October 4, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 10:11 AM


Vietnam Is Changing... And So Is the Balance of Power in Asia (Carl Thayer, October 02, 2015, The Diplomat)

The publicity given to the espionage trial, and the decision to rescind news reporting, is a significant sign that how Vietnam manages its relations with China and the United States is a heated topic at the moment. Those who oppose getting too close to the United States highlight the "threat of peaceful evolution" as a national security threat. They point to U.S. pressure on human rights and religious freedom as part of this threat.

The allegations of Chinese espionage fuels allied concerns that China continues to interfere in Vietnam's internal affairs and may be attempting to influence the outcome of the forthcoming national party congress. Hanoi based observers have told The Diplomat that China has informed selected Vietnamese leaders that it opposes the elevation of Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, who is viewed as pro-American.

Vietnamese sources also report that China has let it be known privately that President Xi Jinping may call off his expected visit to Vietnam this month if Hanoi does not mute its criticism of China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. These same sources believe the visit will go ahead because so much is at stake for China.

Those who want closer ties with the United States stress the economic advantages of membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This group is now countering the argument of the "threat of peaceful evolution" by pointing to Chinese espionage as a major threat to national security.

In other words, the threat of peaceful evolution from the United States is now being counterpoised with the threat of Chinese subversion.

Vietnam's decision to publicize the espionage trial, coupled with the release of several dissidents in recent months, are straws in the wind of a possible change in Vietnam-United States relations.

President Truong Tan Sang recently stated in a media interview that China's construction of artificial islands was illegal under international law and endangered maritime security. Sang's interview was given to the Associated Press in New York while he was attending the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

Sang's remarks were directed at both international and domestic audiences. Sang's remarks in New York may be viewed as preparing the grounds for deepening relations with the United States. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:57 AM


The Most Important Thing, and It's Almost a Secret (Nicholas Kristof, 10/01/15, NY Times)

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That's 95 percent of Americans -- who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty hasn't doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

Students in Harper, Liberia. The Liberian government and activists are trying to to enroll more girls in schools. Credit Ahmed Jallanzo/European Pressphoto Agency
When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world -- and I count myself among the guilty. Consider:

• The number of extremely poor people (defined as those earning less than $1 or $1.25 a day, depending on who's counting) rose inexorably until the middle of the 20th century, then roughly stabilized for a few decades. Since the 1990s, the number of poor has plummeted.

• In 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5; this toll has since dropped by more than half.

• More kids than ever are becoming educated, especially girls. In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do.

Intellectual hostility to the idea of the End of History doesn't make it any less true.
Posted by orrinj at 9:47 AM


U.S. officials optimistic they will close giant Asian trade deal (DOUG PALMER, 10/4/15, Politico)

 Talks aimed at concluding a landmark 12-nation trade pact were continuing through the night Saturday as negotiators attempted to break a deadlock over the length of monopoly protections for a new class of cutting-edge medicines -- among the last issues holding up a key part of President Barack Obama's economic legacy.

After extending their stay for a fifth day, U.S. officials said they remain optimistic they can clinch a deal Sunday.

"Progress has been made, but negotiations are still ongoing," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is running for reelection this month, told reporters during a campaign stop in Montreal on Saturday.

...the massive expansion of free trade is nearly all the Obama presidency will be remembered for.

Posted by orrinj at 9:39 AM


Iranian panel says nuke deal flawed, should pass anyway (AFP, October 4, 2015)

In their report the lawmakers hit out at the decision to allow inspections of military sites, which supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had appeared to rule out in a speech just weeks before the deal was sealed.

"It is evident that, based on the JCPOA, access to Iranian military sites has become possible," the panel said.

"The JCPOA has serious weaknesses in the security section. Unless there's a revision regarding the inspection of military, defense and security sites, it will cause problems for the country.

"Implementation of this inspection regime could lead to unprecedented information gathering and exposes to danger the security infrastructure, human, scientific, military and security resources of Iran."

The lawmakers, however, said the review made "the assumption that Iran's negotiating team had enjoyed the supreme leader's trust" during the talks that led to the deal and its passing would see sanctions lifted.

Economic growth is worth the loss of sovereignty.
Posted by orrinj at 9:35 AM


Speech at Chicago, Illinois (Abraham Lincoln, July 10, 1858)

We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty--or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,--with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,--we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves--we feel more attached the one to the other and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men--descended by blood from our ancestors--among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe--German, Irish, French and Scandinavian--men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

Posted by orrinj at 9:12 AM


How to Fix Europe : The refugee crisis has exposed a larger one: a lack of confidence in the EU itself. (BILL EMMOTT, October 02, 2015, Politico)

Europe is beset by many crises, but enveloping them all is a crisis that is both broader and deeper: a crisis of public confidence in the European Union itself. Nowhere has this been more evident than over the issue of the refugees and migrants flowing across and around the Mediterranean, especially those fleeing Syria's bloody civil war. While national governments have responded in good ways and bad, the EU response has been a fine imitation of the Keystone Kops. If the EU cannot deal with a crisis like this, people are asking all over Europe, what is the point of it?

It is a fair question. The accurate answer, that the EU doesn't exist as an independent source of decision and action but is rather an agglomeration of 28 national governments' views, decisions and actions, does nothing to reassure. The whole purpose of the EU is to facilitate and even require collaboration and coordination between the member governments, in pursuit of collective solutions that can be stronger, more coherent and more effective than separate national policies.

However many summits are held on the refugee issue, with policy agreements announced in the small hours, the European public still believes that the EU cannot get its act together. It sees a huge gap between the policies on which agreement can be reached--such as to allocate 120,000 refugees among countries according to quotas--and the magnitude of the issue. To many people, this looks like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, an action that is a diversion from the main point.

This crisis of confidence sees its most evident impact in the opinion poll ratings for anti-EU and anti-immigrant political parties all over Europe. But it also feeds into a broader disillusionment with representative government in all countries. So what, if anything, can be done about it?

...is to elude the burden of representative governance.  There being no Europe, the EU can not be "fixed."  People will, even then reluctantly, accept it as a free trade regime, because it makes them wealthier.  They won't accept more than that because there is no benefit to doing so.  

Posted by orrinj at 9:08 AM


The Myth Behind Defensive Gun Ownership : Guns are more likely to do harm than good. (EVAN DEFILIPPIS and DEVIN HUGHES January 14, 2015, Politico)

In the early hours of Nov. 2, 2013, in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, a pounding at the door startled Theodore Wafer from his slumber. Unable to find his cell phone to call the police, he grabbed the shotgun he kept loaded in his closet. Wafer opened the door and, spotting a dark figure behind the screen, fired a single blast at the supposed intruder. The shot killed a 19-year-old girl who was knocking to ask for help after a car accident.

Shortly after midnight on June 5, 2014, two friends left a party briefly. Upon returning they accidently knocked on the wrong door. Believing burglars were breaking in, the frightened homeowner called the police, grabbed his gun and fired a single round, hitting one of the confused party-goers in the chest.

On Sept. 21, 2014, Eusebio Christian was awakened by a noise. Assuming a break-in, he rushed to the kitchen with his gun and began firing. All his shots missed but one, which struck his wife in the face.

What do these and so many other cases have in common? They are the byproduct of a tragic myth: that millions of gun owners successfully use their firearms to defend themselves and their families from criminals. Despite having nearly no academic support in public health literature, this myth is the single largest motivation behind gun ownership.

Posted by orrinj at 8:53 AM


In Putin's Syria Intervention, Fear of a Weak Government Hand (STEVEN LEE MYERS, OCT. 4, 2015, NY Times)

The specter of mass protest -- of mob rule -- is one that has haunted Mr. Putin throughout his political life, and that fear lies at the heart of his belief in the primacy of state authority above all else, both at home and abroad.

The East Germans considered their protests an expression of popular will, just as many Syrians did when protests against Mr. Assad's government began in 2011. But Mr. Putin viewed them as an unlawful usurpation of government authority. And that, in his mind, leads inexorably not to positive political change, but rather to chaos.

"Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people there wanted change," Mr. Putin said at the United Nations on Monday, where he spoke for the first time in a decade. "But what was the actual outcome?"

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos that followed darkened Mr. Putin's opinion of freewheeling democracy -- and of the character of his own constituents. He was deeply ambivalent about the protests that hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and as an obscure mayoral aide in St. Petersburg, cheered Boris N. Yeltsin's forceful response to the political uprising in the constitutional crisis of 1993, which culminated in the shelling of the Parliament.

In 1998, as the head of Mr. Yeltsin's security council, Mr. Putin had to mediate an electoral dispute in the southern region of Karachayevo-Cherkessia to prevent violence erupting between rival ethnic groups.

The lesson he said he learned was that only the strong hand of the state could avoid the economic and political chaos that consumed Russia in the 1990s. That belief is widely shared in Russia, and is one reason for Mr. Putin's genuine popularity at home.

"The Russian people are backward," he told a group of foreign academics in 2005, according to Marie Mendras's account in "Russian Politics: The Paradox of a Weak State." "They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time."

This distrust of popular will has been the justification for laws that have throttled dissent at home. With each election, the Kremlin has tightened the rules governing political parties and public gatherings. When tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest fraud in the parliamentary election in 2011 and Mr. Putin's own re-election in 2012, the Kremlin responded forcefully to stanch the contagion.

The police arrested and convicted dozens of protesters over the next two years, while the authorities harassed the most prominent leaders of the opposition, like the anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny.

And in February, Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was assassinated outside the Kremlin.

What is striking, though perhaps consistent, is how Mr. Putin's view of public protest has become the basis for an increasingly assertive foreign policy, one aimed at countering what he views as efforts by the United States and others to violate the sovereignty of nations by encouraging political change.

Meanwhile, the entire point of the WoT is to destabilize those regimes where the "mob" does not get to rule, which is why the American alliance with the Kurds and Shi'a was natural.  Putin's support for dictatorship is likewise natural, just futile in the long run. Happily, it's also self-destructive.

Posted by orrinj at 8:35 AM


Why naming the Oregon shooter matters: Editorial (The Oregonian Editorial Board, October 02, 2015)

With great ostentation, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin stood in front of reporters in the midst of a nationally calamitous moment and announced what he wasn't going to say. 

"I will not name the shooter," said Hanlin on Thursday, hours after a heavily-armed man had fatally shot nine people and wounded nine others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. "I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act." Hanlin continued, punctuating his statement with brief, dramatic pauses. "But you will never hear me mention his name." He then urged the news media and community to avoid using the shooter's name, saying it only glorifies his actions.

The press can't, on the one hand, insist on an absolute right to fulfill the purposes of these perps and turn them into celebrities, but, on the other, decry an absolutist defense of gun rights, easy access to which abets the murders.  

Both sides wish to separate the means of the Constitution from its ends : To "insure domestic Tranquility" and "promote the general Welfare." As Justice Jackson wrote, it's not a suicide pact.

Posted by orrinj at 8:29 AM


Kunduz fighting: Could city's fall boost peace prospects? (Justin Rowlatt, 2 October 2015, BBC)

A few months ago the prospects for peace in Afghanistan looked better than they had in years.

In July members of the Taliban met representatives of the Afghan government for talks in the pretty hill town of Muree, just outside Islamabad in Pakistan.

It was hailed as a breakthrough, the first very tentative sign that the Taliban might consider some kind of negotiated peace.

Those talks were disrupted by news of the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

But hopes were boosted just days ago when the new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, hinted he might support talks under certain conditions [...]

Kunduz demonstrates that the Taliban remains a formidable fighting force.

What it doesn't show is that the Taliban has ruled out the idea of a negotiated settlement.

Many observers believe its leadership recognises that they are never going to take back control of Afghanistan, opening up the possibility of some kind of political compromise.
In which case Kunduz could be seen as part of a long-term bid by the Taliban to strengthen their hand in future negotiations.

Of course, Omar had been dead for years, so it was Mansour suing for peace in the first place.  That revelation is why he needed to try and show strength.  But the stark reality is that the Taliban isn't strong.

Posted by orrinj at 8:11 AM


The Reign of Recycling (JOHN TIERNEY, OCT. 3, 2015, NY Times)

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it's still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies. The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, "Recycling Is Not Dead!"

While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. Yes, it's popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx and Houston don't have the same fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.

The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. "If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there's a crisis to confront," says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. "Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?"

Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.

They probably don't know, for instance, that to reduce carbon emissions, you'll accomplish a lot more by sorting paper and aluminum cans than by worrying about yogurt containers and half-eaten slices of pizza. Most people also assume that recycling plastic bottles must be doing lots for the planet. They've been encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency, which assures the public that recycling plastic results in less carbon being released into the atmosphere.

But how much difference does it make? Here's some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger's round-trip flight between New York and London, you'd have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.

Even those statistics might be misleading. New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.'s life-cycle calculation doesn't take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of "How to Live a Low-Carbon Life." Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.

Posted by orrinj at 7:56 AM


Coaching during Ravens-Steelers game shows why Bill Belichick dominates the AFC (Mike Preston, 10/03/15, Baltimore Sun0

If you watched Thursday night's game between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, it's easy to figure out why the New England Patriots have won so many Super Bowl titles since the turn of the century.

The AFC doesn't have any other head coach in the class of the Patriots' Bill Belichick.

He might be Public Enemy No. 2 (quarterback Tom Brady is No. 1) in Baltimore because of Deflategate, but Belichick doesn't beat himself. He doesn't leave you puzzled about his coaching decisions.

They are sound and solid. His teams rarely self-destruct because they have discipline.

On Thursday night, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was bad and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was worse. [...]

One of the first things Belichick does is neutralize your top weapons on both offense and defense. He adjusts well to his own personnel, which is why Brady is throwing shorter, quick passes these days as opposed to longer passes when he was younger.

You don't see Patriots receivers run short of the first-down marker on third down. They don't try end-arounds with slow receivers. Good coaching makes a difference, which is why the Patriots keep going to Super Bowls.

Rich Gannon had an interesting take on Belichick during last week's Jags game.  He said that it seemed like all the funky formations and packages that Belichick uses are basically a matter of coaching against himself because he's bored.

Posted by orrinj at 7:31 AM


A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths (Nicholas Kristof, 10/03/15, NY Times)

More than 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, and most of the rest are homicides. Gun enthusiasts scoff at including suicides, saying that without guns people would kill themselves by other means. In many cases, though, that's not true.

In Great Britain, people used to kill themselves by putting their heads in the oven and asphyxiating themselves with coal gas. This accounted for almost half of British suicides in the late 1950s, but Britain then began switching from coal gas to natural gas, which is much less lethal. Sticking one's head in the oven was no longer a reliable way to kill oneself -- and there was surprisingly little substitution of other methods. Suicide rates dropped, and they stayed at a lower level.

The British didn't ban ovens, but they made them safer. We need to do the same with guns.

When I tweeted about the need to address gun violence after college shooting in the Roseburg, Ore., a man named Bob pushed back. "Check out car accident deaths," he tweeted sarcastically. "Guess we should ban cars."

Actually, cars exemplify the public health approach we need to apply to guns. We don't ban cars, but we do require driver's licenses, seatbelts, airbags, padded dashboards, safety glass and collapsible steering columns. And we've reduced the auto fatality rate by 95 percent.

One problem is that the gun lobby has largely blocked research on making guns safer. Between 1973 and 2012, the National Institutes of Health awarded 89 grants for the study of rabies and 212 for cholera -- and only three for firearms injuries.

Daniel Webster, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, notes that in 1999, the government listed the gun stores that had sold the most weapons later linked to crimes. The gun store at the top of the list was so embarrassed that it voluntarily took measures to reduce its use by criminals -- and the rate at which new guns from the store were diverted to crime dropped 77 percent.

But in 2003, Congress barred the government from publishing such information.

Posted by orrinj at 7:25 AM


To Laugh Is Human, But Is Comedy Divine? (Dwight Longenecker, 10/03/15, Imaginative Conservative)

Laughter lightens and enlightens the soul. Laughter is a sign of confidence and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, after all, comes from the word "enthuse," which is derived from the Greek en theos-or "God within." Enthusiasm is a sign of the Holy Spirit's presence, and any religion that is totally dour, sour, and serious is not the religion of Christ the Lord, but the religion of the Anti-Christ--the Dark Lord.

Laughter, like all emotion, opens the heart, and when the heart is open things get done. There's an old Russian saying, "The heart moves the feet." In other words, it is the emotions that motivate. In fact the word "emotion" and "motion" and "motivate" all come from the same root. The mind might be informed, but until the heart is moved nothing moves.

When the heart is opened we experience a little vulnerability, and at that point God can slip in past the watchful guardians of the soul. This vulnerability makes us open to reality--especially the reality of our humanity. Like art, music, sport, or dancing, laughter is one of those delightfully useless absurdities that make us human. Animals don't laugh and cry. Apes grunt but they don't guffaw. Wolves howl and owls hoot, but not with laughter.

Let's get theological. If we're created in the image of God and we are able to laugh, then does God laugh? Is comedy divine?

I'm convinced of it. Because he sees how all things work together for good, he sees that the whole cosmic drama has a happy ending, and a just ending is the definition of a comedy.

God therefore sees the whole cosmic joke and instead of seeing him only as the sober and awesome God of the Universe, it doesn't do us any harm to also see him as a King of Comedy-I'm seeing an everlastingly burly Burl Ives, or the good man, John Goodman. I'm seeing the Creator as a chuckling Chesterton or the sweet John Candy. He is Jolly Jehovah, the Lord of Laughter, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and the Almighty Master of Mirth.

...to a conservative, a comedy. Of course God finds us amusing.

October 3, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 1:35 PM


Pacific trade accord negotiations continue into what might be final stretch (Don Lee, 10/03/15, LA Times)

Officials negotiating an expansive 12-nation Pacific trade accord continued talks Saturday in hopes of clearing some final hurdles and announcing the long-elusive completion of an agreement.

Since high-level talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership began Wednesday in Atlanta, officials from the U.S., Japan, Canada and nine other trading partners appear to have made significant headway in overcoming two of three big obstacles that have stood in the way of the biggest free-trade deal in a generation.

Posted by orrinj at 1:30 PM


NCAA investigating claim that Louisville used strippers and prostitutes to recruit basketball players (Julie Kliegman, 10/03/15, The Week)

Posted by orrinj at 9:18 AM


How networks are driving innovation in healthcare (Mackensie Graham, 10/01/15, Next Web)

Thankfully the networks developed for, and those used by, the healthcare system are innovating in diagnosis, treatment and recovery. [...]

Remote healthcare reached a new high in 2003 with the world's first hospital-to-hospital telerobotics assisted surgery in Canada. Computer Motion's ZEUS Surgical System was used at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton by Dr. Mehran Anvari.

The system was supported by the highly secure and high-speed Bell Canada's Virtual Private Network enterprise (VPNe), which relied on Cisco Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology to connect with the robot arm executing the surgery in North Bay General Hospital over 250 miles away from St. Joseph's.

There was less than a 150 millisecond delay between Dr. Anvari's hand movements and the robotic instruments. The instruments at North Bay General Hospital were overseen and positioned by a general surgeon, Dr. Craig McKinley. With rural communities and poor hospitals, such technological power can be used to share resources with populations that may not otherwise have any access to a necessary surgery or a conversation with a specialist.

Virtual care also comes into play for less serious incidents. HealthTap has a monthly subscription model for access to its resource of 70,000 US licensed, board-certified doctors. Such a set-up encourages reaching out to a healthcare professional as opposed to putting off visiting the doctor when symptoms arise

Posted by orrinj at 8:49 AM


Obama and Terrorism : Like It or Not, the War Goes On (Jessica Stern, Sept/Oct 2015, Foreign Affairs)

Ironically, the aspects of U.S. counterterrorism to which he has made the least significant changes are the very ones that he was initially most determined to alter. The Bush administration's "global war on terrorism" has been replaced by a campaign known as "countering violent extremism" to serve as the overarching U.S. strategy to combat transnational Salafi jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. But the new phraseology masks many similarities. The "kinetic" fight--the use of deadly force by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies--has continued unabated, mostly in the form of drone strikes, since Obama took office. According to estimates collected by The Long War Journal, the United States has launched approximately 450 such attacks in Pakistan and Yemen during Obama's tenure, killing some 2,800 suspected terrorists and around 200 civilians.

In many important ways, the relationship between Bush's and Obama's counterterrorism programs is marked by continuity as much as by change. And although Obama explicitly outlawed Bush's "enhanced interrogation techniques"--rightly classifying them as torture--and closed the so-called black sites where the CIA carried out the abuse, those changes were not as significant as they might appear. According to Jack Goldsmith, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel from October 2003 until June 2004, the Bush administration had halted the practice of waterboarding (without specifically declaring it illegal) by 2003, and the black sites had been largely emptied by 2007. And although Obama denounced abusive interrogations and extralegal detentions, he did so presumably knowing full well that a number of Washington's Middle Eastern allies in the struggle against Salafi jihadists would nonetheless continue to engage in such activities, and therefore, if those techniques happened to produce useful intelligence, the United States could still benefit from it.

Perhaps the most surprising continuity between Bush's and Obama's counterterrorism records is the fact that the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains open. One of Obama's first acts as president was to sign an executive order requiring that the Pentagon shut down the facility within a year. But in March 2011, after facing years of intense bipartisan congressional opposition to that plan, Obama ordered the resumption of military commissions at Guantánamo and officially sanctioned the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists held there without charge--two of the policies he had vowed to change. In this case, the president's idealistic goals became hard to sustain once the duty to protect American lives became his primary responsibility.

You run on one thing, but then stuff happens.

Posted by orrinj at 8:36 AM


Australia confiscated 650,000 guns. Murders and suicides plummeted. (Zack Beauchamp, October 2, 2015, Vox)

Howard persuaded both his coalition and Australia's states (the country has a federal system) to agree to a sweeping, nationwide reform of gun laws. The so-called National Firearms Agreement (NFA), drafted the month after the shooting, sharply restricted legal ownership of firearms in Australia. It also established a registry of all guns owned in the country, among other measures, and required a permit for all new firearm purchases.

One of the most significant provisions of the NFA was a flat-out ban on certain kinds of guns, such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. But there were already a number of such guns in circulation in Australia, and the NFA required getting them off the streets.

Australia solved this problem by introducing a mandatory buyback: Australia's states would take away all guns that had just been declared illegal. In exchange, they'd pay the guns' owners a fair price, set by a national committee using market value as a benchmark, to compensate for the loss of their property. The NFA also offered legal amnesty for anyone who handed in illegally owned guns, though they weren't compensated. [...]

In 2011, Harvard's David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis reviewed the research on Australia's suicide and homicide rate after the NFA. Their conclusion was clear: "The NFA seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved."

What they found is a decline in both suicide and homicide rates after the NFA. The average firearm suicide rate in Australia in the seven years after the bill declined by 57 percent compared with the seven years prior. The average firearm homicide rate went down by about 42 percent.

Now, Australia's homicide rate was already declining before the NFA was implemented -- so you can't attribute all of the drops to the new laws. But there's good reason to believe the NFA, especially the buyback provisions, mattered a great deal in contributing to those declines.

"First," Hemenway and Vriniotis write, "the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates."

There is also this: 1996 and 1997, the two years in which the NFA was actually implemented, saw the largest percentage declines in the homicide rate in any two-year period in Australia between 1915 and 2004.

Pinning down exactly how much the NFA contributed is harder. One study concluded that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides. But as Dylan Matthews points out, the results were not statistically significant because Australia has a pretty low number of murders already.

However, the paper's findings about suicide were statistically significant -- and astounding. Buying back 3,500 guns correlated with a 74 percent drop in firearm suicides. Non-gun suicides didn't increase to make up the decline.

There is good reason why gun restrictions would prevent suicides. As Matthews explains in great depth, suicide is often an impulsive choice, one often not repeated after a first attempt. Guns are specifically designed to kill people effectively, which makes suicide attempts with guns likelier to succeed than (for example) attempts with razors or pills. Limiting access to guns makes each attempt more likely to fail, thus making it more likely that people will survive and not attempt to harm themselves again.

Bottom line: Australia's gun buyback saved lives, probably by reducing homicides and almost certainly by reducing suicides. 

The well-regulated militias, on the other hand, have an explicit constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Posted by orrinj at 7:27 AM


A New Golden Age Part I: Why Your Grandparents Lived Larger than You Do (Tom Streithorst, September 28th, 2015, LA Review of Books)

Once upon a time, before you were born, there was a Golden Age. You didn't need an amazing resume to find a job. Even the lazy and ignorant got hired. And best of all, pay kept going up. One man working an ordinary job could support his entire family in middle class splendor. And he didn't have to work all that hard. Office workers left on the dot of five and factory workers got paid overtime. Getting drunk at work, if not de rigure, was certainly commonplace. And still everybody made more money than his or her parents. Everybody lived better than they had dreamed possible when they were kids.

Corporations hired more than fired. Firms were happy to train new workers. A 30-year-old saw his earnings double by the time he hit 50. If you gave your youth to the firm, they generally took care of you until you retired. And when you did retire, your pension, which both the government and your employer recognized as your earned and sacrosanct right, was safe and generous. Millions escaped poverty. The middle class grew and grew until it was almost everybody. Inequality shrank.

This isn't a fairy tale. Economic historians call the post-war years, 1950 to 1973, the Golden Age because those were the years the US and world economy grew faster than ever before or since. Neoliberalism's dirty secret is that its policies don't work that well. It isn't just since the financial crisis that growth has been stagnant. Even the boom was mediocre. The best year since the election of Ronald Reagan was 1999, when the economy grew an impressive 4.8 percent. Sounds good until you realize that economic growth was higher in 1950, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1976, and 1978. Even the 1970s, a byword for stagflation and economic turmoil, saw better growth than any decade since.

According to today's conventional wisdom, the policies of the Golden Age should have doomed our economy to pathetic performance. Tax rates were spectacularly high, regulation was omnipresent, unions were strong, the financial sector miniscule.   [...]

Today, productivity continues it unstoppable rise but wages no longer move up in step. Since the financial crisis, close to 95 percent of the benefits of productivity gains have gone into the pockets of the top 1 percent. And since the rich don't have to spend all their income, inequality drains the system of demand. Our problem today is that with wages stagnant but productivity increasing, the economy's ability to supply far exceeds workers' ability to consume. Our problem is we can make more goods and services than our underpaid workers can afford to purchase. Supply outstrips demand.

Every year, technology advances, making labor more productive. That means we can make more stuff with fewer hours of work.

In the post-Depression/post--WWII era of industrialization it was, indeed, almost impossible to have an economy that didn't grow.  Even the USSR's economic performance was decent in those years. Likewise, if you look at the development of the rest of the Third World in recent decades, it appears that almost no level of government interference, corruption, etc. can prevent you from growing fairly rapidly--provided that you are engaged in the global trading system.

But a transition occurs by the end of the 70s/early 80s in the developed world and two kinds of economies diverge.  By that point, unionization and wage demands have become a ratchet that drives inflation ever higher and productivity ever lower.  As the author concedes, employees of the time were lazy, ignorant, drunk, etc., because employment was essentially a right, entirely divorced from the actual economic needs of business.  Predictably, said businesses became sclerotic.

So began a great social experiment, wherein the nations of Southern Europe retained the old Golden Age model, with the result that their economies are now basket cases and their populations are aging too rapidly for their remaining workers to fund the social welfare programs that retirees expect. Meanwhile. the neoliberal nations of the Anglosphere adopted a new model (thanks to Thatcher, Volcker and Reagan) which tamed inflation, in large part by breaking the unions; re-privatized and deregulated businesses, lowered taxes, privatized retirement, and so forth, with the result that the econmies of the English-speaking world (which was soon joined by the rest of Northern Europe) vastly outperform their former peers and our societies buck their deadly demographic trends.

Considered this way, we can see that the author has missed his own point rather spectacularly, which is that : productivity continues its steady wealth-creating rise in economies, like ours, that decoupled productivity from jobs and wages.  On the other hand, nations that stuck with high taxes, high regulation regimes, strong unions, and the like are dying.  

We do face a bit of a quiandry as regards adopting a different means of distributing the added wealth that we realize by getting rid of make-work jobs to those who used to fill them.  But, fortunately, we do have the rapidly increasing wealth.  Those who stuck to the Golden Age model face a probably insoluble crisis : what, after all, is the point of having a job when there's ever less wealth to be distributed via them?  And why maintain the system if the retirees aren't going to get the pensions and retirement benefits they feel entitled to? Worst of all, barring the importation of immigrants on a scale that would dwarf even the current wave, how would you revive the economies even if you adopted our more functional model? The Golden Age has turned to dross before their very eyes and it is too late for them to make the chantges we initiated four decades ago.  

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 AM


Afghan Taliban leader claims 'victory' in Kunduz Despite later retreat... (MIRWAIS KHAN AND LYNNE O'DONNELL, October 3, 2015, AP)

The new leader of the Afghan Taliban boasted in a phone call with The Associated Press on Friday that the group's three-day occupation of the northern city of Kunduz was a "symbolic victory" demonstrating the insurgents' strength, even as his fighters were fleeing under fire from Afghan government troops. [...]

Still, in the end, the Taliban were unable to hold their ground as the Afghan military rallied in a counterattack, a sign of how the insurgents lack the manpower or firepower to carry out much more than short-term sorties into large urban areas.

Sure, it was an obvious show of weakness, but the only point of the exercise was for him to unite the warring divisions within the Taliban and to be able to sue for peace from a "position of strength."  So, pretend it was a mighty victory.

Posted by orrinj at 7:09 AM


Remembering Indonesia's Bloody Coup : Fifty years ago this week Indonesia experienced one of the 20th century's darkest moments. (Nithin Coca, October 02, 2015, The Diplomat)

On September 30, 1965, in what remain murky circumstances, six top generals were killed by a group allegedly consisting of left-wing Indonesians. This allowed a previously little-known military leader, General Suharto, to assume power and launch a nationwide campaign against the perpetrators of the killing, which, according to him, were the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) and its left-wing allies. Within two years, Suharto was in firm control of the country, the PKI had been completely destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were dead.

Indonesia's mass killings rank alongside some of the bloodiest events in post-World War II history. The estimated death toll puts this event alongside the Korean War, or the Rwandan genocide in terms of bloodshed. Yet, unlike those two events, it receives little attention globally. Within Indonesia itself, the situation is worse.

"The younger generation has grown up with very little knowledge of anything about this period of time, unlike their parents who had swallowed government propaganda for years," said Tom Pepinsky, associate director of the Cornell University Modern Indonesia Project.

Throughout the Suharto era, which ran from 1965 to 1998, on October 1 each year, a controversial documentary, Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Treason of the September 30 Movement and the Indonesian Communist Party), was aired on television and shown in school. It greatly exaggerated the threat of a takeover by the PKI and honored the militias and military leaders who organized the mass killings.

Today, the documentary is no longer shown and the holiday celebrating the killings no longer celebrated, but teachings of the event take on either a strong nationalistic tone, or are completely ignored. Only in a few elite universities, such as Univeritas Indonesia, are students able to learn openly about what really happened in the 1960s.

This is part of the progress made since Suharto fell from power in 1998, during the Asian Financial Crisis. Then, Indonesia quickly moved to build a democracy that, contrary to the expectations of many, has survived and thrived.

The ease with which our fascist allies against communism--Spain, Portugal, Chile, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc.--transitioned to democracy after their internal threats were dealt with remains a forbidden topic.

October 2, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 7:30 PM


Why the phrase 'first world problem' is condescending to everyone : It's not just a comical apology for trivial moaning and an enjoyable internet meme - there's also something darker going on (Steven Poole,  2 October 2015, The Guardian)

So there I was, bashing out a hot take on my MacBook Air on a sunny terrace, when I took a sip of my takeaway coffee and my heart sank. The barista had put milk in it. That ruined my whole morning. What a terrible world. But I know, right? First world problem!

The phrase "first world problem" is these days used as a comical apology for moaning about trivia. It is also an enjoyable internet meme, with a dedicated subreddit. (I particularly liked "The Wi-Fi at the luxury Greek villa my wife and I are staying at only supports 4 devices at a time", and the rather subtle: "I want to order pizza, but it is too early and I don't want to be judged by my doorman.") [...]

Like many things, "first world problems" has a different force depending on whether you are applying it to yourself or throwing it in someone else's face. If, at the end of an irate tirade about how my Kenyan coffee beans were over-roasted by the artisanal torréfacteur, I append the phrase "first world problem" with some wry rearrangement of my face muscles, I signal that I know this is just one of the minor frustrations of a very fortunate life. To pre-emptively concede that my problem is just a first world one is to ostentatiously check my privilege before anyone else tells me to do so. At the same time, I remind myself and everyone in earshot that we are indeed living in the "first world". So it is also a humblebrag.

Such privilege-checking becomes a more violent intervention when demanded by someone else. If, after listening to your pathetic account of how your Uber cab took a whole 10 minutes to arrive, I respond "first world problem", then I am aggressively staking out the moral high ground and portraying myself (almost certainly dishonestly) as someone who only ever worries about the plight of starving children. Naturally, our powers of sympathy are limited and we all conduct psychic triage on the sufferings of others. But when "first world problem" is just a mealy mouthed way of saying "shut up", it sounds distinctly compassion-free.

Whoever uses it, though, it's arguable that the phrase "first world problems" is condescending and dehumanising to literally everyone on the planet. 

Which reminds us of an archetypal first world problem, worrying that your joke is actually impacting a Third Worlder's quality of life.

Posted by orrinj at 5:34 PM


Poll: Clean Energy Issues Pretty Popular Among Conservative Base (ELI LEHRER, 10/02/15, Weekly Standard)

The data show that clean energy issues are actually pretty popular even amongst the conservative base. An overwhelming 87 percent of self-described conservative Republicans polled said they support policies that allow them to sell rooftop-generated solar power back to utilities. This practice, known as net metering, has mostly faced criticism from the political right, in part because it clearly hurts utility company profits while promoting the interests of alternative energy consumers that receive direct subsidies. (The utilities, it's worth noting, get some subsidies of their own.) 

That isn't the only surprise. Conservatives actually were slightly more likely than the population as a whole (58 vs. 57 percent) to support allowing people to put solar panels on their own homes without penalty. What's more, about two-thirds of self-described conservatives supported mandating that monopoly utilities invest in solar and wind power (not a particularly free-market idea), while nearly 60 percent also supported vastly increased R&D spending on energy technology. [...]

Among all Republican voters, majorities also voiced support for carbon taxes (worth considering provided they are used to replace big-government regulation and to cut other taxes) as well as for wind and solar power subsidies (which are simply bad ideas).

Posted by orrinj at 5:23 PM


Fact Checker : The repeated, misleading claim that Planned Parenthood 'provides' mammograms (Michelle Ye Hee Lee, October 2, 2015, Washington Post)

Mammograms have come to symbolize whether Planned Parenthood is a health-care organization that does cancer screenings, as supporters say -- or a front for an organization that is mainly an abortion provider masquerading as a reproductive health organization, as opponents say. Democrats point to mammograms, as an example of a service that women can have access to via Planned Parenthood. Republicans seeking to defund Planned Parenthood show that since it doesn't offer mammography X-rays, federal funding should be diverted to federally qualified health-care clinics that actually do.

Planned Parenthood's annual report shows it gave 487,029 breast exam services for women in 2013. This is a clinical breast exam, checking for changes or lumps in women's breasts. If the doctor finds something abnormal or worth checking out, the patient is referred for a mammogram, which requires X-rays given at a licensed radiology facility. Planned Parenthood does administer Pap tests and HPV tests, both of which screen for cervical cancer.

Richards said during the hearing that Planned Parenthood clinics do not have mammogram machines. The Federal Drug Administration's list, updated weekly, of certified mammography facilities does not list any Planned Parenthood clinics. Some Planned Parenthood affiliates host free mammography mobile vans for low-income and uninsured women.

Despite the ongoing emphasis on Planned Parenthood's mammogram referrals, this service does not reflect the core clients of the organization -- certainly not clients in the reproductive age or have the highest rate of first-time abortions.

Posted by orrinj at 3:43 PM


The Martian Soars (David Edelstein, 10/02/15, Vulture)

Cynical as I am about how monster-budget blockbusters have come to dominate the studio mind-set, I can't imagine anyone not liking this one. The Martian is shot, designed, computer-generated, and scripted on a level that makes most films of its ilk look slipshod. Scott and writer Drew Goddard aren't trying to make an "important" sci-fi movie like Interstellar. They aim lower but blow past their marks.

The movie is even more ingratiating than Andy Weir's best-selling novel, a guileless, un-crafty piece of storytelling that holds you anyway, because its writer is so absorbed in How Things Work on a lifeless planet that you can't wait to see Mark solve the next unsolvable problem. Weir is the son of a particle physicist and an electrical engineer, and he immersed himself in the mechanics of space travel. Even NASA folks who found Gravity scientifically ridiculous sat up and saluted him. (Fun fact: He's afraid to fly.)

October 1, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 7:08 PM


Study: America has the most competitive large economy on earth (James Pethokoukis, October 1, 2015, AEI)

In its latest report, the World Economic Forum  -- the Davos people -- ranks the US economy as the world's third most competitive, behind Switzerland and Singapore. So actually the US is the most competitive large economy. From the report:

The United States retains 3rd place. Although many risks arguably loom on the horizon, the country's recovery can build on improvements in institutions--government efficiency is rated higher than in previous years--its macroeconomic environment, and the soundness of its financial markets.

The United States' major strength is its unique combination of exceptional innovation capacity (4th), large market size (2nd), and sophisticated businesses (4th). The country's innovation capacity is driven by collaboration between firms and universities (2nd), human capital (4th on availability of scientists and engineers), and company spending on R&D (3rd). The United States also benefits from flexible labor markets (4th) and an overall well-developed financial sector (5th).

The point, of course, is that the U.S. is too large, so we'll devolve into several separate (though allied) polities over time.

Posted by orrinj at 7:03 PM


Obama to Putin: Good luck with that (MICHAEL CROWLEY 10/01/15, Politico)

[T]he White House is responding to Vladimir Putin with an almost taunting message: Good luck with that.

Senior Obama officials debating the U.S. response say they believe the Russian president is making a costly mistake that he will regret, committing his country's military and prestige to an unwinnable fight sure to inflame Islamic extremism inside Russia.

Putin in Syria: So What? (Steve Chapman, October 1, 2015, RCP)

There are two main ways this gambit could go. And neither would be a bad deal for us.

The first possibility is that he will inflict significant damage on Islamic State. In that case, one of our most vicious enemies would be weakened -- at little cost or risk to Americans. The only thing better than defeating Islamic State is getting someone to do it for us. [...]

The second possibility is that Putin will fail: His bombing raids will prove unavailing, the insurgents will gain ground, and the regime will be in jeopardy. Then he may be forced to send ground troops.

He could find himself in a costly, bloody war. Or he might decide the prize is not worth the effort and pull back, which would dash his dreams of regional power and discredit him at home. Either way, he's worse off, and we're not.

Posted by orrinj at 6:57 PM


Euroscepticism is growing all over Europe  (Douglas Murray, 10/01/15, Spectator)

Europhiles have warned us for years of the dangers of Britain leaving the EU. But all the while a different spectre has crept up on their other flank: which is that even if the UK votes to stay in the EU in 2017, we might be one of the only countries left.

Posted by orrinj at 6:47 PM


Boehner's Conservative Legacy (KARL ROVE, Sept. 30, 2015, WSJ)

Each year for nearly the past 20, Congress spent time crafting a short-term "doc fix" to stave off mandated cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. Mr. Boehner engineered a permanent solution to the problem and, in the process, passed the first significant reforms in entitlement spending in a decade.

Since his first days in Congress, Mr. Boehner has opposed earmarks as wasteful and corrupting, and he ended their use when he became speaker. A tireless advocate of increasing American exports, he led the House this year in passing trade-promotion authority, which will give the next Republican president a valuable tool to knock down barriers to the sale of U.S. goods and services abroad.

Mr. Boehner has also been a passionate advocate for life. This year he expanded the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions, to cover community health centers that receive money from Washington. In 2011 he forced Mr. Obama to accept the reinstatement of the ban on using federal dollars for abortions in the District of Columbia.

But Mr. Boehner's greatest institutional achievement may be the return to regular order in the House. Recent speakers of both parties had centralized power in a handful of legislative leaders. Now bills make their way through subcommittees and committees. Lawmakers work more hours and more days and cast more votes. No longer are 2,000-page behemoths drafted in secret. No longer is the theory, in the immortal words of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "we have to pass the bill so you can find what is in it."

The mark of a true believer would be to accomplish nothing, because getting things done requires compromise. The Right want ideological purity, not effective governance.

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