Paul Waldman

Six Charts that Explain Why Our Prison System Is So Insane

flickr/wwarby
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population. And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details. In 1992, there were 1.3 million inmates in America's prisons and jails; by two decades later, a million more had been added (the data in this article are taken from the Bureau of Justice...

Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

Flickr/Telstar2000
The nonfiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, Heaven Is For Real , an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? Heaven Is For Real has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list . The top spot on that list is held by this year's nonfiction publishing phenomenon, Proof of Heaven , a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it...

When Everyone Wanted to Be "Tough on Crime"

The cover of Time, February 7, 1994.
*/ Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent's opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, "Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?" As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime...

The Return of One of the GOP's Dumbest Ideas

Flickr/KAZ Vorpal
Lord help us, is the balanced budget amendment—one of the dumbest policy ideas the right ever cooked up (and that's saying something)—actually back? Only time will tell, but today on the New York Times op-ed page, two prominent conservative economists, Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane, try to revive it with an argument so unconvincing that I worry it's going to be embraced by every Republican in sight. If you think the sequester was a terrific idea and worked out great for everyone, have they got a deal for you. Hubbard and Kane start by insisting that deficit panic must not be allowed to wane. "We are stuck in a bad and worsening place: sure, deficits strike fear in the hearts of economists and intellectuals, but they don't matter at the ballot box." Haven't we actually cut the deficit by more than half from its 2009 peak? And isn't creating jobs and increasing wages more important? And aren't most "economists and intellectuals" not actually driven to terror by the deficit at the moment?...

President Obama Wants to Talk to You

President Obama at today's press conference, talking about talking.
When Barack Obama made remarks about the Trayvon Martin case, saying there isn't much value in "national conversations" led by a president, it was an unusual kind of candor. After all, having a national conversation is a great way to not do anything about a problem—particularly one that seems nearly impossible to solve. (If there's a problem that's quite possible to solve but would require politically difficult steps, one appoints a commission to study it.) I thought of that watching his press conference today, when he was asked about the various surveillance programs that have come to light as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations. After a somewhat rambling discussion of all the safeguards already in place to make sure nothing bad could possibly come of the government tracking your phone and Internet traffic, Obama said he's "looking forward to having a conversation" about these matters with all kinds of people who have an interest in the topic. A conversation! In fairness, the...

Rand Paul Doesn't Know What He's Talking About (In Charts)

Look inside for the big version. You know you want it.
Blazing Republican supernova, Rand Paul, is emerging as the most media coverage-getting potential 2016 candidate, and while there's a good chance he'll end up being that year's Michele Bachmann, there is one thing he keeps repeating that requires a little clarification. It's become one of those things that folks just "know" about the world, even though it's utterly untrue. And since the best way to counter any piece of misinformation is with an attractive and enlightening chart or two, I thought that's what the situation needed. Yesterday, Bloomberg 's Joshua Green interviewed Paul, and when asked about the significant budget cuts he was proposing, the senator said this: "You know, the thing is, people want to say it’s extreme. But what I would say is extreme is a trillion-dollar deficit every year. I mean, that's an extremely bad situation. I would say it's a very reasonable proposition to say that we would only spend what comes in." First off, saying "that we would only spend what...

Getting to Know Her, Getting to Know All about Her

Flickr/Angela Radulescu
The other day Jaime Fuller and I wrote about RNC chair Reince Priebus's complaints about the fact that NBC is planning to produce a miniseries on the life of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who could well be a candidate for president in 2016. The objection isn't completely without merit, though there's no way to know yet whether the miniseries (if it ever gets made) will paint Clinton as a hero, a villain, or something in between. But would it really matter? Is a miniseries likely to change how we think of someone who has been a national figure (and a divisive one at that) for over two decades now? My guess is that, like most movies and TV shows about politics, it'll end up being hackneyed and unenlightening. But this does touch on a more interesting question about how our perceptions of political figures evolve over time and what does and doesn't have the power to alter them. Ed Kilgore has some thoughtful words on this: When HRC ran for president in 2008, I thought her biggest problem...

Artificial Love

Like HAL, except way, way nicer.
Could you fall in love with Siri? OK, let's not say Siri in particular, since Siri is as dumb as a stump and doesn't understand anything you ask her. But what about a version of Siri that's a few generations away, one with not only better voice recognition but a real personality, one that learns and changes and gets to know you, one with which (whom?) you build a complicated relationship? Could you fall in love with that program? That's the question that Spike Jonze's new movie Her seems to be asking. Check out the trailer: Like most of Jonze's films, Her looks to be filled with longing and melancholy. And the possibility doesn't seem too far-fetched, both from the perspective of the software and our remarkable ability to imbue non-human things—both inanimate and otherwise—with human characteristics. After all, in Japan, there are men who have deep emotional relationships with pillows . Granted, that's absurd, but have you ever had a crush on a character in a television show? You know...

How Long Do You Want to Live?

Flickr/Yann Gourvennec
Attentive readers will recall that I'm rather interested , as a human whose body stubbornly continues to age, in the prospect that science will one day enable us to extend our lives far beyond what is possible today. Throwing the "immortality" word around tends to turn people off, since it sounds so absurd (after all, nothing lives forever, not even our sun), but what about just living a whole lot longer than most of us expect to even when we're being optimistic? Is that something you'd want? My answer has always been, "Of course—are you kidding?" If advancements in medicine and technology can dramatically extend our lives—and assuming that we don't end up like Tithonus, the figure from Greek mythology who was granted eternal life but not eternal youth, so lived forever in a tortuous ever-increasing decrepitude—then I'm all for it. There are strong arguments that living for an extra 50 or 100 years (or more) might be great for you as an individual, but bad for society as a whole, but...

Could Jeff Bezos Save the Newspaper Business?

The artifact of pulped wood and ink that was dropped at my house this morning.
There was a time in America when industrial tycoons would buy newspapers to be their playthings, using the editorial pages to reward friends and punish enemies, all while watching healthy profits from subscriptions and advertising roll in. Then a couple of decades ago, the newspaper industry began an era of consolidation, with firms like Gannett and the Tribune company scooping up one small and mid-size paper after another. The results were usually awful for journalism; if your local paper got bought by one of those behemoths, there's a good chance the newsroom would be gutted and you'd end up with a paper with little enterprising reporting and lots of wire stories. But now the billionaires are back. Last week the New York Times company sold The Boston Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has quietly bought a couple dozen small papers, making him one of the largest newspaper owners in the country. And yesterday The Washington Post announced that the...

Burgers from the Future

This was definitely not grown in a lab. (Flickr/Simon Willison)
Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does ) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers. And we eat even more chicken, though a bit less pork; according to the National Chicken Council (unofficial motto: "B'cawk!"), total beef, pork, and poultry consumption adds up to more than 200 pounds a year for every waddling man, woman, and child in this great nation of ours. To a lot of people, even those who aren't vegetarians, industrial meat production is a moral compromise at best (and I say that as someone who does eat some kinds of meat). Most of us would just rather not think about the process that produced our chicken cutlet or burger. But what if you could produce the meat without actually killing an animal? And I don't mean some...

Threat of Terrorism Still Making People Stupid

Save us from this man.
When you're a partisan, you have a certain obligation to be, well, partisan. That means you have to put the things your side does in the best light and the things the other side does in the worst light. Their motives are always suspect while your are always pure, and if anything goes wrong it was obviously their fault, while if anything goes right they had nothing to do with it. But just how far does this obligation extend? How far beyond the borders of logic and reason can you ride it? The unfortunate answer is, pretty darn far. As you've heard, the administration ordered a number of embassies, mostly in the Middle East, closed for a few days because of some "chatter" relating to a potential al Qaeda attack. Republican Congressman Peter King said that this demonstrates that "Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11," which is kind of like saying that the fact that the Backstreet Boys are currently touring shows that they're even more popular than they were in the...

Exporting America's Campaigner-in-Chief

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak B arack Obama's 2012 campaign was without question the most complex and technologically sophisticated in history. That's true simply because the tools available to campaigns grow more advanced each year; the president's most recent campaign was able to understand and appeal to voters in more granular ways than the 2008 campaign did, and the 2008 campaign in turn did things the 2004 campaigns barely dreamt of. But it's also because the people who ran the Obama effort were better at their extremely difficult jobs than their Republican counterparts, just as they had been four years before (having a more skilled candidate didn't hurt, either). So it wasn't a surprise to hear that Jim Messina, who ran the 2012 Obama campaign, has been hired to consult on the next British election, which won't take place until 2015. What did surprise some was that he'll be working for the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron. So does this make Messina a cynical...

The Misguided Silliness of "Libertarian Populism"

Things are tough all over.
In case you missed it, the new Republican watchword is "Libertarian populism," which is quickly being embraced by people who are neither libertarians nor populists. But it's a shorthand for an impossibly inane attack that Republicans are trying out, seeing if they can make any hay by charging that President Obama is only interested in helping rich people at the expense the rest of us. Okay, the rest of you , I guess, because these are Republicans we're talking about, and they're not part of that "us," but you get the idea. All of sudden, people like Paul Ryan are out there saying , "The president claims his economic agenda is for the middle class. But it's actually for the well-connected. There's no doubt that it works well for them. But for the rest of us, it's not working at all." You can make an argument that Obama hasn't done enough to reverse growing inequality in this country, but it's a little hard to make that argument and then claim the answer is to cut food stamps, prevent...

Charles Krauthammer Is Making Sense! Almost.

If you asked a hundred conservatives which opinion columnist they most admire, I'm pretty sure Charles Krauthammer would come out on top. Unlike, say, George Will, Krauthammer is free of even passing heresies against conservative dogma. Unlike, say, Cal Thomas, Krauthammer doesn't paint conservative culture warring in explicitly religious terms, allowing everyone to join in the smiting of sinners. And, they'll tell you over and over again, he's brilliant! I can't say I've ever seen it that way—Krauthammer may not be a numbskull or anything, but I've never read anything he's written and said, "Wow, that's a really smart argument—I'm not sure how I'd counter it." And if you've seen him on television, you know that he's a particularly grim figure, usually looking like he's vaguely bored with whatever he's talking about and displeased with the fact that he has to be wherever he is. His columns, furthermore, are often driven by a particularly venomous attitude toward Democratic politicians...

Pages