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April 1 2015 2:02 PM

What if Democracy's Not Actually Declining?

Given the daily headlines from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, it’s not hard to conclude, as the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman did, that “democracy is in recession” around the world.  That impression is largely borne out by data. This year’s Freedom in the World report from Freedom House, for instance, found that the number of countries becoming less free outnumbered those becoming more free for the ninth consecutive year.

But there’s an equally significant but less remarked upon trend going on at the same time: The world’s largest countries have been getting more democratic.


Yesterday, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat to Muhammadu Buhari. This is the first time a sitting Nigerian president has ever been defeated by an opposition candidate. Despite a six-week delay caused by the ongoing insurgency in the country’s North and scattered complaints of technical glitches and violence, international monitors say the vote was largely orderly and fair.

The advent of genuine competitive elections is a major development in Africa’s largest country, a place that will likely have more people than the United States in a few decades. And it’s not just Nigeria: 2014 was a huge year for voting in the world’s biggest countries. India held the largest elections ever, in which the party that had dominated its politics for most of its post-independence history was defeated. Indonesia now appears to be a consolidated democracy after its third presidential election since the overthrow of dictatorship in 2008. In October, Dilma Rousseff was elected in Brazil’s seventh democratic election since its return to democracy. And in 2013, Pakistan saw its first ever peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another.  

With the addition of Nigeria and including the United States, that means that six of the world’s seven largest countries, with a combined population of 2.4 billion, now have democratically elected governments. (The world’s largest country, which if anything is getting even more autocratic under President Xi Jinping, is an obvious exception.)

Now, just because these governments are elected doesn’t mean they are particularly effective or even particularly accountable to the voters. Nigeria’s new president, Buhari, is a former military dictator and even assuming the best of motives on his part, he faces an unenviable slate of crises including entrenched government corruption and a Boko Haram insurgency that has left an area the size of Belgium outside the government’s control—and in about the least democratic conditions imaginable. The same set of problems—terrorism, armed insurgency, corruption, widespread distrust of public figures—exist in Pakistan. The honeymoon is decidedly over for Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, beset at home by corruption scandals and abroad by controversy over Indonesia’s use of the death penalty for drug offenders. Thanks to corruption scandals and low economic growth, Rousseff’s approval rating is at a dismal 13 percent. And as Matthew Yglesias argues, even America’s democratic institutions aren’t looking that robust these days.

I’ve written before that the most worrying trend for democracy around the world isn’t government crackdowns, but voters—particularly the educated, middle-class voters who should, according to conventional wisdom, be the strongest supporters of democracy—losing faith in it. It’s good news that the citizens of these six countries, a third of the world’s population, can now pick their leaders. The next step is for those leaders to deliver the kind of progress, security, and accountability that will keep it that way.  

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April 1 2015 12:51 PM

Arkansas Governor Will Not Sign Religious Freedom Bill

On Tuesday, Arkansas’ legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a measure with the same name—and the same controversial clauses potentially permitting businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers—as an Indiana law that’s also been in the news. Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has now announced, however, that he will not sign the bill as it was submitted to him.

Hutchinson was not specific at a Wednesday press conference about what changes would have to be made to the law to make it acceptable to him, but said he wanted it to more closely match the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act—which, unlike Indiana’ and Arkansas’ bills, did not include provisions that would protect businesses against claims of discrimination by LGBT customers they refused to serve. From the AP:

"What is important from an Arkansas standpoint is one, we get the right balance and secondly, we make sure that we communicate we're not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future," Hutchinson said at a news conference at the state Capitol ...
Echoing the reaction to Indiana's law, Hutchinson has faced pressure from the state's top employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart, which complained that the measure was discriminatory and would stifle economic development. Little Rock's mayor, the city's Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas-based data services company Acxiom all urged the governor to reject the measure in recent days.

Hutchinson noted that his son Seth had signed a petition opposing the bill.

April 1 2015 11:30 AM

“Who Doesn’t Love Baby Orcas, Right?”

Some good news in another stupid week: A newborn orca was spotted off British Columbia on Monday, making it the fourth baby orca (aka killer whale) seen this winter in an endangered Pacific Northwest population. From the AP:

Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research on Friday Harbor, confirmed the birth to The Associated Press on Tuesday. The center keeps the official census of endangered southern resident killer whales for the federal government ... While he and others hailed the birth of four baby orcas since December, they cautioned that the survival rate for babies is about 50 percent.
"Given where we were four months ago, it's certainly the trend we're hoping for," Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said Tuesday.

Said Michael Harris of Pacific Whale Watch Association, “Who doesn’t love baby orcas, right?”

More from the AP:

Balcomb said he thinks the baby's mother could be J-16, the female whale it was swimming with Monday. But it may be some time before the relationships are sorted out, he added.

Indeed, Ken Balcomb. Relationships with one’s parents do take some time to sort out.

April 1 2015 9:59 AM

Palestinian Authority Officially Joins International Criminal Court

The Palestinian Authority formally joined the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, becoming that group’s 123rd member. (The ICC’s official comments on the matter refer to the “State of Palestine,” though Palestine’s statehood is not universally recognized.) 

The move opens the possibility of pursuing war-crimes prosecutions against Israel, though Israel is not a member and does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, and Palestinian representatives are not expected to push for any specific cases at this time. The court is investigating 2014’s Israel-Palestine war in Gaza, though the Guardian notes that this investigation could also result in charges against Hamas and other militants who are now subject to the court's oversight.


Israel announced Friday that it would release tax revenue to Palestine that had been withheld for three months in retaliation for Palestine’s application to join the ICC.

The United States is not a member of the ICC because of concerns about the potential prosecution of U.S. military personnel and political leaders, though the Obama administration has followed a policy of “engaging” with the court.

March 31 2015 11:24 PM

Creator of the Fad Pet Rock Dies as a Viral Pioneer

The inventor of the Pet Rock died last week at the age of 78 and nobody seemed to notice. On Tuesday, however, the New York Times rectified this with an obituary of Gary Dahl who in 1975, while working as an advertising copywriter, created some of the U.S.’ original viral content when he packaged and sold pet rocks for just under $4 a pop. If you assumed there couldn’t possibly be a market for, as the Times describes it  “a plain, ordinary, egg-shaped rock of the kind one could dig up in almost any backyard,” you’d be wrong. More than three million were sold over the course of several months making Dahl a millionaire and creating pop culture history.

Here’s more from the Times on the birth of the fad that predated the viral age:

[Dahl] recruited two colleagues as investors, visited a building-supply store and bought a load of smooth Mexican beach stones at about a penny apiece. The genius was in the packaging. Each Pet Rock came in a cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes, tenderly nestled on a bed of excelsior. Mr. Dahl’s droll masterstroke was his accompanying manual on the care, feeding and house training of Pet Rocks…
Pet Rocks hit the marketplace in time for Christmas 1975. They were soon featured on “The Tonight Show” and in a blizzard of newspaper articles. In a matter of months, some 1.5 million rocks were sold… While Pet Rocks were the must-have gift of the 1975 holiday season, they soon went the way of all fads. The idea’s very simplicity proved its undoing: Though Mr. Dahl trademarked the name, there was nothing to stop someone from putting a rock into a box and selling it, and many did.

March 31 2015 9:27 PM

White House Resumes Military Aid to Egypt 

The U.S. ended its year-and-a-half–long hold on military aid to Egypt on Tuesday, putting an end to sanctions that were imposed in the wake of the military coup that led to the overthrow and imprisonment of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

President Obama announced the administration’s change of heart during a phone call with Morsi's successor, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Withholding military support for the longtime ally was meant as a condemnation of the anti-democratic turn in Cairo following the Arab Spring. Since Morsi’s overthrow, however, the strategic political terrain has shifted dramatically for the U.S., with Egypt fighting both ISIS in Libya and Houthi rebels who have toppled the U.S.-backed government in Yemen.


“The White House said President Barack Obama was freeing up the equipment and making other changes to military ties with Washington's long-time ally to support U.S. interests while encouraging Egypt's political reforms,” Reuters reports. “Obama directed the release of 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.”

“The President also advised President al-Sisi that he will continue to request an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance for Egypt,” according to the White House. Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel.

March 31 2015 6:35 PM

Obama Commutes Sentences for 22 Drug Offenders, Including Eight Serving Life

President Obama commuted sentences on Tuesday for 22 drug offenders, including eight serving life sentences, doubling the total number of commutations issued during his time in office. Calling their sentences the product of an "outdated" system, the White House acknowledged that defendants convicted of the same crimes under current law would likely face far lighter punishment. From the Huffington Post:

Tuesday's announcement marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach on clemency from the White House, which has faced persistent criticism for being slow to grant pardons and commutations. Until Tuesday, Obama had only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64, out of thousands of applications received.
The Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency applicants last year, prioritizing defendants who would have likely been given a shorter prison term had they been sentenced today and who have served at least 10 years behind bars, have had good conduct in prison, have no significant ties to criminal enterprises and have no history of violence or significant criminal history.

When President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the disparity in sentences mandated for crimes involving powdered cocaine and crack was dramatically reduced. Advocates of reform have continued to press for the law to be made fully retroactive and support is slowly growing in both parties for congressional action to free inmates with sentences like those the president commuted today, which the White House describes as "years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, currently under consideration by the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate, would add "clarification" to allow all prisoners whose crimes would bring lighter sentences under the Fair Sentencing Act to petition for a reduction in prison time. The bills have a decidedly bipartisan list of supporters, with Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Rand Paul, and Dick Durbin co-sponsoring the Senate version.

Still, some Republicans are skeptical. But GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a vocal advocate for drug sentencing reform, could have the key to getting them on board: Say "socialism." Appearing at an event on sentencing reform held in February by Generation Opportunity, a libertarian youth organization, Massie described the approach he uses to lobby conservatives in favor of more lenient drug sentencing: It's not conservative to spend public resources keeping non-violent offenders locked up. When you're paying all of an inmate's living expenses and getting no public benefit, Massie says, that's "socialism with restrained mobility."

March 31 2015 5:42 PM

Arkansas Legislature Passes Religious Freedom Law Similar to Indiana’s

Arkansas’ legislature Tuesday passed a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is similar to the law of the same name that many observers believe has authorized discrimination against LGBT individuals in Indiana. Arkansas’ bill thus goes to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson for a veto or signature on the same day that Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, announced that he now supports additional legislation explicitly forbidding such discrimination.

The political dynamics of the situation in Arkansas appear similar to those that pertain in Indiana, with businesses expressing unease over the law’s potential effect while conservative politicians and activists resist suggestions to add language preventing businesses from citing the law in order to deny service to LGBT customers. (Until today, Pence had opposed such additional language.) From the New York Times:

While there were several attempts up until the last minute to add a clause to the bill that would explicitly bar discrimination of gays and lesbians, a measure that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana pledged to add in a news conferenceon on Tuesday, the sponsors of the bill in the General Assembly rejected such moves.
Business resistance to the bills in both states continued to ratchet up, with Gap and Levi Strauss joining Walmart, Apple, Yelp and other major corporations in expressing disapproval. On Monday, the chief executive of Acxiom, a marketing technology company based in Little Rock that employs nearly 1,600 statewide, urged the governor to veto a bill that was “a deliberate vehicle for enabling discrimination.”

Like Indiana’s law, the text of the Arkansas bill appears designed to protect businesses that refuse service to LGBT customers, explicitly extending religious-freedom protections to for-profit entities and specifying that religious-freedom rights can be claimed in a judicial dispute between private parties. (For what it’s worth, the bill’s Arkansas sponsor appears to believe that businesses in his state already have the right to refuse service to such customers because LGBT individuals are not a specifically protected class under state law.)

March 31 2015 5:27 PM

New U.S. Climate Targets Are Letting the World Down

On Tuesday, the U.S. submitted its first-ever official, internationally recognized plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020. Problem is, it’s pretty much just a retread of the path the U.S. is already on, which isn’t enough to keep global warming from crossing the “dangerous” two degree Celsius threshold—a point above which scientific consensus paints an increasingly bleak future, with global impacts capable of destabilizing human society.

As the country with the greatest historical responsibility for climate change, the U.S. was expected to increase its ambition in the run up to the important UN climate negotiations in Paris later this year. As it turns out, the U.S. believes it already has done as much as it can. The Obama administration’s new plan is essentially exactly what it had already outlined as part of its bilateral pledge with China late last year: a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels. The only change is that now the U.S. has pledged to shoot for the upper end of that target—which analysts believe is easily achievable, and vastly short of what’s needed.


Tuesday’s U.S. voluntary pledge—known in UN-speak as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution—was initially tough to download via a Google Chrome browser, which some considered symbolic:

The short five-page document contains a self-congratulatory two-page cover letter, touting the U.S. targets as “fair and ambitious.” However, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of independent climate analysts, the U.S. goal is neither. Factoring in various countries’ abilities to reduce carbon, the Climate Action Tracker preliminarily ranked the U.S. pledge as “medium,” not something to be especially proud of. The European Union and China fall into the same category.

Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, told Slate that the U.S. pledge was quite clearly a first step. “We’re going to have to strengthen ambition over time,” he said, adding that the Obama administration, dealing with a largely hostile Congress, is committing to the “most that they can” under existing law.

That may be, but given the fact the U.S. has emitted more total carbon than any other country—one-fifth of all carbon ever emitted—Obama could have at least used this moment to help developing countries transition to low carbon economies. Noticeably missing from Tuesday’s pledge were specifics on how the U.S. plans to fund its pledge to a floundering international climate change adaptation fund, for example, a key requirement that poor countries have attached to the current international negotiations, intended to partially account for the historical inequality of emissions.

But even that probably would not be enough to inspire other countries. One analysis from the consulting firm Climate Advisers shows that so far, the world’s pledges have been only half as ambitious as necessary. That’s led to leaders of the UN climate negotiations to ratchet back expectations for the agreement due to be signed in Paris in December.

March 31 2015 4:19 PM

Defense Rests in Boston Marathon Bombing Trial

Attorneys representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his federal trial over charges related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing rested their case Tuesday after calling four witnesses. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s representatives have already admitted that he helped carry out the bombing and are attempting only to persuade the jury that Dzhokhar should not be sentenced to death because his brother Tamerlan was more responsible for their crimes. From the AP:

During its brief case, the defense called a cell site analyst who showed that Tsarnaev was at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth when Tamerlan purchased components of the two bombs used in the 2013 attack, including pressure cookers and BBs.
Tsarnaev's lawyer told jurors that it was Tamerlan who shot and killed MIT police Officer Sean Collier three days after the bombings. Tamerlan died after a gun battle with police hours after Collier's slaying.

The Boston Herald notes that the defense also called an FBI fingerprint examiner who said that the only prints recovered from the marathon crime scene matched Tamerlan Tsarnaev, not Dzhokhar.

Closing statements have been scheduled for next Monday. If/when Tsarnaev is found guilty, a separate trial phase will determine whether he is sentenced to death or to life in prison.