CRF Blog

The Battle for Colorado Is the Battle for America

by Bill Hayes

In The Battle for Colorado Is the Battle for America, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the close U.S. Senate race in the state.

Like any hotly contested Senate race this cycle, Colorado’s is critical because it could end up determining which party controls the Senate for Obama’s final two years. But it will also tell us a lot about where the parties stand heading into the 2016 presidential election. Colorado’s Senate race has become a presidential campaign in miniature, with two strong candidates who are both career politicians facing off over mainly national issues, as billionaires on the left (Steyer) and the right (the Koch brothers) saturate the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads.

Politically, Colorado is a slightly-exaggerated version of America. Because the state makes it so easy to place initiatives on the ballot, it’s a testing ground for highly charged national issues. “We’re a petri dish for progressive politics,” says Ted Trimpa, a Denver lawyer and Democratic political consultant. “We’ve done gun control, marijuana legalization, driver’s licenses, and in-state tuition for undocumented-immigrants, and we’re the first state in the country to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas-operations.” That’s true for conservative issues, too. Next month, Coloradans will vote for the third time in six years on a “personhood” initiative granting full legal rights to embryos.

Yet it isn’t just the contours of the state’s politics that mirror the country’s; its economics and demographics do, too. Colorado  has a complex, advanced economy. The state is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. And unlike other swing states with close Senate races (Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina), it has a large Hispanic population that’s become a crucial voting bloc. All this combines to make Colorado an uncommonly-accurate gauge of-national political sentiment. In 2008, when Obama beat John McCain by seven points, he won Colorado by eight. In 2012 he beat Mitt Romney 51 percent to 48 percent and carried the state 51–47. [more]

The Advanced Placement numbers racket

by Bill Hayes

In The Advanced Placement numbers racket for the Los Angeles Times, educator Brian Gibbs criticizes AP tests.

I do have a big problem with the multiple-choice portion, which requires students to develop skills of little value — rote memorization and recall under pressure. Content from the pre-Columbian era forward must be covered. “Covered” is the operative word — not analyzed, evaluated or synthesized, words common to academic and intellectual investigation in a college class. [more]

Crash Course #19, U.S. History: Battles of the Civil War

by Bill Hayes

Part of a series: Crash Course #19, U.S. History: Battles of the Civil War.

Not Fully Inflated

by David De La Torre

In Not fully inflated, The Economist reports on the rising prices in investments and questions whether a bubble is in the making.

TALK of bubbles is in the air again. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has hit an all-time high. A loss-making technology firm (Twitter) has floated its shares on a flood of investor demand. Private-equity groups are buying companies using amounts of debt not seen since 2008. A record price (more than $50m) has just been set for a penthouse in Manhattan. A triptych by Francis Bacon became the most expensive piece of art sold at an auction when Christie’s flogged it for $142.4m last month. Robert Shiller of Yale University, who correctly identified bubbles in tech stocks in the late 1990s and in property in the 2000s, has expressed unease about giddy American share valuations.

All this suggests that wealthy investors have become increasingly confident. The question is whether they are right to be. Under certain circumstances, fast-rising asset prices are justified. New industries can emerge and create corporate giants (Microsoft, Apple and Google, for example); countries can change their economic policy and grow rapidly (Japan in the 1960s, China in the 1990s). How, then, do you tell a bull market from a bubble? [more]

For a related free classroom lesson on bubbles, see “Tulipmania and Economic Bubbles.” It is available from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Hackers Target Hong Kong Protesters via iPhones

by Bill Hayes

In Hackers Target Hong Kong Protesters via iPhones, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the Chinese used the protesters’ technology against them.

When the Hong Kong protests were at their height, activists using WhatsApp received messages advertising a program that promised to help them coordinate protests. When the demonstrators downloaded the program through a link in the message, it turned out to be malicious software — most likely created by the Chinese government — that hacked their smartphones. Lacoon Mobile Security, based in San Francisco, began to analyze the phony app after spotting unusual communication on the networks of its corporate clients, some of whose employees had downloaded it. In tracing the spyware’s path to the websites where it sent data, Lacoon’s researchers found a much rarer species of malware: a version that can steal information from iPhones. [more]

Prepare to Be Shocked

by Bill Hayes

In Prepare to Be Shocked for the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal looks at four predictions by neuroscientists on how humans can become smarter.

Several years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency got wind of a technique called transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, which promised something extraordinary: a way to increase people’s performance in various capacities, from motor skills (in the case of recovering stroke patients) to language learning, all by stimulating their brains with electrical current. The simplest tDCS rigs are little more than nine-volt batteries hooked up to sponges embedded with metal and taped to a person’s scalp.

It’s only a short logical jump from the preceding applications to other potential uses of tDCS. What if, say, soldiers could be trained faster by hooking their heads up to a battery? [more]

Did the Cosby Show help Obama get elected?

by Bill Hayes

Fareed Zakaria interviews Mark Whitaker, the author of Cosby: His Life and Times, and asks him about the importance of Bill Cosby to President Obama’s election.

B.A.s and I.O.U.s

by Bill Hayes

In B.A.s and I.O.U.s for the New York Times Book Review, Gary Rivlin reviews Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream by Suzanne Mettler.

For-profit colleges are the true bad guys in this tale. Though their “ardent defender,” the Republican Party, contends that the schools provide “meaningful opportunities for low-income and minority students,” Mettler mounts a persuasive case that something like the opposite is true: These institutions are generally more skilled at getting rich off those living in the lower economic reaches than they are at preparing them for the job market. She has mined congressional reports, newspaper accounts and academic -studies, piling up example after example of recruiters who’ll say practically anything to enroll a student, any student, in their programs, resulting in graduation rates not even close to those of traditional colleges. And how do those who manage to earn a degree fare? In the 2007-8 academic year, the average student working on a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college found herself in deeper debt ($32,700) than her counterpart attending a private college ($17,700). And good luck settling loans with those low-paying jobs so many graduates find themselves working, despite the dreams that the school’s marketers put in their heads. Alumni of the for-profit colleges account for nearly half of all student-loan defaults, according to Mettler, even as they make up one in 10 students pursuing a postsecondary education. [more]

Oh, Canada

by Bill Hayes

In Oh, Canada for Foreign Policy magazine, Andrew Nikiforuk argues that Canada has become “a rogue, reckless petrostate.”

[A] dark secret lurks in the northern forests. Over the last decade, Canada has not so quietly become an international mining center and a rogue petrostate. It’s no longer America’s better half, but a dystopian vision of the continent’s energy-soaked future.

That’s right: The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction — oil. Flush with visions of becoming a global energy superpower, Canada’s government has taken up with pipeline evangelists, petroleum bullies, and climate change skeptics. Turns out the Boy Scout’s not just hooked on junk crude — he’s become a pusher. And that’s not even the worst of it. [more]

14 things you need to know about the fight over voting rights

by Bill Hayes

In 17 short cards, Vox explains the 14 things you need to know about the fight over voting rights. Here is the first card.

What is the fight over voting rights about?

The fight over voting rights is a highly partisan battle over how voting ought to work, and which regulations are needed to make sure voting is accessible and fair.

This fight heated up after the 2010 midterm elections, when many state legislatures with new Republican majorities passed laws establishing new voting restrictions, including measures that limited absentee, early, or Sunday voting, and laws requiring that people show identification before casting a ballot. Various groups have challenged these laws in court.

Most of the legal battles over these voting restrictions involve the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to get rid of state and local laws that made it difficult or impossible for African Americans to vote. A 2013 Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, struck down part of the VRA. That made it tougher for the federal government to enforce the Act, and cleared the way for another new wave of state and local voting restrictions. [more]

Man on a Mission

by Bill Hayes

In Man on a Mission for the New York Times Book Review, Molly Worthen reviews two books, one a biography of Jimmy Carter and the other the former president’s latest work: Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter by Randall Balmer and A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power by Jimmy Carter.

Born in 1924, James Earl Carter Jr. grew up on a Georgia farm that had no electricity until he was a teenager. Following his father’s death, Carter resigned a Navy commission to run the family peanut farm. Election to the State Senate in 1962 taught him the art of expedient compromise. After losing the 1966 governor’s race, he decided he would court the white supremacist vote the next time around. Dirty means served noble ends. “You won’t like my campaign, but you will like my administration,” Carter assured the civil rights leader Vernon Jordan in 1970.

Carter grew up Southern Baptist, but his favorite theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr, the Cold War prophet of “Christian realism” who has long appealed to policy makers, from George Kennan to Barack Obama. [more]

Chart of the Day: Causes of Loss of Wildlife

Infographic: Wildlife Populations Worldwide Have Plummeted | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

Fund managers and financial crises

by David De La Torre

In Assets or liabilities?, The Economist reports that regulators worry that the next financial crisis may be caused by fund-management companies.

Fund managers have caused problems in the past. The collapse in 1998 of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund run by some of the brightest minds on Wall Street and in academia, led to a rescue instigated by the Federal Reserve. Bear Stearns’s bail-out of two hedge funds it had been running contributed to its collapse in 2008. In the same year a money-market fund run by the Reserve group was forced to “break the buck” (impose losses on investors), setting off a run that prompted the Fed to provide a backstop yet again.

All this has made regulators nervous. In January the Financial Stability Board (FSB), an international body which tries to guard against financial crises, published a consultation paper which asked whether fund managers might need to be designated “systemically important financial institutions” or SIFIs, a step that would involve heavier regulation. [more]

Who Was JFK?

by Bill Hayes

In Who Was JFK? for the New York Review of Books, Frank Rich reviews JFK, Conservative by Ira Stoll.

While it would be hard to argue that any aspect of Kennedy’s presidency and death was neglected in the vast fiftieth-anniversary smorgasbord, it’s also hard to say that much new was added to the existing record. The most riveting account of Kennedy’s political apprenticeship, presidency, and assassination predated the latest literary onslaught, having turned up as an unofficial book-within-the-book in the most recent volume of Robert Caro’s magnum opus on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power; the most judicious historical balance sheet on Kennedy’s White House accomplishments and failures is Alan Brinkley’s John F. Kennedy (in Times Books’ “American Presidents” series), which, like Caro’s book, was published in 2012. A solid full-dress Kennedy biography, Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life, came out in 2003. (Dallek has also produced a 2013 spinoff, Camelot’s Court.) For a comprehensive you-are-there narrative of the five days bracketing the assassination, there’s still no competitor to William Manchester’s 1967 The Death of a President, at last reissued after years of being consigned to out-of-print purgatory by the Kennedy camp’s harebrained objections to its original publication.

No new additions to the Kennedy canon, whatever their quality or agenda, are likely to alter the seemingly unshakable public consensus about both JFK’s status in the civic firmament and the murky circumstances of his death. A Gallup poll conducted in November 2013 found that 74 percent of Americans rate him an outstanding or above-average president, which places him well ahead of all his modern peers — from Ronald Reagan (61 percent) and Bill Clinton (55 percent) to Barack Obama (28 percent) and George W. Bush (21 percent). Americans are similarly united in their refusal to buy the official verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald was his lone assassin: 71 percent reject that notion, according to a 2013 survey commissioned by the History Channel. Though the theory of evolution and the threat of global warming are still viewed with skepticism by large numbers of Americans, polls show that both Darwinism and climate-change science nonetheless enjoy roughly twice as much credibility among the public as the Warren Commission.

Without the halo of martyrdom and the mob-and-CIA-populated conspiracy theories generated by the assassination — and without the voluptuous video record of Kennedy’s grace, charisma, and wit — would his White House tenure poll so high? Probably not. It’s telling that his death has a greater afterlife than his presidency. More Americans visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas each year than the Kennedy Library in Boston. Assassination books, movies, and television programs dominate the JFK catalog. For all the anniversary-pegged Kennedy volumes, none of them found a perch on best-seller lists to remotely match two retellings of the assassination published in 2012, Stephen King’s alternative-history novel 11/22/63 and Killing Kennedy, an entry (sandwiched between Killing Lincoln and Killing Jesus) in a potboiler franchise coconcocted by the Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly. (O’Reilly has also supplied a more tastefully titled kids’ edition, Kennedy’s Last Days, pitched to readers age ten and up.) The television adaptation of Killing Kennedy, with Rob Lowe in the title role, set a ratings record for the Rupert Murdoch–controlled National Geographic Channel. [more]

Can Bart Chilton Fix High-Speed Trading’s Image Problem?

by Bill Hayes

In Can Bart Chilton Fix High-Speed Trading’s Image Problem?, a feature story, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at the reputation problems high-speed traders face and the unlikely person they have chosen to help them.

This spring, high-frequency traders were facing yet another assault on their livelihoods, and they needed to do something fast. For months their business had been under increasing pressure, much of it from within their own ranks. Profits were down dramatically as competitors piled into the market. They’d been blamed — unfairly, many of them believed — for the “flash crash” in 2010, when the stock market fell 600 points in less than five minutes after one trader’s mistaken order triggered a wave of automated selling. Now they confronted an even graver threat: the media blitz surrounding Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. In the book, Lewis argues that high-frequency traders take advantage of other investors and that because of them the stock market is “rigged.”

The publicity rollout for the book was masterful. A segment aired on 60 Minutes, the same day an 11,000-word excerpt appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Author interviews with Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose quickly followed. There was wall-to-wall CNBC coverage, with Lewis filling the screen. At one point the author got into a near-brawl with a fellow panelist, prompting a new cascade of articles, which competed for attention with dozens of book reviews. Lewis’s surrogates, some of them characters in his book, had their own hectic schedule of media appearances. They were all broadcasting the same message: High-frequency traders were out of control and possibly about to bring down the global financial system. “High-frequency trading reminds me a little of the scam in Office Space,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during one of the multiple congressional hearings that followed the book’s publication. “It also means a tilt in the playing field for those who don’t have the information or don’t have the access to the speed or who aren’t big enough to play in this game.”

High-frequency trading, or HFT, uses computer algorithms to execute huge numbers of trades at extremely fast speeds, sometimes in millionths of a second. Little money is made, on average, on each transaction — often only fractions of a cent — but the huge volume can generate significant profits. Computer-driven trades represent more than half of all stock transactions done in the U.S…. [more]