Opinion

Reihan Salam

Reality check: Death penalty is too expensive to make sense

Reihan Salam
Jun 20, 2014 20:47 UTC

Handout of revamped lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison

Last week saw the first executions in the United States since the botched lethal injection of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett, which drew renewed attention to the death penalty. Despite a sharp decrease in support for the death penalty — from 78 percent as recently as 1996, to 55 percent in a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center — the practice remains on the books in 32 states. This reflects the fact that support for the death penalty is uneven, with conservatives and Republicans far more likely to support it than liberals and Democrats.

The result of this disparity is that even as liberal states like Maryland and New York do away with the practice, conservative states like Texas and Utah are likely to stick with it. The fundamental reason conservatives tend to support the death penalty is that, as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephanos Bibas recently told the Boston Globe, it reflects their belief in the importance of individual responsibility. For conservatives troubled by the rights revolution that transformed the U.S. criminal justice system in the 1960s and 1970s, “the death penalty became a symbol: Are we willing to hold people accountable for their actions?”

Perhaps in recognition of this widespread belief in the death penalty as a symbol of individual responsibility, at least some death penalty critics are choosing to emphasize its physical cruelty. For example, the political theorist Austin Sarat of Amherst College, author of Gruesome Spectacles, a history of botched executions, argues that the death penalty is inseparable from physical cruelty, as evidenced by the long history of mishaps and malfunctions that have turned seemingly humane methods of execution into hellish torments.

My own belief is that while virtually all methods of execution, including the most ingenious ones, will at some point fail to deliver a painless death, this isn’t in itself an argument against the death penalty. All human institutions suffer from limitations, and it’s hard to deny that contemporary executions are in important respects less cruel than those used in past eras.

A man and his son hold candles outside the prison before the execution of John Allen Muhammad at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, VirginiaMoreover, there is no reason to believe that progress has ceased. If you embrace the basic premise that the death penalty has important symbolic value, as a sign that some crimes are so heinous as to merit death, you’re not going to be convinced that botched executions are reason enough to abandon it.

What Eric Cantor’s loss — and a quirky economist’s win — means for Republicans

Reihan Salam
Jun 12, 2014 13:16 UTC

U.S. House Majority Leader Cantor discusses primary election defeat during news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington

On Tuesday Republican primary voters asserted themselves in spectacular fashion by wresting the GOP nomination from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and giving it to quirky economist Dave Brat, who now looks very likely to win the seat in the fall. This is much more than a run-of-the-mill primary upset. Because Cantor was second in command to Speaker John Boehner among Republicans in the House, his defeat has set off a scramble for power, the outcome of which has yet to be determined.

Cantor’s defeat has led to searching questions about what exactly Brat’s victory means? Let’s run through a few different interpretations.

Immigration. One widely-held view is that Cantor’s defeat means that immigration reform is dead. There is one problem with this line of thinking: comprehensive immigration reform, as endorsed by the Obama White House and a bipartisan group of senators that includes Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ), among others, was already dead. The fundamental bone of contention is whether or not unauthorized immigrants should be granted a path to citizenship, provided they jump through various hoops, like paying back taxes and demonstrating English language proficiency, most of which would be impossible to implement.

Technology, not regulation, is the best way to tackle climate change

Reihan Salam
Jun 6, 2014 15:48 UTC

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By all accounts, President Obama is deeply interested in his legacy. And though relatively few American voters see dealing with climate change as a top priority for the federal government, the president famously sees it as the most important issue he can address in his second term. Having failed to shepherd climate change legislation through Congress in 2009, when Democrats had large majorities in the Senate and the House, the Obama administration has shifted to using new regulations to achieve its environmental policy goals. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced its Clean Power Plant Proposed Rule, a sweeping initiative that aims to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The heart of the 2009 legislation — the Waxman-Markey bill — was a new cap-and-trade system, which would allow businesses to trade the right to emit a certain level of carbon. The new EPA regulations are actually much less flexible than the cap-and-trade system envisioned in Waxman-Markey, and they will reduce carbon emissions at a much higher cost to the economy.

So you might be tempted to think that we ought to embrace cap-and-trade. Conservatives often get lectured for failing to embrace cap-and-trade or stringent carbon regulation. Ezra Klein, writing for the liberal news site Vox, observes that Arizona Sen. John McCain favored a cap-and-trade system during his 2008 presidential campaign, and he takes today’s GOP to task for being less enlightened.

Facebook, McDonald’s and the divided American workforce

Reihan Salam
Apr 25, 2014 19:54 UTC

On Wednesday, Facebook released data on its performance in the first quarter of 2014, and the results were very impressive. The social network has succeeded in monetizing its enormous audience, having generated $642 million in profit on $2.5 billion in sales. The expectation is that Facebook profits will amount to 25 cents per share, quite a bit more than the 9 cents per share it generated last year.

McDonald’s, a much larger and older company, reported $6.7 billion in revenue in the first quarter, slightly higher than its revenue from last quarter. Yet its net income fell to $1.2 billion and its profits per share to $1.21, down from $1.26 last quarter. Analysts attribute McDonald’s lackluster performance to a modest decline in U.S. comparable store sales.

I mention Facebook and McDonald’s not just because they are both iconic American brands, but because they represent the contrasting poles of American business. Though both Facebook and McDonald’s are innovative firms operating in a competitive landscape, Facebook is a social media company that lives almost entirely in the cloud. McDonald’s, meanwhile, is the quintessential quick-service restaurant, which, like Wal-Mart, depends on an extensive, expensive and labor-intensive logistical apparatus to meet the needs of its franchises.

The Cliven Bundy in all of us

Reihan Salam
Apr 17, 2014 21:13 UTC

At first glance, Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle-rancher who has been fighting the Bureau of Land Management tooth and nail for over twenty years, might strike you as an anti-government radical. He has, after all, led an armed rebellion against federal land managers, who contend that he owes over $1 million in back fees, penalties and other costs for grazing his cattle on federal land.

But the truth is that Bundy’s underlying beliefs are quite common, and not just among self-styled scourges of federal overreach. Once we understand what Bundy is really trying to pull off, we can understand why our country is plagued by sky-high rents and crumbling roads, and why our streets are choked by congestion.

First, it is worth recalling that Bundy has deep roots in Nevada. His family homesteaded the ranch that he owns and operates in 1877. Bundy’s ancestors were quite happy to work with the federal government when it was offering settlers the opportunity to claim federal land as their own, provided they were willing to work the land. Homesteading was an ingenious idea, as the federal government didn’t have the manpower to do the hard work of settling these vast expanses. Tempting young families westward had the added effect of making America a more dynamic, ambitious, upwardly-mobile society.

Why Congress must rethink sanctions on Cuba

Reihan Salam
Apr 11, 2014 20:40 UTC

Alan Gross, the 64-year-old American who has been imprisoned by Cuban authorities since 2009, is an unremarkable man on the surface. He could be a friend or colleague, or an uncle you’ve been meaning to call.

Yet what distinguishes Gross from most of the rest of us, myself included, is his courage. As a sub-contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gross traveled to Cuba to help private citizens gain access to the Internet, and thus to news and information not managed or manufactured by the Cuban government. Gross likely knew that his work was dangerous, but he may have underestimated the risk he was taking. In a heartbreaking letter to President Obama, Gross recounted the many ways his wife and daughters have suffered in his absence. He beseeched the president to intervene in his case.

And so Gross, a husband and father from Maryland who seems to want nothing more than to be reunited with his family, has reignited the decades-long debate over how the United States should deal with Cuba, a rogue state that continues to adhere to Marxist-Leninist one-party rule long after the collapse of its Soviet patron.

How to get Americans back to work

Reihan Salam
Apr 4, 2014 18:38 UTC

Friday’s Labor Department data shows an uptick in jobs, but an unemployment rate that remained steady from February to March. While the size of the labor force is increasing, the economy is not strong enough to get all would-be workers off the sidelines and into jobs.

Part of the story is that the fates of the short-term unemployed and the long-term unemployed have sharply diverged. The short-term unemployment rate, as Annie Lowrey of the New York Times has observed, is lower than its pre-recession level, while the long-term unemployment rate remains very high.

We need to find better ways to help the 3.7 million American workers who’ve been out of a job for six months, and the twice-as-large number of workers who are working part-time although they’d prefer full-time employment. But we would do also do a great deal of good by ensuring that the short-term unemployed don’t remain on the sidelines for long.

What the GOP can learn from the Koch brothers

Reihan Salam
Mar 25, 2014 15:35 UTC

 

Republicans are very enthusiastic about this year’s midterm congressional elections, and it is easy to see why. Obamacare, the president’s signature domestic policy legislation, remains unpopular. Turnout during midterm elections skews older and whiter than turnout during presidential elections, and Republicans tend to fare better among older and whiter voters.

And then there is the fact that Democrats are defending a number of Senate seats in states that tend to back Republican presidential candidates. Nate Silver, the editor of FiveThirtyEight, best known for his eerily good job predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, forecasts that Republicans will retake the Senate.

So can the GOP sit back and relax? Not quite. As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post reminds us, even if Republicans barely retake the Senate in 2014, the GOP faces a much tougher Senate map in 2016, when the electorate will be younger and more diverse. If Republicans want to achieve ambitious goals like replacing Obamacare and implementing pro-growth tax reform, holding the Senate for two years under a lame-duck president will do them little good.

How to fix higher education

Reihan Salam
Mar 17, 2014 22:17 UTC

America’s elite higher education institutions are the envy of the world. Foreign students flock to the oldest and wealthiest U.S. research universities to take advantage of resources that are unparalleled, thanks to the deep pockets of many centuries’ worth of captains of industry.

Yet when we consider the post-secondary institutions that educate the typical American high school grad, we see a very different picture. While the share of Americans who enroll in higher education has grown substantially in recent decades, graduation rates have been stagnant.

Community colleges promise an affordable education to millions of students, but they often fail to offer the courses students need to complete a degree in a reasonable amount of time. Public colleges and universities churn out graduates who are forced to take jobs that don’t actually require a four-year post-secondary education. Most private non-profits do the same, and they’re also notorious for charging obscene tuition that their graduates can scarcely afford. And private for-profits, which have grown enormously by taking on some of the hardest-to-accommodate students, stand accused of loading up their students with debt without offering them marketable skills.

In search of ‘Mr. Republican’

Reihan Salam
Mar 10, 2014 19:57 UTC

Who will be the next “Mr. Republican”? While the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination gets underway, there is another, more informal race going on as well. Since the Second World War, there have been a handful of elected Republicans who have distinguished themselves not by winning the White House, but rather by setting the party’s ideological direction.

The first Mr. Republican was Robert A. Taft, the Ohio senator who served as the most scathing conservative critic of FDR and the New Deal, and who later warned that America’s Cold War entanglements threatened freedom at home. His successor was Barry Goldwater, who called for rolling back the frontiers of the welfare state at home and communism abroad, and through his crushing defeat paved the way for the Great Society and a vast expansion of federal power. Goldwater inspired a generation of conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, who eventually overpowered the moderates and liberals who once played a central role in the party.

Jack Kemp crafted a less hard-edged and more optimistic “bleeding-heart conservatism,” which celebrated economic growth as a painless way to finance rising social expenditures. And Newt Gingrich, as architect of the first Republican House majority in a generation, offered a combustible mix of high-minded techno-utopianism and scorched-earth partisanship that transformed American politics.

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