Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

US job growth is Texas job growth

January 30th, 2015 at 10:01 am by David Farrar


This graph from TPNN shows how all the employment growth in the US has occurred in the state of Texas.

No tag for this post.

Cutting welfare helps job growth

January 28th, 2015 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Five Thirty Eight reports:

Title: “The Impact of Unemployment Benefit Extensions on Employment: The 2014 Employment Miracle?”

Authors: Marcus Hagedorn, Iourii Manovskii, Kurt Mitman

What they found: The elimination of emergency unemployment benefits at the end of 2013 played a major role in spurring the subsequent acceleration in job growth in 2014.

Why it matters: When the recession struck in 2008, Congress voted to extend unemployment benefits beyond the standard 27 weeks offered by most states. The program was gradually pared back during the recovery, and at the end of 2013, Congress allowed it to expire entirely. Many conservative economists said the program was doing more harm than good by providing the long-term jobless an incentive not to look as hard for work. Liberal economists were more skeptical, as was I; in an article last spring, I found little evidence that the end of emergency benefits was pushing the jobless back to work. But in this paper, the authors argue that conservatives were right and that the cutoff of benefits helps explain the surge in hiring in 2014. They use county-level data to show that places where the reduction in benefits was greatest also experienced the greatest job gains. They estimate that the policy change led to the creation of 1.8 million jobs in 2014, and that nearly 1 million of those jobs were filled by workers who otherwise would have stayed out of the labor market.

That’s a compelling figure. Maybe we should have a limit also for how long one can stay on a benefit?


The soldier Obama swapped for five terrorists to be tried for desertion

January 28th, 2015 at 8:09 am by Lindsay Addie

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of the US Army a high profile captive of Haqqani terrorists in Afghanistan for five years who was then swapped by the Obama administration for five terrorists is according to NBC News going to be charged with deserting his post (before he was captured).

According to the officials, the desertion charges would be based on allegations that Bergdahl abandoned his remote outpost in June 2009 to avoid hazardous duty or important service, which are grounds for charges of desertion under the Uniform Military Code of Justice, or UCMJ. According to one senior official, Bergdahl’s actions in Afghanistan go well beyond the lesser offense of AWOL, absent without leave, because he allegedly abandoned his post “in the middle of a combat zone, potentially putting the lives of his fellows soldiers at risk.”

The charges will apparently not allege that Bergdahl left with the intent never to return. Bergdahl was reportedly captured by the Haqqani terrorist network in Pakistan. He was released in a prisoner swap for five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay in May.

Sources tell NBC News that the fact that Bergdahl was held captive may be taken into consideration when any punishment is handed out.

The New York Daily News has the biographies of the five terrorists who were swapped for Bergdahl (See the graphic in the middle of the page). I cannot see why there was any rush to release any of them. Seems a bit soft to me.

Barack Obama has some tricky questions to answer bearing in mind that Bergdahl is most likely a deserter. Also how was this guy thought to be worth five terrorists? This is definitely potentially embarrassing for the President seeing he made the release of Bergdahl a high profile event by inviting the soldiers parents to the White House.

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US politics cartoon of the week: 26.1.15

January 26th, 2015 at 1:15 pm by Lindsay Addie

Most of the cartoons from the US have been about the  New England Patriots and the “deflate-gate scandal” or Obama’s state of the union (SOTU) speech. This weeks cartoon is about the latter.

The illusion to the President as Robin Hood refers to his idea of taxing the rich to give to the middle class. It was amusing to observe John Boehner sitting through most of the speech with look of a man who thought he was being fed rotten fish and was trying to hide the fact.


© Gary Varvel: Found at Real Clear Politics

Sadly the SOTU has become a spectacle that is nothing more than a campaign stop for the White House incumbent. It has been like this for a number of years. The Economist has an op-ed on the SOTU and reminds readers that in an earlier time for example under Nixon the speech was an effective way for the President to attempt to advance policy goals and start an intelligent policy debate on issues of the day.

For a bit of context, it is useful to revisit the reception of old state of the union addresses. I’ve been watching and reading a few by Richard Nixon who, as a Republican president from 1969 to 1974, faced some similar hurdles: an endless and dispiriting war; a mysterious and haunting foreign foe; a sluggish economy; a Congress dominated by the opposing party. Interestingly, Nixon’s speeches promoted some similar priorities.

The result was progress.

But in fact many of his ideas became policy, even with Democrats controlling the House and Senate. The new Congress that had just been sworn in that January 1971 could have found it useful to make Nixon look like a failure, with a presidential election ostensibly lurking around the corner (though two years back then were far longer in politics than they are now). But in fact they passed a lot of landmark legislation that continues to benefit Americans today.

The article ends with these words.

One can’t help but feel wistful for an era when a president’s ideas might’ve been debated on their merits, and when lawmakers took their job of making law seriously. It has become hard to remember a time when truculence wasn’t the surest route to political power, and when policies weren’t simply dismissed as “partisan” before being thrown away.

I don’t expect the current divisive mind-set in Washington DC to change anytime soon.

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US Federal Govt. increases spending but fails to stem the flow of cybersecurity breaches

January 22nd, 2015 at 2:08 pm by Lindsay Addie


This discusses the problem of despite increased spending by the US government it isn’t stemming the flow of federal cybersecurity breaches.

The Federal Information Security Management Act 2002

This act is commonly known as FISMA. Eli Dourado and Andrea Castillo from the Mercatus Center – George Mason University in Washington DC have released a report on the effectiveness of FISMA. The authors helpfully explain the intent of the act.

FISMA was intended to strengthen federal IT systems by requiring agency leaders to develop and implement information security protections with the guidance of offices such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In addition to authorizing the sums necessary for agencies to invest in cybersecurity technologies and infrastructure, FISMA compels agencies to proactively assess and reduce systematic risks, actively train personnel to meet and improve information security standards, improve cybersecurity risk reporting and information sharing capabilities, and develop contingency plans to respond to cyber-breaches.

The report also has data showing spending from 2006 to 2013 under FISMA. Note that the calculation methodology changed in 2013. This partially explains the lower figure. Also the dollar figures are in billions (green bars).


So the US  Federal Government has spent $US78.8 billion on FISMA between 2006 – 2013 but despite throwing more money at the problem the number of security incidents has increased 1012%.

Personal Information

Another important problem is the issue of security incidents involving personal information. The next chart reveals that 38% of reported security incidents involved personal information breaches.


This increase is far from ideal and is what concerns libertarians and privacy advocates.

Scope of the problem

So what are underlying problems at the heart of these issues? According to the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) there is a lot of work to do.

Illustrating the extent to which weaknesses continue to affect the 24 major federal agencies, in fiscal year 2013, inspectors general at 21 of the 24 agencies cited information security as a major management challenge for their agency, and 18 agencies reported that information security control deficiencies were either a material weakness or significant deficiency in internal controls over financial reporting in fiscal year 2013. These weaknesses show that information security continues to be a major challenge for federal agencies, putting federal systems and the information they contain.


Cybersecurity is a serious concern for governments worldwide and the issues the USA is having in getting the right balance between passing sound law that can be administered and monitored properly whilst balancing privacy concerns is a major challenge. Add to this the mindboggling technical issues that IT and cyber security experts have to deal with there aren’t easy answers. This isn’t policy making for the faint hearted.

To be bi-partisan about this there is enough blame to go around as the problems started before Barack Obama became president. That doesn’t mean his administration is blameless either. The number of security incidents has increased enormously since 2009. Dourado and Castillo do express concerns about President Obama’s proposal of extending the same cyber security policies that aren’t currently working properly in the US public sector to the private sector (Executive Order #13636: Cybersecurity Framework). As they correctly observe  the US Federal Government should get its own house in order regarding cyber security before trying to tell others what to do.

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US politics cartoons of the week: 19.01.15

January 19th, 2015 at 1:28 pm by Lindsay Addie

There have been two topics this week that have kept the US cartoonists occupied. One is terrorism and those Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The other has been the US 2016 presidential election. With Mitt Romney making noises again about standing for the third time he has been on the receiving end more than once.

The first cartoon shows Romney as a Chameleon.


© Matt Wuerker: Found at


The second by Lisa Benson has the GOP and Democrats playing cards.


© Lisa Benson: found at RealClearPolitics

Both Romney and Clinton have the same problem which is they have been around for a long time so no matter what they’ve achieved they’re both big targets when opponents indulge in the inevitable negative campaigning. Kerry in  2004, McCain 2008 and Romney in 2012 all suffered from this problem.

Neither should be discounted though as both could be formidable. Hillary may not have a lot of competition in the Democratic primaries which would mean she won’t put under too much pressure prior to the general election which may also reveal she isn’t ‘match fit’ when the actual campaign arrives in 2016. As for Romney, he had his chance in 2012 and couldn’t get the job done so his time may have past.

My guess is that the GOP will go for a candidate who has experience at Gubernatorial level and who hasn’t been around forever like both Hillary and Mitt.

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The Dodd-Frank Act: Good intentions and a lot of complexity

January 17th, 2015 at 4:31 pm by Lindsay Addie


Post the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008 and collapse of Wall Street investment banks and institutions US lawmakers felt the need to respond to the GFC with new laws for the financial sector. Prominent Democrats Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank introduced a bill to the US Congress which became The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act 2010 (aka Dodd-Frank). This Act was signed into law by Barack Obama. As the description on the first page of the legislation shows it certainly has laudable goals.

To promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘‘too big to fail’’, to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.

It is not possible in a blog post such as this one to give a blow-by-blow account of this law but a summary can be found here.

The chart below shows the different government powers and agencies responsible for Dodd-Frank and their relationships.


Source: JPMorgan Chase: Found here.

Complex Regulations

The biggest criticism of Dodd-Frank is that it contains a huge amount of regulation and bureaucracy. So are these criticisms justified and how many are included? One of the leading sources of information about Dodd-Frank is a US law Firm Davis Polk who maintain a website with the latest information on this law.

It is important to understand that writing of rules for Dodd-Frank is an ongoing process with the total according to Davis Polk being 398. The graphic below where this process is at as of 1st December 2014.


Source: Davis Polk: Found here.

So the next obvious question is they’re still writing these rules so why is that such a big deal? The answer is the number of agencies responsible for writing the rules and their mind boggling complexity. The Economist in a 2012 article on Dodd-Frank gives an example.

SECTIONS 404 and 406 of the Dodd-Frank law of July 2010 add up to just a couple of pages. On October 31st last year [2011] the agencies overseeing America’s financial system turned those few pages into a form to be filled out by hedge funds and some other firms; that form ran to 192 pages. The cost of filling it out, according to an informal survey of hedge-fund managers, will be $100,000-150,000 for each firm the first time it does it. After having done it once, those costs might drop to $40,000 in every later year.

The article then goes on to talk about the so-called ‘Volcker Rule’.

Take the transformation of 11 pages of Dodd-Frank into the so-called “Volcker rule”, which is intended to reduce banks’ ability to take excessive risks by restricting proprietary trading and investments in hedge funds and private equity. In November four of the five federal agencies charged with enacting this rule jointly put forward a 298-page proposal which is, in the words of a banker publicly supportive of Dodd-Frank, “unintelligible any way you read it”. It includes 383 explicit questions for firms which, if read closely, break down into 1,420 sub-questions, according to Davis Polk, a law firm. The interactive Volcker “rule map” Davis Polk has produced for its clients has 355 distinct steps.

These two examples give a good idea of the problem! I’ve got no sympathy for the banks but that is crazy bureaucracy  at work.

Davis Polk published a series of graphics on some of the mind boggling numbers regarding this law (correct as of July 1st 2013).

  • 13,789 pages of rules.
  • 15 million words of rules.
  • The rules are equal to 28 copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
  • The longest rule is 342 pages long.

Now naturally all these rules and complex regulations are a dream come true for bureaucrats and lawyers!


When looking at this law it is clear there were good intentions at work but it is hard to see how such complex over the top law making is an answer. The length of some of the rules is just insanity. As someone who believes in small government I fail see how such an approach as taken here is an ideal way to deal with the problems at hand and make US financial institutions accountable in an efficient manner.

It will be fascinating to watch progress in 2015 as additional complex rules are added.


FBI hate crime statistics

January 14th, 2015 at 9:42 am by Lindsay Addie

The FBI in December 2014 published the latest hate crime statistics which are released annually. The latest survey covers 2013.


A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.


The FBI has a detailed overview online of their methodology which can be found here. It is too long to discuss in depth here but here is an excerpt from the introduction.

The Hate Crime Statistics Program of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program collects data regarding criminal offenses that were motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, gender, gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and were committed against persons, property, or society. (See below for information concerning new bias types, such as gender and gender identity, and other changes to the hate crime data collection.) Because motivation is subjective, it is sometimes difficult to know with certainty whether a crime resulted from the offender’s bias. Moreover, the presence of bias alone does not necessarily mean that a crime can be considered a hate crime.

Single bias hate crimes

FBI_HC Chart

Single bias hate crime statistics – Source FBI

Bias Categories

These have been summarized for this post for reasons of brevity. A more detailed breakdown can be found here.


In 2013, there were 3,563 victims of racially motivated hate crime.

  • 66.5 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-Black or African American bias.
  • 21.2 percent were victims of anti-White bias.
  • 4.6 percent were victims of anti-Asian bias.
  • 4.5 percent were victims of  anti-American Indian or Alaska Native bias.

Sexual Orientation

1,461 victims were targeted due to sexual-orientation bias.

  • 60.9 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-gay (male) bias.
  • 22.5 percent were victims of anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (mixed group) bias.
  • 13.1 percent were victims of anti-lesbian bias.


There were 1,223 victims of anti-religious hate crimes.

  • 60.3 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-Jewish bias.
  • 13.7 percent were victims of anti-Islamic (Muslim) bias.
  • 6.1 percent were victims of anti-Catholic bias.
  • 4.3 percent were victims of bias against groups of individuals of varying religions (anti-multiple religions, group).
  • 3.8 percent were victims of anti-Protestant bias.

The race of known hate crime offenders

In  2013 the FBI reports that there were 5814 known hate crime offenders. The breakdown of the race of these offenders is as follows.

  • 52.4 percent were White.
  • 24.3 percent were Black or African American.
  • 7.0 percent were groups made up of individuals of various races (Group of Multiple Races).
  • 0.8 percent (49 offenders) were American Indian or Alaska Native.
  • 0.7 percent (40 offenders) were Asian.
  • 0.1 percent (3 offenders) were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
  • 14.8 percent were unknown.


There are some revealing statistics here including:

1. Anti black/African American bias is significant factor in racial crimes.
2. Gay hate crimes (male) are much more prevalent than transgender, lesbian, or bisexual hate crimes.
3. Anti-Jewish hate crimes are much more common in the USA than those against Muslims.

The good news is according the FBI hate crimes are down from 2012.

It would be interesting to see a geographic breakdown of where these hate crimes are being committed.

[UPDATE]: Added a section to the post on FBI data of the race of known hate crime offenders in 2013.

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Professors get a dose of reality as Obamacare arrives at Harvard

January 7th, 2015 at 11:06 pm by Lindsay Addie

The New York Times reports that Professors at Harvard University seem to be unhappy that Obamacare has found its way to their august institution. David M. Culter a health economist at the university was an advisor to Obama during the 2008 election campaign.

For years, Harvard’s experts on health economics and policy have advised presidents and Congress on how to provide health benefits to the nation at a reasonable cost. But those remedies will now be applied to the Harvard faculty, and the professors are in an uproar.

Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the heart of the 378-year-old university, voted overwhelmingly in November to oppose changes that would require them and thousands of other Harvard employees to pay more for health care. The university says the increases are in part a result of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which many Harvard professors championed.

Welcome to the real world. Unfortunately for them the vote was too late to stop the increases.

In Harvard’s health care enrollment guide for 2015, the university said it “must respond to the national trend of rising health care costs, including some driven by health care reform,” in the form of the Affordable Care Act. The guide said that Harvard faced “added costs” because of provisions in the health care law that extend coverage for children up to age 26, offer free preventive services like mammograms and colonoscopies and, starting in 2018, add a tax on high-cost insurance, known as the Cadillac tax.

The reaction from the professors has been swift with the Harvard scholar on Virgil being very scathing and their expert on things French isn’t happy either.

Richard F. Thomas, a Harvard professor of classics and one of the world’s leading authorities on Virgil, called the changes “deplorable, deeply regressive, a sign of the corporatization of the university.”

Mary D. Lewis, a professor who specializes in the history of modern France and has led opposition to the benefit changes, said they were tantamount to a pay cut. “Moreover,” she said, “this pay cut will be timed to come at precisely the moment when you are sick, stressed or facing the challenges of being a new parent.”

Some of the Harvard mathematicians and economists have been analysing the data and aren’t convinced by the universities data.

In addition, some ideas that looked good to academia in theory are now causing consternation. In 2009, while Congress was considering the health care legislation, Dr. Alan M. Garber — then a Stanford professor and now the provost of Harvard — led a group of economists who sent an open letter to Mr. Obama endorsing cost-control features of the bill. They praised the Cadillac tax as a way to rein in health costs and premiums.

Did Garber and friends talk to Dr Gruber from MIT before endorsing the bill?

The last word from of all people a sociologist.

“It seems that Harvard is trying to save money by shifting costs to sick people,” said Mary C. Waters, a professor of sociology. “I don’t understand why a university with Harvard’s incredible resources would do this. What is the crisis?”

This is a story that has definitely left egg on the faces of some at Harvard. Certainly it is ironical that the law they championed has now come back to bite them.

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Only one Atheist in US Congress

January 7th, 2015 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

An interesting research report from Pew on the religious composition of the US Congress. While 20% of the US don’t have a religious affiliation (atheist or agnostic) only one out of 535 Congresspersons and Senators is an atheist.

The most popular congressional religions (with US population percentage in brackets) are:

  1. Christian 92% (73%)
  2. Protestant 57% (49%)
  3. Catholic 31% (22%)
  4. Baptist 15% (17%)
  5. Methodist 8% (6%)
  6. Anglican 8% (2%)
  7. Presbyterian 7% (3%)
  8. Jewish 5% (2%)
  9. Lutheran 5% (5%)
  10. Mormon 3% (2%)
  11. Buddhist 0.4% (1%)
  12. Muslim 0.4% (1%)
  13. Unaffiliated 0.2% (20%)

The only member of congress who says she is not religious is Kyrsten Sinema, from Arizona. It is near impossible to get elected to any office on the US, if you say you do not believe in God.


The use of executive orders by US Presidents

January 4th, 2015 at 9:30 am by Lindsay Addie


The goal of this post is to give an overview of this important topic in US presidential politics. There are numerous web links included for readers who want to go into more detail. First a definition of a presidential executive order:

Executive orders and proclamations are directives or actions by the President. When they are founded on the authority of the President derived from the Constitution or statute, they may have the force and effect of law…. In the narrower sense Executive orders and proclamations are written documents denominated as such…. Executive orders are generally directed to, and govern actions by, Government officials and agencies.

For an explanation of the presidents powers see this article from the Cornell University Law School. The powers discussed are found in Article II of the Constitution.

Historical context

Of particular note is that the first presidents from Washington through to the first half of the 19th century made very little use of executive orders. In the 20th century the use of the orders increased markedly especially from the time of Theodore Roosevelt thru to Harry Truman. In the case of FDR the use of the orders coincided with the Great Depression and WWII and were issued almost daily. Some well known executive orders:

  • During the early stages of the Civil War  in 1861 Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus (the right to seek relief from illegal imprisonment).
  • In 1864 the emancipation proclamation was issued by Lincoln.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt established internment camps during WWII.
  • Equal treatment of all members of the US armed forces was mandated by Harry Truman.

Modern presidents

Much has been made of Barack Obama’s use of presidential executive orders especially in regards to his immigration order. Opponents of Obama consistently attack him over this issue and criticise him for being a progressive with a big government agenda. So how does he compare with other presidents? The chart below compares Barack Obama to every president from FDR onwards. US_Pres_EO

Source: The American Presidency Project: Presidential Executive Orders. The orders issued by Barack Obama are those up until 20th October 2014. The webpage cited has a full list of all presidents and the number of orders issued.

Of the presidents listed in the table FDR has the highest yearly average by far with Truman second. Jimmy Carter a big government progressive is next. As for Obama he currently has made the least use of executive orders (ie. the yearly average) of any president going back to Grover Cleveland’s first term in 1885-9. Furthermore one has to go back to the Chester Arthur in 1881-85 to find a Republican president who has a lower yearly average than Barack Obama. Also since the days of Jimmy Carter in the White House the use of the orders has trended down.


So although there has been fierce debate about Obama’s immigration order the issue of the use executive orders is not a new debate it was an even bigger issue in 1861. So should the debate on executive orders be about the quality of each order as opposed to just the number issued by each president? My view is that executive orders should only be used when absolutely necessary and not be a means to avoid less ‘convenient’ ways of implementing policy.

Update: 5.1.2015

One of the commenters ‘Scrubone’ has noted an article by USA Today on Obama’s use of memoranda. The data used by USA Today is from research by one Kenneth S. Lowande a graduate student from the University of Virginia. Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post has covered this topic in some detail. The use of memoranda by Barack Obama can be found in the full list on the White House website. On the topic of presidential memoranda and their usage by presidents Kessler writes.

Lowande said he picked that start date [1945] as “practical research decision” because he did not have enough time to go back further.  He added that “my data only include those that presidents chose (for whatever reason) to publish.” He [Lowande] noted that USA Today’s assertion that Obama has issued the “most ever” was not correct. “More accurately, he has deemed more of his important enough to publish in the Federal Register,” he said. In other words, while the research is interesting, it actually tells you little about how different presidents have used this tool to further their policies.

So the upshot of this is that whilst Obama’s use of memorandums is a valid debating point from a policy perspective but it is not easy to get accurate data to compare him to his predecessor’s. Previous presidents typically chose not to publish a complete record of their memoranda in the Federal Register.


US politics cartoons of the week: 3rd January 2015

January 3rd, 2015 at 9:21 am by Lindsay Addie

The US cartoonists have been particularly active over the holiday break so I’ve selected three cartoons.

The first makes fun of GOP leader Steve Scalise for allegedly giving a speech to a KKK audience in 2002. He claims he didn’t know. NB: toga party = costume party.


© Mike Luckovich – Found at Real Clear Politics


The second cartoon has Obama assessing the odds of Gitmo prisoners being a threat upon release.

© Michael Ramirez – Found at Real Clear Politics


Finally it wasn’t the Americans who busted the North Korean internet a couple of weeks ago…..


© Gary Varvel – Found at Real Clear Politics

[UPDATE]: Added the word ‘allegedly’ to the line above the first cartoon.


SCOTUS in 2015: Four key topics

December 30th, 2014 at 9:53 am by Lindsay Addie

The US Supreme Court is set to have a bumper year in 2015 with four key topics up for consideration. Sam Baker from the National Journal summarizes the cases.


This time, the challengers want the Court to invalidate the law’s premium subsidies in states that didn’t set up their own insurance exchanges. Most states didn’t establish their own exchanges, and more than 80 percent of enrollees are getting subsidies—so a win for the challengers here would likely make insurance unaffordable for about 5 million people and could make insurance markets unstable in most of the country.

Obamacare’s supporters are nervous about this case, King v. Burwell, not only because of its implications, but because of the way the Supreme Court decided to hear it. The justices took up the Obamacare case much earlier than many observers had expected, opting not to wait for a lower-court ruling that likely would have strengthened the Obama administration’s hand.

This case could be defining moment for Obamacare.

Same-sex marriage equality

The Court hasn’t yet said whether it will act on the latest round of appeals in same-sex marriage cases, but just about everyone wants it to. When the justices meet on Jan. 9 for a private conference to decide which cases they want to consider, challenges to several states’ marriage laws will be on the schedule—and even more states have asked the judges to just settle the marriage-equality question once and for all.

The Court had tried to stay away from the issue since its landmark rulings last year that struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and opened the door to same-sex marriage in the states without mandating it.

When a federal Appeals Court upheld same-sex marriage in several states, the justices declined to hear an appeal. But then the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld bans on same-sex marriage in Michigan and Kentucky, as well as state laws in Ohio and Tennessee.

Looks like despite their apparent reluctance SCOTUS will have to get involved to bring some clarity to the law(s).

Religious freedom

The Court has already heard oral arguments in a suit filed by an Arkansas inmate who wants to grow a beard, in accordance with his Muslim faith but in violation of prison rules. During oral arguments, the justices reportedly seemed to be siding with the inmate, questioning whether the prison system could ensure inmates’ safety without such strict rules against beards.

The Court has agreed to hear a second, similar case, but hasn’t yet scheduled oral arguments. This one concerns a woman who was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store because the head scarf she wore, as a practicing Muslim, wasn’t consistent with the company’s “Look Policy.” The question in the case is whether a business can discriminate against someone’s religion if it didn’t know that a religious accommodation was needed.

In 2014 SCOTUS heard the Hobby Lobby religious freedom case which was about the contraception mandate in Obamacare. So in 2015 the issue is back with these two cases likely to be fiercely debated.

Freedom of Speech

The first, in which the justices have already heard oral arguments, concerns social-networking sites and asks what type of messages constitute a “threat.” The case concerns a man, Anthony Elonis, who posted violent Facebook messages about an ex-wife, including some that discussed killing her. But the question is whether those messages meet the legal standard for a “threat,” which says that a “reasonable person” must conclude that the person making the statement is actually expressing an intent to commit violence.

This case was covered here at Kiwiblog in a previous post.

The second free-speech case the Court has agreed to hear deals with a Florida law that prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions—they have to set up a fundraising committee, to avoid situations in which a person wins and becomes a judge, then has to try to remain impartial while deciding a case that involves a major donor. The Roberts Court hasn’t found many campaign finance laws it likes.

Critics fear if SCOTUS rules against the fundraising ban judges independence could be under threat.

Finally, there’s the free-speech issue that never dies: the Confederate flag. Officials in Texas rejected a proposed license-plate design from a group called Sons of Confederate Veterans, which, unsurprisingly, included the Confederate flag.

There have been numerous cases in the US courts before this one so SCOTUS will have to provide a clear answer to the issue.

All four topics have been hot topics in the US recently so whatever the court’s decisions there will no doubt fuel further heated debates.

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Populism in the Democratic Party

December 27th, 2014 at 12:05 pm by Lindsay Addie

Dan Balz from the Washington Post reports on the debate underway amongst Democrats prior to the 2015-16 presidential primaries.

That there is such a debate over the direction of the Democratic Party is without question, and the differences have become louder in the wake of the drubbing the Democrats suffered in the midterm elections.

What is in question is the degree to which the rising populist movement on the left can materially shape the party’s future. More specifically, absent some sign from Warren that she is going to run, can these Democrats successfully pressure Hillary Rodham Clinton, the party’s dominant prospective presidential candidate, to adopt much of their agenda?

It is well known that Hillary Clinton is seriously considering running for the nomination and would be a potentially strong establishment candidate for the Democrats. But further to the left of Clinton is Elisabeth Warren the Senator from Massachusetts. Warren has been building a higher profile in US politics at the national level. Her supporters have already been stating clearly where they stand.

Those trying to encourage Warren to run in 2016 argue a different case. Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.Org Civic Action, said there are important policy differences that need to be aired before Democrats pick their 2016 nominee.

She cited issues such as how the party should address income inequality, who holds positions of power in the executive branch — a cause taken up by Warren when she opposed Obama’s nomination of investment banker Antonio Weiss as treasury undersecretary — and whether it is even possible for Democrats to have a discussion about expanding, rather than constraining, Social Security benefits. “We are not debating style here,” she said. “We are debating substance.”

This is urging the Democrats to move to the left. Which leads to the obvious question how will Clinton respond? So far there haven’t been a lot of specifics from Clinton and as yet it remains uncertain what her strategy will be.

Balz goes on to cite examples of the debate within the Democrats and observes that not all within the party are as yet convinced of the populist message Warren is pushing.

Populist energy pulsates within the party to the point that Democrats cannot agree on whether it has become its dominant ideological strain. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has championed a populist message as much as Warren, said: “It’s a good, strong message, and it’s a message that she’s carried very well, and it’s a message that a number of us have put out there for a number of years, and it’s catching on. . . . I don’t think it’s there yet.”

But Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, who comes out of the centrist Democratic tradition, said he believes the party has tipped in favor of Warren’s anti-Wall Street, populist message. “I don’t think there’s any question,” he said of a shift that he finds worrisome for the party’s future hopes of winning over independents and swing voters.

Relating to and winning over independents and swing voters is a key issue not just for Democrats but also the GOP. Also the Republicans would probably welcome a presidential nominee such as Warren with her big government style agenda. Whether they would be good enough to defeat her populist message in a presidential campaign is yet to seen. They haven’t won the Presidency since 2004.

Debates such as the current one inside the Democratic Party can be very healthy in any political movement and shouldn’t be automatically categorised as a split.

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US politics cartoons of the week – 22 December 2014

December 22nd, 2014 at 3:27 pm by Lindsay Addie

Most of the US cartoons this past week have been about either the normalizing of relations with Cuba or the Sony/North Korea spat. So I chose the possible Hillary Clinton vs Jeb Bush contest in 2016. Both cartoons speak for themselves without any explanation.

The first is by Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


© Steve Sack: found at

The second cartoon is by Dave Granlund


© Dave Granlund: found at

I’m far from convinced either Hillary or Jeb would make a good POTUS. Two peas from the same pod.

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Sony capitulates to blackmail

December 19th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Guardian reports:

Hollywood has publicly condemned Sony Pictures’ decision to cancel release of the film at the heart of the hacking crisis, calling it an ignominious blow to freedom of speech, but some are quietly relieved at the removal of a threat to the Christmas box office.

Actors, directors and writers erupted in anger and scorn on Wednesday night after the studio announced it no longer planned to release The Interview, a comedy which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, because of terrorist threats to cinemagoers.

The wave of indignation called the decision un-American, spineless, disgraceful and a dangerous precedent, with some comparing it to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

“Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. A complete and utter victory for them. Hollywood has done Neville Chamberlain proud today,” tweeted the actor Rob Lowe, citing the British prime minister who abandoned Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.

It is a very sad day for freedom of expression. It tells the bad guys that threats and blackmail do work.


A video from the next US Ambassador to NZ

December 19th, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

A nice effort. Ambassador Gilbert was confirmed by the US Senate on the 12th of December in a voice vote. he is fortunate to have had the nomination confirmed before the control of the Senate changed. He would have still been confirmed, but a vote may not have occurred for many more months.

Personally I think it is silly the US Senate still confirms Ambassadors. In the 1700s and 1800s Ambassadors were very powerful positions as they could not communicate with their home Governments quickly, and would often negotiate major issues of behalf of their countries. Now their positions are much less important. They are still important positions, but they do not set policy in any way.

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Fact checking US politicians and Vladimir Putin

December 19th, 2014 at 9:22 am by Lindsay Addie

One of my favourite political blogs is Glenn Kessler’s at the Washington Post who awards Pinnochios (from one to four) for porkies and lies told by politicians’. Here is a sample of Kessler’s biggest whoopers from 2014.

They aren’t in any particular order.

Barack Obama: “I didn’t call the Islamic State a ‘JV’ team”

President Obama repeated a claim, crafted by the White House communications team, that he was not “specifically” referring to the Islamic State terror group when he dismissed the militants who had taken over Fallujah as a “JV squad.” But The Fact Checker had obtained the previously unreleased transcript of the president’s interview with The New Yorker, and it’s clear that’s who the president was referencing.

JV means junior varsity. He didn’t seem to be aware that ISIS (ISIL) were a major threat in the Middle East then told a porky about his previous comments.

Rand Paul: “John McCain met with Islamic State terrorists”

Intraparty slap downs are pretty rare, but Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have radically different foreign policy views. With no evidence but Internet rumors, some promoted by liberal groups, Paul declared that McCain unknowingly met with members of the Islamic State — and even had photographs taken — when he had slipped across the border with Syria to meet with rebel forces. But the claim was proven to be absolutely false. As we said as the time, “there are days when we regret we are limited to just Four Pinocchios.”

Paul clearly had a severe bout of foot and mouth disease on this one.

Barack Obama: “Republicans have filibustered 500 pieces of legislation”

President Obama former senator, got quite a few things wrong here. He spoke of legislation that would help the middle class, but he was counting cloture votes that mostly involved judicial and executive branch nominations. Moreover, he counted all the way back to 2007, meaning he even included votes in which he, as senator, voted against ending debate — the very thing he decried in his remarks. At best, he could claim the Republicans had blocked about 50 bills, meaning he was off by a factor of ten.

I’ll give the President the benefit of the doubt and opine that he was merely repeating what his researchers/speech writers told him to say. It is still a clumsy attempt though to a score political point.

John Boehner: “There’s been a net loss of people with health insurance”

Nope. Boehner added apples and then subtracted oranges. At the point he made the statement, it was clear that the net gain was in the millions.

Boehner was talking about Obamacare. As in the case of the previous lie, Boehner was using shoddy research to try and score a political point.

Vladimir Putin: “A referendum was held in Crimea in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms”

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech announcing the annexation of Crimea that was full of whoppers, but none more so than his claim about the referendum. The referendum was rushed, political opposition was squelched, and the choices did not allow for a “no.” (The options were either joining Russia — what the ballot called “reunification” — or remaining part of Ukraine with greater autonomy, effectively making the region independent in all but name.) Moreover, the Crimea vote met none of the conditions for a referendum in the Ukrainian constitution. Clearly it’s time for a fact-checking organization in Russia.

This for me is the biggest lie on Kessler’s list. Putin would have real trouble convincing most people he’s a true believer in democracy and freedom of speech.

Note that Kessler provides web links to all the original stories. It is a pity that no one in New Zealand fact checks politicians on a regular basis.

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Wasteful US Government spending

December 18th, 2014 at 3:31 pm by Lindsay Addie

Following on from DPF’s post about the Cromnibus Bill passing through the US Congress and all its pork. Here are some examples of the crazy spending by the US Government.

The source is the retiring Senator Tom Coburn a Republican from Oklahoma who annually has been releasing a Wastebook of spending.

Here’s a shortlist of some actual examples Coburn has highlighted

Coast guard party patrols – $100,000
Watching grass grow – $10,000
State department tweets @ terrorists – $3 million
Swedish massages for rabbits – $387,000
Paid vacations for bureaucrats gone wild – $20 million
Mountain lions on a treadmill – $856,000
Synchronized swimming for sea monkeys – $50,000
Pentagon to destroy $16 billion in unused ammunition — $1 billion
Scientists hope monkey gambling unlocks secrets of free will –$171,000
Rich and famous rent out their luxury pads tax free – $10 million
Studying “hangry” spouses stabbing voodoo dolls – $331,000
Promoting U.S. culture around the globe with nose flutists – $90 million

Talk about big government gone mad!



What was in the Cromnibus

December 18th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

You may have heard about the US Congress passing a cromnibus bill – which is a continuing resolution (to pay the bills) bill and anything else a Representative or Senator can sneak in.

My former flatmate, Kevin Doyle, of Wexford Strategies, has published a list of some of things included in the bill:

  • Prohibits chickens from China in school lunches.
  • Prohibits funds for portrait-painting of elected officials.
  • Requires heating modernization for Kaiserstautern, Germany military base must include US coal.
  • Blocks DC recreational marijuana proposition, which was passed by referendum in Nov. 2014.
  • Clarifies that Interior Secretary may make agreements regarding long-term care of excess wild horses and burros.
  • Mandates that minimum 50% of BSEE fees be used for development of Outer Continental Shelf.
  • Clarifies that breast feeding is allowed anywhere in federal buildings.
  • Bars “federal agency monitoring of individuals’ internet use.”
  • Removes funds for placing the Sage Grouse on the Endangered Species List.
  • Bars federal contracts with inverted domestic corporations.
  • Explicitly bars IRS targeting for ideological beliefs or exercise of First Amendment rights.
  • Authorizes assistance to Syrian opposition to combat ISIL.
  • Extends the Internet Tax Freedom Act until Oct. 1, 2015.
  • Prohibits funding of salaries for the White House Director of Health Reform and Assistant for Energy and Climate Change.
  • Prohibits funds for the NSA to acquire, monitor or store electronic communications of US person under FISA.
  • Requires all US Attorneys in Task Force to combat human trafficking.
  • Prohibits funding for inspecting horse slaughter facilities for horse meat for human consumption.
  • Explicitly prohibits use of funds to support or justify use of torture by any US official.
  • Blocks the Air Force from retiring the A-10 close-air support aircraft and U-2 spy plane.
  • Prohibits funds for abortion under the federal employees health benefits program.
  • Freezes pay for the Vice President and senior political appointees.
  • Prohibits funding to require that entities bidding for federal contracts disclose campaign contributions.
  • Prohibits funding for all agencies in the bill, including the IRS, to be used for activities in contravention of the Federal Records Act, such as inappropriately destroying documents.
  • Requires Executive Orders issued during fiscal year 2015 to include a budgetary impact statement.
  • Establishes additional reporting requirements to increase transparency of the activities of agencies whose funding jurisdiction fall outside annual congressional review, including the Office of Financial Stability and the Office of Financial Research.
  • Requires that the Office of Management and Budget report on the costs to the government of Dodd-Frank financial reform.

Thank God we have a more sane system of Government. Parliament’s Standing Orders wouldn’t allow an omnibus bill like this. Only very minor amendments that have no significant policy effect can be included in an omnibus bill in NZ.



Obama announces normalizing relations between the US and Cuba

December 18th, 2014 at 7:21 am by Lindsay Addie

President Obama has announced that talks are under way to normalize relations between the USA and Cuba. The Washington Post lists a summary of changes to the relationship

Reestablishing diplomatic relations
Adjusting regulations to more effectively empower Cuban people
Facilitating an expansion of travel to Cuba
Authorizing expanded sales and exports of certain goods and services from the United States to Cuba
Authorizing American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba
Initiating new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely

This is a bold move by Barack Obama that if successful could help define his legacy. There is a long way to go with this though. Predictably Republicans are against the idea.

UPDATE: The White House has released a full list of the changes here.

UPDATE 2: The official White House statement in part says.

Decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our objective of empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country. At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba. Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect – today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.

We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state. We should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help.

Statement from the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner giving the Republican view.

Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner,” Boehner said. “There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies. If anything, this emboldens all state sponsors of terrorism, as they now have an even better idea of what the president meant when he once told Russian leaders he would have ‘more flexibility’ after his reelection.

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Majority of Americans think CIA harsh interrogation methods justified

December 17th, 2014 at 2:28 pm by Lindsay Addie

A Washington Post-ABC News poll asking Americans about the Senate report in CIA interrogation methods post 9/11 has some revealing conclusions.

NB: I’ve paraphrased some of the questions for reasons of brevity.

When asked if they thought the report was fair?
Fair: 36% – Unfair 47%

Did the CIA intentionally or not mislead the White House?
Intentionally mislead: 54% – Did not mislead: 33%

Was the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists torture?
Yes: 49% – No: 38%

Did the CIA’s methods produce important information?
Yes: 53% – No: 31%

Which of these statements comes closer to your own opinion: (It was wrong to release this report because it may raise the risk of terrorism by increasing anti-American sentiment) OR (It was right to release this report in order to expose what happened and prevent it in the future)?
Yes: 52% – No: 43%

Do you think there should or should not be criminal charges filed against officials who were responsible for the CIA interrogation activities?
Should: 34% – Should not: 57%

All in all, do you think the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists was justified or unjustified?
Justified: 59% – Unjustified 31%

Looking ahead, do you feel that torture of suspected terrorists can often be justified, sometimes justified, rarely justified or never justified?
Often or sometimes justified: 58% – Rarely or never justified: 39%

So a majority of Americans according to the poll are happy to see some kind of rough treatment meted out to terrorist suspects. Even though they think the CIA lied to the White House. Also of particular interest is the reaction of voters across the political spectrum. This is covered here. The chart is too large to reproduce here but it shows that across many demographics except the liberal Democrats there it is accepted that use of torture in some shape or form is justified. That includes moderate/conservative Democrats.

With the events in Australia and Pakistan in recent days there is a greater opposition than ever to terrorist attacks. It is too soon to accurately assess how these events will frame the debate on terrorism and how terrorists should be treated in captivity. Has what is morally acceptable in dealing with terrorism changed especially after the Taliban slaughtered 130+ innocent children? I think it probably has.


Terrorism is bad but let’s not forget family violence

December 16th, 2014 at 2:50 pm by Lindsay Addie

While the media attention has been focused on the events in Sydney and tragic events at the Lindt Café another tragedy has been playing out in Philadelphia.

A former US marine has allegediy murdered six members of his own family.

Police near Philadelphia were hunting a former Marine reservist who authorities say shot and killed six family members and wounded another in a Monday rampage that left dead bodies in three different homes.

A SWAT team storming of a house in Pennsburg, where Bradley William Stone, 35, was believed to be holed up, turned up nothing, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and authorities said Monday evening that they did not know his whereabouts.

“As I stand here right now, we do not know where he is,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said shortly after 6 p.m.

The events that transpired makes very sad reading. What makes it more tragic is the accused’s ex-wife has been living in fear of hear life and had warned that Bradley Stone was capable of becoming extremely violent.

Speaking at an evening news conference, Ferman said the rampage began around 3:30 a.m., when Stone allegedly shot and killed Patricia Flick, the sister of his ex-wife, Nicole Stone, at her home in Souderton, also killing Flick’s husband, Aaron Flick, and her 14-year-old daughter, Nina Flick. Her 17-year-old son, Anthony Flick, was receiving treatment at a hospital in Philadelphia for a head wound.

Nicole Stone’s mother, Joanne Hill, and grandmother Patricia Hill were killed next at their home in nearby Lansdale. Investigators were alerted by a hang-up call to emergency dispatchers, Ferman said.

Then, around 5 a.m., Stone went to Nicole Stone’s apartment, located in the Harleysville section of Lower Salford Township, around 5 a.m., investigators said. Brad Stone broke in through a glass door, shot and killed Nicole Stone, and fled with their two children, the woman’s neighbors said. Authorities said Stone then delivered the two children, who were unharmed, to a neighbor in Pennsburg.

Currently the accused is still at large.

Yes terrorism offends decent people and should be eradicated but family violence like that in Philadelphia is also totally unacceptable and shouldn’t be forgotten.

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Koch a social liberal

December 16th, 2014 at 8:13 am by David Farrar

ABC News reports:

Reclusive billionaire David Koch, a powerful donor in American conservative politics, says he’s a “social liberal.”

“I’m basically a libertarian, and I’m a conservative on economic matters, and I’m a social liberal,” Koch told ABC News’ Barbara Walters during an interview for her special “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2014″ that airs at 9 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.

Koch, who supports abortion rights and gay marriage, said he isn’t concerned with candidates he supports who don’t share some of his views. He said his primary concern when choosing a candidate to support is their fiscal policies.

Koch is demonised by some of the US left as he is a major donor to fiscally conservative candidates and causes. He is also one of the world’s biggest charitable donors having given over $750 million to cancer research, the arts etc. He has also donated $185 million to MIT and $100 million to a New York hospital.

His beliefs include:

  • Repealing victimless crime laws
  • Gay marriage
  • Legal abortion
  • Stem-cell research
  • Opposes war on drugs

I agree with him on a lot of issues!


US politics cartoons of the week: 15 December 2014

December 15th, 2014 at 9:32 am by Lindsay Addie

As usual two cartoons lampooning both sides of the political divide in USA politics.

The first makes fun of John Boehner and compares him to Moses!


© Gary Varvel – Found at Real Clear Politics


The second refers to the cover of the 23rd October edition of Rolling Stone magazine and also this extremely glowing appraisal of President Obama by Paul Krugman.


© Michael Ramirez – Found at Real Clear Politics

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