Monthly Archives: October 2013

Radiolab: Blame

Recenlty, WNYC‘s Radiolab ran one of the most intense and interesting podcasts I have heard in quite sometime.  The podcast, titled “Blame,” is about the intersection of law, technology, and moral responsibility.   

The first story, “Fault Line,” is about a New Jersey man epilepsy may or may not have play a role in his child pornography addiction.  Here is a description of “Fault Line”

Kevin* is a likable guy who lives with his wife in New Jersey. And he’s on probation after serving time in a federal prison for committing a disturbing crime. Producer Pat Walters helps untangle a difficult story about accountability, and a troubling set of questions about identity and self-control. Kevin’s doctor, neuroscientist Orrin Devinsky, claims that what happened to Kevin could happen to any of us under similar circumstances — in a very real way, it wasn’t entirely his fault. But prosecutor Lee Vartan explains why he believes Kevin is responsible just the same, and should have served the maximum sentence.

The second story, “Forget about Blame?”, is a conversation between the hosts of Radiolab with David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who argues that the law should forget about retributivism and blame. Eagleman defends the “my brain made me do it” defense and suggests that neuroscience should fundamentally alter how we think about criminal law.

Here is a description of the story: 

Nita Farahany, who’s been following the growing field of Neurolaw for years now, helps uncover what seems to be a growing trend — defendants using brain science to argue that they aren’t entirely at fault. Neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks this is completely wrongheaded, and argues for tossing out blame as an old-fashioned, unfair way of thinking about the law. According to David and Amy Phenix, a clinical and forensic psychologist who relies on statistics, it makes more sense to focus on the risk of committing more crimes. But Jad and Robert can’t help wondering whether that’s really a world they want to live in. 

Finally, the third story, “Dear Hector”, is a remarkable tale of forgiveness.  It is about a father who befriends his daughter’s murderer.  

Reporter Bianca Giaever brings us a story of forgiveness that’s nearly impossible to comprehend — even for the man at the center of it, an octogenarian named Hector Black.

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October 23, 2013 · 2:53 pm

Zakaria to Conservatives: Get Real, Lighten Up

This past Sunday on Fareed Zarakia GPS, Fareed provided his take on the Republican party and the conservative movement. Zakaria critiques conservatism as being overly ideological and detached from the practical realities that face the United States.

Progressives will likely find Zarakia’s critique compelling. I suspect Conservatives might not find it entirely fair. What do you think?

Here is a description of the video:

For many conservatives today, the “rot” to be excoriated is not about economics and health care but about culture. A persistent theme of conservative intellectuals and commentators – in print and on Fox News – is the cultural decay of the country. But compared with almost any period in U.S. history, we live in bourgeois times, in a culture that values family, religion, work and, above all, private business. Young people today aspire to become Mark Zuckerberg. They quote the aphorisms of Warren Buffett. They read the Twitter feed of Bill Gates. Even after the worst recession since the Great Depression, there are no obvious radicals, anarchists, Black Panthers or other revolutionary movements – except for the Tea Party.

Now, for some tacticians and consultants, extreme rhetoric is just a way to keep the troops fired up. But rhetoric gives meaning and shape to a political movement. Over the past six decades, conservatives’ language of decay, despair and decline have created a group of Americans who fervently believe in this dark narrative and are determined to stop the country from plunging into what they see as imminent oblivion. They aren’t going to give up just yet.

The era of crises could end, but only when this group of conservatives makes its peace with today’s America. They are misty-eyed in their devotion to a distant republic of myth and memory and yet they are passionate in their dislike of the messy, multiracial, capitalist-and-welfare-state democracy that America actually has been for half a century – a fifth of this country’s history. At some point, will they come to realize that you cannot love America in theory and hate it in fact?

Watch the video for the full Take or read more in the Washington Post.

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October 22, 2013 · 11:22 am

Profiting from Politics: How Members of Congress Exploit Campaign Finance Laws

There is not a lot that unites Republicans and Democrats in this era of hyper-partisanship. However, last evening 60 Minutes posited that there is one thing that is common to both parties–profiting from public office. 

Here is how the story began:   

The government shutdown that finally ended on Wednesday night furloughed 800,000 government workers for the better part of two weeks, but there was one group of federal employees that was able to maintain the lifestyle that many of them have grown accustomed to: members of Congress.


With all the talk about their irreconcilable political differences, we wanted to see if they shared any common ground. And we found some. For example, there seems to be a permanent majority in Congress that’s completely satisfied with the current state of campaign financing and congressional ethics and members of both parties have institutionalized ways to skirt the rules.


Most Americans believe it’s against the law for congressmen and senators to profit personally from their political office but it’s an open secret in Washington that that’s not the case. As the saying goes the real scandal in Washington isn’t what’s illegal, it’s what is legal.

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October 21, 2013 · 3:31 pm

Colbert Shutdown Wedding

The government shutdown is over; American did not default. Although experts estimate that the shutdown cost the American economy $24 billion dollars, the effects of the shutdown were not all bad. For instance, one couple who expected to be married at Jefferson Memorial, instead found themselves on the Colbert Report—with their wedding officiated on live-TV, by none other than one Mr. Stephen Colbert.

Part II of the video can be found here.

For more public policy related content, be sure to check out the SLACE Forum


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October 20, 2013 · 12:46 pm

Confession Obsession

Last week, This American Life ran a riveting episode about confessions. The story exemplifies how cops and jurors are obsessed (to the point of irrationality) with confessions.

In the introduction, Ira interviews  Father Thomas Santa about scrupulosity—a psychological disorder similar to OCD where people obsessively confess, even things that are not immoral or sinful.

Act I (“Kim Possible”) is described as follows:

Former DC police detective Jim Trainum tells reporter Saul Elbein about how his first murder investigation went horribly wrong. He and his colleagues pinned the crime on the wrong woman, and it took 10 years and a revisit to her videotaped confession to realize how much, unbeknownst to Jim at the time, he was one of the main orchestrators of the botched confession. (28 minutes)

Here is a description of Act II (“You Don’t Say”):

A person is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. But in this story there is no false confession. Jeffrey Womack spent most of his adult life as a suspect in one of Nashville’s most notorious crimes. And for all that time — until another man was convicted of the crime — Jeffrey refused to be questioned about it. Producer Lisa Pollak tells the story. (14 minutes)

Demetria Kalodimos’ documentary Indelible: The Case Against Jeffrey Womack can be seen here.

Jeffrey Womack and his attorney John Hollins Sr. have told their story in a book called The Suspect: A Memoir. It was ghostwritten by Nashville journalist E. Thomas Wood.

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October 19, 2013 · 7:27 pm

The Economics of Debt Ceiling, Affordable Care Act, Welfare

The most recent Planet Money podcast discussed the three most significant political issues of this past week—(1) the debt ceiling, (2) Affordable Care Act and (3) welfare system debates. Although discussion of the debt ceiling is somewhat dated (since we did not hit it), the story explains what is at stake in debt ceiling debates include the outcome of a possible default.

Here is a description of the podcast:

On today’s show: Three ripped-from-the-headlines stories from Planet Money.

What A U.S. Default Would Mean For Pensions, China, And Social Security

If the government defaults on its debt, people all over the world who have loaned the government money won’t get paid on time.

One Key Thing No One Knows About Obamacare

Obamacare won’t work unless healthy people buy insurance. No one knows whether they will.

Is Welfare A Rational Alternative To Work?

A new paper argues that the value of various welfare benefits add up to well over $30,000 a year. People on welfare disagree.

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October 18, 2013 · 10:56 am

Looking Across the Pond to Prevent Political Gridlock

After sixteen days of government shutdown and being on the brink of federal default, Congress passed, and the President signed, a bill that will re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling, preventing high stakes budgetary brinkmanship at least until 2014.  In keeping with what has become a theme this past week this story from NPR’s Story of the Day podcast and Weekend Day Edition Saturday discusses possible solution to gridlock in Washington.  The story interview’s comparative political scientists about how the American political system compares to European democracies, which generally do not find themselves deadlocked by political paralysis.  While is it unlikely that the U.S. will soon amend the Constitution to adopt a parliament, the story discusses some important differences between how elections are financed and political negotiations are conducted in Europe and the U.S.

Here is how the segment begins: 

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October 17, 2013 · 9:43 am