Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 1st, 2013

The endless fight against racism

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Ezra Klein has a really excellent column on racism in the US. From the article:


By all means, read the whole thing. Many good points, among them:

Much government action remains, shall we say, racially uneven, even if the underlying law has become colorblind. Take marijuana policy. Statute makes no distinction between marijuana usage by blacks and whites. And usage among blacks and whites is very similar:


But arrests are not:


Which is all to say that making the law colorblind doesn’t necessarily make the law colorblind. So, why would we think it makes society colorblind? Or the economy colorblind?

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2013 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Daily life

Good analysis of the weakness of liberal economic policy: Lack of focus

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Michael Lind writes at Salon:

When it comes to debating conservatives about the future of the American economy, progressives are at a disadvantage. Conservatives are united behind a single vision of the ideal economy, while progressives are divided among three rival schools of economic strategy.

On economics, unlike on social issues or foreign policy, there is no distinction between conservatism and libertarianism. The mainstream right’s economic vision is libertarian, pure and simple: smaller government, lower taxes, free trade and deregulation. Add to this the goal of replacing universal, tax-financed social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare with means-tested vouchers to subsidize for-profit providers of retirement savings and medical insurance and medicine, and you have pretty much the whole right-wing economic program.

Nothing like that consensus exists to the left of center. Instead, three distinct and conflicting traditions of political economy coexist under the rubric of liberalism or progressivism. The three are small producerism, unionism and economic rights.

The three schools of center-left economic thought have coexisted, now as rivals and now as allies, since the early 1900s. Each has had its own constituency or social base. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2013 at 2:26 pm

Posted in Government

Abortion Cases in Court Helped Tilt Democrats Against the Filibuster

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An interesting analysis by Jeremy Peters in the NY Times:

Within hours of each other, two federal appeals courts handed down separate decisions that affirmed sharp new limits on abortion and birth controlOne on Oct. 31 forced abortion clinics across Texas to close. The other, on Nov. 1, compared contraception to “a grave moral wrong” and sided with businesses that refused to provide it in health care coverage.

“These are the kinds of decisions we are going to have to live with,” a blunt Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, warned his caucus later as it weighed whether to make historic changes to Senate rules. Those changes would break a Republican filibuster of President Obama’s nominees and end the minority party’s ability to block a president’s choices to executive branch posts and federal courts except the Supreme Court.

The moment represented a turning point in what had been, until then, a cautious approach by Democrats to push back against Republicans who were preventing the White House from appointing liberal judges. All the more glaring, Democrats believed, was that they had allowed confirmation of the conservative judges now ruling in the abortion cases. Republicans were blocking any more appointments to the court of appeals in Washington, which issued the contraception decision.

Faced with the possibility that they might never be able to seat judges that they hoped would act as a counterweight to more conservative appointees confirmed when George W. Bush was president, all but three of the 55 members of the Senate Democratic caucus sided with Mr. Reid. The decision represented a recognition by Democrats that they had to risk a backlash in the Senate to head off what they saw as a far greater long-term threat to their priorities in the form of a judiciary tilted to the right.

“The final tipping point was this month, when the minority launched a campaign to block President Obama from appointing anyone, regardless of experience and character, to three vacancies on the D.C. circuit court,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon and one of the leading proponents of filibuster limits. “This constituted an attack on the balance and integrity of our courts.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2013 at 2:20 pm

Posted in Congress, Law, Medical, Religion

Linda Greenhouse on corporations as people

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Doesn’t Eat, Doesn’t Pray, Doesn’t Love” begins:

The question of whether for-profit companies can claim a religious identity, one that exempts them from obeying a generally applicable law, is fully worthy of the attention the Supreme Court is about to give it. But to the extent that much of the commentary about the challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception-coverage insurance mandate frames the issue as a debate about the rights of corporations – as a next step beyond Citizens United’s expansion of corporate free speech – I think it misses the point. What really makes these cases so rich, and the reason the court’s intervention will dramatically raise the temperature of the current term, lies elsewhere.

The religious-based challenges that have flooded the federal courts from coast to coast – more than 70 of them, of which the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear two – aren’t about the day-in, day-out stuff of jurisprudence under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause: Sabbath observance, employment rights, tax exemptions. They are about sex.

As such, the cases open a new front in an old war. I don’t mean the overblown “war on religion” that some Catholic leaders have accused the Obama administration of waging. Nor do I mean the “war on women” that was such an effective charge last year against a bevy of egregiously foot-in-mouth Republican politicians.

I mean that this is the culture war redux – a war not on religion or on women but on modernity.

All culture wars are that, of course: the old culture in a goal-line stance against a new way of organizing society, a new culture struggling to be born. Usually, that’s pretty obvious. This time, somehow, it seems less so, maybe because the battle is being fought in the complex language of law, namely a 20-year-old law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This tendentiously named statute, aimed at overturning a 1990 Supreme Court decision that cast a skeptical eye on claims to religious exemptions from ordinary laws, provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden serves a “compelling” government interest and is the “least restrictive means” of doing so.

What’s a substantial burden? What governmental interest is sufficiently compelling? And with particular respect to the two new Supreme Court cases, is a for-profit corporation a “person” that can engage in religious exercise? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2013 at 2:16 pm

Universities as patent trolls

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Tim Lee has an interesting article in the Washington Post:

An organization called the TPL Group has put together a handy compilation of letters opposing the patent reform legislation that was approved by the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Many of the letters come from organizations you’d expect to be oppose legislation weakening patent protection: patent attorneys, the pharmaceutical industry, biotechnology companies and the Intellectual Property Owners Association. But one letter opposing the legislation comes from a surprising source: academia.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), targets patent trolls, “non-practicing entities” that acquire broad patents not to commercialize them but to earn licensing revenues from others who have done so. When it’s pointed out that this definition of a patent troll also applies to some universities, patent reformers are usually quick to clarify that they don’t regard universities as patent trolls. But the reality is that some universities do, in fact, behave like patent trolls. And now they’re lobbying like them, too.

Billed as a “statement from the higher education community,” the Nov. 8 letter is signed by the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education and four other university groups. “We strongly support the goal of H.R. 3309 to reduce abusive patent litigation and the corrosive impact it has on the US patent system,” the groups write. However, the academic organizations argue, some provisions have an “over-broad scope” that “raises the specter of unintended problems and thereby raises particular concerns for universities.”

Essentially, the universities are concerned that the legislation would make it harder for patent holders to enforce their patents. And they’re right. The line between patent trolls and other patent holders isn’t always clear, so any reform designed to make patent trolling more difficult is also going to inconvenience many conventional patent holders — including universities.

But it’s far from obvious that that would be a bad thing. After all, while universities don’t engage in the most egregious troll tactics, universities’ efforts to generate licensing revenue have imposed significant costs on the public that aren’t so different from the problems created by patent trolls.

A good example of this is a lawsuit by genetic testing company Myriad Genetics seeking to force a competing breast cancer test off the market. Myriad persisted in its litigation even after the Supreme Court ruled that human genes could not be patented. Joining Myriad as plaintiffs are two universities, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Utah. If the lawsuit succeeds, the likely result will be less competition and higher prices for breast cancer testing.

Another example: For more than a decade, a troll called Eolas sued major Internet companies claiming to own the concept of embedding interactive content in a Web page. Its co-plaintiff was the University of California, where the patent originated. Internet pioneers, including World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, have disputed claims that the University of California invented interactive Web content. But Eolas was able to get tens of millions of dollars from leading Internet companies, with UC taking a cut.

Universities’ efforts to maximize their patent revenues create other problems, too. For example, Yale researcher William Prusoff developed d4T, one of the first AIDS drugs. . .

Continue reading.

Money disrupts values, doesn’t it? As studies show, for individuals as well as for institutions.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2013 at 12:19 pm

Posted in Business, Law

Who is watching the watch lists?

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Very important column by Susan Stellin in the NY Times:

GOVERNMENTS wade into treacherous waters when they compile lists of people who might cause their countries harm. As fears about Japanese-Americans and Communists have demonstrated in the past, predictions about individual behavior are often inaccurate, the motivations for list-making aren’t always noble and concerns about threats are frequently overblown.

So it might seem that current efforts to identify and track potential terrorists would be approached with caution. Yet the federal government’s main terrorist watch list has grown to at least 700,000 people, with little scrutiny over how the determinations are made or the impact on those marked with the terrorist label.

“If you’ve done the paperwork correctly, then you can effectively enter someone onto the watch list,” said Anya Bernstein, an associate professor at the SUNY Buffalo Law School and author of “The Hidden Costs of Terrorist Watch Lists,” published by the Buffalo Law Review in May. “There’s no indication that agencies undertake any kind of regular retrospective review to assess how good they are at predicting the conduct they’re targeting.”

What’s more, the government refuses to confirm or deny whether someone is on the list, officially called the Terrorist Screening Database, or divulge the criteria used to make the decisions — other than to say the database includes “individuals known or suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and terrorist activities.”

Even less is known about the secondary watch lists that are derived from the main one, including the no-fly list (used to prevent people from boarding aircraft), the selectee and expanded selectee lists (used to flag travelers for extra screening at airport checkpoints), the TECS database (used to vet people entering or leaving the United States), the Consular Lookout and Support System (used to screen visa applications) and the known or suspected terrorists list (used by law enforcement in routine police encounters).

For people who have landed on these lists, the terrorist designation has been difficult to challenge legally — although that may be about to change. On Monday, a lawsuit brought by a traveler seeking removal of her name from the no-fly list, or at least due process to challenge that list, is going to trial in Federal District Court in San Francisco, after almost eight years of legal wrangling.

In that case, a Stanford University Ph.D. student named Rahinah Ibrahim was prevented from boarding a flight at San Francisco International Airport in 2005, and was handcuffed and detained by the police. Ultimately, she was allowed to fly to Malaysia, her home country, but she has been unable to return to the United States because the State Department revoked her student visa.

According to court filings, two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited Ms. Ibrahim a week before her trip and asked about her religious activities (she is Muslim), her husband and what she might know of a Southeast Asian terrorist organization. A summary of that interview obtained by Ms. Ibrahim’s lawyer includes a code indicating that the visit was related to an international terrorism investigation, but it is not clear what other evidence — like email or phone records — was part of that inquiry.

“We’ve tried to get discovery into whether our client has been surveilled and have been shut down on that,” said Elizabeth Pipkin, a lawyer with McManis Faulkner, the firm representing Ms. Ibrahim pro bono. “They won’t answer that question for us.”

The government says that revealing this type of information would jeopardize national security. In April, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asserted to the court “a formal claim of the state secrets privilege” in the case.

In another case, Latif v. Holder, 13 American citizens who have been denied boarding on flights are seeking removal of their names from any watch list, as well as the reasons they have been banned and an opportunity to rebut any derogatory information.

“People who are accused of being enemy combatants at Guantánamo have the ability to challenge their detention, however imperfect that now is,” said Hina Shamsi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs. “It makes no sense that people who have not actually been accused of any wrongdoing can’t challenge” their inclusion on a watch list.

The Terrorist Screening Center, which administers the main terrorist watch list, declined to discuss its procedures, or to release current data about the number of people on various watch lists, and how many of them are American citizens. A T.S.C. official did say that fewer than 1 percent of the people in the main terrorist database are United States citizens or legal permanent residents, but there is no way to confirm that number.

Reports by the Government Accountability Office and other oversight agencies have raised concerns about how people are nominated to be on the terrorist watch list, the accuracy of information in the database and the effectiveness of procedures to remove or correct inaccurate records. . .

Continue reading.

Doesn’t this keeping of lists remind one of the worst excesses of totalitarian governments, especially the secrecy of the lists, the secrecy of the procedures, the lack of any legal route to challenge the lists, and so on. The administration is showing more and more signs that they believe they do not have to answer to the public.

From the article:

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UPDATE: Also worth reading is this article on watchlists by the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. From that article:

Clearly, there are people who are reasonably suspected of terrorist ties based on reliable intelligence and who should be prohibited from boarding a commercial airliner; and, in principle, the concept of “no-fly lists” is a good one.  But, in practice, and by any standard, the TSA’s management and oversight of its terror watch list program has been abysmal, missing obvious terrorists, targeting innocent Americans both deliberately and due to incompetence, and making passengers bristle at the thought of being required to provide private information to an agency with a poor record of controlling or using it in good faith, and that gives passengers little recourse if their personal information results in an erroneous determination they are a security threat.

  • The TSA failed to put Osama Bin Laden on its “no-fly list” but it did add Senator Edward Kennedy to it.
  • In 2004, TSA diverted a commercial airliner to forcibly remove the singer, Cat Stevens, as a potential terrorist.  Cat Stevens wrote the song, “Peace Train.”
  • Not long after, TSA removed a known terrorist from an airline flight about to depart the U.S.  Unfortunately, the individual was in the custody of federal agents and being deported from the United States.  TSA still refused to allow him to leave.

Such incompetence would be comical if it did not have such serious ramifications for innocent citizens.  There are cases where professional airline pilots find themselves on terror watch lists for reasons they can’t fathom; and are, thus unable to earn a living because they are no longer permitted to fly commercial airliners.  Pilots report their telephone calls to the TSA are, in many cases, ignored.  Two pilots on terror watch lists are deputized federal officers in the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program; so they are authorized to protect their cockpits with firearms when on duty, but not permitted to fly as passengers when off duty.  It is surreal.

The TSA has also announced it does not limit names placed on its “no-fly lists” to suspected terrorists.  The agency also adds the names of passengers judged unruly in flight or in preparation for flight.   A passenger who, in a moment of anger, snaps at a flight attendant, jokes about a bomb, or ignores the Fasten Seat Belt sign, could, ultimately, find him or herself prohibited from flying on any commercial airliner forever — with no charges filed, no guilty finding and little recourse.

Most chilling, the TSA classifies as, Sensitive to National Security, the criteria it uses to place passengers’ names on its lists in general, or the specific reasons a given passenger was put on a “no-fly” list.  It is thus, impossible for the passenger to refute or correct the TSA’s arbitrary decision.

  • In spring of 2005, a female passenger suggested to TSA screeners at an airport checkpoint that they wouldn’t be able to find any contraband in her bag even if she werecarrying any.  Her assertion is confirmed by numerous independent reports showing TSA screeners miss as much as 95% of contraband when it is deliberately hidden.  In response, the TSA prohibited her from flying, as a security threat, even though she hadnot made any threat – but, they failed to remove her bag from the flight.  When the flight arrived at the flight’s destination, her bag was removed, taken to a remote area and deliberately blown apart by a demolitions team, despite the fact, the woman had never made a threat and the bag, having arrived, was obviously no longer a threat itself, if it ever had been.  The woman was never charged with any violation.  Whether the TSA’s action was due to vengeance against a passenger critical of the agency, or unbelievable incompetence, it is clear its “no-fly” decisions are not constrained by reason or logic.

This same agency is now accessing millions of passengers’ private information to use to decide if they should be permitted to fly or not, as part of its new “Secure Flight Program.”  A Government Accountability Office report published only four months before the program would go into effect found that 9 out of the 10 measures mandated by Congress to protect innocent passengers’ information, privacy and freedom to fly had not been implemented by the TSA.

Even if the terror watch list program is someday operated by a responsible agency, its limitations are obvious: . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2013 at 11:42 am

The US minimum wage should be above poverty level, don’t you think?

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The chart above is from a very interesting piece by Arindrajit Dube in the NY Times:

During most of the 20th century, wages in the United States were set not just by employers but by a mix of market and institutional mechanisms. Supply and demand were important factors; collective bargaining and minimum wage laws also played a key role. Under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon, we even implemented more direct forms of wage controls.

These direct interventions, however, were temporary, and unions have become rare in most parts of the United States — virtually disappearing from the private sector. This leaves minimum wage policies as one of the few institutional levers for setting a wage standard. But while we can set a wage floor using policy, should we? Or should we leave it to the market and deal with any adverse consequences, like poverty and inequality, using other policies, like tax credits and transfers? These longstanding questions take on a particular urgency as wage inequality continues to grow, and as we consider specific proposals to raise the federal minimum wage — currently near a record low — and to index future increases to the cost of living.

The idea of fairness has been at the heart of wage standards since their inception. This is evident in the very name of the legislation that established the minimum wage in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act. When Roosevelt sent the bill to Congress, he sent along a message declaring that America should be able to provide its working men and women “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” And he tapped into a popular sentiment years earlier when he declared, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

This type of concern for fairness actually runs deep in the human psyche. There is a widespread sense that it is unfair of employers to take advantage of workers who may have little recourse but to work at very low wages. For example, the economists Colin F. Camererand Ernst Fehr have documented in numerous experimental studies that the preference for fairness in transactions is strong: individuals are often willing to sacrifice their own payoffs to punish those who are seen as acting unfairly, and such punishments activate reward-related neural circuits. People also strongly supportbanning transactions they see as exploitative of others — even if they think such a ban would entail some economic costs.

Of course, if most minimum wage workers were middle-class teenagers, many of us might shrug off concerns about their wages, since they are taken care of in other ways. But in reality, the low-wage work force has become older and more educated over time. In1979, among low-wage workers earning no more than $10 an hour (adjusted for inflation), 26 percent were teenagers between 16 and 19, and 25 percent had at least some college experience. By 2011, the teenage composition had fallen to 12 percent, while over 43 percent of low-wage workers had spent at least some time in college. Even among those earning no more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 in 2011, less than a quarter were teenagers.

Support for increasing the minimum wage stretches across the political spectrum. As Larry M. Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, shows in his book “Unequal Democracy,” support in surveys for increasing the minimum wage averaged between 60 and 70 percent between 1965 and 1975. As the minimum wage eroded relative to other wages and the cost of living, and inequality soared, Mr. Bartels found that the level of support rose to about 80 percent. He also demonstrates that reminding the respondents about possible negative consequences like job losses or price increases does not substantially diminish their support.

These patterns show up in recent survey data as well, as over three-quarters of Americans, including a solid majority of Republicans, say they support raising the minimum wage to either $9 or $10.10an hour. It is therefore not a surprise that when they have been given a choice, voters in red and blue states alike have consistently supported, by wide margins, initiatives to raise the minimum wage. In 2004, 71 percent of Florida voters opted to raise and inflation-index the minimum wage, which today stands at $7.79 per hour. That same year, 68 percent of Nevadans voted to raise and index their minimum wage, which is now $8.25 for employees without health benefits. Since 1998, 10 states have put minimum wage increases on the ballot; voters have approved them every time.

But the popularity of minimum wages has not translated into legislative success on the federal level. Interest group pressure — especially from the restaurant lobby — has been one factor. Ironically, the very popularity of minimum wages may also have contributed to the failure to automatically index the minimum wage to inflation: Democratic legislators often prefer to increase the wage themselves since it allows them to win more political points. While 11 states currently index the minimum wage, only one, Vermont, did so legislatively; the rest were through ballot measures.

As a result of legislative inaction, inflation-adjusted minimum wages in the United States have declined in both absolute and relative terms for most of the past four decades. The high-water mark for the minimum wage was 1968, when it stood at $10.60 an hour in today’s dollars, or 55 percent of the median full-time wage. In contrast, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, constituting 37 percent of the median full-time wage. In other words, if we want to get the minimum wage back to 55 percent of the median full-time wage, we would need to raise it to $10.78 an hour. . .

Continue reading.

And earlier I blogged about a conservative Californian who wants to raise the minimum wage. From the news report:

Using what he sees as conservative principles to advocate a policy long championed by the left, Mr. Unz argues that significantly raising the minimum wage would help curb government spending on social services, strengthen the economy and make more jobs attractive to American-born workers.

“There are so many very low-wage workers, and we pay for huge social welfare programs for them,” he said in an interview. “This would save something on the order of tens of billions of dollars. Doesn’t it make more sense for employers to pay their workers than the government?”

The comments to Dube’s article are quite interesting. Here’s one from “Greg” in Massachusetts:

Another useful datapoint is to compare a full-time job at minimum wage to the per-capita GDP. In the period 1938-1978, a full-time minimum wage job yielded, on the average, 60% of per-capita GDP. That fraction is now less than 30%. Thus, doubling the minimum wage to about $15/hr brings us back to a sustainable historic norm.

Of course, we will be told that unemployment will skyrocket. Given that the minimum wage has been increased 20 times over its history, including an increase of 87% in 1950, there should be plenty of empirical evidence to support this hypothesis if it is true–but we are never given any such evidence. Instead, we are told “Econ 101!” and “It stands to reason!” When the empirical evidence fails to support the theory, rethink the theory.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2013 at 11:19 am

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