CRF Blog

William Gibson’s 6 favorite books

by Bill Hayes

In The Week’s Book List, novelist William Gibson lists his 6 favorite books:

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester …. When Bester wrote this in the 1950s, he was a sharp young ad exec on Madison Avenue, and as such quite unlike any of his contemporary science fiction writers. He combines classic storytelling ability and a gorgeously wild imagination with a witty urban sophistication. [more]

The Strategic Blunder Behind the War on Terror

by Bill Hayes

In The Strategic Blunder Behind the War on Terror for Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald looks at the West’s errors in fighting terrorism and what can now be done as small groups are targeting easy targets, as happened in Paris.

To a degree, the West is reaping what it sowed from a major strategic blunder in the aftermath of 9/11 — the entire concept of a war on technique, that is, terrorism. Defining the enemy when fighting a concept was impossible. Was it Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Saddam Hussein in Iraq? Iran? Those countries and four more were on a list of targets the Bush administration put together in the days after 9/11, based on the premise that they supported terrorism. A war on Al-Qaeda could have been won with a decisive military strike in Tora Bora during December 2001, but American fighters at Tora Bora were refused requests for more forces when they trapped Al-Qaeda there; the Pentagon was busy husbanding resources for the Iraqi invasion.

The result was that Al-Qaeda’s surviving members slipped into Pakistan. Then new groups began to emerge — Al-Qaeda in Iraq formed in response to the Western strike there, and that morphed into ISIS, which then spread into Syria, where an assortment of new and re-energized Islamist organizations had gathered to fight the government of Bashar Assad.

All of this strife has created an opportunity for Islamic terrorists they could not have even hoped for on that September day so long ago. Where once there were few sanctuaries for jihadists, now there are many — in Syria and Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia. With so many training camps being run by disparate groups, aspiring terrorists can train and be on their way, heading back to the West with no instructions but with a burning desire to inflict mayhem. [more]

Backgrounder on Venezuela’s Economic Fractures

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on Venezuela’s Economic Fractures.

Hugo Chavez’s transformative presidency left behind an economic model that has sown deep, heated divisions within Venezuelan society. The country’s oil reserves — among the world’s biggest — largely sustain the state-controlled economy, in which social development and affordability for the poorest sectors of society are prioritized. But stringent currency and price controls and a thriving black market for U.S. dollars have contributed to inflation, stagnant production, and frequent goods shortages, catalyzing vocal discontent with the government’s economic management. Crashing oil prices in late 2014, paired with reduced output, threaten to diminish the country’s main source of income.

The oil squeeze and fears that it could trigger a default come months after mass protests rocked Caracas. A year after Chavez’s death in March 2013, demonstrators railed against his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, voicing frustration over the flailing economy, soaring crime rates, and the government’s crackdown on the opposition. The demonstrations — Venezuela’s most intense in more than a decade — resulted in more than thirty deaths. The Maduro administration has scrambled to make economic adjustments, but analysts say these moves alone are not enough to stabilize the economy. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s volatility threatens its regional relationships with oil beneficiaries and trade partners. [more]

Is the oil crash about to snuff out the ‘Texas miracle’?

by Bill Hayes

Michael Hiltzik, a Los Angeles Times business columnist, asks: Is the oil crash about to snuff out the ‘Texas miracle’?

All oil-producing states will feel the pain, including California, but as [JPMorgan Chief Economist Michael] Feroli explained, Texas stands alone in its position in the industry. Over the last five years, the state’s share of domestic oil production has soared to 40% from about 25%. The weight of the oil industry in the Texas economy resembles that of mid-1986, when a similar oil price collapse created a major recession in that state — while the rest of the country reaped the economic benefit of lower spending at the pump. The same pattern is bulking large on the horizon.

The reversal of the oil-fueled Texas boom over the last few years has obvious economic and political implications. [more]

Falling and Rising

by Bill Hayes

In Falling and Rising for the New York Times Book Review, Sean Wilentz reviews Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America by Jonathan Darman.

Jonathan Darman’s engaging first book, “Landslide,” tells the story of Johnson’s triumphs and precipitous decline, from his succession to the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s murder through the pivotal midterms. It offers a tempering reminder of how Johnson’s notorious insecurities and egotism, as well as his misbegotten policy in Vietnam, brought him down. Much of this history, to be sure, will be familiar to readers of the second volume of Robert Dallek’s biography of Johnson, “Flawed Giant,” just as some of the early portions of “Landslide” describe events covered in greater detail in Robert Caro’s continuing series on Johnson and his times. Darman’s provocative contribution is to interweave his account with the parallel story of the political rise of Johnson’s polar opposite, Ronald Reagan.

Remembrances of Reagan as the glowing, optimistic leader of a resurgent America in the 1980s have come to efface the harder-edged Reagan of the 1960s, when he first appeared on the national political stage. [more]

Reviving India’s economy

by David De La Torre

In Modi’s mission, The Economist argues that the new Indian prime minister has a good chance of reviving the country’s economy.

INDIA, a giant economic mediocrity, is cursed by having too many economists. Its outgoing prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has a doctorate from Oxford, ran the central bank in the 1980s and led the liberalisation programme that India put in place in 1991 after a currency crisis. Yet as prime minister Mr Singh had little grip or public support, serving at the pleasure of Sonia Gandhi, the populist leader of the Congress party. By the end of his ten-year term he admitted he had failed. In August, as the rupee tumbled, he addressed a gathering of India’s policymaking elite at his house in Delhi. The economy faced “very difficult circumstances”, he whispered.

Mr Singh’s successor could not be more different. Narendra Modi’s economic views have been formed while running the business-friendly state of Gujarat for the past 12 years. Asked some time ago about his economic influences, he described his homespun framework, jotting diagrams on a pad as he spoke. He has studied Singapore and China, but thinks that “India is a democracy and has different requirements”. Striking a balance between farming, small firms and global companies is required, with limited but muscular administration and populist appeal: “Men, machines and money must work together.”

Having run Gujarat well, Mr Modi now faces the far harder task of running India. He has big advantages — administrative competence, control over his party and a majority in Parliament — that should ease decision-making. Unlike Mr Singh, he has also campaigned and won on a platform of aspiration and economic reform. India needs “less government and more governance”, he declared on the campaign trail. [more]

To Attract Home Buyers, Developers Build Schools First

by Bill Hayes

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that To Attract Home Buyers, Developers Are Building Schools First.

Homebuilders have touted local schools, along with parks and recreation facilities, to attract buyers to their communities for decades. Now, as school districts face tight budgets and homebuilders compete to draw families able to qualify for mortgages, developers are taking the lead, helping to launch public, private, and charter schools. [more]

More Judges Question Use of Fake Drugs in Sting Cases

by Bill Hayes

In More Judges Question Use of Fake Drugs in Sting Cases, the New York Times reports on a series of drug stings that have drawn criticism.

As the crew made final preparations, federal agents pounced. The stash house and the cocaine were imaginary, and the “courier” an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Though the drugs were fictitious, the three were charged with conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine — which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years — and faced an additional mandatory five years for bringing guns.

“Stash-house stings” like this one in 2013 have sent more than 1,000 of the country’s most “violent, hardened criminals” to prison, sometimes for terms of decades, according to the bureau, which has made a specialty of the ruses. The agency says it has conducted about 365 of these stings over the last decade, removing from the streets career criminals who are “willing to kill and be killed,” with less risk to agents and neighbors than raids on real stash houses.

But this year, the judge in this Los Angeles case dismissed the charges against two of the defendants on the rarely invoked grounds of “outrageous government conduct.” Judge Otis D. Wright II of Federal District Court described the bureau in his March decision as “trawling for crooks in seedy, poverty-ridden areas — all without an iota of suspicion that any particular person has committed similar conduct in the past.” [more]

List of the Day: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s top-10 sci-fi films

by Bill Hayes

In ‘2001’ and beyond for the Los Angeles Times, Neil deGrasse Tyson lists his top-10 sci-fi films.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): The story was so strong and compelling that the film did not require heavy special effects or monsters or violence to be simultaneously hopeful and terrifying. [more]

Chart of the Day: The Writing Process

The Writing Process

Faith on the Hill

by Bill Hayes

In Faith on the Hill, Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project looks at the religious composition of the 114th Congress in a number of charts and surveys.

Yet, despite the sea change in party control, there is relatively little change in the overall religious makeup of Congress, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. More than nine-in-ten members of the House and Senate (92%) are Christian, and about 57% are Protestant, roughly the same as in the 113th Congress (90% and 56%, respectively).1 About three-in-ten members (31%) are Catholic, the same as in the previous Congress. [more]


The Story of Us

by Bill Hayes

In The Story of Us for the New York Times Book Review, David Dobbs reviews The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures by Christine Kenneally. Dobbs calls it the “richest, freshest, most fun book on genetics in some time.”

The book would stand strong on its weird factoids alone. For instance: In Europe, the inheritance of surnames became common in the last 200 to 900 years, depending on country and culture, which makes it difficult to trace a family tree back beyond about 1500. Also: The rarer a surname, the more likely two men bearing it are related. Thus 87 percent of the few men named Attenborough descend from a single, distant forefather. (No wonder Richard and David are brothers.) Possibly my favorite: Sex cuts and reshuffles our genomes so sloppily that much DNA gets lost through the generations, like dropped playing cards. You have many distant ancestors from whom you received very little or even no DNA. [more]

Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, Columbia

by Bill Hayes

In Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, Columbia for the New Republic, Dahlia Lithwick explains what scares her most about the U.S. Supreme Court.

[W]hile we have gained diversity of background, we haven’t gained diversity of experience. A study released in February revealed that 71 percent of Obama’s nominees had practiced primarily for corporate or business clients. The Supreme Court is even more homogeneous, because the modern confirmation gauntlet only lets one kind of person through. Post-Robert Bork, a nominee must not have too obvious an ideological agenda, as some judges and almost all elected officials do. Post-Harriet Miers, a prospective justice must possess not just a stellar résumé but also a track record of judicial rulings and legal writings from which future decisions can be confidently deduced.

The result has been what Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School calls the “Judicialization of the Judiciary,” a selection process that discourages political or advocacy experience and reduces the path to the Supreme Court to a funnel: elite schools beget elite judicial clerkships beget elite federal judgeships. Rinse, repeat. All nine sitting justices attended either Yale or Harvard law schools. [more]

Crash Course #28, U.S. History: American Imperialism

by Bill Hayes

Part of a series: Crash Course #28, U.S. History: American Imperialism.

Congressional Dysfunction

by Bill Hayes

In 13 short cards, Vox explains Congressional Dysfunction. Here is the first card:

What is congressional dysfunction?

Congress, in this case, refers to the legislative branch of the United States government. It’s composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate. And it is, by far, the most powerful branch of the US government.

Congress is mentioned first in the Constitution, and its enumerated powers far exceed those of the Supreme Court or the presidency. The simplest way to see this is to envision a direct collision between Congress and the other branches: Congress can pass legislation into law over the president’s veto. The president, meanwhile, doesn’t even have a way to make Congress consider legislation, much less pass anything into law over congressional objections. Meanwhile, nominees to the Supreme Court must pass a vote in the Senate, and Congress retains the power to alter the composition of the Court (the Court has nine members currently because Congress decreed it would have nine members in the Judiciary Act of 1869).

When people talk about congressional dysfunction they usually mean that Congress, despite its vast authority, seems paralyzed in the face of the nation’s toughest problems. The paralysis usually stems from disagreements between the two parties, and is exacerbated by the unusual construction of the US Congress, which makes it possible for one party to control the House while the other controls (or at least exercises veto power) in the Senate. A secondary (and arguably related) problem people are sometimes referring to is the perception that the personal relationships between members of the two parties are angrier than they’ve been in the past. [more]