April 25, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 12:10 PM


Glut of Capital and Labor Challenge Policy Makers (JOSH ZUMBRUN and  CAROLYN CUI, April 24, 2015, WSJ)

The global economy is awash as never before in commodities like oil, cotton and iron ore, but also with capital and labor--a glut that presents several challenges as policy makers struggle to stoke demand.

"What we're looking at is a low-growth, low-inflation, low-rate environment," said Megan Greene, chief economist of John Hancock Asset Management, who added that the global economy could spend the next decade "working this off."

The current state of plenty is confounding on many fronts. The surfeit of commodities depresses prices and stokes concerns of deflation. Global wealth--estimated by Credit Suisse at around $263 trillion, more than double the $117 trillion in 2000--represents a vast supply of savings and capital, helping to hold down interest rates, undermining the power of monetary policy. And the surplus of workers depresses wages.

Give the people who need the money, since there's less need for labor, the excess money, created by decreased labor costs.

Posted by orrinj at 11:51 AM


Should the US Help India Defeat China's Navy? : A new study argues yes, and pushes for closer defense ties between New Delhi and Washington. (Franz-Stefan Gady, April 23, 2015, The Diplomat)

A new paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that India and the United States should collaborate on building New Delhi's next Vikrant-class aircraft carrier, the 65,000 tons nuclear-powered INS Vishal, expected to enter service in the 2020s.

"Working in concert to develop this vessel would not only substantially bolster India's naval combat capabilities but would also cement the evolving strategic bond between the United States and India in a truly spectacular fashion for many decades to come," Ashley J. Tellis, the author of the Carnegie study, underlines.

America and the three I's have the world's only trouble spots well in hand.
Posted by orrinj at 11:48 AM


New-Home Prices Are on Fire (KATHLEEN MADIGAN, 4/25/15, WSJ)

When discussing Wednesday's news that existing home sales climbed in March, National Association of Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun said the 7.8% yearly rise in March's median price was unsustainable. "This price gain of near 8% is not healthy, considering people's incomes are only rising by 2%," said Mr. Yun. "The only way to relieve housing cost pressure is to have more homes coming onto the market."

Yet research by economists at TD Securities show the uptrend in resale values is nothing compared to the speedy rise in new-home prices.

Posted by orrinj at 11:45 AM


Monty Python comedy troupe rails against 'political correctness' at 40th anniversary event (Scott meslow, 4/25/15, The Week)

When the Monty Python members did settle down, they spoke engagingly (and often coarsely) on a wide variety of subjects, including the filming of Holy Grail, their 2014 series of live shows at London's 02 stadium, and the state of comedy in general. "I think we don't talk enough about this awful political correcteness," complained Cleese. "I do a lot of... I don't know if they're really racist jokes, but jokes like, 'Why do the French have so many Civil Wars? Answer: Because they like to win one now and again."

"I used to do these jokes, and then I would say, 'There were these two Mexicans,' and the room would freeze. And I would say, 'Why's everybody gone quiet? We did jokes about Swedes, and Germans, and Canadians, and the French. What's the problem about the Mexicans? Are they not big enough to look after themselves?' I find a lot of that very condescending."

Posted by orrinj at 10:38 AM


Feed More for Less (Lindsay Markle, April 25, 2015, US News)

In February, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., reintroduced the Food for Peace Reform Act, which they claim will "free up as much as $440 million annually through greater efficiencies in delivering aid, allowing the U.S. to reach an estimated eight to twelve million more people, in a shorter time period." President Barack Obama has made the case for similar reforms. The question now is whether Congress will enact these reforms.

In almost every case, it would be more efficient to buy food in the region where it is needed rather than shipping it from the United States. For example, a 2009 study by the Government Accountability Office found that it costs 34 percent more to ship food to sub-Saharan Africa than to buy it there. Vincent Smith, an agricultural economist at Montana State University, recently testified before Congress that current practices mean that "less than 70 cents" actually benefit food aid recipients for every dollar spent on the program. In addition to the cost savings, the U.S. Agency for International Development has estimated that purchasing food from countries in the region can supply starved populations with food 11 to 14 weeks faster than shipping from the United States.

Former President George W. Bush shared Obama's interest in rationalizing these aid programs.

Posted by orrinj at 10:26 AM


Was there an Armenian genocide? It depends on Turkish 'intent.' (Arthur Bright, APRIL 24, 2015, CS Monitor)

The existent case law on genocide predominantly interprets "intent to destroy" as meaning what lawyers call "specific intent." That is, those who committed the crime didn't simply intend to act they way they acted, but rather that they intended a specific result as well. It's like the difference between firing a gun and firing a gun to kill a specific person. The former was an intentional act, but it wasn't necessarily meant to result in that specific person's death. The latter was specifically aimed at an end result of that person's death.

A good example is the difference between the crimes of murder and manslaughter. In both cases, someone has died. But it is only the first case where there was a targeted intent to kill someone - the latter may have been a reckless accident.

In essence, Turkey argues that what happened to the Armenians during the war was more like manslaughter than murder. As the Turkish Foreign Ministry argues on its website, "no direct evidence has been discovered demonstrating that any Ottoman official sought the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians as such." In addition, the Turks argue, the Ottoman Empire's relocation policy wasn't targeted at Armenians because of their ethnic identity - rather, the Ottomans were targeting insurgent groups within the Armenian community.

Revisiting the Armenian Genocide (Guenter Lewy, Fall 2005, Middle East Quarterly)

The key issue in this controversy is not the extent of Armenian suffering; both sides agree that several hundred thousand Christians perished during the deportation of the Armenians from Anatolia to the Syrian desert and elsewhere in 1915-16. With little notice, the Ottoman government forced men, women, and children from their homes. Many died of starvation or disease during a harrowing trek over mountains and through deserts. Others were murdered.

Historians do not dispute these events although they may squabble over numbers and circumstances. Rather the key question in the debate concerns premeditation. Did the Young Turk regime organize the massacres that took place in 1916?

Most of those who maintain that Armenian deaths were premeditated and so constitute genocide base their argument on three pillars: the actions of Turkish military courts of 1919-20, which convicted officials of the Young Turk government of organizing massacres of Armenians, the role of the so-called "Special Organization" accused of carrying out the massacres, and the Memoirs of Naim Bey[3] which contain alleged telegrams of Interior Minister Talât Pasha conveying the orders for the destruction of the Armenians. Yet when these events and the sources describing them are subjected to careful examination, they provide at most a shaky foundation from which to claim, let alone conclude, that the deaths of Armenians were premeditated.

Posted by Glenn Dryfoos at 8:15 AM


Sonny Rollins - "The Bridge"

One of the enduring stories in jazz is Sonny Rollins's disappearance from the scene for 2 years starting in 1959, during which he practiced every day on the Williamsburg Bridge.  In the intervening years, his decision to step away at the height of his fame and powers has taken on a mythic quality and has been analyzed and re-told in books, on talk shows and even TV commercials.  Sonny recounts how he found his way to the bridge in this week's NY Times Sunday Magazine.

Sonny announced the end of his sabbatical with the release of the album, "The Bridge."  Here's a video of the title cut, featuring Sonny with guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Ben Cranshaw (still Sonny's bass player, 50+ years later) and Ben Riley on drums:

Posted by orrinj at 8:03 AM

HER BIRTHMARK AND OUR BIRTH (self-reference alert):

Gothic Mystery Meets Puritan Belief : Medical ethics are at odds with the ideal of human perfection in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark.' (JOHN J. MILLER, April 24, 2015, WSJ)

Around the time Hawthorne wrote "The Birthmark," his wife, Sophia, suffered a miscarriage. "Men's accidents are God's purposes," she said. One of them scratched this line into a window of the Old Manse, the home they rented from Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord, Mass. The graffito is still visible, offering what comfort it can to troubled souls. "The Birthmark" reverses its insight, as God's apparent accident gives one man a misbegotten purpose.

Hawthorne seems to say that imperfection is a part of the human condition and we meddle with it at our peril. It is a warning that eugenicists and other utopian schemers have failed to heed. They envision glorious possibility, but lack the imagination to see the costly trade-offs--the unintended consequences that curse every project of social engineering.

Readers occasionally misinterpret "The Birthmark" as a hidebound conservative's brief against any improvement at all. There's a difference, they argue, between transformative change that seeks perfection and incremental reform that merely aims to enhance quality of life. And they are right: Today, ordinary birthmark removal doesn't threaten lives or raise ethical dilemmas. Surgery can offer radical benefits to children with cleft lips and palates and other birth defects.

Hawthorne knew something of metaphorical birthmarks and cosmetic alterations. When he was born on the Fourth of July in 1804, his surname was Hathorne. He added the "w" in the 1820s, for reasons he never explained, though some have speculated that he wanted to separate himself from the legacy of John Hathorne, a great-great-grandfather who presided over the notorious Salem witch trials.

In the final paragraph of "The Birthmark," Hawthorne scolds Aylmer for not reaching "a profounder wisdom." Perhaps this is another aspect of the human condition: We're always struggling to discern right and wrong, making difficult decisions that try to balance tradition and humility with opportunity and ambition. Good judgment is a precious commodity that shows up in grimy lab assistants at least as much as it does in the hubristic geniuses who order them around.

The kerfuffle over Leon Kass using this tale--and the libertarian-dominated rightwing blogosphere's objections thereto--led to our starting this blog.

Posted by orrinj at 7:47 AM


Pressed by Young Republicans, Scott Walker Sticks to Tough Immigration Stance (Trip Gabriel, 4/24/15, NY Times)

Mr. Walker's apparent hardening on immigration has inspired a flood of reporting and commentary. Most recently he told the radio host Glenn Beck that he favored restricting legal immigration in tough economic times, a position to the right of most other 2016 presidential hopefuls.

He repeated that view Friday after a speech in Cedar Rapids, when Eddie Failor, 24, expressed concern "as a young Republican" that the party must make inroads to new voter blocs, including by supporting a comprehensive overhaul of immigration.

Mr. Walker told Mr. Failor that his top priority would be securing the border. He also said he favored "making sure the legal immigration system is based on making our No. 1 priority to protect American workers and their wages.''

Alexander Staudt, the treasurer of the University of Iowa College Republicans, also told Mr. Walker in the meet-and-greet line that he was concerned that by talking tough on immigration, Republican candidates would turn off Hispanics.

"In terms of how wide or how narrow the door's open, our No. 1 priority is American workers and American wages,'' Mr. Walker told him. "I don't know how anyone can argue against that.''

Of course, his position can't be reconciled with his anti-union victory, but, then again, he isn't serious about it. Like Mitt, he'd have to scramble back to decency in the general.

Posted by orrinj at 7:30 AM


Author compares pre-state Jewish terrorists with Hamas (JP O' MALLEY, April 25, 2015, Times of Israel)

In his book, Hoffman hypothesizes that the political violence that plagued Palestine when ruled by Britain presents an ideal case by which to examine and assess contemporary terrorism's power to influence government policy and decision-making.

Some background: Before 1948, the land that eventually became the Jewish State of Israel was administered by Britain under the terms of the mandate awarded it in 1922 by the League of Nations. During the 1920s and 1930s, both Arab rioting and anti-Jewish violence dominated Palestine. By the early 1940s, however, two Jewish militant organizations emerged: the Irgun and Lehi.

Both of them strategically challenged Britain's rule over Palestine with tactical violence that aimed to gain sympathy from the international community. And it worked, very effectively.

"The Irgun and Lehi were the first postmodern terrorist movements," says Hoffman. "Especially the Irgun, primarily because of Begin's strategy. Like all good underground leaders, Begin understood, even in an era long before 24/7 news, the power of appealing to a global audience with extreme and dramatic acts of violence."

Hoffman's narrative asks the reader to suspend emotion for a moment, and to think about violence, objectively, as a political weapon. With this in mind, it appears that he's asking how one could use this knowledge and apply it to numerous multifaceted, complex political conflicts that violently rage across the globe today.

His argument includes questions like: Does terrorism work? And what exactly is the definition of a terrorist?

Posted by orrinj at 7:05 AM


How the Midwest Is Scaling Back Big Labor's Special Privileges (James Sherk, April 25, 2015, Daily Signal)

Michigan and Indiana both passed right-to-work laws in 2012. At the time, unions promised electoral retribution, but a funny thing happened on the way to the voting booth: nothing.

Conservatives expanded their legislative majorities in both states after the laws passed. Union bosses opposed voluntary dues, but the voters did not. In Michigan, just one legislator who voted for right-to-work lost reelection: a moderate state representative defeated in the primary by a Tea Party challenger. Unions turned out to have more bark than bite.

This victory has given more policymakers the courage to tackle labor reform. Now many Midwestern states have begun reining in unions' coercive powers. Governor Scott Walker just signed legislation making Wisconsin the 25th state with workplace-freedom laws. Unions can no longer compel Badger State workers to pay their dues.

Missouri may soon follow suit. This year the state House passed right-to-work legislation for the first time in its history. The state Senate will probably do the same. Democratic Governor Jay Nixon has promised to veto it, but term limits will force him out of office in 2016. If the voters elect a conservative replacement, Missouri may soon become right-to-work.

In Kentucky, right-to-work stalled in the legislature, so local governments have taken matters into their own hands. A dozen Kentucky counties have used the "Home Rule" power the legislature delegated to them to pass local right-to-work laws.

Even Bruce Rauner, the newly elected moderate-Republican governor of Illinois, has embraced right-to-work. He has proposed local workplace-freedom zones and filed a lawsuit to block forced union dues for state employees.

The rent seeking rollback has gone far beyond union dues, however. The Indiana legislature just repealed the state's prevailing wage law, which means Indiana no longer requires taxpayers to pay union rates for construction work. Similar bills have been introduced by high-profile legislators in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Now the Ohio House has also taken a small step toward reform.

Posted by orrinj at 6:58 AM


In Jenin, once the 'suicide bomber capital,' a fragile transformation (AVI ISSACHAROFF April 25, 2015,Times of Israel)

 It takes some time to accustom our ears to the loud, incessant soundtrack of voices and shouts. There are crowds of people and close to 180 market stalls, all of them loaded with the choicest fruits and vegetables. The new shopping center that opened just a few days ago has already become one of the most popular for the inhabitants of Jenin and for Arab citizens of Israel, particularly those from Wadi Ara.

The locals call the new center, which was built by the municipality, Al-Mujma. All the illegal market stalls that had operated in Jenin's market were moved here in an orderly fashion, and vendors who received licenses can sell their wares here. One vendor shouts, "Three for ten, three for ten" -- meaning three kilograms of cucumbers for ten shekels -- almost right in my ear. "Tomatoes are seven shekels per kilo," he adds, helpfully. At the other stalls, prices are lower still.

A young Palestinian man approaches us and asks me to write down his name. "Mohammed Za'eir," he says. "I am from the city of Jenin. I want to open a market stall but the municipality isn't letting me. Why did all the people here get permits? Because they get preferential treatment. All the people who bought from me know that I sell good merchandise, that I give customers respect. I have four children and I just want to feed them."

This is, perhaps, the story of the "new" Jenin summed up in a few lines. It is no longer the city that Israelis feared from the second intifada, and has not been for some time. It used to be known as "the capital of the suicide bombers," the most dangerous place in the West Bank, where the toughest battles of 2002's Operation Defensive Shield took place.

But no one here talks about the intifada or "the war with the Jews" anymore. Everybody talks about salaries and money. The armed men are gone and more and more shopping centers are being opened in an effort to attract the (Arab) Israeli customers who come to visit.

April 24, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 5:37 PM


My Parents' Israel, My Apartheid : A South African goes home to Israel (Anne Landsman, April 23, 2015, The Tablet)

The Sunday prior to the trip, I meet my Encounter group at an orientation in Jerusalem. There are about 35 of us, including the two trip leaders, Rebecca Polivy and Shani Rosenbaum, plus nine facilitators. Almost all are American Jews, many of whom who are either rabbis or rabbinical students. Others are social workers, educators. Some live in Israel, most live in the United States. The majority are much younger than me, several around the age my parents were when they came to Israel in 1948. I am immediately struck by their seriousness and their passion.

We sit in a large circle. Each of us has to mention who we are bringing on the trip, and why, in two minutes or less.

I am bringing my South African parents, I tell the group. I mention that they were Mahalniks in 1948 but I don't mention the overturned table that effectively ended any meaningful discourse with them about Israel from that day forward. All I say is that I grew up hearing one story but that there's another story I want to hear.

We are introduced to the Encounter communication guidelines, which include the idea of "listening with resilience." In the participant booklet, it is expanded upon: "Encounter suggests that listening, specifically in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a radical act. ... 'Resilient listening' allows a person and/or a community to live with tension, to hold multiple perspectives at the same time, and to continue to be open to what is new rather than guarding against it and shutting down." This was never my father's forte, I reflect, remembering the sickening slide of food, dishes, silverware, and glasses onto the ground so many Sundays ago.

Nor has this been a season for much listening. On Nov. 5, the day I left the United States for Israel, a Hamas operative drove a van at high speed into a crowd of people waiting at a light-rail station in Jerusalem. Several people (including the driver who was shot) died. On Oct. 22, there was a similar attack in East Jerusalem that killed two civilians, a woman and a baby. Tensions have escalated in the West Bank, and, on Nov. 11, a young Palestinian man was shot and killed by the IDF in the Al-Arroub area between Bethlehem and Hebron.

On Nov. 12, the day before my Encounter trip, I take a taxi from Jerusalem to the Bethlehem checkpoint, planning to see the city with a tourguide. In terms of the Oslo Accords, Bethlehem is part of Area A, which is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority. With the Encounter group, I will be in Areas B and C, outside of Bethlehem.

The taxi driver is too nervous to get too close to the checkpoint so he drops me about 100 yards away. It's 9 a.m. and Palestinian workers are streaming through what looks like a giant cage. The mood is somber, tense. I remember visiting Bethlehem in 1977 (before the separation barrier, before the checkpoints), and what I'm seeing is a shocking testament to how bad the situation has become. Everyone seems to be leaving Bethlehem, no one seems to be entering. I'm confused about which way to go, expecting to see a clearly marked entry point or a booth with IDF soldiers, but they appear to be well-hidden, tucked behind a series of Kafkaesque high fences and walls. I walk through the empty maze not seeing a soul.

A familiar feeling seizes me. I'm on high alert. It takes me back to my South African childhood, hearing sirens, screams, the guttural voices of the police in the night, a sense of impending doom ever present. I know this isn't unsafe--tourists stream into Bethlehem every day to visit the religious sites--but the soulless architecture of the checkpoint terrifies me. When I exit into the street, crowds of taxi drivers come toward me, offering their services. The streets are poorly paved, the buildings run-down. I feel as if I have stepped through the looking glass.

I realize I'm walking where my parents didn't walk but I am taking them with me, and, when things frighten me, I remember that my mother was 23 and my father was 28 when they volunteered for war. For the first time, I think about how brave they must have been and how scared they must have felt.

With a tourguide, I visit several historical sites as well as Aida Refugee Camp. I get the opportunity to see the imposing concrete separation barrier up close, as well as from far away. I see it cut through homes, dividing neighbors from one another. I see its defiant, graffitied face, as well as its stern, gray one, where long stretches of it separate Palestinian towns from Israeli settlements. At its highest, it reaches up to 26 feet. From within its boundaries, I look out at the red roofs of the settlers' homes in the distance.

How can I not remember our Sunday drives, where we drove across Durban Street into Roodewal and Riverview where the pastel-colored "ice chessies" were? How can I not think of Mr. Aesop, the Indian man who sold vegetables to my mother who had to move his business from what was declared a White area to where the "Coloured businesses" were? Or the Zwelenthemba township, even further from the town center, whose Xhosa inhabitants had no permanent residency status? How can I not think of separation as something shameful?

When we visit the Lajee Center, which is in the refugee camp, there's some activity in the street. Boys are throwing stones at the IDF soldiers at the other end of the block. The tourguide hurries me into the building before I have time to fully take in the situation. Business as usual, he informs me. This happens every afternoon. Teenagers taunting teenagers.

The soldiers fire a teargas canister at them. A cloud of white smoke fills the street. I immediately want to flee, remembering the South African township riots of the 1970s and '80s all too well, the way things can turn sickeningly from stone-throwing into chaos. Both the tourguide and the director of the Lajee Center point out that we can't leave until the tear gas clears. The boys come inside and go on the computers and do their homework. No one seems particularly perturbed.

My heart is racing, and my hands are cold as ice. I'm also deeply ashamed at how scared I am, how vulnerable I feel. The director is delivering facts and figures. There are 57 Palestinian refugee camps in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. There were 800,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948 when 530 of their cities and villages were destroyed. There are close to 6 million now.

I'm trying to practice resilient listening as my head reflexively fills with a counter narrative, the one that I grew up with: the stories of Arabs fleeing of their own volition in 1948, the Holocaust that exterminated a third of the world's Jewry, my parents' pride at their part in the creation of a Jewish state.

We look out of the window at the Aida refugee camp, built by UNRWA in 1950. Where there were once green tents, there are now two-room cinderblock housing units, 100 square meters each. Still living in the same area, the refugee population has increased fivefold.

The tear gas has finally cleared, and we leave. The tourguide runs to the car, and I follow. A tall gate has been pulled closed in the area where he parked it. Rocks have been inserted under the gate. A group of boys appear and again, my heart plummets, as I'm not quite sure what they're going to do, or what's going to happen next. Instead of starting another round of stone-throwing, they help us lift the gate and roll the rocks away. The tourguide puts his foot flat on the accelerator, and we speed off, bumping along the uneven, ill-paved road.

The moment that undoes me, though, is not when we're in Area A, but when we're driving on one of the roundabout highways created to bypass Bethlehem and connect Jerusalem to one of the settlements. It's smooth, well-kept, and here the separation barrier is lower and clad in aesthetically pleasing stone. It looks like a barrier you would see along a highway anywhere in the world. Now, more than ever, I feel my South Africanness, all the immaculate highways of my childhood that kept me far away from the ice chessies, the squatter camps and the townships, that kept me in my white world. Only on those Sunday drives, out of the window of the Valiant, did I see that other world, where the good roads ended and the potholes began.

Over the next few days, as I fully enter the Encounter experience, listening to Palestinian speakers describe the difficulty and tragedy of their lives, touring Khalet Zakariya (a struggling Arab village choked by the surrounding settlements), seeing where the separation barrier moves away from the Green Line and encroaches into the West Bank, that South Africanness is with me. When Ali Abu Awwad, a charismatic activist who promotes nonviolence, tells us, "To shoot someone takes a minute, to change someone's mind takes years," I think of my own journey, how it has taken me a lifetime to get here. On the subject of Israel and South Africa, Ali, who has lost his brother in the conflict, has this to say: "Saying the occupation is apartheid closes people down. I don't need to be right. I want to succeed." He acknowledges Nelson Mandela's influence on his life, as well as Gandhi's.

Part of our itinerary includes an overnight homestay with the Palestinian families who will be joining us for community-building games and dinner. In groups of two, we were assigned to various families and would be returning with them to their homes after dinner. With great sadness, our organizer announces that it has been canceled because tensions in the area have escalated and the risk has become too great. This is extremely awkward as the Palestinian homestay families are known for their open-hearted hospitality, and the night with them is often a cornerstone of the Encounter experience. Despite this setback, they all join us for the evening. One man, swallowing his hurt pride, tells me how upset he is but that he decided to come at the last minute. He says, "Canceling the homestay touched me. I felt I was building a trust. And now I feel as if the trust is broken."

We talk and gradually he relaxes. The night is about repair and regaining his trust. His community and mine eat together, talk, laugh, play games, dance. I often feel tears well up at the fragility and beauty of what we are doing and the stories we are hearing.

Over the next 24 hours, we learn of extreme water shortages in the West Bank, particularly in summer. It is difficult for Palestinians to get building permits, including permits to build schools. An ambulance driver talks of his experience of driving a 65-year-old woman who had an infected wound from spinal surgery to a hospital and being bullied by an Israeli border guard at a checkpoint. The guard asked, "Are you a doctor or a shoe?" and insisted that he had a bomb in his ambulance. A prominent Palestinian businessman who was born and educated in the United States but has raised his family in the West Bank describes the Israeli stamp in his U.S. passport that has restricted his movements. There are the olive harvests destroyed by settlers, the Palestinian children who have never seen the sea, all the daily indignities of life under military occupation.

But is it apartheid? I realize that I am no longer the 21-year-old who compared the South Africa of my youth to Nazi Germany, my shame at my white privilege to Bertolt Brecht's agony at watching his country descend into madness. I have come to Bethlehem to see across the divide between Jews and Palestinians and, at moments, have been forcefully reminded of the sights and sounds of my childhood, but I cannot equate the one social system with the other. The South Africans were not Nazis, just as the Israelis are not South Africans. Israel is different to South Africa in the wrenching story of its founding, its history, its legal and political system, the centrality of Jerusalem to three faiths, the small size of the country, its paucity of natural resources, its geography, its weather... so different, in so many countless ways.

Posted by orrinj at 5:14 PM


A bipartisan proposal to make a universal basic income a reality in America (Jeff Spross, April 23, 2015, The Week)

Over at Vox, Dylan Matthews recently laid out the start of such a strategy: Among portions of the GOP and the conservative movement there's been growing enthusiasm for the "FairTax" -- a 30 percent national sales tax to replace all other taxes. But sales taxes are regressive -- the poor spend more of their income on consumption and basic necessities, so the tax hits them comparatively harder. So the FairTax plan includes a check from the government that compensates every household for whatever sales tax they'd pay on consumption below the poverty threshold.

For example, based on federal poverty guidelines, the FairTax scheme calculates that a two-parent family of four at the poverty level would spend $31,020. Due to some complicated math, a 30 percent sales tax rate is equivalent to a 23 percent income tax rate, so the FairTax would send the family back 23 percent of that $31,020 -- $7,135.

The FairTax's fans insist on calling this a tax rebate (or "prebate") for rhetorical purposes. But as Matthews points out, it's literally a UBI as well. If you're compensating people for consumption spending, you might as well be compensating them for breathing. Everyone gets it, no one has to be employed to get it, and it comes in 12 monthly installments. It's a UBI by the backdoor.

Posted by orrinj at 5:11 PM


China's Dangerous Debt : Why the Economy Could Be Headed for Trouble (Zhiwu Chen FROM OUR MAY/JUNE 2015, Foreign Affairs)

In September 2008, when Chinese President Hu Jintao got word that Lehman Brothers, then the fourth-largest U.S. investment bank, was on the verge of bankruptcy, he was traveling by van along the bumpy roads of Shaanxi Province. Surrounded by policy advisers and members of the Politburo, Hu asked them how China should respond to the inevitable spillover. According to one participant in the discussion, the group reached a clear consensus by the trip's end: China would need to launch a massive stimulus program. And it could trust only state-owned enterprises (SOEs), rather than private firms, to carry it out.

That November, as other governments were still debating what to do next, Beijing announced that it would distribute nearly $600 billion in stimulus funds to SOEs and other institutions, principally to fund ambitious infrastructure and industrial projects. Banks began lending generously, and local governments rushed to form shell SOEs that would allow them to borrow. Over the next six years, China's nominal GDP roughly doubled, ballooning from around $4.5 trillion in 2008 to just over $9 trillion in 2014.

China recovered from the 2008 financial crisis faster than any of its peers, and it drove unprecedented growth in the process, expanding its economy at rates its competitors had failed to match even before the financial crisis. The story was positive enough that some economists called on Western governments to adopt a similar approach, advocating increases in government spending and regulation. Yet China's speedy response would have been impossible to replicate without the power and reach of its central government. The government owns, either directly or indirectly, almost all of China's land and roughly two-thirds of its productive assets, enabling it to quickly allocate resources on an enormous scale.

This advantage carries a significant cost, however, and one that has already begun to surface. According to a recent report from the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, China's total debt in 2007, counting that of private households, independent firms, and government institutions, equaled 158 percent of the country's GDP. In 2014, it reached 282 percent of GDP--among the world's highest levels for a major economy. In the past, China has been able to rely on a mix of bailouts and local dealmaking to keep toxic loans from poisoning the economy. But now that growth is slowing--a trend party leaders have euphemistically dubbed the "new normal"--many more borrowers are struggling to pay. If China doesn't get on top of its debt problem, the road ahead will be far bumpier than it was in 2008 and could even lead to a prolonged and painful crash.

Posted by orrinj at 5:08 PM


Sunni tribesmen fight their own after breaking with IS group' (BRAM JANSSEN AND SAMEER N. YACOUB April 22, 2015, Times of Israel)

When Islamic State militants swept across northern Iraq last summer, the Sunni al-Lehib tribe welcomed them as revolutionaries fighting the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. But less than a year later, the tribe is bitterly split between those who joined the extremist group and those resisting its brutal rule.

The tribe hails from a village just south of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which was captured by the IS last year. Like many Sunnis in northern Iraq, they initially welcomed the Islamic State group as liberators.

"We were happy when Daesh came," tribal leader Nazhan Sakhar said, using an acronym for the extremist group. "We thought they were going to Baghdad to establish a government. But then they started killing our own people. It turned out they were the same as al-Qaeda."

...when only one side has one.

Posted by orrinj at 5:05 PM


Why North Europeans Are the Happiest People (Leonid Bershidsky, 4/24/15, WSJ)

The report's authors say six variables account for three-quarters of the differences in happiness levels among countries: Gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption. Two of these -- social support and generosity -- are relatively independent of economic development or the political system, which explains why some relatively poor, institutionally weak countries have happier populations than the strongest Western democracies. For example, Mexicans are happier than Americans, Brazilians enjoy higher perceived well-being than the residents of rich, free Luxembourg, and Venezuelans like their life better than Singaporeans.

A country is an all-around winner, however, when it's rich, healthy, free and populated with generous people who support one another when there's trouble. One has to wonder if Northern Europe's Law of Jante might not be responsible for the presence of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden among the world's 10 happiest nations. Scandinavians may scoff at that creed, which makes individualism a crime, but it does make for unusually strong social support networks. That's how the authors explain Iceland's surprising resilience during an economic collapse, and its second place in the rankings. That country has the highest percentage in the world of people who say they have someone to count on in times of crisis.

The report contains a chapter that stresses the role of "relational goods," such as reciprocity and simultaneity (which describes people taking part in meaningful activities together), in building happy nations. People are happier when they're socially fulfilled, perhaps as members of a group (both group membership and happiness levels are high in Scandinavia) [...]

The happiest countries are participatory. That goes for Switzerland with its direct democracy and tight-knit local communities, as well as for the Scandinavian countries, which, as Sachs wrote in his chapter of the report, have "perhaps the highest social capital in the world." Participation and deliberative democracy help to build mutual trust, an important part of social capital. People are more willing to pay taxes, less prone to corruption, and expansive social safety nets become the norm.

This kind of social fabric, however, is finely woven and delicate. The happiest countries in the world have small populations (the biggest country in the top 10 is Canada, with 35 million people).

Posted by orrinj at 4:56 PM


A New 'Wrinkle in Time' (JENNIFER MALONEY, April 16, 2015, WSJ)

Many readers, then and now, have understood the book's dark planet Camazotz--a regimented place in which mothers in unison call their children in for dinner--to represent the Soviet Union. But the passage discovered by L'Engle's granddaughter presents a more nuanced worldview.

A never-before-seen section of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" is shedding surprising light on the author's philosophy. WSJ's Jennifer Maloney reports. Photo: Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Crosswicks, Ltd
In it, Meg has just made a narrow escape from Camazotz. As Meg's father massages her limbs, which are frozen from a jarring trip through space and time, she asks: "But Father, how did the Black Thing--how did it capture Camazotz?" Her father proceeds to lay out the political philosophy behind the book in much starker terms than are apparent in the final version.

He says that yes, totalitarianism can lead to this kind of evil. (The author calls out examples by name, including Hitler, Mussolini and Khrushchev.) But it can also happen in a democracy that places too much value on security, Mr. Murry says. "Security is a most seductive thing," he tells his daughter. "I've come to the conclusion that it's the greatest evil there is."

Ms. Voiklis said she wanted readers to know the book wasn't a simple allegory of communism. Instead, it's about the risk of any country--including a democracy--placing too much value on security. The tension between safety and personal freedom is an idea that resonates in today's politics.

"It's normal to be afraid," said Ms. Voiklis, who manages her late grandmother's estate full-time in New York. "But you can't let the fear control your decisions. Otherwise, you risk becoming like Camazotz."

And we just recently escaped it.
Posted by orrinj at 2:25 PM


Obama escalates push-back against Elizabeth Warren and other trade deal critics (Greg Sargent, April 24, 2015, Washington Post)

On a conference call with a small group of reporters, President Obama significantly intensified his criticism of Elizabeth Warren and other opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, accusing them of being "dishonest" about the secrecy around the TPP process, suggesting they were playing to their "fundraising" lists, and arguing flatly that they were using "misinformation that stirs up the base but doesn't serve them well."

April 23, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 7:48 PM


Trade legislation draws Republican support in House over Democratic objections (DAVID ESPO, 4/23/15, AP)

 Legislation to strengthen President Barack Obama's hand for future trade deals moved toward committee approval in the House on Thursday courtesy of Republicans and over the protests of Democrats, a political role reversal that portends a bruising struggle for passage later this spring.

The maneuvering in the House Ways and Means Committee marked the second straight day the Republican-controlled Congress lined up to hand Obama a victory on trade. The Senate Finance Committee approved a nearly identical bill on Wednesday night that would limit lawmakers to voting yes or no without making changes in trade deals like one now taking shape among Pacific-area trading partners.

"They're waiting for this to put their best offers on the table," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House committee chairman, said of negotiating partners that include Japan and Singapore as well as Chile and Peru.

Posted by orrinj at 7:44 PM


How Much Is the U.S. Worth? (ERIC MORATH, 4/23/15, WSJ)

A government economist puts that figure, from sea to shining sea, at $22.98 trillion.

That's William Larson's estimate for the value of the 1.89 billion acres of land that accounts for the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia. The dollar figure--equal to about 1.4 times last year's gross domestic product-represents only the value of the land, and not buildings, roads or other improvements, and excludes bodies of water.

Posted by orrinj at 1:47 PM


The State of Our Planet Is Better Than Ever (Stephen Moore, April 22, 2015, Daily Signal)

1) Natural resources are more abundant and affordable today than ever before in history. Short-term (sometimes decades-long) volatility aside, the price of most natural resources--from cocoa to cotton to coal--is cheaper today in real terms than 50, 100, or 500 years ago. This has happened even as the world's population has nearly tripled. Technology has far outpaced depletion of the Earth's resources.

2) Energy--the master resource--is super abundant. Remember when people like Paul Ehrlich nearly 50 years ago and Barack Obama just three years ago--warned the we were running out of oil and gas. Today, thanks to the new age of oil and gas thanks to fracking, the United States has hundreds of years of petroleum and an estimated 290 years of coal. Keep in mind, this may be a low-ball estimate; since 2000, the Energy Information Administration's estimates of recoverable reserves have actually increased by more than 7 percent.

We're not running out of energy, we are running into it.

3) Air and water. Since the late 1970s, pollutants in the air have plunged. Lead pollution plunged by more than 90 percent, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide by more than 50 percent, with ozone and nitrogen dioxide declining as well. This means that emissions per capita have declined even as the economy in terms of real GDP nearly tripled. By nearly every standard measure it is much, much, much cleaner today in the United States than 50 and 100 years ago. The air is so clean now that the EPA worries about carbon dioxide which isn't even a pollutant. (And, by the way, carbon emissions are falling too, thanks to fracking). One hundred years ago, about one in four deaths in the U.S. was due to contaminants in drinking water. But from 1971-2002, fewer than three people per year in the U.S. were documented to have died from water contamination.

4) There is no Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation. Birth rates have fallen by about one-half around the world over the last 50 years. Developed countries are having too few kids, not too many. Even with a population of 7.3 billion people, average incomes, especially in poor countries, have surged over the last 40 years. The number of people in abject poverty fell by 1 billion from 1981 to 2011, even as global population increased by more than 1.5 billion.

5) Global per capita food production is 40 percent higher today than as recently as 1950. In most nations the nutrition problem today is obesity--too many calories consumed--not hunger.

Posted by orrinj at 1:45 PM


Saudi policy in Yemen: Sign of an inferiority complex? (Scott Peterson, APRIL 23, 2015, CS Monitor)

Analysts are interpreting the sudden Saudi assertiveness in Yemen as evidence that Riyadh sees Iran as having the upper hand now in the regional rivalry and feels increasingly incapable of countering its rival in proxy arenas across the Middle East. This perception, the analysts say, also led the Saudis to overestimate both the Iranian-Houthi relationship and Yemen's importance to Iran.

Posted by orrinj at 1:35 PM


American who was spokesman for Osama bin Laden grew up on goat farm in California (DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press)

 Adam Gadahn, a former Little Leaguer who grew up to become a spokesman for Osama bin Laden, was born in 1978 in Oregon as Adam Pearlman.

Gadahn, who had treason charges pending against him, was killed in a drone strike in January, the White House acknowledged on Thursday. Another January drone strike killed Ahmed Farouq, the operations leader for Al-Qaida in Pakistan, as well as an American hostage and an Italian hostage.

April 21, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 6:28 PM


LET THEM IN  (Brendan O'Neill, 21 APRIL 2015, Spiked)
Following a week in which an eye-watering 1,000 migrants are thought to have perished in the Mediterranean, European officials and observers are frantically asking 'What can be done?', as if it's a difficult question. But it isn't. If you want to stop these terrible deaths at sea, there's a simple solution: liberalise Europe's approach to immigration; be as open as possible to the arrival of these budding workers and aspiring citizens from Africa and the Middle East. That is what can be done, and must be done. [...]

We shouldn't demonise or infantilise these migrants. We should celebrate them for exercising their autonomy in very difficult circumstances and making a conscious decision to take a very risky journey to Europe. They want to come to this continent so badly that they're willing to trek across deserts and sail across vast seas, and how do we repay their burning aspiration to join us? By criminalising them or patronising them, negating their desire for citizenship in a new world by treating them either as demons or infants, in need of punishment or parenting. That's enough. We shouldn't pity these migrants; we should admire them, for using guile, gumption and perseverance to come here. They're precisely the kind of people sluggish Europe needs more of, an antidote to our students who can't even clap without having a mental breakdown and our new generation who think that being told to 'get on your bike' to look for a job is tantamount to abuse. Let's relax the borders and let them in to try their luck in our countries and see how they fare. If we do that, we'll put the traffickers out of business, end the deaths in the Mediterranean, and, more importantly, do our part to enable the aspirations of human beings who have committed no crime other than wanting to realise their potential in our towns, our cities, alongside us.

Posted by orrinj at 6:26 PM


Google Glass In The ER? Health Care Moves One Step Closer To Star Trek ... (Lisa Gillespie April 20, 2015, Kaiser Health News)

Researchers did just this for a small sample of people at the emergency room of the Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. They found during the course of the study that 93.5 percent of patients who were seen with a skin problem liked the experience, and 96.8 percent were confident in the accuracy of the video equipment and that their privacy was protected.

"There had been a lot of talk about using Glass in health care, but at the time that we designed the study, no one had actually tried it. No one knew if it would work," said Megan Ranney, a study author and assistant professor of emergency medicine and policy at Brown University.

ER doctors normally have to page an on-call specialist - in the study, a dermatologist -- to talk through the patient's condition. With that information, the dermatologist makes a judgment call about the treatment, usually without ever seeing the patient. If there's no dermatologist available, which can frequently be the situation, doctors do what they can but then refer the patient for follow-up dermatological care. Many rural and community hospitals do not have dermatologists on staff and it's up to the emergency physician to care for the patient.

In the study, researchers instead had the physicians connect via Google Glass, enabling the specialist to see on his or her office iPad or computer what the ER doctor was seeing in person. The ER doctor was able to communicate with the dermatologist, and both physicians could ask questions of the patient in real time.

"You've rolled the first and second visit into this one visit. You have the specialist at the bedside, and if you get better, you don't need to have follow-up," said Paul Porter, a physician in the emergency department of Rhode Island Hospital and study author. "There's nothing more frustrating [for the patient than] to be seen, leave with diagnostic uncertainty, and have to go somewhere else. ... People don't want that answer."

Posted by orrinj at 6:23 PM


The oddball start-up that shows how ObamaCare has made a friendlier insurance market (Jeff Spross, April 21, 2015, The Week)

Whatever our political divisions, one thing Americans agree on is that dealing with health insurance is a Kafka-esque hassle.

Oscar, an oddball start-up health insurer in New York state, aims to change that. It's got a user-friendly website that offers providers after you type in your symptoms, along with free 24/7 internet consultations with doctors. It lets you compare prices from different providers and refill prescriptions with one click. It's even partnering with CVS to build care locations throughout the state, and it's hiring nurses to offer in-home follow-up services, especially for new moms.

Oscar got started in New York when ObamaCare's exchanges opened. In the last year, it's tripled its value on the stock market to a staggering $1.5 billion, and tripled its customer base to 40,000. Oscar is already selling plans on New Jersey's exchange, and will enter Texas and California shortly.

Way back in 2009, David Goldhill wrote a sweeping piece for The Atlantic on how to reform the American health care system. One of his ideas was the introduction of "health care agents" who would help consumers navigate their health care choices and act as advocates for them. When you think about it, health insurers are perfectly positioned to do that. Yet they've long been considered the predatory enemies of consumers.

Oscar is the first inkling of what the shift into the agent role might look like. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:20 PM


Ashamed of the Gospel? : The End of Comfortable Christianity (Robert P. George, May/June 2015, Touchstone)

The days of socially acceptable Christianity in the West are surely over. The days of comfortable Christian orthodoxy are past. It is no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, an authentic Evangelical witness to the truths of the gospel. A price is demanded and must be paid. There are costs of discipleship--costs that are burdensome and painful to bear.

Of course, one can still safely identify oneself as a "Christian," and even be seen going to worship services at church. That is because the guardians of those norms of cultural orthodoxy that we have come to call "political correctness" do not assume that identifying as "Christian" or going to church necessarily means that one actually believes what the Church teaches on issues such as marriage and sexual morality and the sanctity of human life.

Now, if one does not believe what the Church teaches, or, for now at least, even if one does believe those teachings but is prepared to be completely silent about them, one is safe--one can still be a comfortable Christian. In other words, a tame Christian, a Christian who is ashamed of the gospel--or who is willing to act publicly as if he or she were ashamed--is still socially acceptable. But a Christian who makes it clear that he or she is not ashamed must be prepared to take risks and make sacrifices.

Posted by orrinj at 6:14 PM


Bush credits Obama for continuing NSA's metadata program (Ed O'Keefe, April 21, 2015, Washington Post)

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a radio interview on Tuesday that he supports President Obama's decision to continue the National Security Agency's metadata collection program.

The presumed presidential candidate appeared on "The Michael Medved Show," a nationally-syndicated radio program, while visiting Seattle for a fundraiser for his PAC, Right to Rise.

Asked by Medved what he thinks is the biggest accomplishment of the Obama administration, Bush gave the president credit for sticking with the NSA's bulk collection of phone call times and other "metadata," a move that he said has led to the agency "being enhanced."

Posted by orrinj at 6:10 PM


Saudi-led coalition announces end to air operation in Yemen (Deutsche-Welle, 4/21/15)

The coalition of Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday to end its military operation in Yemen at midnight, according to Saudi-owned Arabiya TV.

...they know when they've lost.

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