February 18, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 9:40 PM


Paul Babeu's Mexican Ex-Lover Says Sheriff's Attorney Threatened Him With Deportation (Monica Alonzo, Feb 16 2012, Phoenix New Times)
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu -- who became the face of Arizona border security nationally after he started stridently opposing illegal immigration -- threatened his Mexican ex-lover with deportation when the man refused to promise never to disclose their years-long relationship, the former boyfriend and his lawyer tell New Times.

Posted by orrinj at 3:10 PM


Pugin: the man who made the Steam Age medievallAt the bicentenary of that Victorian whirlwind, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, there's real cause for celebration. (christopher Howse, 2/18/12, The Telegraph)

Pugin got going before he quite knew what was to be done. He couldn't write a sentence without a mistake in spelling or grammar, but he wrote a million sentences in carriages, in vestries, in ships, in inns, in trains (which he took to avidly), in daylight and lamplight, haste post haste and reply by return. He told the world that only Gothic would do before he half understood Gothic idiom. He committed a thousand solecisms only because his imagination blew up details that his pencil had traced from medieval originals, and produced ideal buildings, such as the Deanery or St Marie's College, which by 1834 existed fully formed on paper before Pugin had ever built a house.

He got it into his head that because Gothic architecture had historically been Catholic, then Catholic architecture ought to be Gothic. A Neo-Classical church was to him a pagan temple. It was an attitude that amused and exasperated John Henry Newman, who knew Rome, to which Pugin had made one hurried visit, where only a single Gothic church had ever been built amid its scores in the Classical mode. But it was not by building Catholic churches that Pugin exerted most influence.

Because of him, St Pancras station, finished 16 years after his death, was to have pointed arches, like the cathedrals of old. The pagan Neo-Classicism of King's Cross was old hat now to advanced Victorian taste. For Pugin had invented a style fit for the Victorian polity. When we see the Queen open Parliament, she sits on the throne designed by Pugin, on a carpet of his design, in the chamber of his design in the Palace of Westminster, design by Charles Barry, but with Pugin's constant aid. Even the clocktower for Big Ben bears strong resemblance to one designed by him for Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire.

There is also a domestic side to Pugin that is very winning. He made buildings for use and houses to be lived in. The house he built himself at Ramsgate, the Grange, with its one entrance for both family and servants, and its staircase-hall for a parlour, is safe in the hands of the Landmark Trust. Next to it stands St Augustine's church, built at his own expense unhampered by patrons' whims. Outside, it is of dark, vitreous, knapped flint. The tile-floored interior has, like his house, one space opening into another. "There in stone, oak, iron and glass," wrote his pupil J H Powell, "the inner spirit of his genius lives - Faith and Truth."

And today there's good news for this, Pugin's cherished project. After years of uncertainty, when it was hard to find the church open, St Augustine's has raised enough money to keep the roof on, and under the custodianship of Fr Marcus Holden is set fair to preserve Pugin's legacy, defended by the Pugin Society, while working as the living church he meant it to be.

The BBC special is terrific.


ON comparing the Architectural Works of the present Century with those of the Middle Ages, the wonderful superiority of the latter must strike every attentive observer; and the mind is naturally led to reflect on the causes which have wrought this mighty change, and to endeavour to trace the fall of Architectural taste, from the period of its first decline in this country to the present day; and this will form the subject of the following pages. 

It will be readily admitted that the great test of Architectural beauty is the fitness of the design to the purpose for which it is intended, and that the style of a building should so correspond with its use that the spectator may at once perceive the purpose for which it was erected.

Acting on this principle, different nations have given birth to so many various styles of Architecture, each suited to their climate, customs, and religion; and as it is among edifices of this latter class that we look for the most splendid and lasting monuments, there can be but little doubt that the religious ideas and ceremonies of these different people had by far the greatest influence in the formation of their various styles of Architecture. 

The more closely we compare the temples of the Pagan nations with their religious rites and mythologies, the more shall we be satisfied with the truth of this assertion. 

But who can regard those stupendous Ecclesiastical Edifices of the Middle Ages (the more special objects of this work), without feeling this observation in its full force? Here every portion of the sacred fabric bespeaks its origin; the very plan of the edifice is the emblem of human redemption--each portion is destined for the performance of some solemn rite of the Christian church. Here is the brazen font where the waters of baptism wash away the stain of original sin; there stands the gigantic pulpit, from which the sacred truths and ordinances are from time to time proclaimed to the congregated people; behold yonder, resplendent with precious gems, is the high altar, the seat of the most holy mysteries, and the tabernacle of the Highest! It is, indeed, a sacred place; and well does the fabric its destined purpose: the eye is carried up and lost in the height of the vaulting and the intricacy of the ailes; the rich and varied hues of the stained windows, the modulated light, the gleam of the tapers, the richness of the altars, the venerable images of the departed just, --all alike conspire to fill the mind with veneration for the place, and to make it feel the sublimity of Christian worship. And when the deep intonations of the bells from the lofty campaniles, which summon the people to the house of prayer, have ceased, and the solemn chant of the choir swells through the vast edifice, -- cold, indeed, must be the heart of that man who does not cry with the Psalmist, Domine btlíxi betorcm ïromus гиге, et locum babita itom's gloria: tuce. 

Such effects as these can only be produced on the mind by buildings, the composition of which has emanated from men who were thoroughly embued with devotion for, and faith in, the religion for whose worship they were erected. 

Their whole energies were directed towards attaining excellence; they were actuated by far nobler motives than the hopes of pecuniary reward, or even the applause and admiration of mankind. They felt they were engaged in the most glorious occupation that can fall to the lot of man, that of raising a temple to the worship of the true and living God. It was this feeling that operated alike on the master mind that planned the edifice, and on the patient sculptor whose chisel wrought each varied and beautiful detail. 

It was this feeling that induced the ancient masons, in spite of labour, danger, and difficulties, to persevere till they had raised their gigantic spires into the very regions of the clouds. It was this feeling that induced the ecclesiastics of old to devote their revenues to this pious purpose, and to labour with their own hands in the accomplishment of the work; and it is a feeling that may be traced throughout the whole of the numerous edifices of the middle ages, and which, amidst the great variety of genius which their varied styles display, still bespeak the unity of which influenced their builders and artists. 

They borrowed their ideas from no heathen rites, nor sought for decorations from the idolatrous emblems of a strange people. The foundation and progress of the Christian faith, and the sacraments and ceremonies of the church, formed an ample and noble field for the exercise of their talents; and it is an incontrovertible fact, that every class of artists who flourished during those glorious periods selected their subjects from this inexhaustible source, and devoted their greatest efforts towards the embellishment of ecclesiastical edifices. 

Yes, it was, indeed, the faith, the zeal, and, above all, the unity, of our ancestors, that enabled them to conceive and raise those wonderful fabrics that still remain to excite our wonder and admiration. They were erected for the most solemn rites of Christian worship, when the term Christian had but one signification throughout the world; when the glory of the house of God formed an important consideration with mankind, when men were zealous for religion, liberal in their gifts, and devoted to her cause; they were erected ere heresy had destroyed faith, schism had put an end to unity, and avarice had instigated the plunder of that wealth that had been consecrated to the service of the church. When these feelings entered in, the spell was broken, the Architecture itself fell with the religion to which it owed its birth, and was succeeded by a mixed and base style devoid of science or elegance, which was rapidly followed by others, till at length, regulated by no system, devoid of unity, but made to suit the ideas and means of each sect as they sprung up, buildings for religious worship present as great incongruities, varieties, and extravagances, as the sects and ideas which have emanated from the new religion which first wrought this great change. In order to prove the truth of these assertions, I will proceed, first, to shew the state of Architecture in this country immediately before the great change of religion; secondly, the fatal effects produced by that change on Architecture; and, thirdly, .the present degraded state of Architectural taste, and the utter want of those feelings which alone can restore Architecture to its ancient noble position.

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Posted by orrinj at 11:13 AM


Social Issues and the Santorum Surge: Jeff Bell, an 'early supply-sider,' on the roots of American social conservatism--and why the movement is crucial to building a Republican majority. (JAMES TARANTO, 2/18/12, WSJ)

If you're a Republican in New York or another big city, you may be anxious or even terrified at the prospect that Rick Santorum, the supposedly unelectable social conservative, may win the GOP presidential nomination. Jeffrey Bell would like to set your mind at ease.

Social conservatism, Mr. Bell argues in his forthcoming book, "The Case for Polarized Politics," has a winning track record for the GOP. "Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964," he observes. "The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix--I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections."

The Democrats who won, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to "end welfare as we know it" and make abortion "safe, legal and rare."

Posted by orrinj at 10:54 AM


The Big Creep: An attempt to rehabilitate Bill Clinton is in full bloom. Unsurprisingly, the would-be hagiographers leave a lot out. (ANDREW FERGUSON, 2/27/12, Weekly Standard)

Through a sequence of legal switchbacks, Clinton ended up before a federal judge and grand jury. They were investigating whether anyone was tampering with potential witnesses in the Jones suit. Monica Lewinsky, who in her dawning disillusionment had taken to calling him "The Big Creep," was among them. In his federal deposition, as he had in Jones's civil suit, Clinton lied in multiple instances. Indeed, it was Clinton himself who was behind the witness tampering. He had pressured Monica to sign a false affidavit in the Jones case when he learned she was on a witness list. He enlisted his secretary, Betty Currie, to retrieve gifts that he'd given Monica and which were by then under subpoena. Currie hid them under her bed at home. 

Clinton also encouraged Currie to lie in her own deposition. "I was never alone with Monica, right?" he asked her twice privately, shortly before she was to testify under oath, though she knew as well as he that Lewinsky had been alone with him at least a dozen times. Currie also knew it was a lie when the president said to her, "Monica came on to me and I never touched her, right?" Worried that Lewinsky might flip, as others never had, he leaned on a friend to find her a new, higher-paying job. When it became clear that Lewinsky would, under questioning, testify truthfully, he instructed aides to slander her to reporters, on background. Clinton told one aide, an energetic leaker named Sidney Blumenthal, that she was a "stalker," a mentally unbalanced young woman with a Clinton fixation. And as night follows day, descriptions of Lewinsky as a stalker duly appeared in the papers. 

There was much, much more to Clinton's behavior that was just as reprehensible, and all of it long ago disappeared down the country's memory hole. One more instance: After he publicly denied his affair with Lewinsky, he recruited his cabinet officers, among them Bill Daley and Madeleine Albright, to go before the press and reaffirm their trust in him--trust that he knew to be laughable. That's not an impeachable offense. Taking advantage, as the most powerful man in the world, of a dizzy 22-year-old woman is not an impeachable offense; neither, probably, is using your power as president to libel her after she proved a danger to your political viability. Even the famous incident with the cigar isn't an impeachable offense. On the other hand, witness tampering and lying under oath to a federal grand jury are felonies, whatever the merits of the underlying case that occasioned the tampering and the perjury. Those are impeachable offenses. And so the president was impeached.

It was impossible at the time, and still is, to disentangle the partisan motives of the congressional Republicans who impeached Bill Clinton from whatever genuine sense of duty they felt to insist that his crimes be formally proved, recorded, and censured. Yet the question is beside the point, for the motives, whatever they were, don't violate the soundness of the case made against him. An ethics committee of the Arkansas state supreme court, comprising mostly Democrats, came to the same conclusion that congressional Republicans did, and insisted that Clinton be disbarred. The federal judge to whom he lied under oath fined him $90,000, saying "no reasonable person would seriously dispute" that Clinton had given "false, misleading, and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process." These affirmations of the Republican case do undermine the "consensus" that the impeachment was, as the Esquire editors put it, "so political as to be illegitimate."

The common view of Clinton's impeachment, like the common view of his presidency in general, is exquisitely wrong. The distance of time and the stilling of passions haven't made the case assembled by Starr look more trivial and absurd; if anything the case today looks even more compelling to someone who, at this remove, can go through it with a disinterested eye. And the defense mounted by the president's lawyers and publicists, a tissue of misdirection and question-begging, looks flimsier than ever. 
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Posted by orrinj at 10:46 AM


GM leads the US auto industry on road to success (Michelle Krebs, 2/17/12, guardian.co.uk)

[T]he most compelling argument turned out to be the damage not bailing out GM and Chrysler would inflict on the entire economy. The demise of GM and Chrysler would decimate the supplier network, which, in turn, would destroy Ford and cripple foreign automakers operating in the United States, some of whom were already having second thoughts about the country at all. Ultimately, the US economy would be in shambles worse than it was, the thinking went.

Heeding warnings that if GM and Chrysler went into bankruptcy, they might never come out, the Obama administration chose a hybrid solution. GM and Chrysler were forced to file for Chapter 11 reorganization under US bankruptcy laws, and undergo a painful restructuring, but they would merge from the process in short order, funded by loans from US and Canadian taxpayers.

Fast forward three years and the investment to save GM and Chrysler, the full amount of which may never be recovered, continues to be debated. But what can't be argued is that US auto sales are recovering and so, too, are Detroit automakers. When the books closed on 2011, US vehicle sales had risen for the third consecutive year to 12.8m vehicles - from 11.6m in 2010, and 10.4m in 2009, the lowest in 27 years.

In 2011, GM, Chrysler and Ford combined grabbed 47.1% of the American vehicle market, up 1.7 percentage points in a market where tenths of a point are significant. Last year marked the highest combined market share for the Detroit three since 2008, when it was 48.3%.

In the past month, the Detroit Three have reported significant profits. Ford earned $20.2bn, its best earnings since 1998 and its second-biggest annual profit in its 109-year history. After losing $652m in 2010, Chrysler made $183m last year, its first full year of positive earnings since 2005 - and that was despite paying off loans to the US and Canadian governments. Of all major automakers selling vehicles in the United States, Chrysler experienced the largest sales increase at 26% from 2010, prompting a gain in market share to 10.5%, from 9.2%. GM, which last year returned to its perch as world's biggest volume automaker, has posted a record 2011 profit of $7.6bn, Thursday.

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Posted by orrinj at 10:41 AM


US economy is stepping on the gas: Employment, profit and car sales figures are looking much brighter across the Atlantic than in Britain. (Jeremy Warner,  18 Feb 2012, The Telegraph)

[A] new industry has come to town, bringing investment, thousands of jobs and growing prosperity. Steubenville is one of scores of new boom towns springing up along the American Appalachians, from Ohio and Maryland, to West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, all of them beneficiaries of the shale gas revolution, a new technology that allows access to abundant reserves of natural gas trapped within the rock.

The results are startling. It's not just the mini-boom in business investment. It's also meant that for the first time in more than 40 years, the US is close to achieving its goal of energy self-sufficiency. Energy costs have fallen so sharply that Methanex Corporation, the world's biggest methanol maker, recently announced it was dismantling its factory in Chile and reassembling it in Louisiana, perhaps the biggest example yet of the new found fashion for "onshoring".

This is just one of any number of similar decisions that stem from the shale gas revolution. Dow Chemical plans a new propylene unit in Texas by 2015. Formosa Plastics similarly proposes a $1.5 billion investment in ethylene-related plants in the same state, while both US Steel and Vallourec are planning multi-million dollar investments in new steel capacity to meet demand for shale gas extraction.

Nor is shale the only part of America's economic renaissance. All over the shop, the American economy is spluttering back into life. Just this week, General Motors, bankrupted almost beyond redemption three years ago, reported its best bottom line profit.

Automobile sales are at their highest level since the start of the financial crisis, and there are even signs that the delinquent housing market is finally beginning to turn. Sales to listings, a key measure of the health of the US housing market, are at last moving in the right direction, while in some states, prices have actually started to rise.

Just wait until the borders reopen.

Posted by orrinj at 8:57 AM


Our unrealistic attitudes about death, through a doctor's eyes (Craig Bowron, 2/17/12, Washington Post)

But I'm not always lucky. The family may ask me to use my physician superpowers to push the patient's tired body further down the road, with little thought as to whether the additional suffering to get there will be worth it. For many Americans, modern medical advances have made death seem more like an option than an obligation. We want our loved ones to live as long as possible, but our culture has come to view death as a medical failure rather than life's natural conclusion.

These unrealistic expectations often begin with an overestimation of modern medicine's power to prolong life, a misconception fueled by the dramatic increase in the American life span over the past century. To hear that the average U.S. life expectancy was 47 years in 1900 and 78 years as of 2007, you might conclude that there weren't a lot of old people in the old days -- and that modern medicine invented old age. But average life expectancy is heavily skewed by childhood deaths, and infant mortality rates were high back then. In 1900, the U.S. infant mortality rate was approximately 100 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2000, the rate was 6.89 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

The bulk of that decline came in the first half of the century, from simple public health measures such as improved sanitation and nutrition, not open heart surgery, MRIs or sophisticated medicines. Similarly, better obstetrical education and safer deliveries in that same period also led to steep declines in maternal mortality, so that by 1950, average life expectancy had catapulted to 68 years.

For all its technological sophistication and hefty price tag, modern medicine may be doing more to complicate the end of life than to prolong or improve it. If a person living in 1900 managed to survive childhood and childbearing, she had a good chance of growing old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person who made it to 65 in 1900 could expect to live an average of 12 more years; if she made it to 85, she could expect to go another fouryears. In 2007, a 65-year-old American could expect to live, on average, another 19 years; if he made it to 85, he could expect to go another six years.

Posted by orrinj at 8:10 AM


The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class? (Francis Fukuyama, January/February 2012, Foreign Affairs)

Trade and tax policies may have accelerated this trend, but the real villain here is technology. In earlier phases of industrialization -- the ages of textiles, coal, steel, and the internal combustion engine -- the benefits of technological changes almost always flowed down in significant ways to the rest of society in terms of employment. But this is not a law of nature. We are today living in what the scholar Shoshana Zuboff has labeled "the age of the smart machine," in which technology is increasingly able to substitute for more and higher human functions. Every great advance for Silicon Valley likely means a loss of low-skill jobs elsewhere in the economy, a trend that is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Inequality has always existed, as a result of natural differences in talent and character. But today's technological world vastly magnifies those differences. In a nineteenth-century agrarian society, people with strong math skills did not have that many opportunities to capitalize on their talent. Today, they can become financial wizards or software engineers and take home ever-larger proportions of the national wealth.

The other factor undermining middle-class incomes in developed countries is globalization. With the lowering of transportation and communications costs and the entry into the global work force of hundreds of millions of new workers in developing countries, the kind of work done by the old middle class in the developed world can now be performed much more cheaply elsewhere. Under an economic model that prioritizes the maximization of aggregate income, it is inevitable that jobs will be outsourced.

Smarter ideas and policies could have contained the damage. Germany has succeeded in protecting a significant part of its manufacturing base and industrial labor force even as its companies have remained globally competitive. The United States and the United Kingdom, on the other hand, happily embraced the transition to the postindustrial service economy. Free trade became less a theory than an ideology: when members of the U.S. Congress tried to retaliate with trade sanctions against China for keeping its currency undervalued, they were indignantly charged with protectionism, as if the playing field were already level. There was a lot of happy talk about the wonders of the knowledge economy, and how dirty, dangerous manufacturing jobs would inevitably be replaced by highly educated workers doing creative and interesting things. This was a gauzy veil placed over the hard facts of deindustrial­ization. It overlooked the fact that the benefits of the new order accrued disproportionately to a very small number of people in finance and high technology, interests that dominated the media and the general political conversation.

One of the most puzzling features of the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that so far, populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one.

In the United States, for example, although the Tea Party is anti-elitist in its rhetoric, its members vote for conservative politicians who serve the interests of precisely those financiers and corporate elites they claim to despise. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. They include a deeply embedded belief in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome and the fact that cultural issues, such as abortion and gun rights, crosscut economic ones.

In a country where--even before the Baby Boomers have retired--half the population pays no income taxes and 70% of the federal budget goes to dependency programs, how could populism be anything but conservative in nature?

Americans are not anti-redistributionist, we're just a tad too dishonest about ourselves to discuss its popularity openly and to make the decisions about how to redistribute efficiently yet. The future of liberal democracy is just a matter of reforming that redistribution so that more of it occurs up front and market forces are allowed to build it over a citizen's lifetime.  It's the movement from defined benefit to defined contribution.  

Posted by orrinj at 7:32 AM


Not Betting a Dime, He Cleans Up at the Slots (COREY KILGANNON, 2/12/12, NY Times)

Mr. Bemsel has been a devoted horseplayer since getting hooked at Monmouth Park on the Jersey Shore at age 16. After high school, he worked in a warehouse until he was 40, when he saw a man at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey pulling betting slips out of the trash. He became a top stooper, and he still never misses the huge stooping jackpots: the Kentucky Derby, and August in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he and three other stoopers rent a house to work the racing session.

On Wednesday, he strode quickly through the two huge casino levels, checking several thousand video terminals -- with optimistic names like Instant Winner, Stinkin' Rich and Wall Street Winner -- and accumulating a fistful of vouchers, to be redeemed at a nearby window.

He works 12-hour days and finds $600 to $1,200 a week, Mr. Bemsel said, but winds up blowing most of it on bad horse picks. "The whole reason I do this is to feed my gambling addiction," he said. "It's an illness."

The racino has been a godsend, he said, because "the golden years of stooping are over."

In those days, he said, he could make $1,000 a day, and he stayed regularly in Las Vegas and Atlantic City suites.

He paused during his racino rounds on Wednesday and said, "I'll hit a big one, one of these days, and be back on top."
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Posted by orrinj at 7:26 AM


Between hope and fear (Roula Khalaf, 2/10/12, Financial Times)
The same idea is picked up by Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst for Al Jazeera English television, in The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions.

In his journey into the past abuses that explain the Arab spring, Bishara argues that the youth awakening was inspired by the sacrifices of political, community and labour leaders over many years. In Egypt, these people include George Ishaq from Egypt's Kefaya movement, an organisation that had played an instrumental role in raising awareness about the dangers of a hereditary transition years before the youth launched the revolution.
In Tunisia, Bishara rightly notes, the uprising started by young men and women in a remote town became a nationwide revolution when labour unions and banned opposition groups joined in. "While the revolution marked a break with the past, it was also a by-product of a long history of social and political struggle in the Arab world," he says.

The old political activists were given renewed hope by an internet-savvy generation who broke the wall of fear, taking to the streets to protest against a political order that had oppressed society, sought to fool it by creating façades of democracy and pretended to liberalise the economy. During the rule of the autocrats, no segment of society was spared state pressure. Regimes' political opponents were harassed and jailed; the youth were subdued by state intervention in universities and even their sports were hijacked by the patronage of members of the regime. In Egypt, for example, both of Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Ala'a, styled themselves as youth leaders.

Worse yet, writes Bishara, the dictators focused "less on the utility of their leadership and more on the continuity of their legacy", promoting their heirs and producing what he calls "autocrats in waiting". The sons, in fact, became "power brokers, or power mediators, between the three pillars of influence: the regimes' old guard, the 'business whales' or the new oligarchs who devoured everything they had access to, and western governments and multinationals with interests in the region's emerging markets."

The author does not spare the west from blame for perpetuating the region's dictatorships. Governments that claimed to have supported the Arab revolutions had in reality "folded" the dictators into the US regional order, with little regard to the fact that the Arab world had become "ever more stagnant, leaderless, polarised and downtrodden".

The US and others are now treading carefully as they adapt to a new Middle East in which the main political actors - the Islamists - were largely shunned in the past for fear of upsetting the ruling autocrats. The pictures of Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt, visiting the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo last month would have been unthinkable a year ago.

The relationship between western governments and Islamists will be an important factor in future regional stability. For the first time the US and its allies must deal with representative governments and with popular sentiment opposed to many western policies in the Middle East. But the Islamist-led governments that are assuming power at a time of extraordinary economic difficulty will also have to recognise that they need western support, including financially.

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Posted by orrinj at 7:16 AM


Payroll tax cut undermines Social Security's security: If Social Security becomes just another line item in the federal budget, what's to save it from being swept up in an across-the-board orgy of spending reductions? (Michael Hiltzik, February 19, 2012, LA Times)

To be fair, thus far the payroll tax holiday hasn't impaired Social Security's fiscal resources one bit. By law, 100% of the cut must be compensated for by transfers from the general fund; those transfers have come to about $130 billion since 2010, covering the original "temporary" one-year holiday and a two-month extension passed late last year.

The new extension will require a further transfer of about $94 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Yet because of the unique features of the program's financing, tampering with its revenue stream is playing with fire. The payroll tax is currently set at 12.4% of wages, split equally between employer and employee, up to a maximum of $110,100. The tax holiday cuts the employee's 6.2% share to 4.2%.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put it well when he excoriated President Obama and his fellow congressional Democrats for approving a measure that places Social Security's financial stability on the table. "I never thought I would live to see the day when a Democratic president ... would agree to put Social Security in this kind of jeopardy," he said. "Never did I ever imagine a Democratic president beginning the unraveling of Social Security."

Only a Democrat can unravel it.