobs and opportunities are. Americans were once more willing to heed Greeley's advice. From the end of World War II through the 1980s, the Census Bureau reports, about 20 percent of Americans changed their residences annually, with more than 3 percent moving to a different state each year. Now more are staying home. In November, the Census Bureau reported that Americans were moving at historically low rates: Only 11.2 percent moved in 2015, and just 1.5 percent moved to a different state. Yet many of the places where people are stuck offer few opportunities. Why have we become homebodies? In a draft article called "Stuck in Place," Yale law professor David Schleicher blames bad public policy. Schleicher argues that more Americans are stuck in places with few good jobs and little opportunity, largely because "governments, mostly at the state and local levels, have created a huge number of legal barriers to inter-state mobility." To get a handle on the mobility slow-down, Schleicher identifies and analyzes the policies that limit people's ability to enter job-rich markets and exit job-poor ones. He also describes how economically declining cities get caught in a policy spiral of fiscal and physical ruin that ultimately discourages labor mobility. The effects of lower labor mobility, he argues, include less effective monetary policy, significantly reduced economic output and growth, and rising inequality. Consider monetary policy. A dollar doesn't buy the same amounts of goods and services across the country. In a sense there are New York dollars, Ohio dollars, Mississippi dollars, California dollars, and so on. Think of what a worker earning the average household income of $30,000 in economically depressed Youngstown, Ohio, would need to have the same standard of living in other more prosperous regions of the country. In San Francisco, according to CNN's cost of living calculator, a Youngstown job seeker would need an annual salary of more than $63,000. (San Francisco's housing, groceries, transportation, and health care are 366, 56, 34, and 42 percent higher than Youngstown's, respectively.) In Manhattan, he'd need nearly $82,000. The median household income in San Francisco is around $84,000, up in real dollars from $59,000 in 1995. Economic theory suggests that this income differential should be bid down considerably as folks from declining areas like Youngstown move to economically vibrant centers such as San Francisco, but that is not happening. The per capita GDP among the states was converging before the 1970s, as people moved from poor states for more lucrative opportunities in richer states. That process has stopped. Why? First, lots of job-rich areas have erected barriers that keep job-seekers from other regions out. The two biggest barriers are land use and occupational licensing restrictions. Prior to the 1980s, strict zoning limitations were mostly confined to rich suburbs and did not appreciably check housing construction in most metropolitan areas. But now many prosperous areas in the United States require specific lot sizes, zone out manufactured and rental housing, perversely limit new rental housing construction by establishing rent control, or set up "historic districts" that limi[...]

#ThanksObama: 5 Scary Powers Trump Will Take Over as President


Remember when those pesky other branches of government wouldn't bow down to Obama's whims, and the president famously bragged about going it alone? Now Obama's out and it will soon be Donald Trump wielding his pen and phone. As Barack Obama bids farewell to his presidency this week, keep in mind these five scary powers that President Trump will inherit from him. 1. War Without Congress During the Libya intervention, Obama decided that he didn't need Congress to approve massive bombing campaigns and regime change. Obama has done legal gymnastics to justify using the same authorizations that George W. Bush got to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban to send our armed forces to places like West Africa, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria —not to mention staying in Pakistan and Afghanistan and going back to Iraq—all without Congress. So if the Mexicans won't pay for his wall, President Trump could just as well decide to bomb them. 2. Kill Lists Obama made up his own rules on targeted killings, denying that courts could review his "kill list" and only paying lip service to drone guidelines when he thought Mitt Romney might win in 2012. That never actually happened, and even in his last months in office, Obama has continued to expand the reach of our flying robots and special operations forces. So President Trump can now vaporize any person he puts on his kill list, even American citizens, even outside of acknowledged battlefields, even if civilians die—all without due process. 3. Access to All of Your Information Obama expanded the powers of secret courts that provide little more than a rubber-stamp for mass surveillance of Americans. He supports weakening encryption, general warrants that cover millions of people, and a host of powers with the ultimate goal of giving spooks what the NSA has called "Total Information Awareness"—access to your every word, move, purchase, and relationship, all without your knowledge. Orwell would have been impressed, and Trump certainly will be. 4. Prosecuting Whistleblowers and Journalists The leader of the self-anointed "most transparent administration" in history has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other presidents in history, put together. His administration exploded the number of classified documents and fought the ACLU and New York Times in court to keep its legal interpretations secret. Oh, and Obama's Justice Department spied on journalists and investigated them as co-conspirators. Based on what Trump thinks of the media, reporters should take care not to violate any secret laws going forward, especially in secret drone zones. 5. Screwing Immigrants Many undocumented immigrants trusted Obama with their personal information in exchange for his promise not to deport them. That may have been a huge mistake. First off, he's deported more people than any president in history, so that should have been a red flag. After Congress didn't act on immigration, Obama turned to his pen and phone again. But he overreached, and his executive order giving deportation relief was ruled unconstitutional. So now he'll be gone, but those immigrants will still be listed in a Department of Homeland Security database. So the next time you find yourself applauding the President for doing a gleeful end-run around the Constitution and separation of powers, pause and ask yourself: What will happen when it's President Kanye West? And as the 44th president bids us farewell, let us all take a moment to say #ThanksObama. Written and Produced by Justin Monticello. Additional [...]

Scientists Rebuke California Coastal Commission Over Desalination


The California Coastal Commission's stated concern that a proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant's intake pipes pose a threat to small and microscopic plankton has been rebutted in a letter from three prominent California marine biologists. Anthony Koslow, Eric Miller and John McGowan—marine biologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla—were responding to comments made at a Dec. 1 panel about ocean desalination in Ventura County by Tom Luster, the agency's lead staffer on the desalination issue. Luster actually had cited Koslow, Miller and McGowan's research in arguing against open intakes given a 75 percent reduction in plankton off Southern California since the early 1970s. Citing the Scripps research Luster said it would be "hard to maintain and enhance marine life like the Coastal Act requires in a situation like this and so open intakes have a hurdle to overcome." In a sternly worded Dec. 29 rebuttal letter, Koslow, Miller and McGowan said Luster's comment reflected "an inaccurate understanding of our research," adding that their paper showed "many of the taxa are predominantly distributed offshore but share the same trend as more coastal taxa." "It is therefore not reasonable to attribute this decline to the impact of coastal development or nearshore power-plant intakes," the scientists wrote. "We ask that you refrain from repeating your Ventura forum comments, or anything similar, as it presents an almost exactly opposite conclusion to that obtained by our research." The Scripps researchers' conclusion was that large-scale ocean forcing, not local coastal processes, are behind changes off the Southern California coast since the 1970s. They added that they hoped their science could "inform regulatory decisions wherever applicable, but the science needs to be interpreted correctly." In an emailed response, Luster said his point was that the decline in plankton populations had made it difficult for the new proposed project, which he said "would represent an additional adverse effect to meet the Coastal Act's requirement to maintain and enhance marine life productivity." But Miller—one of the Scripps researchers—reiterated that their study, which found that environmental forcing had reached tipping points in 1976 and 1989, "did not detect an influence of power plant cooling water intakes on nearshore fish populations." "It's a mystery to me how my quote was misinterpreted," Luster said, in an interview. The question at issue is no mere academic matter. The future of the Huntington Beach desalination plant isn't just about one proposed facility, but about the statewide future of a technology that turns saltwater into drinking water. That's a particularly important question as the state begins to emerge from a long-running drought. Decisions by the commission and other state agencies on the Huntington Beach plant will help decide whether developers pursue a number potential plants up and down California's coastline. A desalination plant went online last year in the north San Diego County city of Carlsbad, but the makeup of the Coastal Commission and state regulations have changed since the approval process for that facility. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the state water board "directed desalination plants to install wells—offshore or on the beach—or another type of subsurface intake that the state says would naturally filter out marine organisms." However, the plant's supporters point out that state laws require subsurface intake tec[...]

The Comforting Fictions of Obama's Farewell Speech


Watching President Barack Obama's soaring 2008 Democratic National Convention speech in Denver, I never imagined the kind of turmoil his presidency would incite. Almost everything has changed in the subsequent years, and yet his farewell speech to the nation was brimming with the same brand of haughty lecturing. Obama loves to conflate progressivism and patriotism, pitting the forces of decency and empathy—his own—against the self-serving profiteers and meddling reactionaries who stand in the way. All of it is swathed in phony optimism. The president's central case for government's existence rests on the notion of the state being society's moral center, engine of prosperity and arbiter of fairness. Obama speaks of government as a theocrat might speak of church, and his fans return the favor by treating him like a pope. This was true in 2008. And it's true now. Just check out liberal Twitterdom. And for the most part, nothing is his fault. "When Congress is dysfunctional," Obama explained, "we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes." For the president, a dysfunctional Congress is a Congress unwilling to pass progressive legislation. That is not the definition of dysfunctional, I'm afraid. Nor is it the definition of extreme. There is nothing in the Constitution instructing legislators to acquiesce to the president. In the near future, the Republican Congress will be passing tons of legislation, and I can assure you neither Obama nor his many fans in the media will be celebrating the fact that Congress is finally "getting stuff done" or "doing its job." Progress will no longer be measured in the number of bills signed. And it shouldn't be. After all, if voters were displeased with the way legislators treated Obama's agenda, they had the ability to replace these obstinate lawmakers with more cooperative ones. They did not. That's because gridlock was created by a party that fooled itself into believing it could rule unilaterally. Also, after Democrats passed their massive health care law—and certainly, there were other reasons—Republicans kept expanding their majorities, and not only in Congress. Americans voted for equilibrium in Washington, D.C. Congress was working exactly as it was intended. And it has nothing to do with gerrymandering or voter suppression or fake news or any of the other excuses liberals keep concocting to explain their troubles. Moreover, the idea that Congress is catering to some "rigid extremes" because elected officials oppose policies that were passed in 2010 might be the prevailing opinion on the left, but it has no basis in reality. Republican positions—like them or not—are well within the boundaries of normal American attitudes. Most of them were mainstream liberal positions not that long ago. That brings me to this nugget: In his farewell address, Obama warned, "Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted" (Because we don't talk about politics enough, apparently!) and urged Americans to help rebuild "our democratic institutions." Our democracy isn't in trouble. We just had an election, in which every citizen permitted to vote—and motivated—could do so. Our Electoral College, part of a broader system that most fairly embodies the will of voters in the nation's 50 states, also worked exactly as intended. Maybe Obama means we must rebuild our belief in the separation of powers and the Constitution, since his administration displaye[...]

Movie Review: Patriots Day


Peter Berg's Patriots Day is a true ensemble movie, marshaling the talents of many performers in the service of a multi-pronged narrative related with headlong purpose. The picture depicts the city of Boston as a community suddenly united by a surge of courage and resilience in the wake of an inexplicable horror—the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013. To his substantial credit, director Berg, in dealing with this brutal attack, delivers a tense and tightly edited police procedural that never sinks to cheap emotional manipulation of the awful event at its center. Mark Wahlberg stars (it's his third Berg movie, following Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor), but unlike many of the film's other characters, who represent real-life people, his scrappy police sergeant, Tommy Saunders, is an invention—a composite character who's on hand to lead us from one key plot point to another. This might have seemed a lazy device if Boston-native Wahlberg didn't make it work with his usual skill and likeability (and if his harried cop weren't so ingratiatingly detailed—Saunders has a drinking problem, job troubles, and a bum leg to boot). The picture begins with introductions to the characters we'll be spending the next two hours with. Apart from Tommy and his steadfast wife (Michelle Monaghan), there's a pair of affectionate newlyweds (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O'Shea), a veteran police sergeant (J.K. Simmons, deploying just enough of a Boston drawl to be persuasive), a sharp young Chinese entrepreneur (Jimmy O. Yang), and a pretty MIT student (Lana Condor) who has her eye on a smitten young cop (Jake Picking), who's eying her right back. Then we meet the bombers, Chechen immigrants and longtime U.S. residents Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his younger brother Dzhokar (an excellent Alex Wolff). Dzhokar is watching jihadi videos on a laptop in the small apartment Tamerlan shares with his wife Katherine (Melissa Benoist)—an American who has converted to Islam—and their little daughter. The atmosphere is grim, the three grownups inscrutable, and already scary. Berg has no interest in offering rationalizations for the Tsarnaevs, but he doesn't turn them into bloodthirsty clichés, either. Tamerlan, an aspiring boxer, is a hardcore Islamist fanatic; but UMass student Dzhokar is more complex, and puzzling: he's a 19-year-old pothead with an iPod and an interest in cool cars, but he's also a woozy, amoral murderer, building deadly pressure-cooker bombs with his brother and taking them out onto Boylston Street during the annual Boston Marathon to kill and mutilate as many onlookers as possible. (Three people lost their lives to the Tsarnaevs' twin bombs; some 260 were injured, many grievously. Afterward, Dzhokar tells his brother they should have tried to detonate their explosives at waist height in order to destroy even more lives.) Berg stages the bombing vividly—we see the smoke, the blood, the writhing bodies—but with welcome economy: he doesn't linger on details of the carnage. He starts building tension with the arrival of an FBI contingent led by cool-headed agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon, more than solid, as always). DesLauriers puts his squad of computer analysts right on the case analyzing an avalanche of digital footage that's being harvested from surveillance cameras and on-the-scene cellphones. Soon the techs have pried images of the Tsarnaevs out of all this imagery, and the question fo[...]

England's Creeping Nanny State


The English, wrote George Orwell in 1941, are characterized by their hatred of interfering officialdom: "The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker," a British colloquialism referring to "a persistently nosy, prying person" or "busybody" The English countryside was once particularly self-reliant, a place where people organized events or sorted out disputes without much recourse to state bodies or rules. No longer. The English countryside today is awash with busybodies and red tape. The organizers of a simple village festival would find themselves occupied with petty form-filling: public liability insurance, risk assessments for the home-made cakes and bouncy castle, criminal records checks for any adult running kids' events. Nosey parkers are in the ascendance, complaining about their neighbors to the authorities who then rush in with punishment slips and rule-books. The more bucolic aspects of village life are becoming controversial and highly regulated. Take church bells. Churches whose bells have tolled for over a century are now being slapped with "noise abatement notices" because their bells are judged too loud. A church bell in Hertfordshire which had rung every 15 minutes for 140 years was silenced, after environmental health officers threatened the church with fines (the bell was recently reinstated, after some locals raised the money for a device to allow it to ring more quietly). The chime at a church on the Isle of Wight was canceled after a noise complaint from a single resident. Even picturesque wildlife has become subject to moaning and state interference. A lady in an Essex village is under threat of a fine and criminal record after complaints about free-roaming peacocks that issued from her farm. The council has issued her with a legal order that requires her to remove the birds by January. At one point the council sent a ranger down to spend a whole day sitting outside her house "monitoring peacock activity." She says birds are basically wild and cannot be caught: "It would be like catching pigeons — they just fly away. I'm worried that the council will send someone to spend 6 weeks trying to catch them, and bill me by the hour." All this interference means that long-established customs are being upset. In the Forest of Dean, in the West of England, sheep have roamed freely for centuries and are an essential part of the local land management. But they were also under threat of criminalization when some locals complained about sheep droppings and the fact that sheep could be heard "baaing loudly" outside their houses. The council set up an "irresponsible shepherding task group," which recommended that sheep be banned from the village and that a warden be employed to monitor straying sheep and fine their owners, at the cost of £28,000 a year. It seems that officialdom is targeting the one defining feature of an area, the thing that gives a place its character: the sound of bells or sheep, or the sight of that most beautiful of birds. This was the case in Cooper's Hill in Brockworth, Gloucestershire, which is known for the annual cheese-rolling event in which locals run down a steep hill chasing a roll of (Gloucester) cheese. In 2010 the event was canceled on health and safety grounds, although hundreds defied the ban and the event now continues on an unofficial basis. The authorities keep trying to stop them, with the police one year warning cheese maker[...]

The Pointless Women's March Against Trump


Demonstrations serve a useful function in a democracy — but only when they have clarity of purpose. That is not the case with the Women's March on Washington, which will be held in Washington, D.C., the day after Donald Trump is sworn in. If anything, this particular demonstration is shaping up to be a feel-good exercise in search of a cause. But the sad thing is that if it fizzles and fails, it'll make it harder, not easier, to fight genuine rights violations under the Trump presidency. Plans to bring together women from all walks of life started surfacing on social media the morning after the election — partly out of disappointment that Hillary Clinton didn't get elected America's first female president, and partly out of revulsion that a loud-mouthed sexist who berated women did. Well more than 100,000 people have signed up on Facebook and other venues, at least a good portion of whom had already booked hotels and flights to D.C. in anticipation of Hillary's historic inauguration. Whether the Women's March will turn into the "biggest mass mobilization yet that America has seen in response to a presidential inauguration," as Vox's Emil Crockett has predicted, remains to be seen. But even if it does, the more meaningful test isn't how many people show up, but whether they have the seriousness of purpose to be taken seriously. And that seems awfully doubtful. To be sure, as Crockett points out, after a shaky start, professionals are now coordinating what emerged as spontaneous and disparate grassroots efforts around the country. So the logistics, in terms of promoting the event, coordinating with local authorities to secure the route, and making on-the-ground arrangements, are now under control. Everything else about the Women's March, however, is reaching a level of absurdity worthy of the man they are protesting. Start with the fact that they are billing this event as the voice of women when 42 percent of women (and 62 percent of non-college educated white women) actually voted for Trump. Then there's the almost-comical progressive hysteria over the event's name. It was initially called the Million Women March. But that was hastily dropped after the original organizers, three white women, were slammed for "cultural appropriation." Why? Because they were allegedly poaching the heritage of the 1997 Million Woman March for black women. Further appropriation concerns arose because the event evidently encroached on the legacy of the 1963 March on Washington by Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In response to this objection, the organizers had to actually release a statement billing the Women's March as a tribute to King. As if such bickering over semantics wasn't enough, the Facebook page of the event is rife with arguments about whether an event organized primarily by white women can be sufficiently "intersectional" — or attuned to the issues faced by, say, poor minority women who reside at the "intersection" of class, race, and gender concerns in America. Wasn't this supposed to be about opposing Donald Trump? Some amount of conflict in a rally (organizers don't want to call it a "protest" because they insist they are not protesting Trump, just putting him on notice) of this size and complexity is natural. But when an event is grounded in a genuine existential threat, it helps people overcome their particular interests[...]

A Ringside Seat to the Debt Ceiling Fight


If most lawmakers had their way, there would be fewer rules to restrain them from growing spending and the national debt. Case in point: the 2015 suspension of the debt limit—the maximum amount of money the government may borrow—as part of a deal to increase spending above the previously agreed-upon spending caps. Now that the debt ceiling's suspension is set to expire in March, outgoing Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is making the case for scrapping the constraint altogether. He just wrote an essay for the Harvard Journal on Legislation. The Wall Street Journal summarized his argument thus: "It isn't an effective device for imposing fiscal discipline and instead provokes partisan standoffs that threaten economic calamity." On the surface, he seems to have a point. First, we've witnessed during the past few years some serious fights between those who want to raise the limit with no questions asked and those who demand that an increase be paired with spending restraints. Second, since 1993, the limit has increased almost 20 times—and the federal debt has ballooned from less than $5 trillion to almost $20 trillion, providing ammunition for the argument that it's inefficient at controlling spending. But this wasn't always the case. In fact, the debt limit played a more restraining role before the 1979 adoption of the "Gephardt rule," a parliamentary rule that considered the debt ceiling raised when a budget resolution was passed. The rule, which was very useful to big-government lawmakers who didn't want to be seen voting for more debt, stayed in place until the Republican takeover of the House in 1995 and was fully repealed in 2001. Being the decadent spenders they were under President George W. Bush, however, Republicans reinstated it twice, in 2003 and 2005. Yet in recent years, the tea party movement—fed up with Washington's fiscal irresponsibility—demanded a floor vote on the debt ceiling and, with it, a nationwide focus on our debt level. This led to the now famous debt ceiling battle of 2011, which produced an agreement placing caps on spending over 10 years. Bipartisanship has lifted the caps several times ever since. Although, for the short time they were in place, caps did play a role in imposing some level of fiscal discipline on Congress—discipline that would have never existed if it hadn't been for the debt ceiling fight. Scaremongering about the debt ceiling is hard to stomach, with many people repeating the claim by Lew that the standoff between the two parties around the decision to raise the limit could itself lead to a U.S. default. Though defaulting on our debt isn't acceptable, raising the government borrowing authority without a commitment to improving our long-term debt problem is irresponsible, too. In 2011, Fitch Ratings warned the U.S. government that though it supported raising the debt ceiling, it also wanted the government to come up with a credible medium-term plan for deficit reduction. Congressional Budget Office projections show that federal debt held by the public will reach 77.2 percent of gross domestic product by the end of 2017—3.5 percentage points higher than in 2015. It's also expected that debt will grow from $20 trillion this year to $28 trillion by 2026. If Congress were to do nothing to reform the drivers of our future debt—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—before March, the opt[...]

Cancer Moonshot Misses the Mark


In 1971, Richard Nixon vowed "a national commitment for the conquest of cancer" as he signed the law establishing the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Forty-five years later, Barack Obama declared in his 2016 State of the Union address that our country would embark upon a "new moonshot" with the aim of making "America the country that cures cancer once and for all"; Vice President Joe Biden would be in charge of "mission control." In its October 17, 2016, report, the Cancer Moonshot Task Force declared that its goal is "to make a decade's worth of progress in preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer in just 5 years."

How? The usual federal bureaucratic efforts of "catalyzing," "leveraging," and "targeting" are promised. But there is some meat to the proposals. For example, the NCI is creating a pre-approved "formulary" of promising therapeutic compounds from 30 pharmaceutical companies that will make them immediately available to researchers. In addition, the task force aims to establish open science computational platforms to provide data to all researchers on successful and failed investigations, and a consortium of 12 leading biotech and pharmaceutical companies are working together to identify and validate biomarkers for response and resistance to cancer therapies.

Prevention is also a focus. The moonshot aims to save lives by boosting the colorectal cancer screening rate among Americans 50 and older and raising HPV vaccination rates for adolescents.

The lifetime risk of cancer for American men is 1 in 2. For women it's 1 in 3. So what would a decade's worth of progress look like? According to the latest American Cancer Society figures, the cancer death rate has dropped by 23 percent since 1991, translating into more than 1.7 million deaths averted through 2012. The five-year survival rate has also increased from 49 to 69 percent. Doubling progress might mean doubling the annual reduction in cancer death rates for men to 3.6 percent and for women to 2.8 percent. That would cut the number of Americans dying of cancer from about 600,000 per year now to just above 500,000 in 2021.

But progress may happen even faster than that. The most exciting recent therapeutic breakthrough is immunotherapy—a treatment where cancer patients' immune cells are unleashed as guided missiles to kill their cancer. "It's actually plausible that in 10 years we'll have curative therapies for most if not all human cancers," declared Gary Gilliland, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, at a conference in 2015. The good news is that the cancer moonshot may end up trailing advances that have already taken off.


Runaway Deficits Forever


Upon becoming House speaker in 1995, Newt Gingrich decided it was crucial to adopt a plan to eliminate the federal deficit. In a meeting of House Republicans, Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich balked: "Where is it in stone that we have to balance the budget in seven years?" Gingrich had a quick answer: "Let's put it to a vote. Who wants to put it in stone?" Everyone but Kasich voted yes. The Republicans had made a commitment they would have to keep. Contrast that show of determination with the vote last week by Senate Republicans for a budget resolution that projects an increase in the public debt of $9 trillion over the next decade. The supporters said that for arcane reasons involving budget rules and the repeal of Obamacare, the resolution is needed. But in practice, they insisted, they don't intend to allow such a flood of red ink. Maybe not. But the fiscal responsibility upheld by Gingrich and company—which led to a balanced budget not in 2002 but in 1999—is not visible on either side of the aisle today. Between 2009 and 2015, the deficit shrank from $1.4 trillion to $438 billion—but last year, it rose, and the Congressional Budget Office expects it to balloon to $1 trillion by 2024. Nor is the incoming president likely to accept serious budget discipline as President Bill Clinton did. On the contrary, Donald Trump will probably cause a lot of congressional Republicans to stop worrying and learn to love the deficit. House Republicans have a plan to balance the budget by 2026, but the details are lacking. Not only that but they will have to contend with the next president. The Tax Policy Center in Washington reported in October that his proposals would add $7.2 trillion to the government debt over the next decade—comparable to what has been piled up in the past eight years. There are other alarming signs. Trump's border wall with Mexico will cost $8 billion by his calculation and double or triple that by other estimates. He claims Mexico will pay for it. But he and Congress aren't prepared to wait for him to get the money. They plan to start construction now and send Mexico the bill. This is the equivalent of taking out a loan that you plan to pay off with the lottery ticket you just bought. In the best (and least plausible) case, we'll have to wait awhile for the Mexican treasury to cut the check—"a year or a year and a half," Trump blithely estimated at his news conference Wednesday. In the worst case—which happens to be the one President Enrique Pena Nieto has embraced—we won't get a single peso and American taxpayers will eat the expense. Scrapping the Affordable Care Act, it turns out, would be a fiscal loser overall because of the taxes it imposed and the Medicare savings it implemented. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recently reported that a full repeal would add between $150 billion and $350 billion to the debt over the next 10 years. Under a fiscally responsible approach, the CRFB advised, "savings from repealing parts of the ACA must be large enough to not only finance repeal of any of ACA's offsets, but also to pay for whatever 'replace' legislation is put forward. This is not an easy task, and it will likely require policymakers to retain or replace the majority of ACA's health and revenue offsets." But Congress and the presi[...]

Facebook Live Torture Suspects Shouldn't Be Charged With Hate Crime


The Chicago Facebook torturers, the four black assailants who filmed themselves abusing a white teenager with special needs, have been charged with committing a hate crime. But they shouldn't have been. Yes, their actions were hateful, and appeared to have been motivated by anti-Trump and even anti-white sentiment, but so what? If we're serious about freedom of thought and belief, then we must insist they be charged only for what they allegedly did to their victim physically, not what they were allegedly thinking while they did it. There has been a collective sigh of relief that the four face hate-crime charges. It was feared the cops would let them off for the prejudiced aspect of their crime. Chicago Police Commander Kevin Duffin sent much of the media and the entire right-leaning blogosphere into meltdown mode when he initially described the four as "kids" and said "kids make stupid mistakes." We can't be sure this was a hate crime, he said, because we don't know if the attackers' remarks—"Fuck white people," "Fuck Trump"—were "sincere or just stupid ranting and raving." Cue fury, Twitter-rage, and columns on how hate crimes against white people are taken less seriously than hate crimes against black people. There was palpable agitation for the four to be had up for being hateful as well as violent; for verbally abusing white people as a group as well as physically abusing a white individual. On the alt-right in particular, or whatever we're calling it these days, there was concern that black racism against whites isn't taken seriously. Heat Street called out the "progressive pundits" who were "slow to call [this] torture a hate crime." It listed the Washington Post's Callum Borchers and the New York Daily News' Shaun King as people who are quick as lightning to denounce grim acts against blacks as hate crimes, and evidence of an entrenched racism, but who in this instance were "reluctant to call it a hate crime." Many fumed over CNN's political commentator Symone Sanders, who said the torture was "sickening" before adding: "We cannot callously go about classifying things as a hate crime." Sanders took issue in particular with the idea that the torturers' cries of "Fuck Trump" were a case of hatefulness officialdom should concern itself with. "In connection with the president-elect Donald Trump, or even President Obama for that matter, because of their political leanings, that's slippery territory—that is not a hate crime." Tweeters and the white right went crazy. But here's the thing: Sanders has a point. A very important point. If we allow the torturers' cries of "Fuck Trump"—or, more realistically, their cries of "Fuck white people"—to be factored into their charges or trial or punishment, then that is indeed slippery territory. Because we're inviting the state to chastise them for their beliefs. We're making thought crime an actual thing. It is undoubtedly the case that those who normally see hate crime everywhere—who think misogyny is rampant, that criticising Black Lives Matter is a species of racism, and that inviting controversial speakers to campus is tantamount to violence—were cagey about calling this a hate crime. But our response shouldn't be to demand: "Admit this was a hate crime! Call for anti-white hatred to be punished too!"[...]

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe Does Gun Rights a Favor


The National Rifle Association gave Terry McAuliffe an F when he ran for governor in 2013. McAuliffe said he didn't care, and if anything he seemed proud of the grade. But lately he has been taking steps that might make supporters of gun rights think better of him. The governor already took one last year, when he hammered out a deal with Republicans in the General Assembly. They were furious at Attorney General Mark Herring, who had canceled reciprocity agreements with other states that recognized their concealed-carry permits. The deal with the governor reinstated such recognition. In return, it required the State Police to be on hand at gun shows to offer background checks, and it required individuals subject to protective orders to surrender their weapons. Progressives thought they got the short end of the stick. So despite the governor's earlier decision to prohibit civilian bearing of arms in executive-branch offices, Everytown for Gun Safety, which has given millions to support Democrats in Virginia, took out a full-page ad to denounce McAuliffe and his deal. Four months later, the governor grandly announced that he was restoring the voting rights of 206,000 felons. Republican heads exploded, and the ensuing debate eventually had to be settled by the Virginia Supreme Court, which struck down McAuliffe's order, requiring him to continue making restorations on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime, though, a question arose: What about gun rights? Although McAuliffe's order stipulated that "nothing in this Order restores the right to ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms," the governor's order made it much easier for a felon to get his gun rights back. Formerly, an offender first had to petition for restoration of his civil rights, and once they were restored, go to court to retrieve his gun rights. McAuliffe's order eliminated the first step. That was purely unintentional. "My actions were about giving you the right to vote, to serve on a jury and run for political office," McAuliffe admitted. "My action, I didn't think it had anything to do with gun rights. I stayed away from that." Since the Supreme Court decision, the governor has continued to restore felons' rights on an individual basis; he's up to 140,000 now. And lawmakers are introducing bills to make the process automatic. Along similar lines, Republican Del. Greg Habeeb has introduced a measure to automatically restore gun rights to nonviolent felons. Anybody who supports restoring voting rights will be hard-pressed to produce a persuasive argument against Habeeb's bill. Both voting and gun ownership are constitutionally protected, fundamental rights. The rationales that support restoring voting rights (e.g., the offender has paid his debt in full, African-Americans are disproportionately affected, the restriction has a sordid racial history, and so forth) apply with equal force to restoring gun rights. As McAuliffe himself said, "These individuals have completed their sentences. . . . You can't be a second-class citizen. Once you've paid your time, there's no difference to me. We want you back. We want you to be a productive member of society." Just so. But you can't be a first-class citizen if you are prohibited from owning firearms like everyone else. This s[...]