CRF Blog

Data on poverty show policy failure

by Bill Hayes

In Data on poverty show policy failure, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik looks at a report from the Census Bureau.

Chronic poverty is relatively rare, the bureau found. Only about 3.5% of the population was living in poverty throughout the entire 36-month span from 2009 through 2011. But 31.6% had “at least one spell of poverty lasting 2 or more months.” That implies a population struggling to get ahead, and being regularly knocked down by economic circumstance, such as a dearth of jobs or the arrival of unexpected and devastating expenses.

Critics have asserted that the official poverty rate overstates the condition because it doesn’t account for public assistance. In response, the Census Bureau a few years ago brought forth an alternative estimate, known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure. The bureau incorporated not only non-cash government transfers — food stamps, housing assistance and heating subsidies — but also expenses such as income and payroll taxes, child care and other job-related spending, and out-of-pocket medical costs. [more]

The Top Family-Controlled Companies

Infographic: The World's Largest Family Businesses | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

When Geeks Rule

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: When Geeks Rule.

A book of arcane questions by the creator of a bizarre comic strip beloved by scientists and tech workers recently debuted atop The New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list. The most heavily hyped new product has been Apple’s version of a science-fiction totem, the gadget wristwatch. And “The Big Bang Theory” often leads the Nielsen ratings.

When fringe pleasures become popular, there can be consequences. So what does it mean when geek culture becomes mainstream? [more]

Gay people’s rights

by David De La Torre

In Tainting love, The Economist reports that attacking the rights of gay people can be political gold in various places around the world.

In 2009 David Bahati, an MP, introduced a bill which would have imposed the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality”, a term that covers gay sex with people under 18 and people with disabilities or HIV. There was a furious response from international human-rights groups and some governments. The bill lost its harshest provisions, including the death penalty. In February, after some apparent hesitation, Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s long-standing president, signed the bill into law. He accused Uganda’s critics of acting like latter-day colonialists seeking to impose their values on Africa.

Similar rhetoric had been heard two months earlier when Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria, signed a bill outlawing displays of same-sex affection, banning groups devoted to gay people’s rights and introducing 14-year prison sentences for anyone entering into a gay marriage or other contractual union. As in Uganda and Gambia, Nigeria already had a law on the books prohibiting gay sex. To the extent that Nigerian gay activists had a legislative agenda, it did not include gay marriage. The UN human-rights chief said of the Nigerian bill that she had rarely seen a law that “in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights.”

Russia has also been targeting gay people. In 2012 Vitaly Milonov, a legislator in St Petersburg, spearheaded the city’s adoption of a law banning homosexual “propaganda” to minors. In June 2013 the Duma passed its own version, making “propaganda” about “non-traditional sexual relationships” a crime. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, finds gay-bashing politically appealing. It runs together various favoured themes: that the West is a corrupting influence best rejected; that tolerance and liberalism are alien to traditional Russian values; that the Orthodox church should be given a more prominent role. [more]

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is an American Hero

by Bill Hayes

In Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is an American Hero for the New Republic, Jeffrey Rosen interviews the Supreme Court justice.

JR: What’s the worst ruling the current Court has produced?

RBG: If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be. So that’s number one on my list. Number two would be the part of the health care decision that concerns the commerce clause. Since 1937, the Court has allowed Congress a very free hand in enacting social and economic legislation. I thought that the attempt of the Court to intrude on Congress’s domain in that area had stopped by the end of the 1930s. Of course health care involves commerce. Perhaps number three would be Shelby County, involving essentially the destruction of the Voting Rights Act. That act had a voluminous legislative history. The bill extending the Voting Rights Act was passed overwhelmingly by both houses, Republicans and Democrats, everyone was on board. The Court’s interference with that decision of the political branches seemed to me out of order. The Court should have respected the legislative judgment. Legislators know much more about elections than the Court does. And the same was true of Citizens United. I think members of the legislature, people who have to run for office, know the connection between money and influence on what laws get passed. [more]

Arab countries be real democracies?

by Bill Hayes

Fareed Zakaria discusses Can Arab countries be real democracies?

The Obama Brief

by Bill Hayes

In The Obama Brief for the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin looks at the president’s legacy in the federal courts.

Obama has had two hundred and eighty judges confirmed, which represents about a third of the federal judiciary. Two of his choices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, were nominated to the Supreme Court; fifty-three were named to the circuit courts of appeals, two hundred and twenty-three to the district courts, and two to the Court of International Trade. When Obama took office, Republican appointees controlled ten of the thirteen circuit courts of appeals; Democratic appointees now constitute a majority in nine circuits. Because federal judges have life tenure, nearly all of Obama’s judges will continue serving well after he leaves office.

Obama’s judicial nominees look different from their predecessors. In an interview in the Oval Office, the President told me, “I think there are some particular groups that historically have been underrepresented — like Latinos and Asian-Americans — that represent a larger and larger portion of the population. And so for them to be able to see folks in robes that look like them is going to be important. When I came into office, I think there was one openly gay judge who had been appointed. We’ve appointed ten.”

The statistics affirm Obama’s boast. Sheldon Goldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a scholar of judicial appointments, said, “The majority of Obama’s appointments are women and nonwhite males.” Forty-two per cent of his judgeships have gone to women. Twenty-two per cent of George W. Bush’s judges and twenty-nine per cent of Bill Clinton’s were women. Thirty-six per cent of President Obama’s judges have been minorities, compared with eighteen per cent for Bush and twenty-four per cent for Clinton. Obama said that the new makeup of the federal bench “speaks to the larger shifts in our society, where what’s always been this great American strength — this stew that we are — is part and parcel of every institution, both in the public sector as well as in the private sector.”

Beyond diversity, the story of Obama’s influence on the courts is more complex. Indeed, it could serve as a metaphor for his Presidency: symbolically rich but substantively hazy. Obama took office after years of intense conservative focus on the courts. President George W. Bush spoke often of the need for judges who “will strictly apply the Constitution and laws, not legislate from the bench.” The conservative agenda included limiting abortion rights, ending racial preferences, and lowering barriers between church and state. Obama has shrunk from an ideological battle with conservatives on these constitutional issues. Claims for his judges are grounded in their personal integrity and professional competence. Notwithstanding their qualifications, many of his appointees have drawn fierce opposition from Senate Republicans. In those battles, too, where his judicial legacy has been at stake, the President has chosen to remain largely above the fray. [more]

The truth about evil

by Bill Hayes

In The truth about evil for The Guardian, John Gray looks at talk of evil in international conflicts.

When Barack Obama vows to destroy Isis’s “brand of evil” and David Cameron declares that Isis is an “evil organisation” that must be obliterated, they are echoing Tony Blair’s judgment of Saddam Hussein: “But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?” Blair made this observation in November 2002, four months before the invasion of Iraq, when he invited six experts to Downing Street to brief him on the likely consequences of the war. The experts warned that Iraq was a complicated place, riven by deep communal enmities, which Saddam had dominated for over 35 years. Destroying the regime would leave a vacuum; the country could be shaken by Sunni rebellion and might well descend into civil war. These dangers left the prime minster unmoved. What mattered was Saddam’s moral iniquity. The divided society over which he ruled was irrelevant. Get rid of the tyrant and his regime, and the forces of good would prevail.

If Saddam was uniquely evil 12 years ago, we have it on the authority of our leaders that Isis is uniquely evil today. Until it swept into Iraq a few months ago, the jihadist group was just one of several that had benefited from the campaign being waged by western governments and their authoritarian allies in the Gulf in support of the Syrian opposition’s struggle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Since then Isis has been denounced continuously and with increasing intensity; but there has been no change in the ruthless ferocity of the group, which has always practised what a radical Islamist theorist writing under the name Abu Bakr Naji described in an internet handbook in 2006 as “the management of savagery”.

Ever since it was spun off from al-Qaida some 10 years ago, Isis has made clear its commitment to beheading apostates and unbelievers, enslaving women and wiping out communities that will not submit to its ultra-fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. In its carefully crafted internet videos, it has advertised these crimes itself. There has never been any doubt that Isis practises methodical savagery as an integral part of its strategy of war. This did not prevent an abortive attempt on the part of the American and British governments in August of last year to give military support to the Syrian rebels – a move that could have left Isis the most powerful force in the country. Isis became the prime enemy of western governments only when it took advantage of the anarchy these same governments had created when they broke the state of Iraq with their grandiose scheme of regime change.

Against this background, it would be easy to conclude that talk of evil in international conflicts is no more than a cynical technique for shaping public perceptions. That would be a mistake. more]

How Detroit Was Reborn

by Bill Hayes

In How Detroit Was Reborn, the Detroit Free Press details the inside story of the Detroit bankruptcy case.

U.S. District Chief Judge Gerald Rosen wondered what the hell he’d gotten himself into.

Rosen was in Florida in August 2013 for a quick golf vacation but was rising before dawn each day to read Detroit’s massive plan to restructure its debt. The numbers were horrific: $18 billion in liabilities, 78,000 blighted buildings, four of every 10 dollars already devoted to debt, pensions and retiree health care.

Thousands of elderly retirees were facing deep pension cuts — their livelihoods. Detroit’s world-class art museum was at risk of losing its treasured pieces in a fire sale. The city needed hundreds of millions of dollars just to begin to climb out of the hole.

Rosen, the appointed federal mediator in the city’s historic bankruptcy case, picked up his pen and doodled an idea on the cardboard back of a legal pad. He wrote “art” and drew a box around it, representing protection for the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts and its billions of dollars in masterpieces.

He wrote “state” and “pensions” and drew arrows in a diagram. He wrote several phrases — “how much?” “timeline,” “what about fed gov,” “foundations,” “private sources.”

Sixteen months later, Rosen’s idea became the central element of a blueprint to reinvent one of America’s iconic cities. The unprecedented deal that Rosen imagined ultimately brought together a unique coalition of foundations, state government, unions and others to save the museum — and throw a lifeline to thousands of Detroit pensioners.

This is the backstory of how Detroit cleared mountains of debt accumulated over 50 years and emerged with a shot at restoring basic services for 685,000 city residents who deserve better. It’s a story that played out in dozens of little dramas, including the $100-Million Cab Ride, the Christmas Eve Massacre, the Mad Race to the Courthouse and the Haircut at the Haircut — when lawyers decided in a barbershop how to trim millions in Detroit debt.

And, ultimately, it’s the story of how, one by one, like soldiers switching sides in the midst of battle, the major players and creditors at war with the city dropped their objections and joined a “grand bargain” to save Detroit.

For this account, the Free Press interviewed scores of sources at every level of the bankruptcy and reviewed thousands of documents, e-mails and depositions. Some sources spoke on the record, others on condition of anonymity. Some went on the record only after the decision on the bankruptcy came down. That finally happened on Friday, when U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved the city’s restructuring plan. [more]

No plans to retire

by Bill Hayes

Supreme Court reporter for the Los Angeles Times David Savage says that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg signals she has no plans to retire soon.

At 81, Ginsburg has emerged as the Supreme Court’s liberal leader, its strongest voice for women’s rights and an increasingly outspoken critic of the court’s conservative majority. And to her surprise, she has also become a celebrity and a star on the Web for a younger generation of law students and political activists. A “Notorious R.B.G.” Tumblr site is devoted to the words and wisdom of the justice, including T-shirts featuring her picture.

This fall, as she begins her 22nd year on the high court, Ginsburg is at the height of her influence and public acclaim, but she also faces a decision that may be the most consequential of her career: Should she retire when the term ends in June so President Obama can name her successor?

Early in her career, Ginsburg said she aspired to match her hero, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who served 22 years on the court and retired when he was 82. [more]

Technology Quarterly

by David De La Torre

The Economist’s Technology Quarterly features the following articles:

The DIYbio movement: Biohackers of the world, unite looks at the world of biology hobbyists.

Medical technology: Doctoring devices reports on many new medical startups.

Local heating: In the moment of the heat examines how it is cheaper to heat people than their surroundings.

Communication standards: The language of the internet looks at how more and more devices are connecting to the Internet, but that doesn’t mean they can communicate with each other.

Recycling electronics: Where gadgets go to die explores the problem of electronic waste.


Missile defences: The unsheltering sky argues that America’s efforts to build a defense against long-range missiles is going nowhere.


Urban redevelopment: Bringing the house down looks at new ways to demolish buildings.

Motoring: Smartphones on wheels reports on the driverless car.

Flight safety: Free flight looks at how pilots may be able to chart their own, more direct routes.

Grain scan: Welcome to my genome profiles geneticist George Church.

Charlie Rose interviews Martin Wolf

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator for the Financial Times on his latest book, The Shifts and the Shocks — What We’ve Learned and Have Still to Learn from the Financial Crisis.

Sorrow on the Mountain

by Bill Hayes

In Sorrow on the Mountain, National Geographic traces what happened in the worst disaster on Mt. Everest.

So vast is the amphitheater of mountains around Everest Base Camp that climbers often see avalanches before they hear them. The sound follows like thunder after lightning, an oceanic hiss as cataracts of snow and ice and rock pour down steep gullies or over the lip of hanging valleys. But the avalanche of April 18 sounded different, especially to Sherpas who heard it while in the icefall itself. Almost all of them described it the same way: a deep tuuung, like the blow of a hammer against a muffled bell or a plucked string from some titanic bass.

A section of ice shaped like an enormous canine tooth, 113 feet tall and weighing 16 to 30 million pounds, exploded off the great ice mantle on the west shoulder of Everest and came hurtling down, fracturing into pieces and driving before it a wall of wind. As it gathered momentum and material, some Sherpas thought the avalanche took minutes to reach them; others said it struck in a matter of seconds. About two dozen climbers were directly in the path of the avalanche, and many others were at the margins above and below.

At 6:45 a.m. Kurt Hunter, the Everest Base Camp manager of Madison Mountaineering, was on a radio check with Dorje Khatri, the company’s 46-year-old sirdar and a well-known union man who had unfurled different trade union banners each of the nine times he’d reached Everest’s summit. Khatri had just gotten to the top of the triple ladders. Suddenly over the radio Hunter heard “shouting and yelling” and then “absolute silence.” As the roar of the avalanche reached Base Camp directly, he dashed out of the communications tent to see the upper icefall consumed in a boiling cloud.

Hustling down for ten minutes, Nima Chhiring had reached the Football Field when the sound of the tuuung confirmed his worst fears. In seconds he was plastered in freezing rime, one of many survivors who staggered to their feet cloaked like ghosts in snow and ice. Pemba Sherpa, a young Everest veteran from the village of Phortse who had departed Base Camp at 4 a.m. on an acclimatization hike with a client from Alaska, had just reached the Football Field. Hit by a rush of wind, he looked up to see “a block of ice as large as a big house” bowling off the west shoulder. He bolted downhill with his client, and they threw themselves behind an ice formation as the sky was blotted out. [more]

Puntland Is for Pirates

by Bill Hayes

In Puntland Is for Pirates for Foreign Policy magazine, Jillian Keenan looks at what happens to captured Somali pirates.

Pirates are often tried in countries like Seychelles and Mauritius, in whose waters they are caught, but those states don’t want to keep the convicted in their jails. The Somali government can’t reasonably take them, given its extreme volatility. Yet one place has been eager to house pirates: Somaliland, a self-declared independent (but internationally unrecognized) republic in northern Somalia that wants to prove its state-like qualities and relative security in the tumultuous Horn of Africa.

So the United Nations invested millions of dollars to build a prison in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. Opened in 2010 and run by local authorities, it was the first new prison in the region in 30 years. [more]

Rome: Sex & Freedom

by Bill Hayes

In Rome: Sex & Freedom for the New York Review of Books, Peter Brown reviews From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper.

One of the most lasting delights and challenges of the study of the ancient world, and of the Roman Empire in particular, is the tension between familiarity and strangeness that characterizes our many approaches to it. It is like a great building, visible from far away, at the end of a straight road that cuts across what seems to be a level plain. Only when we draw near are we brought up sharp, on the edge of a great canyon, invisible from the road, that cuts its way between us and the monument we seek. We realize that we are looking at this world from across a sheer, silent drop of two thousand years.

Antiquity is always stranger than we think. Nowhere does it prove to be more strange than where we once assumed that it was most familiar to us. We always knew that the Romans had a lot of sex. Indeed, in the opinion of our elders, they probably had a lot more than was quite good for them. We also always knew that the early Christians had an acute sense of sin. We tend to think that they had a lot more sense of sin than they should have had. Otherwise they were very like ourselves. Until recently, studies of sex in Rome and of Christianity in the Roman world were wrapped in a cocoon of false familiarity.

Only in the last generation have we realized the sheer, tingling drop of the canyon that lies between us and a world that we had previously tended to take for granted as directly available to our own categories of understanding. “Revealing Antiquity,” the Harvard University Press series edited by Glen Bowersock, has played its part in instilling in us all a healthy sense of dizziness as we peer over the edge into a fascinating but deeply strange world. Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is a scintillating contribution to this series. Not only does it measure the exact nature of the tension between the familiar and the deeply unfamiliar that lies behind our image of the sexual morality of Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire of the classical period. It also goes on to evoke the sheer, unexpected strangeness of the very different sexual code elaborated in early Christian circles, and its sudden, largely unforeseen undermining of a very ancient social equilibrium in the two centuries that followed the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312. As Harper makes plain on the first page of his dense and vivid book, “Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.”

Why was this so? It is a question that has often been asked in recent times. What is original in Harper’s book is his approach to the question, and the trenchancy with which he provides an answer. [more]