CRF Blog

Magna Carta at 800

by David De La Torre

In The uses of history, The Economist looks at how a “failed treaty,” the Magna Carta, came to be seen as the foundation of liberty in the Anglo-American world.

Buried beneath the “scutage”, “novel disseisin” and “darrein presentment” there were, however, some grander notions, which many historians attribute to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, a theologian trained in Paris who later sided with the barons and was sacked by the pope. Certainly, there is evidence of a sharp intelligence at work, using a propitious moment to delineate more broadly the relations between a sovereign and his subjects. Scutage — a tax to pay for war — was to be levied only with “the general consent of the realm”. And chapter 39 in the original (29 in later versions) asserts that “no free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” That prohibition earned Magna Carta its place on the Supreme Court door.

This passage did not establish the right to trial by jury, for juries were already used extensively; nor is it clear what “the law of the land” meant, since there were no statutes, only customs. The language is not original — a similar phrase appeared in the Edict of Conrad II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1037, and another in the second Treaty of Constance between the Emperor Barbarossa and the Lombard League in 1183. But on the European mainland the phrase disappeared into the murk of the Middle Ages, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon world it survived, to be revived and revered by subsequent generations. Why? [more]

The 10 Countries Sentencing the Most People to Death in 2014

Infographic: The Countries Sentencing The Most People To Death | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

Which Has More Bias? Wikipedia or the Encyclopædia Britannica

by Bill Hayes

Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge looks into Which Has More Bias? Wikipedia or the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Zhu and Greenstein took a database of terms developed by University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro to examine newspaper bias. Gentzkow and Shapiro studied speeches in the 2005 Congressional Record to scientifically identify the top 500 unique phrases used by Democrats (e.g., tax breaks, minimum wage, fuel efficiency) and Republicans (e.g., death tax, border security, war on terror), rating each according to political slant.

Zhu and Greenstein then identified some 4,000 articles that appeared in both Encyclopædia Britannica and Wikipedia, and determined how many of each of these code words were included, in an effort to determine overall bias and direction.

They found that in general, Wikipedia articles were more biased — with 73 percent of them containing code words, compared to just 34 percent in Britannica. [more]

Wealth Gap as Homeownership Dives

by Bill Hayes

In Wealth Gap as Homeownership Dives, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the link between lower home ownership and growing inequality.

The share of Americans who own homes rose from the mid-1990s through the Internet bubble and peaked at 69.2 percent in 2004. It has steadily fallen ever since to 63.7 percent in the first quarter, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. In the aftermath of the housing crash, tougher lending standards, stagnant wages and rising home prices have posed obstacles to homebuyers.

Homeownership is the single most important buffer against rising inequality, said [New York University economist Edward] Wolff, who reviewed household wealth trends over more than five decades in a December NBER study, “What Happened Over the Great Recession?” Housing generated 63 percent of wealth in 2013 for middle-class families, defined as the middle three fifths, the research shows. That compares with just 8.7 percent for the top 1 percent and 28 percent for the next 19 percent. [more]

The Germinator

In The Germinator for the New York Times Book Review, Mark Kurlansky reviews The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson.

Along the way we learn about rat-proof shells, the purpose of the hot taste of pepper, the role of caffeine in coffee beans, why fruit tastes so good (and why it doesn’t when the seeds aren’t ready for germination). We learn how to grow a seedless watermelon, and about seeds that crossed an ocean, and a seed that was dormant for two millenniums before sprouting — which brings us to the concept of dormancy. As Hanson puts it, “dormancy allows seeds to disperse through time.” [more]

Crash Course #30, U.S. History: America in World War I

by Bill Hayes

Part of a series: Crash Course #30, U.S. History: America in World War I.

There Will Never Be a Unified Theory of JFK

by Bill Hayes

In There Will Never Be a Unified Theory of JFK for the New Republic, Stephen Sestanovich reviews three books on Kennedy’s presidency: Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek, JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke, and To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

These are very different books, all of them serious and interesting. No matter how much you think you know about the New Frontier, there is plenty to learn from them. As for the inevitable simplifications that occur when we try to neaten up the past — well, half a century after Dallas it is time to get beyond history’s first and second drafts. Perhaps a clearer picture of Kennedy’s aims and achievements would even hold some lessons for another young president who has struggled to develop a coherent foreign policy. If so, Barack Obama could use those lessons now, not fifty years down the road.

There are good reasons, then, to try to understand John Kennedy better. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the new view of him is really an old one. It is closer to Camelot than anything we have heard in years. America’s travails in the 1960s — especially the Vietnam War — seem about to become all Lyndon Johnson’s fault again. In the new view, even some of what went wrong while Kennedy was still president is not quite as much his fault as we used to think. Was his policy, at least in his early years, sometimes too belligerent or provocative? For this, the military and the CIA now take the blame. Was the process of reaching decisions sometimes too secretive, or disorderly, or inconclusive? This, too, can be traced to the president’s lack of confidence in those around him. If the administration often lacked clear direction, it was because Kennedy was trying to neutralize his more trigger-happy advisers.

In tidying up the story, we risk losing much of the New Frontier’s genuine contradictoriness, not to mention the complexity of America’s global role at the height of the cold war. It used to be, after all, that the Kennedy White House was seen as the source of hyperactive policy, not as a check on it. (That is why, shortly after his death, The New Yorker rhapsodized that “he did not fear the weather … but instead challenged the wind itself.”) Visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue early in the administration, Adlai Stevenson complained about what he called “the damnedest bunch of boy commandos running around.” Kennedy insiders had similar qualms. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labeled the “addiction of activism” as the “besetting sin of the New Frontier.” John and Robert Kennedy, he admitted, were “not planners” but “improvisers.” They were “impatient with systems.” Impulsive policymaking was the costly result. It left the president, Paul Nitze lamented, “in a perpetual state of reaction to one crisis after another rather than working toward long-term goals.”

Many of his own advisers considered the president personally responsible for this way of making policy. It was he, according to George Ball, the number-two man at the State Department, who would always interrupt a discussion of strategy by asking, “Let’s not worry about five years from now, what do we do tomorrow?” [more]

Brown vs. …

by Bill Hayes

In Brown vs. …, New York magazine looks at “how ex–news anchor Campbell Brown became the most controversial woman in school reform.”

Head-spinning data sets are the fluttering fans of both sides in the school-reform debate, concealing ideological motivation of the game’s players and the overwhelming complexity of measuring student performance, but plenty of experts disagree about how important teacher tenure really is. “Most people agree that Campbell Brown has identified an important problem: Poor kids are stuck with the worst teachers. But her approach of attacking tenure is barking up the wrong tree,” says Richard Kahlenberg, an author and senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation, adding that polling shows tenure is so important to teachers you’d have to increase their salaries by half to make up for taking it away. (Weingarten, sworn enemy of Brown, points out that the states that have the best protections for teachers also have the best academic performance.) Low-income minority students have the weakest teachers because of economic segregation, Kahlenberg says, which suggests the solution is mixing and matching low- and -middle-income kids in individual schools (something, one imagines, that would cause an uproar in nice neighborhoods already endowed with good schools). “On the tactics, I have to give Campbell enormous credit,” Kahlenberg continues. “She’s taken what most educators believe is a peripheral issue and elevated it to the cover of Time magazine. So even if she loses her lawsuits, she’s changed the public conversation — in my view, in a negative way. But I think she’s highly effective.”

Brown becomes exercised at the suggestion that tenure is a peripheral issue. “I don’t think a single parent at P.S. 101 in Queens, a middle-class school where there was a physical and verbally abusive teacher, thinks this is a peripheral issue,” she says. She relishes the details that she knows are good for news, like the story of a teacher who suggested to a student she could be his “little sex slave” and could give him a “striptease” and still wasn’t fired (though he was suspended and retired shortly thereafter). There are, of course, outrageous cases. But at its core Brown’s crusade is less about disciplinary procedure (which she wants to take out of the hands of arbitrators whom the unions help choose) and more about those teachers whose students underperform on tests. As to what should be done about them, Brown insists she wants only incremental changes: Instead of being granted tenure in three years, as is the case in New York State now, she’d like it to happen after five years, and only if a teacher performs well, as well as an agreement that a teacher can lose tenure if he or she has two “ineffective” ratings (which does sound a bit like the meaningful end of tenure). [more]

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, Explained

by Bill Hayes

In 11 short cards, Vox explains the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Here is the first card:

What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement being negotiated among countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, including the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and Chile.

This map from the Congressional Research Service shows the countries that are expected to join the TPP and the volume of US trade with each of them. The TPP is expected to reduce trade barriers among these countries, lowering tariffs on goods such as trucks, rice, and textiles.

But it will do a lot of other things, too. The agreement could require countries to adopt stricter labor and environmental rules, provide stronger legal protections to drug companies, lengthen the term of copyright protection, give foreign investors a new way to challenge countries’ laws and regulations, and much more.

In short, modern trade deals like the TPP are about a lot more than just trade. They’ve become one of the major ways the world hashes out the rules of the global economy. And that’s a big reason the deal has become controversial. For example, digital rights groups and global health advocates who are not normally focused on trade issues have warned that the deal could negatively impact digital innovation and the global effort to combat AIDS, among other things.

Critics also say the process of drafting the TPP is deeply flawed. Negotiations over the TPP’s terms are conducted in secret, with well-connected interest groups having access to more information — and more opportunities to influence the process — than members of the general public.

President Obama is struggling to convince Congress to grant him “fast track” authority, which would guarantee the TPP a prompt up-or-down vote in Congress. He faces particular skepticism from members of his own party in part because of lobbying from labor groups and the opposition of liberal icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). [more]

The problem of wealth inequality

by Bill Hayes

Michael Hiltzik, a Los Angeles Times business columnist, argues that U.S. income inequality is bad, but wealth inequality is a bigger problem.

[Economists Emmanuel] Saez and [Gabriel] Zucman find that current sharp uptrend in wealth inequality is a reversal of nearly a half-century of “democratization of wealth,” from the 1930s through the late ’70s. At that point, the top 0.1% owned 7% of total U.S. household wealth. By 2012 that figure was 22%. Today their share of wealth is “almost as high as in the late 1920s.” And we know how that turned out. [more]

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

by Bill Hayes

TED-Ed has a nice video on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

For a free classroom lesson on Plato, see Plato and The Republic from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

Man and Uber Man

by Bill Hayes

In Man and Uber Man, Vanity Fair profiles Travis Kalanick and his company, Uber.

[T]he service launched in San Francisco in the summer of 2010, with only a few cars, a handful of employees, and a small seed round. It was a big idea, especially since UberCab was about to ride the most important new trend of the tech scene, the mobile moment. After entering credit-card information on the app, anyone could summon a car with the press of a button. G.P.S. took care of the location, and the cost was automatically charged to the customer’s account, with tipping already figured in. In other words, in a phrase often used by Camp, everyone could ride like a millionaire.

In August, well-known angel investor Chris Sacca tweeted out his love of the service, pretty much summing up the idea: “Rolling in an @ubercab. Eat your heart out Robin Leach.”

But the real attention came in October, when the new company got a cease-and-desist order from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, as well as the California Public Utilities Commission. Both, among other issues, objected to the use of “cab” in UberCab’s name, since it was operating without a taxi license. As it turned out, such a setback was just what Kalanick wanted: an opportunity for a fight.

He still gets exercised when he talks about it: “We’re totally legal, like totally legal, and the government is telling us to shut down. And you can either do what they say or you can fight for what you believe,” says Kalanick, setting a pattern of what he called “principled confrontation” that still persists.

Instead, the start-up ignored most of the order and simply changed UberCab to Uber … [more]

A New View of the Battle of Gallipoli

by Bill Hayes

In A New View of the Battle of Gallipoli, Smithsonian magazine reassesses the bloody battle of World War I.

The invasion of Gallipoli, a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey, was conceived by Allied commanders as a lightning strike against the Ottoman Empire to bring about a quick end to the Great War, which had bogged down into a bloody stalemate on the Western Front. The Ottomans had signed a pact with the German Empire on August 2, 1914, shortly following the war’s outbreak. As the Germans and their European allies, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, faced the Allies in trenches extending 500 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, the Turks engaged the Russians on the eastern front, bombarding Russian ports and sealing off the Dardanelles. Allied generals and politicians expected their operation in Gallipoli to be over in a matter of days. “A good army of 50,000 men and sea power — that is the end of the Turkish menace,” declared First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

Instead, by the time Allied forces withdrew in defeat in January 1916, close to half a million soldiers — nearly 180,000 Allied troops, 253,000 Turks — had been killed or wounded. Australia suffered 28,150 casualties at Gallipoli, including 8,700 dead, nearly one-sixth of the casualties it endured during the Great War. “Australia was born as a nation on April 25,” says Bill Sellars, a Gallipoli-based Australian journalist, describing the day that the recently independent country mourned the loss of young soldiers on a distant battlefield. As the fighting dragged on, says Sellars, it became “a close-up, in-your-face war, as opposed to the Western Front, where you never even saw your enemy.”

Now, as the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign approaches, both sides are engaging in commemorations that testify to the battle’s resonance. Turkish citizens and visitors from around the world will crowd the battlefield and cemeteries for memorials in March and April.

Thirty-four years ago, Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, captured the innocence of young men who rushed eagerly to the front — only to be sent to pointless deaths by callous and incompetent field commanders. In April, the New Zealand-born star Russell Crowe is releasing in the U.S. the new film he directed, The Water Diviner, about an Australian who travels to Turkey in 1919 to learn the fate of his three sons, reported missing in action. And a flurry of movies by Turkish directors has presented the Ottoman experience of the carnage. The nationalistic Gallipoli: End of the Road dramatizes the battlefield feats of Abdul the Terrible, a real-life Turkish sniper who gunned down a dozen Allied officers before he was shot dead by a Chinese-Australian sharpshooter named Billy Sing. Children of Canakkale (using the Turkish name for the Gallipoli campaign), by Turkish filmmaker Sinan Cetin, takes a starkly different approach, telling of two brothers who fight on opposite sides, British and Turkish, and meet face to face in a climactic bayonet charge. “Turkish people love the fairy tale about nationalism, but I couldn’t with my heart do that kind of movie,” he told me. “This was a disaster, not a victory.” [more]

The Armenian genocide

by David De La Torre

In Seeing through fire, The Economist reviews There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond by Meline Toumani.

On April 24th 1915 scores of Armenian intellectuals and artists were rounded up in Istanbul, the capital of the collapsing Ottoman empire, and later killed. The killings marked the start of a protracted period of persecution of the empire’s Christian subjects, who were subjected to state-sanctioned murder, rape and huge forced deportations to the Syrian desert. At least 1m people — mostly Armenians — died. [more]

For a free classroom lesson on the Armenian genocide, see “Forgotten Genocide”: The Destruction of the Armenians During World War I from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

Workers of the Word Unite

by Bill Hayes

In Workers of the Word Unite for the New Republic, Julia Holmes reviews Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris.

For those who don’t know, the job of a copy editor at a magazine is to take something that’s been written, edited, and revised, and to prepare it for publication. That means reading for typos, spelling, grammar, and clarity, while also upholding the style and reputation of the publication, calling out anything that might be cause for concern. While copy editors grapple with language, fact checkers are busy verifying every claim a story makes. Their queries are combined and given to the editor who approves or rejects them, case by case, and then sends the story back into circulation through all the magazine’s departments. In this way, a story goes round and round, taking shape through an elaborate system of note-passing that probably hasn’t changed much since the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press before dying in obscurity. Nearly every word you read in a magazine, from the mealiest Kardashian caption to the novella-length essay on credit default swaps, has been subjected to this treatment. Copy editors and fact checkers are there to protect the writer, and the vast majority of them (usually writers themselves) take that job seriously. They know full well that, as a species, we delight in pointing out mistakes, especially in matters of self-expression, and even a small error has the potential to undermine a writer’s authority. [more]