CRF Blog

Charlie Rose interviews David Petraeus

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews David Petraeus, the former CIA director.

Guns in the U.S.: We’re better at killing Americans than our enemies are

by Bill Hayes

In Guns in the U.S.: We’re better at killing Americans than our enemies are for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Shermer argues that a gun in the home is more likely to prove dangerous than protective.

Consider this finding from a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery: “Every time a gun in the home was used in a self’-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” [more]

The World If …

by David De La Torre

In The World If …, The Economist explores a number of hypothetical scenarios:

If Donald Trump was president

If the North Korean regime collapsed

If states traded territory

If financial systems were hacked

If China embarked on mass privatisation

If economists reformed themselves

If the ocean was transparent

If computers wrote laws

If we all had personal drones

What if Germany had not reunified?

The Strange Politics of Peter Thiel

by Bill Hayes

In The Strange Politics of Peter Thiel, a Bloomberg Businessweek profiles Donald Trump’s biggest supporter from Silicon Valley.

Thiel’s presence in Cleveland is mystifying in part because he seems so at odds with the 2016 Republican Party, even in all its heterodox, Trumpian glory. Thiel is not only gay, he’s a pro-marijuana immigrant in a party that has long seemed hostile to all those things. In a 2014 interview with the conservative website the Daily Caller, he referred to Trump as “sort of symptomatic of everything that is wrong with New York City.”

Republicans often talk of using free-market competition to bring the cost of attending college down; Thiel is anti-college. He runs a fellowship that gives promising students $100,000 to drop out. “Education,” he said in a 2011 interview with the National Review, “is a bubble in a classic sense.” Among other generally agreed-upon concepts about which Thiel has expressed doubts: antitrust policies (he’s pro-monopoly), women’s suffrage (in a 2009 essay for the libertarian journal Cato Unbound, he noted that women have a troublesome tendency not to be libertarian), and the political system of the U.S. (in the same essay he noted, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible”). Thiel has also funded efforts to cure death, which he considers a treatable disease, and to create an offshore colony free of governmental interference. The concept is known as “seasteading.”

Thiel’s politics may be weird, but they’ve endeared him to the press, which has presented him as a kind of TED Talk eccentric ….[more]

Supreme Confidence

by Bill Hayes

In a 2005 article for the New Yorker, Supreme Confidence, Margaret Talbot profiled the powerful conservative voice on the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia. Scalia’s death in February 2016 has left a vacancy on the court, which is yet to be filled.

Lining up to hear a Supreme Court Justice speak is more like lining up for a rock concert than you might think. This is especially true if the speech is on a college campus and the speaker in question is Justice Antonin Scalia. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a favorite on the feminist lecture circuit; Clarence Thomas has vivid stories of growing up as a “nappy-headed little boy running barefoot” around Pinpoint, Georgia; Sandra Day O’Connor is the preferred Justice at awards luncheons where crystal figurines are handed out. But Scalia is the most likely to offer the jurisprudential equivalent of smashing a guitar onstage. He might present a scorching opinion that will get him in trouble back in the Court — as he did in January, 2003, when he lambasted judicial efforts to eliminate the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. (Later that year, the Court agreed to take on the issue, and Scalia had to recuse himself.) Or he might stun a pompous liberal with a bearish verbal swat; recently, when a questioner criticized Scalia’s judicial approach by invoking Alexander Hamilton, Scalia retorted, “Hamilton, sir, was writing the Constitution, not interpreting one.” He will be funnier, more sarcastic, and more explicit about his beliefs than most people expect a Supreme Court Justice to be. And curiosity about him — what he will say or do next — has only grown now that there is talk that he could become Chief Justice, replacing William Rehnquist, who is suffering from thyroid cancer. President Bush has said that, of the current Justices, he admires Scalia and Thomas the most, and Scalia, who is sixty-nine, is recognized, even by his ideological opponents, as the singular conservative mind of the Rehnquist Court.

On a damp, cold afternoon in November, Scalia spoke at the University of Michigan Law School. Two hours before the lecture, the line extended down the steps of the school’s auditorium. Many in the crowd were liberal students — this was Ann Arbor, after all — who were nursing a grudge over Scalia’s snappish minority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case in which the Court upheld an affirmative-action program at Michigan Law School. The school had argued, and the majority had agreed, that having a “critical mass” of minority students offered an “educational benefit” — an improvement in “cross-racial understanding.” But Michigan’s “mystical ‘critical mass’ justification for its discrimination by race challenges even the most gullible mind,” Scalia wrote in his dissenting opinion. “The admissions statistics show it to be a sham to cover a scheme of racially proportionate admissions.” Moreover, he went on: “This is not, of course, an “educational benefit” on which students will be graded on their Law School transcript (Works and Plays Well with Others: B+) or tested by bar examiners (Q: Describe in five hundred words or less your cross-racial understanding). For it is a lesson of life rather than law — essentially the same lesson taught to (or rather learned by, for it cannot be “taught” in the usual sense) people three feet shorter and twenty years younger than the full-grown adults at the University of Michigan Law School, in institutions ranging from Boy Scout troops to public-school kindergartens.”

Outside the auditorium, a dozen or so students marched in a ragged oval, chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, separation of church and state!” — not the most original of slogans but one that they thought appropriate for a Justice who so often stresses the deep and redeeming religiosity of the American people. One student had drawn a poster of Scalia as Oscar the Grouch, Such mockery does not seem to bother Scalia; his certainty runs so deep that he views detractors with mild amusement. And he revels in intellectual combat. Every year, he hires at least one liberal clerk, to give him somebody to spar with. Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death-penalty crusader, recalls in her recent book, “The Death of Innocents,” that she once approached Scalia in the New Orleans airport to say that she was planning to attack his views in print. “I’ll be coming right back at you,” he said, jabbing his fist in the air.

At 4:30 P.M., Scalia strode heavily to the lectern, his head thrust forward. He has a square, ruddy face; thick black hair with a patent-leather sheen; gold-rimmed glasses; and an almost daunting air of vigor. He began by explaining that, as a jurist, he is an “originalist” — or, as he put it, in his habitual tone of pugnacious beleaguerment, one of “a small hearty minority who believe in a philosophy called originalism.” This cohort was so small, he said, that you could “fire a cannon loaded with grapeshot in the faculty of any major law school” — an experiment that Scalia might enjoy trying — “and not hit an originalist.”

Originalists, he went on, feel that judges should adhere to the precise words of the Constitution, and believe that the meaning of those words was locked into place at the time they were written. Scalia likes to say that a Constitution is about “rigidifying things,” whereas elections introduce flexibility into the system. Although proponents of originalism claim that it is a politically neutral method, in Scalia’s hands it usually leads to conservative results — at least on social issues like abortion, capital punishment, and gay rights.

The philosophy that an originalist sets himself against most firmly is that of the Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, who, in 1985, argued that “the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems.” Scalia sees this approach as an expression of judicial arrogance that all too often leads to the “discovery” of bogus new rights — such as the “right to privacy” that undergirds two decisions that Scalia loathes, Roe v. Wade (1973) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which declared unconstitutional a law forbidding homosexual sodomy. In his speech, Scalia noted derisively that, in a recent case, his fellow-Justices had opted to leave open the question of whether there is a “right to die.” Adopting the orotund voice of a newsreel announcer, he joked, “Stay tuned! In the fullness of time, a beneficent Court will give the people this new right.”

Scalia said, “People ask me, ‘When did you first become an originalist?,’ like they’re saying, ‘When did you first start eating human flesh?’ “ But originalism used to be orthodoxy, he said. Only in recent times, he added, have judges become enamored of an approach based on — “Oh, how I hate the phrase!” — a “living Constitution.” Scalia uttered these last words with exaggerated disdain, as if he were holding up some particularly noxious leftovers extracted from the back of the fridge.

Originalism wasn’t quite as unchallenged a doctrine as Scalia claims — even before the “living Constitution” approach emerged. In fact, arguments about the proper sources for judicial interpretation go back to the earliest days of the Supreme Court. In a 1793 case, one Justice suggested that American judges take into account both “general jurisprudence” and the “laws and practice” of other “States and Kingdoms,” while another Justice favored basing decisions exclusively on the words of the Constitution. Hugo Black, a liberal who served on the Court from 1937 to 1971, advocated a literal reading of the Constitution — setting himself against colleagues who, in his view, interpreted its words too wishfully. (Black famously objected to busing because he couldn’t find the word “bus” in the Constitution.) Black did not found a school of thought, however. As a named doctrine, originalism didn’t fully emerge until the nineteen-seventies, with the work of Robert Bork, then a Yale law professor, who wrote, “There is no other sense in which the Constitution can be what article VI proclaims it to be: ‘Law.’ This means, of course, that a judge, no matter on what court he sits, may never create new constitutional rights or destroy old ones.”

A “living Constitution” approach, Scalia said, gives a judge far too much interpretive latitude. When the method is applied, for example, to the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment, judges must consider “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This line comes from a 1958 decision, Trop v. Dulles, which declared that stripping a deserter of his citizenship was unconstitutional; the Court has since cited the phrase in a 2002 decision barring the execution of the mentally retarded and in a decision this term banning the death penalty for juveniles. Scalia recited the words in the honeyed singsong voice of a well-indoctrinated child, then offered this mocking gloss: “Every day in every way we’re getting better and better. Societies only mature.” He paused. “They never rot.” [more]

The World’s Most Generous Countries In 2016

Infographic: The World's Most Generous Countries In 2016 | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats

by Bill Hayes

Writing in the New Republic, Amartya Sen argues that Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats That Demand Our Attention.

I would like to comment on two quite different, but ultimately related, areas of neglected environmental analyses that demand immediate attention. The first is the general problem of not having anything like an overall normative framework, involving ethics as well as science, that could serve as the basis of debates and discussions on policy recommendations. Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge. The second is a much more specific problem: the failure to develop a framework for assessing the comparative costs of different sources of energy (from fossil fuels and nuclear power to solar and renewable energy), inclusive of the externalities involved, which can take many different forms. (By externalities, I mean the consequences that operate outside the market and that market prices do not reflect, such as the release of pollutants into the air, of effluents into rivers and public water supplies, of radiation into the atmosphere.) One of the externalities — the evil effects of carbon emission — has received enormous attention, which in its context is a very good thing, but there are other externalities that also demand our urgent attention. These include the growing danger from the rapidly increasing use of nuclear energy — in China and India especially, where the use of nuclear energy is gathering momentum and large expansions are being planned, but also elsewhere. The dangers of nuclear energy have received astonishingly little systematic attention in scientific and policy discussions. Environmental thinking has to be multi-directional rather than single-focused, even if the focus is something as important as the climatic threats from carbon emissions.

Not only is the large issue of making reasoned estimates of the externalities — including probabilistic evaluation — of energy production and energy use largely neglected, but the lack of a normative framework also contributes to ignoring the benefits from greater energy use on which the lives of billions of deprived people in the world depend. Since the emphasis on cutting emissions, if necessary by lesser energy use, has become an almost universal position among environmentalists, I shall begin by noting some persistent biases in thinking about the benefits and penalties of energy use in different forms in the contemporary world.

First, the recent focus of energy thinking has been particularly concentrated on the ways and means of reducing carbon emissions and, linked with that, cutting down energy use, rather than taking energy use as essential for conquering poverty and seeing the environmental challenge within a more comprehensive understanding. There would appear to be an insufficient recognition in global discussion of the need for increased power in the poorer countries. In India, for example, about a third of the people do not have any power connection at all. Making it easier to produce energy with better environmental correlates (and greater efficiency of energy use) may be a contribution not just to environmental planning, but also to making it possible for a great many deprived people to lead a fuller and freer life.

Second, there is insufficient recognition of an empirical fact that at first glance may seem rather trivial, but which has much greater importance than may be immediately recognized. Many areas of the world where poverty is common are also particularly sunny and offer hugely underappreciated opportunities for the generation and use of solar power …. [more]

Recent Political Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

See Cagle’s collection of recent political cartoons.

For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.

How a Principal Built a School

by Bill Hayes

In How a Principal Built a School for the New York Times Book Review, Dale Russakoff reviews The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community Is Inspiring the World by Nadia Lopez and Rebecca Paley.

Nadia Lopez is an unlikely star of the internet age — an urban-middle-school principal whose story went viral. It all began in January 2015 when the blog Humans of New York featured an eighth grader at her school named Vidal. “Who’s influenced you the most in your life?” the young boy bundled in a hoodie and a black jacket was asked. “My principal,” he answered. A few days later, Brandon Stanton, the photographer responsible for the blog, visited Lopez and her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. There he found a young principal striving to turn a public school into a bulwark against the forces of urban distress. She became an overnight sensation. [more]

Is Obamacare Sustainable?

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Is Obamacare Sustainable?

Aetna and Oscar are the latest national insurance companies to pull out of certain state marketplace exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act, which were designed to lower costs for consumers by increasing competition between insurance companies. Many insurers are losing money on the exchanges because too few people have signed up for coverage.

Is Obamacare sustainable? What might make it more viable in the long-term? [more]

For free classroom lessons related to Obamacare and health-care reform, see “The Continuing Struggle for U.S. Health-Care Reform,” “The U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision on the Affordable Care Act,” and “Health Care: What Do Other Countries Do?” These lessons are available from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. They are currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Why Trump Was Inevitable

by Bill Hayes

In Why Trump Was Inevitable, the New York Review of Books looks at polling data showing high support among Republicans for many of Donald Trump’s policies.

One of the main reasons many political commentators were surprised by Donald Trump’s success in the primaries was his willingness to take extreme positions and use unusually harsh rhetoric in talking about immigration and related issues. Indeed, Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and Muslims have been at the center of his campaign. And his pronouncements on these topics have greatly concerned many Republican leaders and elected officials who feared they would harm the party’s image and damage its electoral prospects. But how did his positions and comments play with Republican primary voters?

The clear answer is that they reflected the views of likely Republican voters extremely well. We asked a series of questions about Trump’s controversial proposals (banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall on the Mexican border, and identifying and deporting illegal immigrants). On all three issues overwhelming majorities of likely Republican voters supported his positions: almost three quarters (73 percent) favored banning Muslims from entering the US, 90 percent favored identifying and deporting illegal immigrants as quickly as possible, and 85 percent favored building a wall on the Mexican border. [more]

The Assad Files

by Bill Hayes

In The Assad Files for the New Yorker, Ben Taub reports on documents that tie the Syrian regime to war crimes.

The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.

He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.

In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.

Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.

The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before serving for six years as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told me that the CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area.”

The case is the first international war-crimes investigation completed by an independent agency like the CIJA, funded by governments but without a court mandate. The organization’s founder, Bill Wiley, a Canadian war-crimes investigator who has worked on several high-profile international tribunals, had grown frustrated with the geopolitical red tape that often shapes the pursuit of justice. Because the process of collecting evidence and organizing it into cases is purely operational, he reasoned that it could be done before the political will exists to prosecute the case.

Only the U.N. Security Council can refer the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court; in May, 2014, Russia and China blocked a draft resolution that would have granted the court jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, Wiley told me, the commission has also identified a number of “quite serious perpetrators, drawn from the security-intelligence services,” who have entered Europe. “The CIJA is very much committed to assisting domestic authorities with prosecutions.” [more]

Riding Rubber’s Boom

by Bill Hayes

In Riding Rubber’s Boom, National Geographic looks at the exploding market for rubber and its environmental impact on the planet.

[R]ubber today is grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia, because the region has a unique combination of suitable climate and infrastructure. Despite all the ups and downs in the global economy, the demand for tires continues to grow, which has created something akin to a gold rush in Southeast Asia. For millions of people in this poor part of the world, the rubber boom has helped bring prosperity; Chin does not have the only new pickup in Tung Nha Noi. And rubber has helped end the region’s isolation. Brand-new “rubber highways” — the last finished in 2013 — now connect previously remote plantations in Southeast Asia to tire factories in northern China.

But the consequences of the rubber trade are not purely economic. Southeast Asia’s legions of Chins have set off what Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center in Hawaii calls “one of the biggest, fastest ecological transformations in human history.” In China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar rubber farmers have cut or burned down forests and planted row after row after row of H. brasiliensis. In the process, they are converting one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems into a monoculture as uniform as a Kansas wheat field, potentially threatening the basic ecological functions of an area inhabited by tens of millions of people. Each of the five tires on Chin’s truck — one on each wheel plus a spare — is like a small patch of tropical forest, stripped and compressed into a glossy black ring. So is every tire on my car and yours.

Monocultures are intensely productive — and intensely vulnerable. Just ask Henry Ford. Giant among industrialists, control freak extraordinaire, brilliant but possibly illiterate, Ford ran his own iron and coal mines, built his own power plants, logged his own timberlands. His River Rouge factory complex in Dearborn, Michigan, had a deepwater port, a steel foundry (the world’s biggest at the time), and a hundred miles of interior railroad. Every type of material needed to manufacture automobiles was made at River Rouge save one: rubber. In 1927 Ford acquired nearly 4,000 square miles in the Amazon Basin, original home of H. brasiliensis. [more]

Long they ruled

by David De La Torre

In Long they ruled, The Economist reviews The Romanovs: 1613–1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s story starts with the miserable, melancholic Michael, dragged to the smouldering ruins of the Kremlin by feuding boyars who were desperate for unity in the face of defeat by mighty Poland. It features the greats: Peter, manically debauched, and Catherine, the “regicidal, uxoricidal German usurper”; and also dismal failures such as Alexander III, who ruled Russia as a “curmudgeonly landowner”. It concludes with the pathetic Nicholas II, the last tsar, deposed and hurriedly murdered alongside his wife and children … by the Bolsheviks in 1918. His ill-starred reign was redeemed only by the “grace, patience, humour and dignity” which the doomed royal family showed in their captivity. [more]

Marx Is Back

by Bill Hayes

In Marx Is Back for Foreign Policy magazine, Charles Kenny argues that “The global working class is starting to unite — and that’s a good thing.”

[I]t is exactly because the rich and poor will look increasingly similar in Lagos and London that it’s more likely that the workers of the world in 2030 will unite. As technology and trade level the playing field and bring humanity closer together, the world’s projected 3.5 billion laborers may finally realize how much more they have in common with each other than with the über-wealthy elites in their own countries.

They’ll pressure governments to collaborate to ensure that their sweat and blood don’t excessively enrich a tiny, global capitalist elite, but are spread more widely. [more]