June 30, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:36 PM


New alliances bring old enemies together as Isis advances in Iraq : Iran, the US and even the Shia militias who fought the American invasion are turning uneasily to each other (Martin Chulov, 6/28/14, The Observer)

"Old enemies are now sharing intelligence," said a senior Iraqi political figure. "Even the Iranians are seeing some of the CIA work on Da'ash [a name used for Isis]."

On Thursday, the Observer witnessed a large US military cargo plane descending over Abu Ghraib and into Baghdad airport. Also watching was a convoy from the most feared militia in the land, the Iranian-backed Asa'ib ahl al-Haq, whose members sat nonchalantly under the flight path. Earlier that day, the group's leader, Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, had left Baghdad for Najaf, and then to Tehran, after overseeing plans for the defence of the capital.

Suleimani was well-known to the US officials who arrived in Baghdad's green zone earlier in the week for meetings with Maliki. For more than five years, between 2005 and 2011, he had been their chief antagonist in Iraq, with militias he directed responsible, according to Washington, for more than a quarter of all US battle casualties. This time though, the foes paid each other no heed.

The US military might that Suleimani fought so hard to counter will be needed if the battle with Isis is to be won. Iranian muscle in Baghdad will be just as important. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:31 PM


Lessons From the World Cup (Mohamed A. El-Erian, 6/26/14, Bloomberg View)

[T]his great, global contest we're watching offers some insights on broader challenges facing the world economy, in particular what countries and companies need to do better to increase growth, create jobs, reduce inequality and generate greater prosperity for the most people.

To wit:

*Improve the access of talent, no matter where it resides, to competitive venues that allow those people to develop.

*Enable that talent to compete in a fair, competitive and rule-based environment.

*Provide an organized context in which those now enjoying better access can occasionally go home to improve their local economies.

*Adapt to changing circumstances and deploy better management practices so legacy economic titans don't get paralyzed by paradigm shifts even if their historical advantages are eroding.

There was a time when similar considerations underpinned regional and global efforts to promote freer and fairer trade in goods and services, together with safer movements of labor and capital. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:21 PM


Yet Another Reason Why We Should All Stand at Work (Alice Robb, 6/30/14, New Republic)

In the anti-sitters' latest salvo, researchers have shown that standing up may encourage more creative and collaborative group-work. Andrew Knight and Markus Baer, professors at the business school at Washington University in St. Louis, recruited 214 undergraduate students and broke them into groups of three to five. They assigned each group to work together for half an hour to write a script for a college recruitment video, which would be judged for creativity as well as execution. All groups worked in conference rooms equipped with a whiteboard, easels, and markers, but half the groups worked in a room with five office chairs and a table--a "sedentary workspace"--while the other half worked in a room empty of table or chairs. Knight and Baer, who describe their results in a new paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, hypothesized that the students in the chair-less room would feel less constricted and come up with more ideas. It turns out they didn't see much of a difference in the end products, but the groups that worked in the unfurnished rooms showed higher signs of engagement and fewer signs of territoriality. Knight and Baer measured engagement by having participants wear wireless sensors that would monitor the activity of their sympathetic nervous system--known by psychologists to reflect arousal. The researchers judged how territorial participants felt over their own ideas by administering a survey after the experiment, having students rate statements like, "Everyone in my group was protective of his or her ideas." "Our results suggest that if leaders aspire to enhance collaborative knowledge work, they might consider eschewing the traditional conference room setup of tables and chairs and, instead, clear an open space for people to collaborate with one another," Knight and Baer conclude.

Being possessive over your own ideas is one of the least helpful things you can do when working with others. And if a simple change of furniture could make people more inclined to prioritize the group goal, it's probably something companies should consider. (Not to mention the health risks of sitting, which are well-established. The most thorough review of the evidence--a 2012 paper in the journal Diabetologia that took into account 18 studies involving nearly 800,000 people--found that the people who spent the most time sitting have nearly twice as high a risk of heart disease and diabetes as those who sat the least, even if they exercise regularly.)

Posted by orrinj at 7:59 PM


Weasel-Like Predators Are Reclaiming Territory In The U.S. (Douglas Main, 06.30.2014 , National Geographic)

Earlier this month, a fisher was photographed in the Bronx, the first spotting of this weasel-like animal in New York City in modern times. This is in keeping with a general trend: After being exterminated from much of their native habitat throughout the Northeast, they are slowly spreading back into their old stomping grounds and have increased their geographic range more than two-fold in the last century, according to a study in Animal Conservation. The animals, "somewhere between a domesticated ferret and a wolverine" in size and attitude, are also getting bigger, the study noted.

June 29, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:40 PM


Hillary called Obama 'incompetent and feckless' in boozy rant (Bob Fredericks, June 27, 2014, NY Post)

The former first lady, months removed from being Obama's secretary of state, unleashed the verbal assault between sips of vino, sources told the author.

"When her friends asked Hillary to tell them what she thought -- really thought -- about the president she had served for four draining years, she lit into Obama with a passion that surprised them all," Klein wrote.

Clinton ranted, "The thing with Obama is that he can't be bothered, and there is no hand on the tiller half the time. That's the story of the Obama presidency. No hand on the f-king tiller," according to the book, which was excerpted exclusively in Sunday's Post.

"Obama has turned into a joke," she went on, according to Klein.

"The IRS targeting the Tea Party, the Justice Department's seizure of AP phone records and [Fox reporter] James Rosen's e-mails -- all these scandals. Obama's allowed his hatred for his enemies to screw him the way Nixon did," she raged, the book says, adding that she called the president "incompetent and feckless."

Posted by orrinj at 7:34 PM


The Death of Urbanization in the United States (JIM RUSSELL, June 25, 2014, Pacific Standard)

Many urban cores around the United States are experiencing a renaissance, after many decades of demographic decline. Cities may be growing. But urbanization is waning:

More people moved into nonmetro counties from metro areas than in the other direction over the past two decades, according to analysis of annual county population estimates. Urbanization today is fueled by differential natural increase and higher immigration rates.

Over the last 20 years, the U.S. has become increasingly rural. How can one country become more rural and more urban at the same time? It's the birth rate, stupid.

We continue to confuse population change with net domestic migration.

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 PM


Unions Fear This SCOTUS Case Could Bring Their 'Final Destruction' (SAHIL KAPUR, JUNE 28, 2014, TPM)

 In 2010, a group of home health workers, led by Pamela Harris, brought a class action lawsuit alleging that the collective bargaining agreement that required non-members to pay union fees violated their First Amendment rights.

Unions fear the implications extend far beyond the home health worker profession in Illinois. Agency fees in principle are important to public employee unions because they're required by law to bargain for all workers in a unionized setting. If agency fees for non-members are ruled to be a violation of free speech, unions fear they would lose funding, become less effective at bargaining for benefits and, in turn, lose members.

One labor official said such a result would bring about "the possible final destruction of the American labor movement." The official added, "It would cause the death not only of public sector unions and what's left of private sector unions, but also the Democratic Party," suggesting that the demise of unions would make Democrats more reliant on Wall Street money.

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 PM


The misery of an England fan in the US (Dominic Green, 6/28/14, BBC Magazine)

It's a rare occasion when the US football team advance further than England at the World Cup, so the pain is keenly felt by a British transplant in New York, Dom Green.

After four years of living in New York, I'd like to think I've assimilated into the local culture.

I ask cab drivers to pop the trunk. I visit the dentist every three months. I even high-fived a colleague in the office last week, without irony.

But as this year's World Cup approached, I had an overwhelming desire to watch our opening game against Italy with other English people. [...]

Meanwhile, the rest of the city was engaging with the World Cup like never before.

There is always interest, of course, thanks to the bubble of passionate (mainly Hispanic) soccer fans in and around New York. Flushing Meadows turns into Hackney Marshes every weekend.

Even our lovely, 50-something Guatemalan housekeeper does Panini swapsies with my five-year-old son. And the game of footie I organise every Friday night on the Lower East Side is made up of a brilliantly diverse group of British, Aussie, American, Dutch, Moroccan, German and Japanese players.

And yet, and yet... There's something happening outside that bubble, too. Last Sunday, Madison Square Park was heaving with flag-waving USA fans for the Portugal game.

Bars have been advertising the games "with sound", as if suddenly realising what they've been missing all these years. And people at work have started talking to me about football.

American people.

How infuriating that football - our football - has finally become a talking point at precisely the moment the USA has progressed further than England on the world's biggest stage.

I've tried for years to get the eldest to pay attention to sports with no luck.  The other day it was slow at the pool so the lifeguards all watched USA-Germany and he came home ranting about the game.  The sport is so simple and lacking in nuance that anyone can turn it on and watch.  And, even better, it's over two hours after it started.  We're becoming a soccer nation...by accident.

Will soccer's gain be baseball's loss? (Frank Fitzpatrick, 6/29/14, Philadelphia Inquirer)

I'm not suggesting mortal peril. But the print era's favorite game clearly seems to be having trouble maintaining its balance, not to mention its fan base, in a digital world.

Baseball just doesn't modernize easily or well.

Replay hasn't made me feel any more confident about its future. Nor has the sensory overload of a ballpark experience. And only savants appear interested in the flood of new statistics the computer age has made possible.

Last week, a friend of mine attended the Phillies' desultory, 4-0 loss to the Florida Marlins at Citizens Bank Park.

His Diamond Club tickets cost $140 each. The crowd was as lifeless as the home team's offense. There were just four total runs and 13 hits, and yet the game took 3 hours and 14 minutes to complete.

He departed long before it ended.

"I see now," my friend said a day later, "why people think soccer is ready to take off in America."

Posted by orrinj at 7:15 PM


The 5 Essential Rules of Film Noir (Jonathan Crow,  June 5th, 2014, Open Culture)

Film Noir. When you think that phrase, the mind is immediately drawn to images of leggy ice queens, rumbled losers in fedoras, guns, neon and certain deadpan cynicism. Film Noir wasn't a self conscious movement in the way the French New Wave was. It wasn't a brand name like a Marvel superhero epic. But it did tap into something dark in the American postwar zeitgeist and became for a spell hugely popular. It also created some of the most unforgettable images in film history.

Film Noir hit its zenith in the late '40s, a time when veterans were returning home in droves after having witnessed unimaginable horrors. Under the weight of war trauma, men felt the brittle veneer of traditional masculinity - strong, stoic and dominant -- crack and crumble. Film Noir tapped into this anxiety. It's no accident that film scholars have called Film Noir the male weepy.

Above is a BBC documentary about the genre that lays out its rules. The movie features interviews with director Paul Schrader, cinematographer Roger Deakins and George Pelecanos who both wrote and produced The Wire.

The Hayes code didn't just limit sex and violence, it required that the bad guys not get away with it, which made all film noir heroes doomed from the moment they strayed off path.

Posted by orrinj at 5:47 PM


Every Datum Tells a Story : The dawning of the age of meta-information (MARK P. MILLS AND M. ANTHONY MILLS, 29 June 2014, City Journal)

Without the benefit of hindsight, it's not always apparent what a new technology will mean or how it will change the way we live. That's especially true for the period we've just entered, which may one day be known as the Age of Big Data, the Dawn of the Cloud, or even, in Cisco's formulation, the Zettabyte Era.

The zetta prefix denotes an incomprehensible number of zeros: a billion trillion of them. Because bytes measure the microscopic currency of computers and communications systems, such numbers say a lot about the scale of the hardware infrastructure underlying our modern information technology. But counting bytes today is like counting, in 1914, the comparable number of drops of ink used to form the letters in print circulation. It's impressive but not terribly useful.

Still, computer and software experts gather at conferences to talk about how big and unprecedented the numbers are, how the concept of "big data" changes everything. Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, observed at a recent seminar that "what we're talking about is something humanity has never tried to deal with before." [...]

We are now witnessing the emergence of a new type of data derived from every aspect of human interaction and behavior, from commercial exchanges to biological processes.

How will these technologies transform human communication? The beginnings of an answer can be found in the nearly century-old writings of German critic Walter Benjamin, who came of age during the first information revolution. He belonged, as he put it, to a "generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar" but that "now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds . . . and the tiny, fragile human body." Among these changes, Benjamin thought, was the loss of an authentic form of human experience--storytelling. Before the telegraph and the printing press, storytellers communicated by word of mouth. Stories imparted practical wisdom and timeless lessons that were seamless and intuitive to the listener. These lessons were preserved in a collective cultural memory.

But the era of storytelling was overtaken by the era of information, a wholly new mode of communication revolving around facts, rather than experience. The purpose of facts is to inform, not teach. Information, Benjamin says, is "understandable in itself." It does not need to be preserved but is "consumed" and forgotten as soon as it becomes "old." Information is not timeless but timely.

The communication of information requires not storytellers but intermediaries. Benjamin's time saw the rise of an expanding cadre of professional journalists critical to the process of selecting, interpreting, and communicating facts. Moreover, information was not universally accessible; its consumption was subject to social, educational, and financial constraints.

Today, we stand at a historical turning point similar to the one that Benjamin lived through. A generation that went to school in buses driven by human beings will likely live to see a world of vehicles driven by robots. Data sensors and recorders are embedded into machinery, the environment, and even our bodies. Wireless networks share and algorithms sort, analyze, and store the data in virtual collective-memory banks, compiling treasure troves of--as yet--mostly untapped knowledge. More than 80 percent of all data remain beyond the reach of today's nascent big-data analytics.

Posted by orrinj at 4:51 PM


Pope Sees Christian Values in Communism (John Burger, 6/29/14, Aleteia)

The Pope said in an conversation published today in the Roman newspaper Il Messaggero that communists had stolen the flag of Christianity.

The paper asked him about a blog post in the Economist magazine that said he sounded like a Leninist when he criticized capitalism and called for radical economic reform.

"I can only say that the communists have stolen our flag," said the Pope, who returned to the public eye today with Mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul after lying low with an apparent cold. "The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the center of the Gospel." 

He said this citing Biblical passages about the need to help the poor, the sick and the needy.

"Communists say that all this is communism. Sure, 20 centuries later. So when they speak, one can say to them: 'but then you are Christian,'" he said, laughing.

All that hard work by JPII and Benedict, dragging the Church towards the Anglosphere, tossed in the gutter....

June 28, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:28 AM


China sends dissidents on free holidays (Agence France-Presse/theguardian.com, 26 June 2014)

As top Communist leaders gathered in Beijing the veteran Chinese political activist He Depu was obliged to leave town - on an all-expenses-paid holiday to the tropical island of Hainan, complete with police escorts.

It is an unusual method of muzzling dissent, but He is one of dozens of campaigners who rights groups say have been forced to take vacations - sometimes featuring luxurious hotels beside sun-drenched beaches, trips to tourist sites and lavish dinners - courtesy of the authorities.

It happens so often that dissidents have coined a phrase for it: "being travelled".

Posted by orrinj at 8:22 AM


Can we finally agree that Obamacare is working? (Michael Hiltzik, 6/26/14, LOS ANGELES TIMES)

--Nearly 60% of enrollees in ACA-compliant exchange health plans this year were previously uninsured--most of them for two years or more. (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation.)

--Obamacare cut costs for buyers eligible for subsidies by an average of 76% compared with non-subsidized premiums. More than 80% of buyers are eligible for government subsidies, and for them the average premium is $82 a month. (Source: Department of Health and Human Services.)

--Most people can save money by choosing plans offering narrower provider networks, and there's "no meaningful" difference in health outcomes between plans with narrow hospital networks and those offering broader networks. (Source: McKinsey & Co.) 

--Projected rate increases for 2015 are coming in well below expectations. Anthem Blue Cross rates will rise by less than 10% next year, about in line with health plan rate increases in the individual market in the pre-ACA era. (Source: Anthem Blue Cross.)

The original version, Romneycare, has worked too, so there was never any reason to doubt that Obamacare would as well.  Before it gets working too well, Republicans need top narrow the choice--to HSAs--and universalize the program--to get everyone (but the chronically ill and the wealthy) into them.

Posted by orrinj at 8:13 AM


Christians should support all liberties, not just religious liberty (Father Raymond J. de Souza, June 19, 2014, National Post)

The esteemed Catholic theologian of the free society, Michael Novak, is here this week. Novak argues that religious liberty is the first liberty, for if you do not have the freedom to believe what you will about ultimate questions, or the freedom to order your relationship to God, then what other freedoms are possible? If his inner sanctuary is violated, none of the other things man does and has are safe.

Novak argues that economic liberty is the "second liberty." It is not more important in principle than freedom of the press, but in practice it may be. Not everyone has something to say in public all the time; everyone engages in economic activity every day. If you wish to have a culture of liberty, economic liberty is worth paying attention to.

"Once you grant more liberty in one area, it is hard to stop freedom from spreading to other spheres of life," argues Samuel Gregg, Acton's director of research. "Economic liberty, for instance, requires and encourages people to think and choose freely. Without this, entrepreneurship and free exchange are impossible. It is, however, difficult to limit this reflection and choosing to economic questions. People start asking social questions, political questions, and, yes, religious questions."

....together making up the entirety of the End of History : democracy, capitalism and protestantism.
Posted by orrinj at 7:18 AM


New Hope for India (Martin Feldstein, 6/27/14, Project Syndicate)

The newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, campaigned on a platform that promises to deliver to India as a whole the rapid growth in employment and income that the state of Gujarat achieved when he was its chief minister. Under Modi's leadership, Gujarat became a business-friendly state that expanded economic activity, and attracted business investment from both Indian and overseas companies.

A remarkable feature of the recent election is that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received an absolute majority in the national parliament, an almost unprecedented achievement in India. As a result, Modi will not have to compromise with the other national or regional parties to pursue his legislative agenda.

Two key officials will help Modi manage his economic program. The new finance minister, Arun Jaitley, is an experienced political leader who served in ministerial positions in previous BJP governments. Jaitley is also known as a strategic thinker who is sympathetic to business interests. The head of the Reserve Bank of India (the central bank) will continue to be Raghuram Rajan, a distinguished economist who has already shown his desire to reduce India's near-double-digit annual inflation rate, and to reform some of the inherited counterproductive restrictions on the country's financial sector.

The measures needed to stimulate economic growth will take time to implement and to produce results. But anyone who wants to see whether the new government is acting to achieve faster long-term growth should examine whether progress is being made in the following ten policy areas. [...]

Tax reform. India's complex system of national and state sales taxes distorts domestic trade. Replacing these taxes with a national value-added tax and using revenue-sharing to the states has been long debated and should now be enacted.

Posted by orrinj at 7:08 AM


Antarctica: Notes on the Fate of Sovereignty (John Keane, 6/24/14, The Conversation)

But what kind of polity is Antarctica? Some observers commend it as a workable hotchpotch arrangement of entangled states, or as a model of 'sovereign neutrality' (Gillian Triggs). Most observers pass over the question in silence. That is a pity, for considered in descriptive terms, as a functioning set of governing institutions, Antarctica is a trend-setter, a new type of 'cosmopolitan' law-bound polity defined by a mixture of overlapping power-sharing jurisdictions that are connected with the rest of the world, and (arguably) have important implications for how it will in future be governed.

The novelty of its polity, its practical dismantlement of territorial state sovereignty, is evident on a variety of fronts. Talk of sovereignty always implied, in circumstances when push comes to shove, that states can rightfully lay claim, possess and defend territory if they demonstrate in practice that their grip on that territory is effective and durable. As a macho-muscular and frequently bellicose force in world affairs, the originally European doctrine, as is well known, proved virile in the history of attempted conquests of the lands and seas of Antarctica by various European powers. Yet today Antarctica has no standing armies or police forces or (as far as we know) surveillance agencies operating on its territory. Argentina's Operación 90 (1965) is one of the few documented cases of a military land manoeuvre on the continent. Conducted in secret, so as not to upset the two superpowers of the time, the manoeuvre in support of Argentina's land claims ended happily. Thanks to a chance encounter with an American radar operator, and confirmation they were not Soviet troops, the Argentine soldiers were invited to his base, where the food, according to their commander, General Jorge Leal, was the best his troops had eaten in some weeks.

In Antarctica, there is no executive power in the form of a presidency or prime ministerial system. The continent has no centralised taxation agency, no national judiciary, no bureaucracy (the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, established in 2004, isn't comparable to a civil service) and no welfare state institutions. The new polity of Antarctica doesn't even have a proper textbook name. It's a mode of self-government comprising a dynamic and highly complex mosaic of different types of overlapping legal and governmental institutions guided by the principle that unconstrained ('sovereign') power is power that is arbitrary, dangerous and illegitimate.

The governing architecture of Antarctica has decidedly unusual qualities. Amidst the jungle of acronyms - Europe has no monopoly on upper case stage names - there are many paradoxes. Things aren't what they often seem to be. Its polity has kaleidoscopic qualities. For instance, the instruments through which the continent is governed simultaneously pay homage to the principle of state sovereignty while in practice transcend its limits by means of a tangle of supranational structures. The Antarctic Treaty, agreed by a dozen states reluctant to cede powers to their competitors, has resulted in a rather sizeable and elaborate web of government and legal institutions whose regulatory powers far exceed what was originally envisaged. The creation of a permanent Secretariat to administer the Antarctic Treaty and its offshoot bodies feeds the trend towards post-sovereignty, or what I have elsewhere called cosmocracy. The same trend is evident in the expansion of the number of so-called Consultative Parties (there are now 29 member states in this category) and also the central role played by the supranational Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). Since 1994, it has become something of a parliament. It is an annual meeting of various representatives, observers and invited experts hosted for two weeks by one of the Consultative Parties, in the alphabetical order of their English-language name; like the European Parliament, which convenes in Strasbourg and Brussels, the ATCM is a geographically mobile legislature of voting representatives.

From the standpoint of modern textbooks and classic authors, the compound, polycentric architecture of government in Antarctica is an incomprehensible mutant, yet its durability and functionality are striking. Compared with rigidly geometric hyper-centralised institutions, the architecture of government in Antarctica comprises a flexible, dynamic system of positively clumsy institutions marked by what might be dubbed 'useful inefficiencies'. These inefficiencies are useful in the sense that they facilitate access to power by outsiders and the sharing of power among the various represented parties. Such clumsiness - awkwardness of rhythm or performance - is not normally considered a political virtue. In the case of Antarctica, the word well describes a definite virtue of its governing system, which through time has become ever more differentiated, subtle and sophisticated. The polity of Antarctica is a type of 'mixed constitution' (Polybius) in a higher, more plural, more democratic form. Governing processes are openly 'messy', recursive and sometimes self-contradictory. Thanks to the tangled, rhizomatous (or rootstalk-like) structures of decision making, demarcation disputes abound. Matters are discussed, batted about, sometimes vetoed; details are probed, second and third opinions are solicited, compromises are struck, often after infuriating bouts of brinkmanship and slow-motion negotiations.

Antarctica could be said to be a strange new form of slow democracy.

The reality is that its unique forms exist on our sufferance.

June 27, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:29 PM


David Cameron Fights the Good Fight (Mohamed A. El-Erian, 6/27/14, Bloomberg View)

Cameron appears to have been driven by two factors in his determined attempts to block Juncker's appointment. First, he believes that the selection process itself is antiquated, frustrating Europe's pivot to a better-managed, inspiring and visionary future. As such, the credibility of Europe's historic (and challenged) regional integration process could be damaged. Second, he believes that Juncker is not the right person for the task at hand.

While other EU members seem to sympathize with Cameron's view, few, if any, wish to disrupt their established institutional approach -- and for good reason. It would involve a whole set of implicit contracts that would need to be painfully renegotiated, with uncertain outcomes for each country involved.

Reading the writing on the wall, most politicians would have abandoned the fight for a better and modernized appointment process. Not David Cameron. He has courageously campaigned for change even as his allies drop out, one after the other, from this institutional fight.

While it is hard to know for sure, I suspect that two major considerations have entered Cameron's calculus: first, the desire to use this post-crisis juncture in the EU to undertake governance reforms that many feel necessary but few have the stamina to pursue, and second, the belief that, whatever the outcome, his stance will play well to a domestic British audience that is historically deeply suspicious of Brussels.

Posted by orrinj at 8:26 PM


The Middle East That France and Britain Drew Is Finally Unravelling (John B. Judis, New Republic)

If you look at a map of the Middle East in 1917, you won't find Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, or Palestine. Since the sixteenth century, that area was part of the Ottoman Empire and was divided into districts that didn't match past or future states. The British and French created the future states--not in order to ease their inhabitants' transition to self-rule, as they were supposed to do under the mandate of the League of Nations, but in order to maintain their own rule over lands they believed had either great economic or strategic significance.

In 1916, as The Islamic State Report indicates, the French and British agreed to divide up the Ottoman Middle East in the event that they defeated Germany and their Ottoman ally. The French claimed the lands from the Lebanese border to Mosul; the British got part of Palestine and what would be Jordan and Southern Iran from Baghdad to Basra. After the war, the two countries modified these plans under the aegis of the League of Nations. At San Remo in 1920, the British got the territory that in 1921 they divided into Palestine and Transjordan and all of what became Iraq. (France gave up northern Iraq in exchange for 25 percent of oil revenues.) The French got greater Syria, which they divided into a coastal state, Lebanon, and four states to the east that would later become Syria.

These lands had always contained a mix of religions and ethnicities, but in setting out borders and establishing their rule, the British and French deepened sectarian and ethnic divisions. The new state of Iraq included the Kurds in the North (who were Sunni Muslims, but not Arabs), who had been promised partial autonomy earlier by the French; Sunnis in the center and west, whose leaders the British and the British-appointed king turned into the country's comprador ruling class; and the Shiites in the South, who were aligned with Iran, and who had been at odds with the Sunnis for centuries. After the British took power, a revolt broke out that the British brutally suppressed, but resentment toward the British and toward the central government in Baghdad persisted. In the new state of Transjordan (which later became Jordan), the British installed the son of a Saudi ruler to preside over the Bedouin population; and in Palestine, it promised the Jews a homeland and their own fledgling state within a state under the Balfour Declaration while promising only civil and religious rights to the Palestinian Arabs who made up the overwhelming majority of inhabitants.

In the new state of Lebanon, the French elevated the Christian Maronites into the country's ruling elite, and created borders that gave them a slight majority over the Shia and Sunni Muslims. In the land that became Syria, the French initially separated the Alawites (from whom the Assad family would descend) and the Druze into their own states and empowered the urban Sunni Muslims in Damascus and Aleppo. During World War II, Syria was finally united in the state that exists today.

From the beginning, these newly created states were engulfed by riots, revolts, and even civil war. Most of the early revolts were directed against the colonial authorities, but after World War II, when these states won their independence, the different religious denominations, ethnicities and nationalities fought each other for supremacy--the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites in Iraq, the Jews and Arabs in Palestine (and later Israelis and Palestinians), the Maronites and Muslims in Lebanon, and the Alawites and Sunnis in Syria. The resulting strife was not a product of the Arab character or of Islam. As University of Oklahoma political scientist Joshua Landis has noted, the turmoil in these lands was very similar to that which took place, and is still taking place, in the various states constructed and deconstructed in Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires and Germany's defeat after World War I.

Posted by orrinj at 8:11 PM


The Truth About Our Libertarian Age : (Mark Lilla, 6/17/14, New Republic)

What is, or was, ideology? Dictionaries define it as a "system" of ideas and beliefs people hold that motivate their political action. But the metaphor is inapt. All practical activity, not just political activity, involves ideas and beliefs. An ideology does something different: it holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality. To follow the optical metaphor, ideology takes an undifferentiated visual field and brings it into focus, so that objects appear in a predetermined relation to each other. The political ideologies born out of the French Revolution were particularly potent because they came with moving pictures that disclosed how the present emerged from a comprehensible past and was now moving toward an intelligible future. Two grand narratives competed for attention in Europe, and then around the world: a progressive one culminating in a liberating revolution, and an apocalyptic one ending with the natural order of things restored.

The ideological narrative of the European left was a cross between Prometheus Bound and the life of Jesus. Mankind was assumed to be equal to the gods but bound to the rock of history by religion, hierarchy, property, and false consciousness. For millennia that was how things stood, until a miracle of incarnation occurred in 1789 and the spirits of freedom and equality became flesh. The problem was that redemption did not follow. Just as the followers of Jesus had some theological work to do when his return kept being deferred, so the nineteenth- and twentieth-century left developed a revolutionary apologetics to make sense of historical disappointment. It taught that while the French Revolution descended into Terror and Napoleonic despotism, it did prepare the way for the pan-European revolutions of 1848. These were short-lived but they inspired the Paris Commune. That lasted only a few months, but it set the example for the October Revolution of 1917. True, that was followed by the November Revolution and then Stalin and his terror. But after World War II the revolution's pilgrimage wound its way to China and the Third World, globalizing the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Then there was Cambodia, and the music stopped.

The counter-revolutionary right in Europe, though much stronger politically in the nineteenth century, could not offer a narrative nearly as glorious as the left's. Formed in reaction and under duress, it was obscure and less inspiring. But in moments of crisis it could be very compelling. The story it told was a cross between the legend of the golem and the Book of Revelation. In the best-known version of the golem story, a rabbi places into the mouth of a clay figure a slip of paper bearing God's name on it; the figure then comes alive and rages through a Jewish ghetto terrorizing its residents until the rabbi snatches the paper back. If we think of the golem as le peuple, the paper as the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau, and the destruction of the ghetto as the Terror, we have made our way into the mind of the reactionary right. 

In the legend, the rabbi tames the golem. The forces of reaction, though, never could control the forces of revolution in the nineteenth century, which were scientific, economic, and technological as well. Railroads crisscrossed the unspoiled landscape. Cities replaced villages and country estates, factories replaced farms, secular schools replaced religious ones, unshaved politicians replaced dukes and earls, and the peasants became an undifferentiated mass of brutalized workers. As the century progressed, a romantic right dreaming of a restored age of sweetness and light was transformed into an apocalyptic right convinced that it was living through the Great Tribulation. And when the improbable Russian Revolution succeeded, and Marxism went from being a small sect to being a powerful global force, the face of the Antichrist was exposed for the world to see. The final battle had begun, and into it leapt nationalist redeemers who ruled their peoples with iron rods and "tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty" (Revelation 19:15). We have now made our way into the mind of fascism. 

To speak about such matters is already, two decades on, to conjure up a lost world. Try to convey the grand drama of political and intellectual life from 1789 to 1989 to young students today--American, European, even Chinese students--and you are left feeling like a blind poet singing of lost Atlantis. Fascism for them is "radical evil," hence incomprehensible; how it could develop and why it appealed to millions remains a mystery. Communism, while of course it was for "many good things," makes little sense either, especially the faith that people invested in the Soviet Union. Students simply do not feel the psychological pull of ideology today, and find it hard to imagine a captive mind. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:56 PM


World Cup's brave new world (KEVIN BAXTER, DAVID WHARTON, 6/27/14, LA Times)

Few predicted the U.S. would finish second to Germany -- ahead of Portugal and Ghana -- in the tournament's toughest group. But the unexpected has become routine in Brazil, especially for teams from North and Central America.

An unprecedented three countries from the region, usually overlooked when the world gathers every four years to play soccer, have now reached the round of 16. Mexico and Costa Rica qualified previously.

At the same time, Portugal isn't the only traditional European power to wilt in the heat and humidity. England, Italy and defending champion Spain have all gone home.

Posted by orrinj at 7:53 PM


Support for Keystone XL pipeline is almost universal (AARON BLAKE June 26, 2014, Washington Post)

Even Democrats who prefer to develop alternate energy sources before expanding the use of fossil fuels say they want the Keystone XL pipeline built.

The new Pew "Political Typology" report shows huge majorities of all four Democratic-leaning groups support the development of wind, solar and hydrogen alternatives to oil, coal and natural gas.

But of those same four groups, the Keystone XL pipeline is still overwhelmingly popular in three of them.

Among "hard-pressed skeptics," "next generation left" and "faith and family left," support for Keystone is two-to-one. So even as a group like the "next generation left" group supports alternate energy over fossil fuels 83-11, it still backs Keystone 62-28.

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 PM


Beijing's Catch-22 (Mark C. Eades, June 25, 2014, US News)

Despite the confident mask Beijing wears in its public statements on the democracy movement in Hong Kong, its behavior betrays the heart of a scared bully. Cyberattacks and censorship are evidence, not of strength, but of fear and weakness. Beijing is deathly afraid, not only of democracy taking root in Hong Kong, but also -- and perhaps even more so -- of democratic ideas spreading from Hong Kong into mainland China. Hong Kong's democracy movement is a threat to Chinese Communist Party power, not only in Hong Kong, but also in mainland China. Beijing's greatest fear is that a democratic "Hong Kong Spring" could spill over onto the mainland and become a "Chinese Spring."

Beijing, however, also has Taiwan to worry about. Beijing badly wants Taiwan to accept reunification with China under the "one country, two systems" arrangement that Hong Kong supposedly enjoys. This includes the guarantee of democracy, freedom of expression and a free press. If "one country, two systems" fails to deliver the democracy that Hong Kong wants because of Beijing's intransigence, then Taiwan will be wary of entering into any such arrangement with China. And Taiwan will be watching events in Hong Kong very closely.

Simply put, Beijing is caught in a Catch-22 situation that it cannot win, and that observers in the West should take great pleasure in watching it flounder about with. Hong Kong is a no-win proposition for the dictators in Beijing -- allow democracy to take root in Hong Kong and risk losing control of mainland China, or crack down on democracy in Hong Kong and risk losing Taiwan. Chairman Mao's communist cadre schools didn't prepare Beijing's geriatric leaders for situations such as this. Mouthing slogans from the chairman's "Little Red Book" won't won't fix this problem.

Posted by orrinj at 7:42 PM


The digital degree : The staid higher-education business is about to experience a welcome earthquake (The Economist, Jun 28th 2014)

Universities face a new competitor in the form of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These digitally-delivered courses, which teach students via the web or tablet apps, have big advantages over their established rivals. With low startup costs and powerful economies of scale, online courses dramatically lower the price of learning and widen access to it, by removing the need for students to be taught at set times or places. The low cost of providing courses--creating a new one costs about $70,000--means they can be sold cheaply, or even given away. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School considers MOOCs a potent "disruptive technology" that will kill off many inefficient universities. "Fifteen years from now more than half of the universities [in America] will be in bankruptcy," he predicted last year.

The first MOOC began life in Canada in 2008 as an online computing course. It was 2012, dubbed the "year of the MOOC", that generated vatic excitement about the idea. Three big MOOC-sters were launched: edX, a for-profit provider run by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Coursera, partnered with Stanford University; and Udacity, a for-profit co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who taught an online computing course at Stanford. The big three have so far provided courses to over 12m students. Just under one-third are Americans, but edX says nearly half its students come from developing countries (see chart 2). Coursera's new chief executive, Richard Levin, a former president of Yale University, plans an expansion focusing on Asia.

For all their potential, MOOCs have yet to unleash a Schumpetarian gale of disruption. Most universities and employers still see online education as an addition to traditional degree courses, rather than a replacement. Many prestigious institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, have declined to use the new platforms.

Nick Gidwani, the founder of SkilledUp, an online-course directory, compares the process to the disruption of publishing and journalism. Large publishers used to enjoy a monopoly on printing presses, subscriber bases and deals with advertisers. A proliferation of low-cost blogs, websites and apps means they no longer do. Even successful print products have had to take on aspects of their digital rivals' model. Mr Gidwani sees "scant hope for 200 professors, all delivering the same lecture".

Posted by orrinj at 7:35 PM


Why Are Democrats Now Enthusiastically Carrying Water for Big Business? (Veronique de Rugy, June 26, 2014, National Review)

As I have pointed out before, the Ex-Im Bank overwhelmingly benefits some of the biggest, most politically connected firms in America, like Boeing, General Electric, and Caterpillar. In the process, the bank subsidizes wealthy foreign borrowers -- like Australia's richest woman, mining heiress Gina Rinehart, owner of the Ex-Im-financed Roy Hill Iron Ore Mine -- who who could easily find private capital without government privileges. The bank also subsidizes cash-poor foreign borrowers -- like the government-owned Ethiopian Airlines -- who are pushed to borrow beyond their means and expose U.S. taxpayers to their substantial default risk in the process. Finally, lenders benefit from Ex-Im finance by earning interest on loans whose risk is borne by American taxpayers. In the candid words of one JP Morgan banker (whose firm just happens to be the biggest private lender that benefits from Ex-Im), the bank is "free money" -- that is, for the firms who know the right people.

As expected, Chairman Hensarling was a great spokesman for why the bank's charter shouldn't be reauthorized. He also invited testimony from two witnesses who gave voice to the ranks of Ex-Im's many victims for the first time: Mr. Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, and Captain Lee Moak, President of the Air Line Pilots Association. They gave concrete examples of how Ex-Im directly hurts the American firms and employees they represent -- tragically, some people have lost their jobs due to Ex-Im activities.

And yet, Democrats seemed mostly unmoved. 

history is over : the Left is pro-business.

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 PM


The Supreme Court's Powerful New Consensus (NEAL K. KATYAL, JUNE 26, 2014, NY Times)

FOR years, particularly after the 2000 election, talk about the Supreme Court has centered on its bitter 5-to-4 divisions. Yet it is worth reflecting on a remarkable achievement: The court has agreed unanimously in more than 66 percent of its cases this term (and that figure holds even if Monday's remaining two cases, on the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage and on public-sector unions, are not unanimous). The last year this happened was 1940.

The justices' ability to cross partisan divides and find common ground in their bottom-line judgment in roughly two-thirds of their cases -- including the two decisions handed down Thursday, restricting the president's ability to issue recess appointments during brief breaks in the Senate's work, and striking down a Massachusetts ban on protests near abortion clinics -- should remind us that even in this hyperpartisan age, there is a difference between law and politics.

The stage was set by W's appointment of John Roberts, instead of an ideologue, as Chief, and the UR's appointment of moderates.  The only piece missing is Harriet Miers.

But we've got a Court that's not just conservative but collegial.

Posted by orrinj at 5:06 PM


A Shocking Fish Tale Surprises Evolutionary Biologists (NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, June 26, 2014, NPR)

Scientists say it's amazing that evolution invented an organ for making electricity even once. But, in fact, evolution did it at least six separate times in completely different fish -- how is that possible?

Sussman and a bunch of other scientists wanted to know. So they analyzed all the genes of the electric eel, then also looked at gene activity in other electric fishes from unrelated families. What they discovered was, well, shocking.

"They're using the same genetic tools to build their electric organs in each lineage independently," says Jason Gallant, an electric fish specialist at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, who was part of the research team.

Again and again, evolution used the same set of about 30 genes.

"It seems like there are limited ways to build an electric organ," he says. "And that's sort of a surprising finding ... you wouldn't necessarily have expected that."

Others experts agree. "When I read this paper, I said, 'Yeah, that's cool, that's obvious.' The fact is, it wasn't that obvious," says Leonard Maler, who studies electric fish at the University of Ottawa.

Maler notes that to create an electric organ, many genetic changes have to happen -- and each one on its own wouldn't seem to be advantageous for the fish. For example, a muscle that loses its ability to contract is a pretty lousy muscle.

"You have to simultaneously co-evolve genes that do very many different things in some kind of directed manner. It [can't just] be random," says Maler. 

June 26, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:16 PM


Iraq is finished. Welcome - not that you will be - to Sunnistan (Colin Freeman,  June 23rd, 2014, The Telegraph)

In effect, a new state is being carved out, broadly along the lines of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartlands, where Sunnis will be free from the writ of the Shia-led government that they say treats them as second-class citizens.

Given that the Sunnis did much the same when they were in power under Saddam, it was always a safe bet that a Shia regime might look on them less than sympathetically.

But even so, I can't imagine Sunnistan, or whatever it will be called, being a happy place, much less warranting a Bradt guide of its own.

For a start, the fledgling nation's new masters will most likely be the religious zealots of Isis, rather than the more secular, nationalist Ba'athists with whom they have allied.

Debate has been raging as to which of these two factions is piggybacking onto which, but informed sources appear to think that it is Isis who have the whip hand.

Which, of course, means turning Sunnistan into a 14th-century caliphate, with no boozing, no dancing, and no fun of any sort. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:13 PM


Colleges' Late-to-the-Party Scramble to Get Ready for Common Core (Jon Marcus, 6/25/14, Washington Monthly)

Many academics helped design the standards for kindergarten through 12th grade. But colleges and universities have been slower when it comes to bringing their own programs into synch with this massive overhaul of U.S. primary and secondary education.

Many higher education types "sit in their ivory tower assuming that Common Core is a K-through-12 issue. It is not," said Pamela Clute, assistant vice chancellor of educational and community engagement at the University of California, Riverside, who is spearheading an effort among university professors and administrators to collaborate on the Common Core with public school districts in two surrounding counties. "It's a pipeline issue."

Universities like hers, Clute said, are at the end of that pipeline. Yet despite years of blaming each other for precisely the lack of preparation among students that the Common Core is supposed to address, she said, educators at the various levels of the education system have proven tough to bring together.

Posted by orrinj at 7:54 PM


Britain and Europe Are Heading for a Divorce (Clive Crook, 6/25/14, Bloomberg View)

[H]e's right on the merits of the appointment: Juncker's accession would move the EU two strides further in the wrong direction.

First, Juncker is a federalist, a believer in the "ever closer union" inscribed in EU treaties. As head of the European Commission -- the union's powerful executive branch -- he'll be in a good spot to advance that purpose. He'll be deaf to the idea that Europe needs more "subsidiarity" (the principle that powers that don't need to be centralized shouldn't be) and hence to Britain's main preoccupation.

Second, his appointment would be a coup for the European Parliament. Under current rules, national governments decide who leads the commission, and the understanding has been that this choice is made by consensus (that is, unanimously). The parliament, which wants Juncker, has no more than an advisory role. Yet it's being allowed to insist on Juncker, despite the misgivings of other leaders, and even though that overrides Britain's tacit veto.

It's a perfect example of the very syndrome that infuriates Brits: the unlegislated drift of power from national governments to EU institutions. And it comes -- in the name of EU democracy, mind you -- after EU-wide elections in which parties opposed to that drift made great gains.

As a result, Cameron's difficulties over Europe are rapidly compounding. His position requires him to argue that Europe is reformable; Europe is telling the world it isn't. How many of these rebuffs can Cameron absorb before he has to acknowledge that the U.K.'s choice is not between a new, less centralized union and divorce, but between divorce and the union as it is (only more so)? In effect, he's already cast aside the argument that Britain has a compelling interest in remaining an EU member on almost any terms. If he believed that, he wouldn't have promised a referendum in the first place.

Will the U.K. move next to a more serious discussion of a British exit from the EU?

Posted by orrinj at 6:55 AM


An American Soccer Fan's 'Believe' Moment (DAVID LUHNOW, 6/26/14, WSJ)

I don't care what the "experts" say. I will no longer apologize for American soccer. Because at Manaus on Sunday night, I saw the future. It was tens of thousands of American soccer fans, screaming "I believe that we will win" in unison. And we saw our future on the field, too.

Oh, don't get me wrong. There were still moments -- like Geoff Cameron's failed clearance that let the ball land at Nani's feet for Portugal's first goal -- that reminded me of the past. And I don't doubt there will be more of those to come in future games.

But sometime during that first half, the U.S. team began to string together passes with purpose and poise, with moves that caused an audible gasp from some of the Brazilians sitting near me. Players like Fabian Johnson tore down the sidelines and wreaked havoc on Portugal's back line. And I suddenly thought, "Oh my God. We've done it. We look better than they do. Tonight, we ARE better."

Yes, we let in a last gasp equalizer. But I wasn't devastated because I had seen the future. We may still lose to Germany, and we may not even make it safely out of this Group of Death. But how things have changed since that first USA game I saw in Italy 24 summers ago. This time, in the seat next to me in Manaus, was not an Italian but an Irishman. And he said: "Lucky you, I wish I had a team that was getting as good as this."

And I, too, now believe that we will win.

June 25, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 1:57 PM


I Taught A Baking Class At King Arthur Flour (Martha Stewart, 6/24/14)

King Arthur Flour is a sponsor of my PBS series, Martha Bakes.  They invited us to their headquarters in Norwich, Vermont last Wednesday to teach a baking class and conduct a book signing.  I taught a sold-out audience how to bake stollen, flatbread, and a giant breakfast cookie.  It was a fantastic day!  King Arthur Flour runs a very successful baking education center that welcomes all bakers, no matter of skill level or baking interest.  Classes range from introductory demonstrations to intensive week-long courses for the professional, along with hands-on classes for both adults and children.  If you are ever in Vermont, you should definitely sign up for a class!

Posted by orrinj at 1:41 PM


Report: States Can Overcome Common Core Challenges (Allie Bidwell June 25, 2014, US News)

[I]t is important to note that criticism of Common Core hasn't just come from conservative leaders. Traditionally liberal teachers unions have criticized the implementation (American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the rollout has been "far worse" than Obamacare) and Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, has made it clear the consequences of testing should be delayed.

Posted by orrinj at 1:32 PM


Chris McDaniel refused to concede to Thad Cochran. Now what? (JAIME FULLER June 25, 2014, Washingtoin Post)
Following his defeat in Mississippi's Republican Senate runoff on Tuesday, state Sen. Chris McDaniel vowed that he would challenge the results. "Before this race ends," he said, citing "dozens of irregularities," "we have to be certain that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters."

Posted by orrinj at 1:28 PM


US eases decades-old ban on oil exports (Deutsche Welle, 6/25/14)

The United States has taken the first step toward lifting a decades-old ban on the sale of unrefined oil abroad. The decision could be a boon for an industry that has seen fuel prices drop amid a surge in natural gas. [...]

The government's approval is the first step toward easing a ban on exporting unrefined oil that was enacted after the 1973 Arab oil embargo to curb rising fuel prices.

June 24, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 3:10 PM


Why the universe isn't supposed to exist (Tia Ghose, 6/24/14, LiveScience)

The universe shouldn't exist -- at least according to a new theory.

Modeling of conditions soon after the Big Bang suggests the universe should have collapsed just microseconds after its explosive birth, the new study suggests.

"During the early universe, we expected cosmic inflation -- this is a rapid expansion of the universe right after the Big Bang," said study co-author Robert Hogan, a doctoral candidate in physics at King's College in London. "This expansion causes lots of stuff to shake around, and if we shake it too much, we could go into this new energy space, which could cause the universe to collapse."

Physicists draw that conclusion from a model that accounts for the properties of the newly discovered Higgs boson particle, which is thought to explain how other particles get their mass; faint traces of gravitational waves formed at the universe's origin also inform the conclusion. 

Of course, there must be something missing from these calculations.

Posted by orrinj at 2:06 PM


Conservatives Are Sacrificing Scott Walker for a Higher Cause : They want to eradicate fundraising restrictions--even if it costs the governor his job (Bruce Murphy, 6/24/14, New Republic)

Though the law prevents subjects of a secret John Doe investigation from discussing it publicly, O'Keefe admitted to the Wall Street Journal to being subpoenaed, and the paper then wrote editorials condemning the probe. This allowed Walker's supporters to dismiss the probe as a "partisan witch hunt," but it also began to make a secret Doe probe an increasingly public affair. With the probe now part of a federal lawsuit, which is not secret, the various legal documents in the case were heavily redacted, even as they made their way on appeal to the Seventh Circuit of Appeals. Media organizations petitioned the court to make the records public.

And then a funny thing happened. None of the lawyers objected to this. Not Chisholm's John Doe team, who probably saw this as an opportunity put heat on Walker and to show the investigation had substance. And not O'Keefe's lawyers, who saw it as a way to make their argument against the hated rules restricting third-party advocacy groups. As Andrew Grossman, another attorney working for O'Keefe, would later put it, "These documents show how the John Doe prosecutors adopted a blatantly unconstitutional interpretation of Wisconsin law... to launch a secret criminal investigation targeting conservatives throughout Wisconsin... Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

The one lawyer who would have no doubt objected was Stephen Biskupic, representing Walker's campaign, which polls show had become a dead heat. But the campaign was not a party to the federal lawsuit. Biskupic, however, would have known that the lawyers, in their filings, had not objected to release of the Doe documents and their accusations against Walker. And soon after those filings were made, the news came out that Biskupic was trying to cut a deal with the Doe prosecutors to settle the case against his client. The disclosure came, once again, from O'Keefe's reliable ally, the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page excoriated Walker, saying he "has to decide whose side he's on... While the Club (for Growth) fights for its First Amendment rights to speak out on the issue, the Walker campaign apparently seeks to negotiate a settlement with the prosecutors that will keep the issue out of the spotlight." 

A condemnation from the Journal is, of course, a nightmare prospect for anyone hoping to run as a Republican presidential candidate. Walker initially offered a legalistic response while not denying the attempt at a deal, which brought another editorial spanking ("Sorry, that's disingenuous") from the newspaper. Walker then backed down entirely, saying, "I'm certainly not going to undermine anyone's First Amendment rights. I'm frankly kind of shocked for anyone to suggest that." 

O'Keefe's goal was made clear by the second Journal editorial: "The stakes in the federal lawsuit ... are bigger than Mr. Walker's campaign. They concern the prosecutorial machine that exists in Wisconsin, and in too many other states, to punish and limit political speech that is protected by the First Amendment." 

Posted by orrinj at 1:56 PM


Putin moves to lift Russian troop mandate over Ukraine (Kathrin Hille in Moscow and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev, 6/24/14, Financial Times)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday asked parliament to cancel a mandate for sending troops to Ukraine, a symbolic gesture aimed at countering fears of a Russian invasion of the neighbouring country.

The move comes ahead of a European summit on Friday where western powers had threatened to introduce a fresh round of sanctions against Mr Putin for his inaction in halting the rebel attacks in the east of Ukraine.

June 23, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:28 PM


Fouad Ajami, Great American : His genius lay in the breadth of his scholarship and the quality of his human understanding. (BRET STEPHENS, June 23, 2014 , WSJ)

What Ajami did was to see that world plain, without the usual evasions and obfuscations and shifting of blame to Israel and the U.S. Like Sidney Hook or Eric Hoffer, the great ex-communists of a previous generation, his honesty, courage and intelligence got the better of his ideology; he understood his former beliefs with the hard-won wisdom of the disillusioned.

He also understood with empathy and without rancor. Converts tend to be fanatics. But Ajami was too interested in people--in their motives and aspirations, their deceits and self-deceits, their pride, shame and unexpected nobility--to hate anyone except the truly despicable, namely tyrants and their apologists. To read Ajami is to see that his genius lay not only in the breadth of the scholarship or the sharpness of political insight but also in the quality of human understanding. If Joseph Conrad had been reborn as a modern-day academic, he would have been Fouad Ajami.

Consider a typical example, from an op-ed he wrote for these pages in February 2013 on the second anniversary of the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime:

"Throughout [Mubarak's] reign, a toxic brew poisoned the life of Egypt--a mix of anti-modernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. That trinity ran rampant in the universities and the professional syndicates and the official media. As pillage had become the obsession of the ruling family and its retainers, the underclass was left to the rule of darkness and to a culture of conspiracy."

Or here he is on Barack Obama's fading political appeal, from a piece from last November:

"The current troubles of the Obama presidency can be read back into its beginnings. Rule by personal charisma has met its proper fate. The spell has been broken, and the magician stands exposed. We need no pollsters to tell us of the loss of faith in Mr. Obama's policies--and, more significantly, in the man himself. Charisma is like that. Crowds come together and they project their needs onto an imagined redeemer. The redeemer leaves the crowd to its imagination: For as long as the charismatic moment lasts--a year, an era--the redeemer is above and beyond judgment."

A publisher ought to collect these pieces. Who else could write so profoundly and so well? Ajami understood the Arab world as only an insider could--intimately, sympathetically, without self-pity. And he loved America as only an immigrant could--with a depth of appreciation and absence of cynicism rarely given to the native-born.

Posted by orrinj at 7:14 PM


Felix Dennis obituary (Marsha Rowe, 6/23/14, The Guardian)

Felix Dennis - cackling laugh, roistering humour, ribald in appetite, loyal and immensely generous - has died aged 67 from cancer. One of the richest men in Britain, he made his money in magazine publishing, and was ruthless to the core when it came to pursuing a business opportunity: "I'm an amoral sod," he said.

He was unembarrassed by a decade of excess in the 1980s, during which he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on drink and crack cocaine, with "14 naked hookers catering to my every whim," he boasted, and "partying like a lunatic". In later years, he wrote poetry and, following the publication of his first collection, A Glass Half Full (2002), undertook reading tours like a rock star, travelling by jet or helicopter to gigs.

Yet he joked that he would be remembered above all as one of the three young editors in the Oz obscenity trial of 1971. Felix credited the counterculture magazine Oz with teaching him how to be an entrepreneur. It was a talent that he developed with spectacular success, establishing one of the world's leading independent media companies, with a current turnover of £100m a year.

We reviewed Glass Half Full many moons ago.

Posted by orrinj at 6:53 PM


The Gluten-Free Craze: Is It Healthy? ( JULIE JARGON, June 22, 2014, WSJ)

[W]e still eat an average of 459 more calories a day than we did 40 years ago. 

One of those facts that causes folks to underestimate deflation.
Posted by orrinj at 3:13 PM


Maybe Those EPA Rules Aren't Quite Such a Big Deal (Rebecca Leber, 6/23/14, New Republic)

[A] close look at those state numbers shows just easy it will be for some states to meet the proposed EPA targets.

There are four states that are already generating more renewable energy as part of their portfolio than what the EPA predicts:  

Iowa, which has made leaps in wind energy, now produces a quarter of its electricity in renewables - a higher percentage than the administration's standard. This happens because of how the EPA's formulas work: The models plug in a regional average to estimate renewable energy and ignore what states are already doing.

According to Natural Resources Defense Council Director of Climate Programs David Hawkins, other states like Michigan are already well ahead of the EPA's schedule on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Posted by orrinj at 3:03 PM


US cited controversial law in decision to kill American citizen by drone (Spencer Ackerman, 6/23/14, theguardian.com)

Lawyers for the Obama administration, arguing for their ability to kill an American citizen without trial in Yemen, contended that the protection of US citizenship was effectively removed by a key congressional act that blessed a global war against al-Qaida.

Known as the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the broad and controversial 2001 law played a major role in the legal decision to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the former al-Qaida propagandist and US citizen, in 2011, according to a redacted memorandum made public on Monday.

"We believe that the AUMF's authority to use lethal force abroad also may apply in appropriate circumstances to a United States citizen who is part of the forces of an enemy authorization within the scope of the force authorization," reads the Justice Department memorandum, written for attorney general Eric Holder on 16 July 2010 and ostensibly intended strictly for Awlaki's case.

Among those circumstances: "Where high-level government officials have determined that a capture operation is infeasible and that the targeted person is part of a dangerous enemy force and is engaged in activities that pose a continued and imminent threat to US persons or interests."

From a historical perspective the most striking thing about the Obama Administration will be its continuity with the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Posted by orrinj at 2:53 PM


Kurdish oil to Israel, a new Mid-East (Ayub Nuri, 6/23/14, Times of Israel)

The ships are a symbolic gesture and if true, sending them to Israel, is a powerful message. Iraq has always been one of the most hostile countries towards Israel and now if a part of that country sells oil to the Jewish state, it would mean Iraq and its foreign policies have become irrelevant.

It could also be that Iraqi leaders are only renewing their old rhetoric about Kurdish-Israeli relations in order to kill the little sympathy that some Arab countries have recently shown towards Kurdistan. In the Muslim world if you want to attack or demonize someone, all you need to do is link them with Israel.

The Kurds however, have their own perception of the Jewish state. Kurdish leaders have said time and again that they don't view Israel through the Arab lens. They don't expect Baghdad to choose their friends and enemies for them.

Posted by orrinj at 2:44 PM


Advocates of splitting California into six states gathering signatures (HARRIET RYAN, 6/23/14, LA Times)

Advocates for Six Californias, a plan to split the Golden State into a half dozen separate states, are holding a petition drive this weekend to get their plan on the ballot in 2016.

The idea is the brainchild of Timothy Draper, a venture capitalist from Menlo Park - or as he hopes to some day call it, the state of Silicon Valley. Draper has sunk $2 million into signature gathering for the proposal. He maintains it will break bureaucratic deadlock in Sacramento (proposed state of North California) and attract more business.

"California has become the worst managed state in the country," he told The Times this spring. "It just is too big and too ungovernable."

Posted by orrinj at 2:39 PM


Rich Democrats go from challenging the status quo to embracing it (Matt Bai, June 19, 2014, Yahoo News)

The thinking behind the Democracy Alliance was to create a venture capital fund for new progressive groups. (The Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America were two of the charter recipients.) A central tenet of the alliance in those days was that it wanted nothing to do with the Democratic Party or elections, per se. The alliance was about creating a bolder alternative to the status quo.

It didn't take long, though, for the alliance to deviate from that course. The Silicon Valley and Wall Street contributors who were most focused on modernization started to drift away, exhausted by the endless conference calls and the knee-jerk resistance to any rethinking of the liberal agenda. The remaining "partners," as the alliance calls them, were overwhelmingly aging boomers who clung to 1960s orthodoxies.

Eventually, the alliance became, essentially, a convener and funder of the party establishment. It welcomed several big unions to the table and took up side collections for candidates. And now it's formalized that role by electing Stocks as its chairman, replacing Rob McKay, heir to the Taco Bell fortune.

To be clear, the problem here has nothing to do with Stocks personally, whom I've never met, and who has been described to me as a thoughtful and open-minded guy. It also has nothing to do with teachers generally, many of whom are nothing short of heroic, and who are struggling to adapt to the turmoil in their industry, same as the rest of us.

But if you were going to sit down and make a list of political powerhouses that have been intransigent and blindly doctrinaire in the face of change, you'd have a hard time finding a better example than the country's largest teachers union. (I guess you could point to the National Rifle Association, if that's really the kind of company you want to keep.) Just last week, a California judge, in ruling against the union, condemned its age-old protections of incompetent teachers, saying the union's position not only was unconstitutional but also "shocks the conscience."

Don't just listen to the judge on this, though. Heed the words of Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-based venture capitalist and school reform advocate, who wrote in a 2012 email that subsequently became public: "It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every education reform issue. ... There can be no doubt in any reasonable person's mind that the leadership of our party and most of its elected members are stooges for the teachers union, the ring leaders in all this nonsense."

Posted by orrinj at 2:11 PM


Why freedom is the best health care alternative (SEN. TOM COBURN, JUNE 20, 2014, Washington Examiner)

The plan I recently introduced with Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called the Patient CARE Act, will do everything Obamacare promised to do with less cost and better outcomes. A few key provisions:

• Individual Americans have the freedom to shop for their own health care through a means-tested tax credit that helps lower-income people the most.

• The plan adopts policies that will make the market more transparent, competitive and responsive to consumer demands. Our society trusts the market in every area except health care and education. That needs to change.

• Health savings accounts will be expanded, allowing consumers to keep more of their dollars for their health care needs.

Default people into the HSA universally, but allow them to opt out if they want to pay more for their health care.

June 22, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 3:07 PM


Air travel booking website offers rail alternatives (Hugo Martin, 6/22/14, LA Times)

The Internet is jammed with travel websites to book airline flights. But the operators of CheapAir.com say they are the only air search site that gives travelers the option of booking a trip by rail.

Posted by orrinj at 7:55 AM


Feminism and Its Discontents  (HARVEY MANSFIELD, 6/30/14, Weekly Standard)

The hook-up culture denounced by conservatives is the very same r*** culture denounced by feminists. Who wants it? Most college women do not; they ignore hookups and lament the loss of dating. Many men will not turn down the offer of an available woman, but what they really want is a girlfriend. The predatory males are a small minority among men who are the main beneficiaries of the feminist norm. It's not the fault of men that women want to join them in excess rather than calm them down, for men too are victims of the r*** culture. Nor is it the fault of women. Women are so far from wanting hook-ups that they must drink themselves into drunken consent--in order to overcome their natural modesty, one might suggest. Not having a sociable drink but getting blind drunk is today's preliminary to sex. Beautifully romantic, isn't it? The anonymous Harvard woman by getting drunk was unfortunately helping to pressure herself into consenting to a very bad experience. But she is right that the pressure comes with the encouragement of the culture. And the culture comes from the dogmas of feminism that made this mess for women and men too.

One of the manifestations of this confusion is that the incidents involved in this "crisis" occur in the comfortable campus bedrooms that the couples retired to, yet the campus is dotted with the glowing blue lights of the emergency phones which women are supposed to race to when in danger of being assaulted.  They are being protected from something that does not exist.

Posted by orrinj at 7:35 AM


REVIEW ESSAY: Tinkering (Mark Greif, 6/07/07, London Review of Books)

At an early point in his career, probably no later than 1930, Walt Disney lost the ability to draw what he wanted his cartoon characters to look like or his animations to do. So he began to act his cartoons out. In story meetings with his growing staff of animators - some of whom he had trained in Los Angeles at his studio on Hyperion Avenue, others whom he'd poached from the great New York studios - Disney would get up, according to Neal Gabler's new biography,

enter his trance, and suddenly transform himself uninhibitedly into Mickey or Donald or an owl or an old hunting dog . . . 'He would imitate the expressions of the dog, and look from one side to the other, and raise first one brow and then the other' . . . 'You'd have the feeling of the whole thing,' Dick Huemer noted. 'You'd know exactly what he wanted.'

Mickey Mouse's gestures 'were copied from Walt's when he performed Mickey at story meetings'; until 1946 Disney also voiced him, in falsetto. In another new Life, Michael Barrier's The Animated Man, the studio head is seen by animators acting out 'how a Chinese turtle should dance', or doing 'any of the people in the pictures, valets, anything - he all of a sudden was a valet.'

One such episode was burned in Disney animators' memories from three years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first ever feature-length animation and Walt's personal masterpiece. (Biographies of Disney chart a long decline after this peak, despite endless new achievements.) Disney was 33 years old, and the studio still an animators' utopia offering steady work during the Depression and an atmosphere halfway between a college campus and a kids' clubhouse. One night, Disney told his animators to get their dinner and then come back to the soundstage. In Gabler's retelling,

none had any idea of what Walt had in mind. When they arrived, about fifty of them, at roughly 7.30, and took their seats on wooden tiers at the back of the room, Walt was standing at the front lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise dark space. Announcing that he was going to launch an animated feature, he told the story of Snow White, not just telling it but acting it out, assuming the characters' mannerisms, putting on their voices, letting his audience visualise exactly what they would be seeing on the screen. He became Snow White and the wicked queen and the prince and each of the dwarfs . . . The performance took over three hours . . . 'That one performance lasted us three years,' one animator claimed. 'Whenever we'd get stuck, we'd remember how Walt did it on that night.' [...]

He was an old-fashioned craft-oriented artist who dropped or went beyond his handicraft but could never quite acknowledge that he had. There are plenty of photographs and films of him drawing Mickey Mouse, very late into his life, for publicity purposes, but in fact he had hardly ever drawn Mickey professionally since making the drawings in which he first invented the character. The nature of the artistry in Disney's art has left a confusion in all biographies, all records, all reminiscences of the man. Barrier says outright that Disney's 1931 nervous breakdown was a result of his managerial turn after 'years of animating and then directing . . . years of other kinds of jobs that required working with his hands, and before that, years of manual labour'. From another vantage point, the tension between handicraft and out-of-thin-air theatrical invention can also be said to have been the genesis of many of Disney's greatest creative successes, down to the invention of Disneyland.

Posted by orrinj at 7:31 AM


Brazilian family cross extra fingers for sixth World Cup (Reuters,  21 June 2014)

Fifteen-year-old Joao de Assis da Silva sports the number 10 shirt that was worn by Brazil great Pele and the team's current young hope Neymar but he wants to be a goalkeeper.

"Everyone in Brazil loves football and wants to be a footballer as well when they grow up," he said, kicking a ball around the local basketball court with his two young cousins.

"Having six fingers has helped me a lot playing football. I can hold the ball more easily, my hands are bigger than other people's so it's easier to reach up to get balls that go over my head," he said, showing off the impressive breadth of his hands.

The first recorded member of the family to have six fingers was Joao's great grandmother.

Some surviving female family members with the trait have had their sixth toe removed in order to fit into feminine shoes, but the men have kept all six.

Far from fearing discrimination, grandmother Silvia Santos da Silva says family members born without the trait feel like the odd ones out.

"My father always looked upon this as something natural and for us, people with five fingers are the ones that are abnormal. For example, my grandson who has five fingers feels excluded from the family," she laughed.

Posted by orrinj at 7:28 AM


Hong Kong voters defy Beijing in democracy referendum (Deutsche Welle, 6/21/14)

Hong Kong voters headed for the poll booths on Sunday to cast ballots in an unofficial referendum about whether they should be able directly elect the territory's chief executive.

Even before physical voting began, more than 603,000 votes had already been cast online in the preceding two days. In all, about 3.5 million people were registered to vote in the last official elections, in 2012.

Voters who preferred to cast their ballots in person braved the rain to visit one of the 15 polling centers set up around the city.

"People were lining up to vote. It shows that Hong Kong people have a strong desire for genuine democracy," said Benny Tai, one of the founders of the Occupy Central movement, which organized the ballot.

June 21, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 12:59 PM


USA - Portugal Preview: Why the Americans Should Play Ugly (Again) to Record (Another) Sweet Win : Sometimes to win the beautiful game you have to play without beauty. (Kevin Alexander, New Republic)

With Jozy Altidore nursing his strained hamstring, and neither Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski the same type of strong target player, Jurgen Klinsmann should opt for the 4-2-3-1, with Clint Dempsey as the lone striker, a combination of Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi, or Brad Davis as the middies, plus Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones, and the starting D, which hopefully includes a healthy Matt Besler. In that formation, there are six people sitting back and annoying Ronaldo, who will constantly be marked by either Beckerman or Jones, plus a fullback. Deprived of the counter-attack, Portugal would be forced to try and beat the US with balls played in from the wings--and here's where they really will feel Coentrao's absence. Plus, Ronaldo and co. just hate it when teams playing defense minded, pragmatic, soccer against them. It's almost an affront to the honor that should be playing Portugal. "Come out and attack us like men," you can imagine them shouting, as the Americans park the bus in front of Ronaldo's Ferrari.

Aside from frustrating Portugal, this formation would have the US looking for its chances on set pieces and any time it can work the ball out to Zusi and (ideally) Davis to whip crosses into the box for Dempsey, Bradley, and anyone else who's made a run forward--while, by Moses, being sure to hold solid numbers back in order to keep the Portuguese counter cut off. The resulting game could well be low-scoring, and it would certainly not be the prettiest soccer, but it's the smartest play when you match the US skill set against Portugal's.

...the same strategy will work against them.
Posted by orrinj at 9:48 AM


US, Iran, Longtime Enemies, Now Potential Partners (DEB RIECHMANN and BRADLEY KLAPPER, 6/21/14, Associated Press)

For years, Iran has been an archenemy of the United States. Now, with alliances blurred in the Mideast, the two countries are talking about how to stop an offensive in Iraq by al-Qaida-inspired insurgents.

How is it that adversaries that haven't trusted each other for 35 years could cooperate on Iraq today?

Hopw could the Middle East's dem ocracies not end up being allied?  When you include Israel, South Lebanon, Turkey and India the Sunni Arabs are surrounded.

Posted by orrinj at 7:43 AM


Praying With Samuel Johnson (DANIEL J. HEISEY, 6/20/14, Saint Austin Review : Ink Desk)

In 1765 Johnson composed a prayer for his intellectual life:  "Almighty God, the giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are in vain, without whose blessings study is ineffectual; enable me, if it be thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful, and instruct the ignorant; to prevent wrongs, and terminate contentions; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain, to thy glory and my own salvation, for Jesus Christ's sake.  Amen." [...]

A day or so before he died, Johnson composed and recited this prayer before receiving Holy Communion:  "Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now as to human eyes it seems, about to 
commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.  Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption.  Have mercy upon me, and pardon the multitude of my offences.  Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men.  Support me, by thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen."

Some people today may find such wording old-fashioned to the point of being obsolete.  Moreover, the sense of sinfulness conveyed by Johnson's balanced clauses may seem as quaint and archaic as the Georgian proportions of Colonial Williamsburg.  Since the old principle is to pray as one can, not as one cannot, then private prayers that leave one cold by seeming pompous and worthless ought to be avoided.

For others, though, his prayers may be just what they long have needed.  Johnson's prayers will thus nourish someone starving for richer fare and sustain an appetite reared on sturdy steak and ale English prose from around 1600 that makes recent religious and even biblical prose seem as bland as a block of tofu and a bottle of Evian.

June 20, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:36 PM


'When People Choose, They Choose Wrong' : The author of 'The Giver,' a wildly popular dystopian novel, imagines a community with no war, racism or gender roles. The result: a living hell. (SOHRAB AHMARI, June 20, 2014, WSJ)

In the novel's unnamed community, most people are color-blind thanks to genetic engineering. Technology allows complete control over the weather. War and racism are things of the past. Traditional gender roles are abolished. The word "love" isn't used because it's linguistically "imprecise." All books except reference manuals are banned. And a government committee assigns each individual's career for life, since, as one leader puts it in the movie version, "When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong."

The sterile serenity of this place is maintained in part by the fact that the community lives in a perpetual present tense. It is technologically advanced but lacks the wisdom of prior generations. To avoid the pain of memories--of real enmity, fear, loss, hatred and so on--the community calls on one person to carry all of them. Jonas has been selected to be that person.

"The Giver" resists easy political categorization, and the book's appeal cuts across a broad spectrum of readers. Over the years, Ms. Lowry has corresponded with thousands of fans, including Trappist monks (a Catholic order sworn to a vow of silence), Mormons and Orthodox Jewish children, psychotics and psychiatrists, liberals and conservatives. "A lot of Christian churches use it as part of their religious curriculum," she says. "Jewish people give it as a bar mitzvah gift." And while she's quick to burnish her own Democratic Party leanings, Ms. Lowry concedes that social conservatives "could find their views validated by this book."

That's putting it mildly. The book's most memorable, and controversial, aspect is the community's casual disregard for the dignity of human life. Infants with disabilities, those who don't adjust well to their host families or meet certain height and weight criteria by a specified age, are "released." Any adult who wants to leave the community is also subject to "release," and the elderly, too, are routinely "released" after a ritual celebration. It won't take adults long to guess what "release" entails, but for young readers, encountering the horror of infanticide and euthanasia from Jonas's perspective can be an overpowering experience.

It's an entirely conservative text.

Posted by orrinj at 8:30 PM


Think Again: The Pentagon : The military's Chicken Littles want you to think the sky is falling. Don't believe them: America has never been safer. (THOMAS P.M. BARNETT MARCH 4, 2013, Foreign Policy)

The Pentagon, as former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates derisively pointed out, has a bad case of "next-war-itis." With Iraq now ancient history and Afghanistan winding down, all four of the major U.S. military services today prefer to imagine distant, future, high-tech shoot-'em-ups against China (er, well-equipped adversaries) over dealing with the world as we find it, which is still full of those nasty little wars. As Marine Corps general and outgoing Central Command boss James Mattis once told me, "I find it intellectually embarrassing that people want to hug the Chinese [and exclaim], 'Oh, thank God we have another peer competitor at last! Now we can go back to building the weapons that we always wanted to build.'"

Some of these efforts can verge on the ridiculous. I recently sat through an Air Force briefing during which super-empowered individuals were portrayed as thiiiiiis close to being able to wipe out humanity with a genetic weapon or to kill off -- get this -- more than half the U.S. population through electromagnetic-pulse attacks that send us collectively back to subsistence farming (think of the TV drama Revolution). Another scenario posited a "one-machine" future when, naturally, the "beast" starts thinking for itself and can turn on humanity (here, take your pick of Terminator's Skynet or the Matrix trilogy). That's the beautiful thing about Armageddon-like future wars: They could happen tomorrow, or they could never happen. The only thing we know for sure is that we're totally unprepared!

If you thought all these plotlines portray a Pentagon in search of the right justifying villain, then you'd be right. But remember, amid all this institutional angst, what's really being fought over are slices of a $530 billion budgetary pie that many experts think should be shrunk by one-fifth over the rest of this decade.

Posted by orrinj at 5:09 PM


IRS EMAILS WOULDN'T HAVE VANISHED IN THE CLOUD (Rebecca Carroll, June 18, 2014, NextGov)

"Clearly, the overall system was not as modern as it should have been," said Michael Hettinger, senior vice president at TechAmerica, an industry group.

The Obama administration launched its Cloud First Policy in 2011, encouraging agencies to migrate much of their information technology -- including email -- to the cloud. While many agencies have adopted cloud email systems, the tax regulator is not among them.

IRS uses Microsoft Outlook for email, with hundreds of millions of messages stored on servers at three data centers, Leonard Oursler, IRS' national director for legislative action, said in a letter to the Senate finance committee.

The email servers are backed up daily onto tapes...

The sole outcome of this whole kerfuffle will be a bigger budget for the IRS.

Posted by orrinj at 2:11 PM


World Cup 2014: England crash out after Costa Rica surprise Italy (theguardian.com, 6/20/14)

The England captain, Steven Gerrard, will bring the national team home at the earliest stage since 1958. Photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
England were sent tumbling out of the World Cup at the group stage for the first time since 1958 after Costa Rica beat Italy 1-0 in their Group D match in Recife on Friday.

Roy Hodgson's side needed Italy to take maximum points from the match to have any hope of survival. The result means Tuesday's match against Costa Rica, who have now qualified for the knock-out stages, is meaningless for England.

Only Europeans are surprised.

Posted by orrinj at 2:05 PM


Young workers hate their jobs (CATHERINE RAMPELL June 19, 2014, Washington Post)

Fewer than half of U.S. workers are satisfied with their jobs, based on a set of survey questions about Americans' opinions about their workplaces, compensation, job security, co-workers, bosses, chances for promotion, etc. The share is much lower than it was in 1987, when the series began.

Interestingly, dissatisfaction among the youngest workers seems to be driving the trend; just 28 percent of employed workers younger than 25 were satisfied with their jobs in 2013, versus about twice that share in 1987...

June 19, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 4:30 PM


The Disintegration of the Iraqi State Has Its Roots in World War I : Created by European powers, the nation of Iraq may be buckling under the pressure of trying to unite three distinct ethnic groups (Scott Anderson, 6/19/14, SMITHSONIAN.COM)

For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region - Shiite, Sunni and Kurd - held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. This delicate system was undone by the West, and for an all-too-predictable reason: oil.

In order to raise an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, who had joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, Great Britain forged a wartime alliance with Emir Hussein of the Hejaz region of Arabia, now the western edge of Saudi Arabia bordered by the Red Sea. The 1915 pact was a mutually advantageous one.  Since Hussein was an extremely prominent Islamic religious figure, the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the alliance inoculated the British against the Ottoman accusation that they were coming into the Middle East as Christian Crusaders. In return, Britain's promises to Hussein were extravagant: independence for virtually the entire Arab world.

What Hussein didn't know was that, just months after reaching this accord, the British government secretly made a separate - and very much conflicting - pact with their chief ally in World War I, France.  Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the future independent Arab nation was to be relegated to the wastelands of the Arabian peninsula, while all the most politically and commercially valuable portions of the Arab world - greater Syria, Mesopotamia - would be carved into British and French imperial spheres. 

This double-cross was finally laid bare at the postwar Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and solidified at the San Remo Conference in April 1920.  Under the terms of these imperial agreements, France was to be given much of greater Syria - essentially the modern-day borders of that country, along with Lebanon - while the British would possession of the vast swath of the Arab world just below, an expanse stretching from Palestine in the west all the way to Iraq. 

But if history has shown that it's always risky to divide a historical homeland, as the British and French had done in greater Syria, even more perilous is to create an artificial nation - and this is precisely what the British had done in Iraq. 

Posted by orrinj at 4:27 PM


The Energy Innovation Imperative (Matthew Stepp, Megan Nicholson, 6/19/14, Breakthrough Institute)

Want a climate rescue plan? Carbon pricing. Want to raise revenue for clean energy deployment? Carbon pricing. It's the "silver bullet" for other things, too. Want to reduce reliance on foreign oil? Or raise revenue to correct other tax inefficiencies? Carbon pricing.

This approach appeals to many because of its strong roots in neoclassical economics, which suggests that higher prices will reduce consumption and lead to a big shift to renewable energy.

Posted by orrinj at 4:19 PM


The IRS's E-Mail System Looks Crazy, and Not Only to Republicans (Justin Bachman, June 18, 2014, Businessweek)

The reasons for this e-mail imbroglio stem from what appear to be some peculiar e-mail practices, in an age when data storage costs have dropped. The IRS has Microsoft's (MSFT) Outlook for its 90,000 workers and gives them 500 megabytes of space for mail, or about 6,000 per inbox, up from 150 MB before the summer of 2011. If you reach the limit, the system generates an alert that space needs to be freed up for continued e-mail use. Plenty of U.S. companies have a similar practice.

Here's where it seems to get murky: When an IRS employee's e-mail account is full, he or she needs to decide what is an official work record and must be archived, in compliance with the Federal Records Act and other pertinent regulations. The archive is maintained on the employee's computer--not on a corporate server--and is not part of the daily systemwide mail backup, which covers about 170 terabytes of e-mail data the IRS stores at three data centers. Before May 2013, those backups were stored for only six months; the data are now retained, which costs $200,000 per year, the IRS said. "An electronic version of the archived e-mail would not be retained if an employee's hard drive is recycled or if the hard drive crashes and cannot be recovered," the agency said in a June 13 letter to the Senate Finance Committee.

June 18, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:19 PM


Brazen Figure May Hold Key to Mysteries  (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, JUNE 17, 2014, NY Times)

Despite extensive speculation about the possible role of Al Qaeda in directing the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala is a local, small-time Islamist militant. He has no known connections to international terrorist groups, say American officials briefed on the criminal investigation and intelligence reporting, and other Benghazi Islamists and militia leaders who have known him for many years. [...]

In the period before the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala was living in el-Leithi, known for its high concentration of militant extremists. He made his living as a building contractor in blue Dickies coveralls. But he was still active with a small, part-time militia, which at certain times over the last two years controlled at least one checkpoint on a highway near Benghazi.

On the day of the attack, Islamists in Cairo had staged a demonstration outside the United States Embassy there to protest an American-made online video mocking Islam, and the protest culminated in a breach of the embassy's walls -- images that flashed through news coverage around the Arab world.

As the attack in Benghazi was unfolding a few hours later, Mr. Abu Khattala told fellow Islamist fighters and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him.

In an interview a few days later, he pointedly declined to say whether an offensive online video might indeed warrant the destruction of the diplomatic mission or the killing of the ambassador. "From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad," he said.

Posted by orrinj at 7:15 PM


White House Expects Pacific Trade Pact This Year (Albert R. Hunt, 6/18/14, Bloomberg View)

The Barack Obama administration is optimistic it can secure a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal by the end of the year, although any legislative approval will have to await the next Congress,

Trade negotiators report steady progress on the issues, especially the key deliberations with the Japanese, although the final pieces probably won't be concluded until shortly before the November elections, if then. The politics of trade are upside down: It's the one issue in a deeply partisan Washington where success rests with a Democratic president and Congressional Republicans. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:07 PM


Government's Closed-Source Intelligence : Overclassification fetishizes reports stamped "secret," and covers up official malfeasance. (PHILIP GIRALDI • June 18, 2014, American Conservative)

Having been in U.S. intelligence myself, I can confirm that officials tend to regard classified information as reliable and comprehensive, which frequently leads them to ignore everything else. It might be comforting to peruse a glossy report stamped "Top Secret" in the National Security Council conference room, but from my role as an intelligence collector overseas I can assert without any fear of contradiction that clandestine source reporting can be as bad as what one reads on just about any site on the Internet, and is often considerably worse than what appears in the newspapers. This bias in favor of reporting produced by the "community" induces a tunnel vision on the part of intelligence analysts that has belatedly led to a debate about the value of open sources versus the tightly controlled version of reality that prevails in security clearance land.

Open Source Intelligence (RICHARD S. FRIEDMAN, Summer 1998, Parameters)

Posted by orrinj at 7:04 PM


Winding road to Indonesian democracy (Michael Vatikiotis and John McBeth, 6/18/14, Asia Times)

Fifteen years into a democratic transition that began with the fall of president Suharto's military-backed regime in 1998, only now are ordinary Indonesians enthusiastic enough about an individual candidate that they are willing to fork out their own meager funds and volunteer their time. 

Across the nation, ordinary voters have sent in campaign contributions, often as little as the rupiah equivalent of a dollar or two, through local banks. Handoko, a driver and tour guide from Jogyakarta, for example, proudly declared that he contributed 75,000 rupiah - just over US$6 - using a local bank transfer. 

Party sources now say as much as 32 billion rupiah (US$2.7 million) in electoral funds have been raised in this manner. In Lasem, Jasman explained that the contributions collected in cash will be forwarded to Joko's campaign in the presence of local reporters. 

Certain political scientists argue that democracy only really serves the people if the people take an active part in it. Across Southeast Asia, however, democracy has tended to be more about elite power games and vote-buying than participatory governance. 

Ordinary Indonesians traditionally have low expectations about their participation in the political process, expecting that the vote will be sold to the highest bidder. That's still the attitude many have when it comes to electing representatives to the national parliament. 

A group of fishermen drinking morning coffee in the port of Lukung was adamant that they needed to be paid at least 50,000 rupiah on election day to cast their ballots - mainly to compensate them for skipping a day out at sea in their boats. 

The electoral situation started to change when Indonesians got the chance to vote directly for the president. In 2004 and 2009, we found Indonesians taking their vote more seriously and not being swayed by whom they were told or paid to vote. 

The difference this time is that many voters are so excited by one of the candidates that they are actively participating in the campaign and making commitments ahead of election day. If Joko, the man popularly known as Jokowi, manages to win with grass roots financial backing and volunteer support it will be a watershed not just for Indonesia but for the wider region. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:59 PM


Why Audiences Hate Hard News--And Love Pretending Otherwise : Ask readers what they want, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy.  (DEREK THOMPSON, JUN 17 2014, Atlantic)

The most important story in the world, according to every major American newspaper this morning, is the violent splintering of Iraq. It was the front-page and top-of-the-homepage story in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and more. 

Surely, there are millions of people who are reading about Iraq, because they're fascinated in the Middle East, in foreign policy, or in the general news cycle. But despite Iraq's prominent location on every major newspaper, the most-read stories on those papers' websites aren't about Iraq, at all.

In the Post, the top stories included an op-ed about Benghazi, and updates about the World Cup and a midwest tornado. WSJ's most-read box led off with two stories about YouTube games and taxes. The Times' most-emailed stories included two pieces about gluten and postpartum depression. Not one of the most-read or most-emailed boxes on three papers' websites included the words Iraq, Sunni, or Maliki when I looked this morning. 

Iraq is a uniquely difficult news story. But there's nothing unique about U.S. readers side-stepping the news cycle. Last year, BuzzFeed released a review of traffic to sites within its partner network, including the New York Times and The Atlantic. Of the 20 most viral stories across those sites, just three dealt with recent news events--the Miss America Pageant, a Netflix announcement, and the Video Music Awards --but the vast majority weren't news. They were quizzes, lists, and emotional poppers.

Ask audiences what they want, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy.

Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, shared survey data suggesting that 40 to 50 million people were desperate for in-depth and original TV journalism. Nine months later, it averaged 10,000 viewers per hour--1.08 percent of Fox News' audience and 3.7 percent of CNN. AJAM, built for an audience of vegetarians, is stuck with a broccoli stand in a candy shop.

Where's The National when we need it?
Posted by orrinj at 6:51 PM


Certainly? Not! : Radical doubt, radical faith, and why we can believe anything at all. (JOHN G. STACKHOUSE, JR., Books & Culture)

As the world begins to shimmer ever more before our eyes and the solid ground beneath our feet threatens to evanesce, along comes historian Alison Winter to offer an entire book about the questionable reliability of Memory. What we do not readily comprehend, what does not fit within our set of presuppositions, does not tend to register with us immediately and clearly, if at all, and therefore also not in our memory. Conversely, what we expect to experience, or afterward believe we must have experienced, gets written into our memories despite what may have actually happened.

Contrary, that is, to the popular notion that somewhere buried in our brains is a perfect recording of everything we have ever experienced, Winter shows through her study of the last century of memory research that our minds instead are constantly coding what we experience as "memorable," "sort of memorable," "not memorable" and the like, according to our understanding of the world and according to our valuing of this or that element of the world.

Furthermore, our memories are plastic, and remain vulnerable to addition, subtraction, deformation, reformation, confabulation, and other processes as our lives progress and as our beliefs change, rather than being fixed, veracious "imprints" of the external world upon our minds.

Scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal anticipated our postmodern doubts as he warned,

Man is nothing but a subject full of natural error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him. The two principles of truth, reason and senses, are not only both not genuine, but are engaged in mutual deception. The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and, just as they trick the soul, they are tricked by it in their turn: it takes its revenge. The senses are disturbed by passions, which produce false impressions. They both compete in lies and deception.
What, then, can we possibly trust in our quest for knowledge? If we cannot trust our own senses, reason, memory--or even those of the most expert experts in our society--are we simply lost in the blooming, buzzing confusion of an incomprehensible world?

In a word, yes. Yes, we are.

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga shrugs off this storm of frightening doubt, however, with the robust common sense of his Frisian forebears:

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper ... recognize that there aren't any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought--or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can't be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others--others of great acuity and seriousness--do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, "Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me."
In this attitude Plantinga follows in the cheerful train of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. Reid devotes a great deal of energy to demolishing what he sees to be a misguided approach to knowledge, which he terms the "Way of Ideas." Unfortunately for standard-brand modern philosophy, and even for most of the rest of us non-philosophers, the Way of Ideas is not merely some odd little branch but the main trunk of epistemology from Descartes and Locke forward to Kant.

The Way of Ideas, roughly speaking, is the basic scheme of perception by which the things "out there" somehow cause us to have ideas of them in our minds, and thus we form appropriate beliefs about them. Reid contends, startlingly, that this scheme fails to illuminate what is actually happening. The "problem of the external world" remains intractable: We just don't know how we reliably get "in here" (in our minds) what is "out there" (in the world).

Having set aside the Way of Ideas, Reid then stuns the reader again with this declaration: "I do not attempt to substitute any other theory in [its] place." Reid asserts instead that it is a "mystery" how we form beliefs about the world that actually do seem to correspond to the world as it is. (Our beliefs do seem to have the virtue of helping us negotiate that world pretty well.)

The philosopher who has followed Reid to this point now might well be aghast. "What?" she might sputter. "You have destroyed the main scheme of modern Western epistemology only to say that you don't have anything better to offer in its place? What kind of philosopher are you?"

"A Christian one," Reid might reply. For Reid takes great comfort in trusting God for creating the world such that human beings seem eminently well equipped to apprehend and live in it. Reid encourages readers therefore to thank God for this provision, this "bounty of heaven," and to obey God in confidence that God continues to provide the means (including the epistemic means) to do so. Furthermore, Reid affirms, any other position than grateful acceptance of the fact that we believe the way we do just because that is the way we are is not just intellectually untenable, but (almost biblically) foolish.

Thus Thomas Reid dispenses with modern hubris on the one side and postmodern despair on the other. To those who would say, "I am certain I now sit upon this chair," Reid would reply, "Good luck proving that." To those who would say, "You just think you're sitting in a chair now, but in fact you could be anyone, anywhere, just imagining you are you sitting in a chair," he would simply snort and perhaps chastise them for their ingratitude for the knowledge they have gained so effortlessly by the grace of God.

Posted by orrinj at 6:22 PM


China May Not Be History's Economic Growth Champ After All, Report Says (Bob Davis, 6/18/14, WSJ)

According to the report, written by economist Harry X. Wu, a senior advisor to the New York-based business research group, China's economy grew at 7.2% a year between 1978 and 2012 -- a rate far lower than what Beijing claims and nowhere near 10%. And looking at a number of Asian economies over a roughly two-decade period during which such countries quadrupled their per-capita GDP, Mr. Wu concludes that China isn't the growth champ. Japan is, followed by Taiwan.

This isn't just a question of bragging rights, writes Mr. Wu. Businesses base their investment plans on GDP growth, so accuracy is important, especially during down times. "When the economy is, in reality, slowing down or struggling, then the impacts of inaccuracy are farther reaching, potentially undermining efficacy in business, policy and household planning both inside and outside of China," he writes.

Posted by orrinj at 6:18 PM


Daniel Keyes, a Novelist of the Mind, Dies at 86 (DANIEL E. SLOTNIK, JUNE 17, 2014, NY Times)

The premise underlying Mr. Keyes's best-known novel struck him while he waited for an elevated train to take him from Brooklyn to New York University in 1945.

"I thought: My education is driving a wedge between me and the people I love," he wrote in his memoir, "Algernon, Charlie and I" (1999). "And then I wondered: What would happen if it were possible to increase a person's intelligence?"

After 15 years that thought grew into the novella "Flowers for Algernon," which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959 and won the Hugo Award for best short fiction in 1960.

By 1966 Mr. Keyes had expanded the story into a novel with the same title, which tied for the Nebula Award for best novel that year. The film, for which Mr. Robertson won the Academy Award for best actor, was released in 1968.

"Flowers for Algernon" went on to sell more than five million copies and to become a staple of English classes. It inspired television adaptations, one of which also starred Mr. Robertson, and stage productions, including a musical and a play in Korean. [...]

Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Eliot Fremont-Smith called the book's format "a technician's maze, a collection of nasty little challenges for a writer of fiction."

"Not every trap is avoided, but the skill shown here is awesome nonetheless," Mr. Fremont-Smith continued. "One might say that Mr. Keyes runs his maze at least as well as Algernon and Charlie run theirs, which is exciting in itself. And affecting, too -- how otherwise explain the tears that come to one's eyes at the novel's end?"

Posted by orrinj at 6:01 PM


Tony Gwynn Was Always in Control (Paul Swydan - June 16, 2014, Fangraphs)

Gwynn had, as the title of this article suggests, control over every at-bat. It's hard to rack up as many plate appearances as he did -- 10,232 to be precise -- and strike out as little as he did. For his career, he only struck out 434 times. I thought I'd take a stroll the Baseball-Reference Play Index to see just how rare this was. The default minimum playing time on the Play Index is 3,000 plate appearances, so I started there. The search returned 684 results. Of them, 362 walked more times than they struck out in their careers, but just 18 of them played in Gwynn's era (1980-present). And of those 18, two are active -- Dustin Pedroia and Alberto Callaspo -- and given their small margins (+15 and +1, respectively), there's a good chance that they'll vanish from the list when their careers conclude.

Pretty impressive, but I wanted to go a step further. Upping the threshold to 5,000 plate appearances gives us a list of 219 players. Much better. But upping the threshold to the upper bound of the Play Index, 9,999 plate appearances, knocks the list down to nine players:

9,999 or more PA & fewer than 500 strikeouts, 1901-present

Eddie Collins4681204419061930
Tris Speaker3941199219071928
Sam Rice2751025119151934
Frankie Frisch2721009919191937
Charlie Gehringer3721024419241942
Paul Waner3761076619261945
Nellie Fox2161035119471965
Bill Buckner4531003719691990
Tony Gwynn4341023219822001

That's not just impressive. That's impossible. Only Buckner was even sort of a contemporary, but Gwynn did something that simply never happens anymore. Since 1980, there have been 25 other hitters to amass at least 9,999 plate appearances. They all had at least 745 strikeouts, and 24 of them had at least 966, which is more than double Gwynn's total. The leader in strikeouts among that group, Jim Thome, piled up 2,548 strikeouts in his time -- nearly six times as many strikeouts as Gwynn. That is, in a word, insane.

Posted by orrinj at 5:40 PM


Kurdish control of Kirkuk tough to roll back - Iraqi oil official (Reuters, 6/18/14) 

Iraq's Kurds have established control over the northern city of Kirkuk and its oil reserves and effectively achieved their "dream of a greater Kurdistan", the chairman of Iraq's oil and gas committee said on Tuesday.

June 17, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:16 PM


Republic of Iceland Seventy Years Old Today (ALËX ELLIOTT June 17, 2014, Iceland Review)

The 17th June is the day in 1944 on which Iceland declared its full independence from the Danish crown, following a landslide referendum result. Iceland unilaterally held its independence referendum whilst under Allied occupation during the Second World War, and while Denmark was itself under Nazi German occupation. Today marks precisely seventy years since the Republic of Iceland was proclaimed. The 17th of June is also the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879), Iceland's most famous hero of the 19th Century independence movement. The choice of 17th June was therefore no coincidence.

Posted by orrinj at 7:08 PM


Posted by orrinj at 2:51 PM


Sistani's game changer (JAFFAR AL-RIKABI, 16 June 2014, Open Democracy 
Internally, Sistani's words directly addressed the fractured Iraqi political class. They are helping reunite Iraq's dithering Shi'a factions under the strategic priority of fighting terrorism, and boosting moderate Sunnis.

Ayatollah Sayid Ali Al-Sistani is the leading Islamic Shi'a scholar, playing a preeminent role similar to the Pope amongst Catholics. Housed in modest dwellings in the holy city of Najaf, he has been the mainstay of calm and moderation in Iraq. His fatwas throughout the last decade urging Shi'a-Sunni unity have been credited for holding back Iraq from all-out civilian strife at the height of sectarian tensions in 2006-8. So when Sistani issues a call to arms, our world stands up and takes notice. [...]

Externally, Sistani's words have sent tremors into the corridors of power in the Arab and broader Muslim world. Sistani's words were understood as a call for jihad: a holy war against the terrorists. It represents by far the strongest statement Sistani has ever issued since assuming leadership of the Shi'a Muslim world.

The political message to the Gulf and Ankara is clear: if they continue to fund and sponsor extremist Sunni militant groups, the leadership of the Shi'a Muslim world will no longer stand idly by. If a fight is inevitable, they are ready. 

The enormity and seriousness of the ISIS threat on Iraq brings the United States and Iran onto the same strategic side. Shared interests in the stability of Iraq and the need to eradicate terrorists create a significant opening for cooperation between the two countries. The last time the sides came together was in the aftermath of 9/11, when Iran offered support for the US war on the Taleban. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has seized on this opportunity, calling today on "all to practically and verbally confront terrorist groups," indicating Iranian willingness to cooperate with the US in the shared goal of fighting terrorism. If this cooperation takes place, prospects for increased trust in the western-Iranian nuclear negotiations may follow.

Pessimists see the ISIS attack as resulting in Iraq's breakup and the boosting of terrorism in the region. Optimists see a great opportunity for Shi'a-Sunni unity against extremists, and the moves toward an American-Iranian rapprochement that can be transformative for peace and security prospects in the Middle East.

Posted by orrinj at 2:28 PM


Foreign holdings of US Treasury debt increase (MARTIN CRUTSINGER, 6/16/14, AP) 

Foreign buyers of U.S. Treasury securities increased their holdings in April to another record high even though China cut back on its holdings for a third straight month.

Posted by orrinj at 2:24 PM


Robot doctors, online lawyers and automated architects: the future of the professions? (Tom Meltzer, 6/15/14, The Guardian)

Last year, reporters for the Associated Press attempted to figure out which jobs were being lost to new technology. They analysed employment data from 20 countries and interviewed experts, software developers and CEOs. They found that almost all the jobs that had disappeared in the past four years were not low-skilled, low-paid roles, but fairly well-paid positions in traditionally middle-class careers. Software was replacing administrators and travel agents, bookkeepers and secretaries, and at alarming rates.

Economists and futurists know it's not all doom and gloom, but it is all change. Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne have predicted computerisation could make nearly half of jobs redundant within 10 to 20 years. Office work and service roles, they wrote, were particularly at risk. But almost nothing is impervious to automation. It has swept through shop floors and factories, transformed businesses big and small, and is beginning to revolutionise the professions.

Knowledge-based jobs were supposed to be safe career choices, the years of study it takes to become a lawyer, say, or an architect or accountant, in theory guaranteeing a lifetime of lucrative employment. That is no longer the case. Now even doctors face the looming threat of possible obsolescence. Expert radiologists are routinely outperformed by pattern-recognition software, diagnosticians by simple computer questionnaires. In 2012, Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla predicted that algorithms and machines would replace 80% of doctors within a generation.

Posted by orrinj at 2:19 PM


Big Brother at work may be no bad thing (Lucy Kellaway, 6/15/14, BBC)

I remember one boss who, once in a blue moon, would walk around the office; whenever he crept up behind me I was invariably writing a shopping list or was on the phone to my mum.

Such surveillance did not improve my behaviour, though it did increase my sense of injustice. To have been monitored all the time - which would have put the shopping list in the context of otherwise diligent behaviour - would have been a vast improvement.

In most offices a raft of mainly pointless, cumbersome tools are used to assess performance, including "competency matrices", appraisal interviews and psychometric testing. Together they are so ineffective that according to a delightful piece of research by the University of Catania, companies would be no worse off if they promoted people at random.

So if we are in favour of meritocracies, we should also be in favour of anything that helps us measure merit more accurately.

While the data collected by the new sensors are almost certainly too crude to offer much help now, I see no reason why in time (and probably quite soon) we will not have worked out exactly which behavioural quirks are the key to high (or low) performance, and found a decent, objective way of measuring them.

Posted by orrinj at 2:12 PM


How to Sell a Carbon Tax (The Editors, 6/15/14, Bloomberg View)

The best way to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases is to put a tax on carbon. Almost all economists would agree. [...]

In case you're wondering, why would a carbon tax be so much better than quantitative emissions controls like the ones just proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? Because it allows the greatest possible flexibility in meeting any given target for lower emissions. Unlike caps on emissions from cars or power plants, say, or subsidies for this or that form of clean energy, a tax lets market forces organize the economy's response. This ensures that emissions are cut where it's easiest and cheapest to cut them. [...]

Instead of listing all the fine things a carbon tax could buy -- some tax cuts here, a bit of budget-deficit reduction there, and plenty left over for additional spending on infrastructure and other good things -- advocates of such a tax should simply offer to give back all the revenue in the form of tax cuts elsewhere.

June 16, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:18 PM


Gay marriage is not about equality but a way of keeping us quiet : Historically, women have suffered most from matrimony. Why are so many lesbian couples in favour of such a conservative institution now? (Julie Bindel, 6/16/14, The Guardian)

[I]n recent years there has been a distinct lack of debate about marriage as potentially problematic for women. In contrast, there seems to be an almost total acceptance of it by lesbians today.

I wanted to find out whether I was a lone voice objecting to gay marriage and if so, why. Last September I posted two surveys on the Guardian website (and a couple of other publications) to find out what was behind the widespread desire to wed, as well as a number of other issues. In total, 5,492 participants completed a poll aimed at lesbians and gay men while 4,036 completed another aimed at heterosexuals, making it one of the most meaningful surveys of attitudes to homosexuality ever undertaken in the UK. An overwhelming 89% of the 9,528 responses (roughly split between male and female) supported equal marriage, meaning that the majority of straight respondents, as well as lesbians and gay men, support marriage for same sex couples.

The survey also found that many gay respondents have a desire for "ordinariness" and do not want to be seen as living "alternative lifestyles". A number of respondents who said "yes" to the question: "Do you support gay (equal) marriage?" added comments about how marriage will make them equal to heterosexuals, and that they were looking forward to being viewed as "the same".

Civil partnerships and marriage offer that; the latest Office for National Statistics figures show that civil partnerships in the UK reached an all-time high in 2012, with 7,037 tying the knot, and equal numbers of gay men and lesbians opting for formal coupledom.

This heavy support for gay marriage comes in spite of the fact that 93.01% (gay survey) and 93.69% (straight) were aware of feminist arguments against marriage.

Nicola Barker, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Kent and the author of Not the Marrying Kind: A Feminist Critique of Same-Sex Marriage, says that she is sometimes misunderstood as being against equality as opposed to marriage. "What gets lost in the celebrations about 'equal marriage' is that marriage is not about equality; it's about perpetuating privilege," she says.

"Few feminists would have been surprised by David Cameron's assertion that to support gay marriage is conservative. Same-sex marriage fits comfortably within the conservative ideology of the self-sufficient family and contributes to the politics of state austerity." [...]

There is, within this overwhelming support, an assumption, as some of my survey respondents and interviewees argue, that lesbian marriage somehow subverts the heterosexual, patriarchal narrative - but does it?

Isn't marriage merely a clever ploy to keep us quiet...

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 PM


Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes (JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ, JUNE 14, 2014, NY Times)

P.S. 397 stands at the end of a secluded stretch of Fenimore Street in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. Wayward scents, like the sizzling fish cakes and West Indian curries sold on nearby streets, do not make it here; instead, the hallways smell of Canadian bacon and cheesy beef tacos, or whatever dish happens to be on the day's menu. The school's three stories are, for the most part, subdued, except at lunch, when conversations about stuffed animals, racecars and sleepovers bring a cacophony to the cafeteria.

P.S. 397 had long tried to make a name for itself. But success in recent years has been elusive. Enrollment dwindled as families left the neighborhood or opted for charter schools with flashier offerings. Parents, many of them immigrants, were difficult to reach. More than 90 percent of students came from low-income families, and Nancy Colon, the principal, estimated that almost half of the students were being raised by single mothers.

The Common Core was the latest educational experiment to come to a school whose teachers had long tired of them. P.S. 397 embraced the standards in 2012, when Ms. Colon, hoping to shake things up, began using a curriculum from Kentucky, one of the first states to turn to the Common Core.

On its own, the Common Core was not a curriculum; it did not tell schools to use particular textbooks, lesson plans or technology. The standards provided a philosophy for instruction. Teachers would focus on fewer topics and cover each in greater depth. They would bring abstract lessons to life by explaining how skills could be applied in the modern world. And they would emphasize critical thinking at every turn.

Many teachers across the city were initially skeptical. Some saw the Common Core as another mandate from above, an idealistic vision of education promoted by outside groups seeking to radically overhaul schools.

The hurried rollout last year of a new, more difficult set of exams aligned with the Common Core to replace old exams complicated the effort. While passing rates fell across the city, the drop was especially pronounced at schools with large numbers of black or Hispanic students, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Labor unions argued that the city had not devoted enough resources to training educators in the new standards and that it was unfair to evaluate teachers using results from the new tests.

By the start of school last fall, with the memories of state tests still fresh, a sense of anxiety was growing at P.S. 397. Though teachers found much to like in the new standards and believed the Common Core could transform education in the long run, they worried about what might happen in the short term. They feared for children like Chrispin -- promising students unaccustomed to the critical thinking required by the Common Core, whose confidence was fragile and frayed.

Posted by orrinj at 8:09 PM


Pivot to Persia : Washington may not want to admit it, but Iran is the most stable country in the Middle East right now. (TRITA PARSI JUNE 16, 2014, Foreign Policy)

News emerged on Monday that Washington and Tehran may cooperate militarily to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from advancing deeper into Iraq -- Iran's neighbor, where the United States has spent years, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives. Iraq's Shiite government has been seen by some as a proxy of Iran that has often sided with Tehran against Washington. But the common interest between Iran and the United States is not merely tactical or temporary: With the region roiling as it is, the reality that Iran and the United States might end up on the same side is simply the new normal. [...]

For decades, Iran has tried to challenge U.S. hegemony in the Middle East by investing in Arab political opposition groups and backing Islamist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas with funding and support. But in the Sunni Arab world, this has yielded next to nothing for Tehran. Iran's policy toward the Arab world since the 1979 revolution has been based on an accurate prediction that the reigns of the pro-American autocrats would not be durable and that Tehran's long-term security was best assured by investing in Islamist movements that likely would take over. Iran's brand of political Islam and anti-Israeli rhetoric, reasoned Tehran, could be a unifying force, bridging the deep animus that characterized the Arab-Persian and the Sunni-Shiite divides. Or so it thought.

Instead, the Islamists who gained influence following the Arab Spring -- in Syria, Egypt, and Libya -- have largely shown allegiance to their financial benefactors in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms rather than to their supposed ideological allies in Tehran. Meanwhile, Iran's support for the Assad regime in Syria has dissipated the extensive soft power Tehran used to enjoy in the Arab world.

The government in Tehran may find a better partner in the current administration in Washington than it might expect. Whatever America's distaste for Iran's brand of repressive Shiite nationalism, President Barack Obama knows clearly that the real threat to the United States is not the brand of Islam emanating from its nominal enemy Iran, but the one sponsored, funded, and embraced by its formal ally Saudi Arabia -- particularly if the United States and Iran manage to resolve the nuclear issue in the next few weeks or months.

Posted by orrinj at 5:44 PM


Is the modern world making us smarter? What's behind the rise in IQ scores? (Charli Kerns, 6/16/14, The Week)

You might assume that the rise in IQ scores is due to people doing better on basic math skills and memorizations -- basically, anything we can study for. But what's especially interesting about the Flynn Effect is that the opposite seems to be true: Humanity's biggest improvements have been in abstract thinking and general cognitive functioning.

One standard intelligence test is Raven's Progressive Matrices, developed by English psychologist John C. Raven in 1936. The test is a series of 60 non-verbal multiple-choice questions that's ideal for measuring abstract reasoning. A test-taker is shown a series of patterns in a 3×3 grid, with one picture missing; the person has to pick the right pattern out from multiple choices. It's not the kind of test you can easily cram for.

When researchers administered the Raven's test to groups of people born in Dumfries, Scotland, and Des Moines, Iowa over a 100-year period, they found that test scores increased steadily in both populations of people along with their birth year. The pattern can be seen across a variety of tests, all over the world.

Researchers have come up with a few different explanations for why IQ scores are on the rise. Better nutrition and educational opportunities for the underserved in the world, especially for girls, are thought to be huge factors. Improvements in education across countries are bringing increased focus on scientific topics to more and more people, which fosters abstract thinking.

Another possible explanation is that we're living in more stimulating environments nowadays. With the rise of hyperconnected technology, modern people are being exposed to both richer more and complex entertainment and information options than their ancestors. Our children can parse storylines from Harry Potter while flirting and posting on Facebook. This new environment may encourage people to become fluent in multiple visual languages. This might help explain why tests like Raven's have shown the greatest increases -- they depend on quick visual analysis.

Posted by orrinj at 2:48 PM


Conservative Redistribution? (Peter Augustine Lawler, June 14, 2014, National Review)

[I]t no longer seems as clear as it once did that lower taxes and fewer regulations for "job creators" is actually most of the recipe for improving most American lives.  We see too many increases in productivity that don't have a corresponding increase in jobs.  Sometimes, in fact, the key to efficiency and productivity, as it is  at Amazon, is replacing people with robotics.  And there are some libertarians who actually believe that the key to making higher education better is replacing professors with machines.

I've mentioned often, in fact, the candid prediction of Tyler Cowen that the future is endlessly bright for members of the cognitive elite highly comfortable with working with genius machines (and marketing the productions of said machines), but most people will become, at best, marginally productive-often intellectually, relationally, and materially worse off than they are now.  Becoming more attentive to the middle class means really thinking about the ambiguous effects of the 21st century global marketplace on the lives of ordinary American persons-who aren't only productive individuals but parents, children, creatures, friends, and citizens.

Posted by orrinj at 2:27 PM


From San Diego's favorite son ... to spoilsport (Tom Friend, 2/13/08, ESPN The Magazine)

The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 is leaking into 2008. You can sense it by the way a 25-year-old wannabe struts through his February workouts. You can sense it by the way a 40-year-old shoulder shrugs at the line of questioning. You can sense it by the way a Hall of Famer is uncomfortably stuck in the middle. And you can sense it by the way a filthy rich man stares into space.

On Sept. 29, 2007, Tony Gwynn Jr., for all practical purposes, knocked Tony Gwynn Sr.'s team out of the playoffs. But it's much crueler than that. He did it with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth -- against his Uncle Trevor. He did it with the champagne on ice and the Colorado Rockies on life support. He did it against the franchise that clothed and fed him and against a fan base that, 81 days a year, walks down Tony Gwynn Drive to the turnstiles. He did it as the only son of San Diego's favorite son. And this is how he pays everyone back?

But to understand Sept. 29, 2007, you need to scoot back one day to Sept. 28.

That night, in a corridor of Miller Park in Milwaukee, Tony Gwynn Jr. asked San Diego Padres owner John Moores for a favor.

Wait until you hear it.

June 15, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 10:56 AM


Who do you think is going to win the World Cup? 

I made my picks using MLS's Brazil Bracket Challenge. 

Join my league at http://bracket.mlssoccer.com/og_objects/wcbracket/groups/2964


How to instantly get the entire World Cup schedule in your Google Calendar (NICK SUMMERS, 6/10/14, Next Web)

Four Teams to Be Bullish on at Brazil's World Cup (Jim O'Neill, 6/08/14, Bloomberg View)

From Group A, host Brazil is likely to get through. If it doesn't, expect a revolution before the competition is even over! Nominating from the other three countries isn't easy as Croatia, Cameroon or Mexico could make it. Given Chicharito has a link to Manchester United, my team, I will go for Mexico.

With apologies to Australia and Chile, the Netherlands and Spain are the likely qualifiers from Group B. While both will fancy their chances of progressing quite far, the nature of the draw means one of them probably won't.

Group C is wide open, and I don't feel confident about any team. My guess is that Japan and Colombia will make it, though their advantage over Greece or Cote d'Ivoire is a slender one.

Who will join Italy in qualifying from Group D, or am I being presumptuous? On balance, I will add England, although I wouldn't be surprised if Uruguay was the second qualifier. Apologies, therefore, to Costa Rica.

I'm sticking with Europeans in Group E, with the occasionally unpredictable France joined by the often well-drilled and organized Switzerland. I'm not overly familiar with either Ecuador or Honduras, but neither has proved the strongest of Latin nations in the past.

Group F has the strongly fancied Argentina and my MINT country friend, Nigeria. I will go for these at the expense of Bosnia and Iran, although it would be intriguing if Iran qualified and went on to meet the U.S.

Speaking of which, can the U.S. get through Group G? In some ways, it's probably the toughest group, and I can't see beyond Germany and Portugal, although Ghana and the U.S. will make life tough for both. German teams are typically as efficient as their economy in avoiding silly errors; you can't say the same for Portugal, but I back them to progress.

I'm selecting two Europeans again from Group H, the talented Belgian team along with Russia, although referring to the Russians as European is currently a subject of some debate. Will Russia's players get booed, as their singers did in the Eurovision Song Contest? I can't see Algeria or South Korea progressing.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:59 AM


What being a father taught me about God It is a lesson in total humility (Matt K. Lewis, 6/15/14, The Week)

[T]he first thing I discovered when I had my first boy was the profound love I had for him. This sounds cliched, of course, but you really can't explain it. Before I had kids, I could intellectually understand the concept, but not fully appreciate it. Similarly, I thought people who put pictures of their kids on Facebook were lame. And then I became a dad.

That's when it hit me: What if the love I have for my children is merely a microcosm of the love God has for me? After all, even when they disobey me, as they sometimes do, my love for them doesn't decline in the slightest. And I'm just flesh and blood.

Another thing I discovered is that G.K. Chesterton was right when he asserted that original sin was the only part of Christian theology that could be proved.

Sure, we love our kids, but they can be bad and annoying. And sometimes they can do or say downright mean things. I remember watching my kids fight over some petty little toy -- watching them be selfish and refuse to share with others -- and thinking how inherently human this was (they didn't learn this from anyone) -- but also how meaningless and pathetic it is for any of us try to hold on to something so temporal and superficial -- something that could be easily snatched away from them at any moment, just as I could snatch up that silly toy.

Another related point: When my boys hurt each other, or take things from each other, whether they realize it or not, they are hurting me, since I love them both. Likewise, God loves all his children, and when we hurt one another, well, why wouldn't God find it to be a personal affront? This principle works in reverse, too, when we are kind to one another. I'm reminded of this: "I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me."

Posted by orrinj at 8:33 AM


Energy subsidies : Scrap them : There are moves around the world to get rid of energy subsidies. Here's the best way of going about it (The Economist, Jun 14th 2014)

FOR decades, governments from Egypt to Indonesia have subsidised the price of basic fuels. Such programmes often start with noble intentions--to keep down the cost of living for the poor or, in the case of oil-producing countries, to provide a visible example of the benefits of carbon wealth--but they have disastrous consequences, wrecking budgets, distorting economies, harming the environment and, on balance, hurting rather than helping the poor.

Emerging markets are not the only places that distort energy markets. America, for instance, suppresses prices by restricting exports. But subsidies are more significant in poorer countries. Of the $500 billion a year the IMF reckons they cost--the equivalent of four times all official foreign aid--half is spent by governments in the Middle East and north Africa, where, on average, it is worth about 20% of government revenues. The proceeds flow overwhelmingly to the car-driving urban elite. In the typical emerging economy the richest fifth of households hoover up 40% of the benefits of fuel subsidies; the poorest fifth get only 7%. But the poorest suffer disproportionately from the distortions that such intervention creates. Egypt spends seven times more on fuel subsidies than on health. Cheap fuel encourages the development of heavy industry rather than the job-rich light manufacturing that offers far more people a route out of poverty.

For all these reasons the benefits of scrapping subsidies are immense. Emerging economies could easily compensate every poor person with a handout that was bigger than the benefits they got from cheap fuel and still save money. In the process, they would help the planet. According to the International Energy Agency, eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies would reduce global carbon emissions by 6% by 2020.

Posted by orrinj at 8:27 AM


Better Ways Than a Wealth Tax to Shrink Inequality (Peter Orszag, 6/04/14, Moneynews)

In the hoopla over whether Thomas Piketty's data on growing global inequality are correct, an important question about how to address the problem has been obscured. Piketty describes his own global wealth tax idea as more of a "useful utopia" than a practical policy suggestion. Is there anything more plausible that can be done?

Two suggestions come to mind, at least for U.S. policymakers. The first is a progressive consumption tax. This kind of tax is already embraced by many conservative thought leaders because it is, compared with other types of taxes, economically efficient. But it is efficient in no small part because it imposes a tax on wealth. People have no way to convert their money into anything they consume without paying the tax. 

As William Gale and Benjamin Harris of the Brookings Institution have pointed out, the efficiency benefits from a consumption tax occur from a combination of effects, including imposing a one-time tax on existing wealth. As they note, this tax on wealth that has already been accumulated "is a major component of the efficiency gains because of the creation of a consumption tax." The dirty little secret about consumption taxes is that their putative benefits come largely from Piketty's core idea: a tax on wealth.

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 AM


Record-Breaking Solar Cell Points the Way to Cheaper Power (Kevin Bullis, June 13, 2014, Harvard Business Review)

For roughly two decades, the most efficient silicon solar cells in the world used a structure invented in Australia at the University of New South Wales. This week, in a packed conference room at the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference in Denver, Panasonic gave details for the first time about a new structure that allows silicon solar cells to surpass that efficiency, setting a new world record and possibly pointing the way to cheaper solar power that can compete widely with fossil fuels.

The result reflects a new surge forward for silicon solar cells, the type that account for almost all solar cells on the market. "Amazingly, the 20-year-old efficiency record was eclipsed at this conference by three companies, Panasonic, Sharp, and SunPower," says Richard Swanson, cofounder and former president of SunPower .

Posted by orrinj at 8:14 AM


Hidden in Plain Sight: The Mysterious Case of Tax Expenditures (Paul Posner, Steven Redburn and Jonathan Breul | February 6, 2014, Brookings)

The one big piece of America's financial picture that is ripe for reform is tax expenditures.  Tax expenditures are provisions of the federal income tax code favoring specified sources or uses of income.  Right now they are not part of the budget process but they should be. And here's why.

In a real sense tax expenditures function like spending programs, designed to promote the provision of publicly valued goods.  In some policy areas, tax expenditures are the major form of government subsidy. For instance, of roughly $280 billion in federal spending and tax expenditures for housing in FY 2012, tax expenditures accounted for more than three-fourths of the total, most notably the mortgage interest deduction, other homeownership exclusions, and low income rental housing tax credits.

Over the years tax expenditures have quietly assumed major fiscal significance. Donald Marron estimates that they constitute over $1.1 trillion in revenue losses for the income tax alone in FY 2012 -- 31 percent of total federal spending, or nearly as much as total discretionary spending that year.

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 AM


Shia militia: 'Isis will not take Baghdad' (Martin Chulov, 6/14/14, The Observer)

The city's collective relief stemmed from three live television addresses, only one of them made by an Iraqi. On Friday, President Barack Obama said enough to convince most that he would soon send US jets to deal with the insurgents at the gates. Hours later the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, said an alarmed Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shia, would send whatever it took to stem the insurgent Sunni tide. The alliance of common interests was perceived as a rebuff to Isis (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a jihadist group so hardline it was disowned by al-Qaida. Isis has been rampaging through the country, pledging to rewrite the region's borders.

But it was a religious cleric who succeeded in steeling Iraqis for a fightback. The call to arms by the highest Shia authority in the land, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, mobilised in less than one day around a division of militia men who, unlike the military, will not run from a fight with the insurgents.

June 14, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 11:50 AM


The death of U.S. savings bonds (Heather Long, June 14, 2014, CNN Money)

For starters, savings bonds, which have been around since the 1930s, are no longer an attractive investment.

"The interest rates are so low these days that people just don't even get involved in them anymore," says Jim Moore, a Wells Fargo financial advisor based in St. Louis.

The fixed-rate "EE" bond offers a mere 0.5% interest rate for the next 20 years, barely better than putting money under a mattress. Bonds issued at the end of last year were yielding an even more lousy 0.1% rate.

Moore recommends buying a good quality, high paying dividend stock or exploring other savings options instead. Many parents and grandparents utilize 529 savings plans for colleges that are run at the state level. Investment growth in a 529 plan is tax deferred, and any money taken from the 529 to pay for college isn't taxed at the federal level.

Posted by orrinj at 9:05 AM


Japan to slash corporate tax rate to below 30% (AFP, 6/14/14)

The Japanese government said Friday it was slashing Japan's corporate tax rate, one of the world's highest, as the country's top central banker called for speedier reforms to unshackle an economy long mired in red tape.

The cuts would bring the levy under 30% within a few years, resulting in a tax rate ranging from 20% to 29%, depending on the jurisdiction.

Company taxes, including a rate of 35.6% in Tokyo, are the second-highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) behind the United States, which some critics say has held back the world's number three economy. [...]

Tokyo is cutting the national rate to bring down firms' overall burden in a bid to stimulate hiring and corporate investment, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces growing pressure to deregulate politically powerful sectors, including the agricultural industry.

0% is the proper rate.
Posted by orrinj at 9:00 AM


Iran says envisages Iraq role with U.S. if Washington tackles regional militants (PARISA HAFEZI, Jun 14, 2014, Reuters) 

Iran could contemplate cooperating with its old adversary the United States on restoring security to Iraq if it saw Washington confronting "terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere", Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday.

Rouhani, a relative moderate who has presided over a thaw in Iran's relations with the West, added that Tehran stood ready to provide help to Iraq within the framework of international law, but so far Baghdad had not requested such assistance.

Hundreds of young Shiite men volunteer to fight Sunni militants in Iraq (Hamza Hendawi and Sameer N. Yacoub, 6/14/14, Associated Press)

Hundreds of young Iraqi men gripped by religious and nationalistic fervor streamed into volunteer centers Saturday across Baghdad, answering a call by the country's top Shiite cleric to join the fight against Sunni militants advancing in the north.

Dozens climbed into the back of army trucks, chanting Shiite slogans and hoisting assault rifles, pledging to battle the Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has launched a lightning advance across the country.

"By God's will, we will be victorious." said one volunteer, Ali Saleh Aziz. "We will not be stopped by the ISIL or any other terrorists."

The massive response to the call by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued via his representative Friday, comes as sectarian tensions are threatening to push the country back toward civil war in the worst crisis since US forces withdrew at the end of 2011.

Posted by orrinj at 8:57 AM


Finnish conservatives' new leader set to become prime minister (Deutsche-Welle, 6/14/14)

Finland's National Coalition Party has chosen Alexander Stubb as its new leader. Stubb is now expected to succeed Jyrki Katainen as the country's next prime minister.

Posted by orrinj at 8:54 AM


A Surprising Loss for Unsurprising Reasons : Eric Cantor simply lost touch with his constituents. (Ford O'Connell, June 14, 2014, US News)

On the night Eric Cantor lost to David Brat in the Republican primary in Virginia's 7th Congressional District, Twitter was "atwitter" with the fact that Cantor had spent more in steakhouses during the campaign than Brat had spent total.

This served to reinforce the narrative that Cantor was in all those steakhouses fat-catting with his campaign staff while Brat's hungry advisers were pounding the pavement. But what Cantor really was doing in those steakhouses more accurately explains his loss. He was raising funds - and helping others to raise funds - for fellow Republicans throughout the House of Representatives.

He made time for big-dollar private fundraisers to curry favor with other members of Congress, but he did not make time for constituent service. He walked the halls of power instead of the streets of his suburban Richmond district. [...]

[T]he same night, Lindsey Graham, as pro-immigration-reform and non-tea party-aligned a Republican as there is in Congress, fended off six challengers for his party's nomination in South Carolina. And, as U.S. News' Lara Brown, an associate professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, pointed out, 70 percent of Cantor's district was with him on immigration.

Posted by orrinj at 8:42 AM


Brazil's Home-Field World Cup Advantage? The Refs (Drake Bennett  June 13, 2014, Businessweek)

The home-field advantage, it turns out, is a sizable advantage. In a recent research report on the World Cup, Goldman Sachs (GS) calculated that the home-field advantage is worth 0.4 goals a game, which, in a sport heavy on 1-0 and 2-1 scores, is a huge factor. "The home team has won 30 percent of all World Cups since 1930," the report reads, "and over 50 percent of all World Cups held in a traditional football powerhouse (Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain, France and England)."

But what causes home-field advantage? Every sports arena is festooned with banners thanking the fans for their support. The implication is that their noise and emotion is what makes the difference, raising the spirits of the home team and cowing the visitors.

The crowd does have an effect, but not necessarily on the team. A few social scientists have tried to look at the issue of home-field advantage empirically, and they've found that the crowd's role in the phenomenon is that they sway the referees. Much of this research is laid out in the book Scorecasting, by Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim. In soccer, a sport in which an single officiating decision is more likely to determine the outcome than in others, this particular home-field effect seems to be particularly strong,

In a 2005 paper, economists Luis Garicano, Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, and Canice Prendergast looked at the length of so-called injury time at the end of Spanish professional soccer matches. The clock in a soccer match does not stop, even when there is a stoppage of play--for an injury, for example, or a penalty kick, or a substitution--so a referee keeps a tally of how much extra time needs to be added at the end of each 45-minute half. No one but the referee knows exactly how long it is. What the Spanish study showed is that referees tended to extend injury time when the home team was behind in a close game, giving them more time to try to tie the score. They cut it short when the home team was ahead. "[I]f the home team is behind by 1 goal, injury time is 35 percent above average, whereas if it is ahead by 1 goal, the injury time is 29 percent below average," the authors wrote. Also, the bigger the crowd at the game, the bigger the effect.

One of the easiest ways to fix the sport is to get rid of added time and simply penalize players/teams for time wasting.  The other is to institute an NHL-style review system from a remote location. 
Posted by orrinj at 8:18 AM


Escaping the Student-Debt Trap : An economist-entrepreneur inspired by equal parts Milton Friedman and David Bowie says income-share agreements could rescue higher education. (KATE BACHELDER, June 13, 2014, WSJ)

Student debt in the U.S. now tops $1.2 trillion, spread among 37 million borrowers, 5.4 million of whom have already defaulted. Washington took notice this week, rolling out the usual non-solutions: On Monday, President Obama expanded a federal program that allows students to repay debt based on what they earn, eventually forgiving the balance. Taxpayers pay the rest. On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's idea to tax millionaires to pay for broad student-loan refinancing stalled in the Senate.

But there's one way to slow student-loan debt that didn't make Washington's agenda. What if a tool could help any student pay for college without a loan or government subsidy? If that sounds impossible, ask Miguel Palacios, assistant professor of finance at Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Management. He's the creative force behind income-share agreements.

That's less than we spent on the 2009 stimulus and, unlike that program, relieving the debt would actually have a stimulative effect.

Posted by orrinj at 7:58 AM


Jimmy Scott: a voice from another world : Sufjan Stevens on a unique jazz singer (Sufjan Stevens, 1/23/10, The Observer)

"A few years ago, my friend Daniel Smith [of indie oddballs Danielson Famile] invited me to the Tin Angel, a tiny club in Philadelphia, to hear Jimmy Scott. I had no clue who he was, but I was blown away. He sang in this lilting, odd, almost grandmotherly voice, but it was also so youthful. It was like he was extremely old and extremely young simultaneously.

"Afterwards, Daniel loaned me a live record, with If You Only Knew, Very Truly Yours, and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child on it. That's the track that kills me every time I hear it. I already knew the song, but I've never heard it like that. It almost sounds like he's singing in a different time signature or tempo, and yet he's very deliberately placing his phrases in all of these bizarre upbeats. Everything is so suspended, his voice just drifts.

Posted by orrinj at 7:52 AM


Our Decimated Labor Force (IRWIN M. STELZER, 6/14/14, Weekly Standard)

Until Eve's encounter with the serpent, Adam did not spend a lot of time looking for work. Didn't have to. Expelled from Eden and cursed with the necessity of earning his bread "in the sweat of his face," he found work. Had to. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:36 AM


Masterpiece: Nabokov Looks Back at Life Before 'Lolita' : The author's early years, in his own words. (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, June 13, 2014, WSJ)

Few are the truly great autobiographies: Benvenuto Cellini's, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's, Ben Franklin's, Edward Gibbon's, John Stuart Mills's, Henry Adams's, possibly Gertrude Stein's, and not many more. Nor ought one to be surprised at the paucity of their number. Of all forms of literature, autobiography is perhaps the most difficult to bring off successfully. Maintaining candor without lapsing into cant or self-adulation is only one of the difficulties autobiography presents. George Orwell underscored the point: "Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats."

To write superior autobiography one requires not only literary gifts, which are obtainable with effort, but an intrinsically interesting life, which is less frequently available. Those who possess the one are frequently devoid of the other, and vice versa. Only a fortunate few are able to reimagine their lives, to find themes and patterns that explain a life, in the way successful autobiography requires.

Vladimir Nabokov was among them.

At a minimum, such a list should include The Autobiography of Malcolm XWitness by Whittaker Chambers and False Spring by Pat Jordan. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:24 AM


A capital agenda we can all agree on (Stan Veuger, 6/02/14, The Hill)

As Chris DeMuth explained in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, shifting Social Security toward a system of private accounts would do much to expand middle-class capital ownership. Piketty dismisses such an idea out of hand in his book, because he believes that the return to capital is "extremely volatile." Fortunately, the return to capital (r), which equals the return on your contributions to private accounts, is on average higher than the economy's growth rate (g) is likely to be. What determines the return on your contributions, in the absence of tax increases, to a PAYGO pensions system is precisely this g, adjusted for the ratio of retirees to workers. In an aging society, this return will be even lower than g, which, remember, is already lower than r. It is precisely this large gap between the return on private accounts and the return you receive in a PAYGO system that allows us to address understandable worries about risk: Holders of private accounts could sell off some of their upside risk in exchange for insurance that would help them out if they happen to retire after a period of low returns. This logic, which Martin Feldstein of Harvard University developed over a decade ago, would allow for significant wealth accumulation by all workers, at low levels of risk, and would, as a massive side benefit, help address the long-term fiscal challenges facing the nation.

Similar reform ideas could be applied to some of the other large social insurance programs that are currently funded year by year with the tax money of current workers, like Medicare and unemployment insurance. Helpfully, Feldstein has developed blueprints for those programs as well. Again, these reforms would come with important side benefits: Pre-funding Medicare would do even more than privatizing Social Security to alleviate looming budgetary pressures, whereas unemployment insurance savings accounts would end the current practice of improvised congressional decision-making around the livelihood of workers who just lost their jobs. But more to the point of Piketty's concerns: They would add tremendously to the stock of wealth held by the middle class, as total pension, health and unemployment savings would go up by some 150 percent of GDP, or almost 40 percent of total societal wealth. Add that to the amounts of wealth already owned by the "bottom 90 percent," and one would get close to what Piketty refers to as the "ideal society," one in which the top 10 percent owns but 30 percent of the capital stock.

Getting to this point would take quite some time, but there are other, smaller reforms that can speed up the process and produce a more balanced allocation of capital in the near future. For example, to address Piketty's concern that larger capitals reap higher returns, one could reduce the capital gains tax and the dividend tax for middle-class savers. To mitigate increases in the share of wealth dedicated to residential housing, which are responsible for the practical entirety of the capital stock increases Piketty documents, one could eliminate the mortgage interest deduction (and cut an enormous tax expenditure in the process), as well as ease the kind of land-use restrictions that have chased the middle class out of the most prosperous metropolitan areas.

These are important decisions, but they should not distract us from the central lesson that flows from Piketty's data analysis: that his "ideal society," like President George W. Bush's "ownership society," is well within reach.

It's entirely fitting that the Left's new Marx accidentally arrives where W started. And, of course, using the Obamacare mandate to universalize the HSAs that W liberated is one of the best ways to build middle and lower class capital.

Posted by orrinj at 7:18 AM


America's move to faster growth (Martin Feldstein  June 3, 2014, Business Standard)

The primary driver of this year's faster GDP growth is the $10-trillion rise in household wealth that occurred in 2013. According to the United States Federal Reserve, that increase reflected a $2-trillion increase in the value of homes and an $8-trillion rise in the value of shares, unincorporated businesses, and other net financial assets. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke explained when he launched large-scale asset purchases, or quantitative easing, that increase in wealth - and the resulting rise in consumer spending - was the intended result.

Past experience suggests that each $100 increase in household wealth leads to a gradual rise in consumer spending until the spending level has increased by about $4. That implies that the $10-trillion wealth gain will raise the annual level of consumer spending by some $400 billion, or roughly 2.5 per cent of GDP. Even if less than half of that increase occurs in 2014, it will be enough to raise the total GDP growth rate by one percentage point.

The data show that a significant increase in consumption already is happening. Real personal consumption expenditures rose at a 3 per cent rate from the fourth quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of this year. Within the first quarter, the monthly increase in real consumer spending accelerated from just 0.1 per cent in January to 0.4 per cent in February and 0.7 per cent in March. That was faster than the 0.3 per cent monthly growth in real personal disposable income during this period, highlighting the importance of wealth as a driver of spending.

June 13, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:56 PM


The Unsustainability of Organic Farming (Henry I. Miller and Richard Cornett, 6/13/14, Project Syndicate)

A fundamental reason that organic food production is far less "sustainable" than many forms of conventional farming is that organic farms, though possibly well adapted for certain local environments on a small scale, produce far less food per unit of land and water. The low yields of organic agriculture - typically 20-50% below conventional agriculture - impose various stresses on farmland, especially on water consumption. [...]

Another limitation of organic production is that it works against the best approach to enhancing soil quality - namely, the minimization of soil disturbance (such as that caused by plowing or tilling), combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems have many environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion and the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, they often rely on tillage (or even labor-intensive hand weeding) for weed control.
At the same time, organic producers do use insecticides and fungicides to protect their crops, despite the green myth that they do not. More than 20 chemicals (mostly containing copper and sulfur) are commonly used in growing and processing organic crops - all acceptable under US rules for certifying organic products.

Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term is the exclusion of "genetically engineered" (also known as "genetically modified," or GM) plants - but only those that were modified with the most precise techniques and predictable results. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in European and North American diets have been genetically improved by one technique or another - often as a result of seeds being irradiated or undergoing hybridizations that move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature.

The exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with modern, superior techniques makes no sense. It not only denies farmers improved seeds, but also denies consumers of organic goods access to nutritionally improved foods, such as oils with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

In recent decades, conventional agriculture has become more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But that reflects science-based research and old-fashioned technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders, and agribusiness companies, not irrational opposition to modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering, and "industrial agriculture."

Posted by orrinj at 8:38 PM


Iran, alleged face of reason, likely to gain in long term from fall of Mosul (MITCH GINSBURG June 13, 2014, Times of Israel)

[T]o this reporter, the most significant blowback from this unthinkable jihadist victory will come not in the form of growing Sunni Islamist control over large swaths of Syria and Iraq - which may happen in the short term - but rather the opposite: Iran and Hezbollah emerging as the "answer," the adult in the region capable of restoring some stability.

Posted by orrinj at 8:18 PM


Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story, BBC Four: 'peculiarly negative' (Gerard O'Donovan, 6/13/14, The Telegraph)

Gerard O'Donovan is disappointed by an overly political portrait of soul singer Roberta Flack

Posted by orrinj at 5:32 PM


Iran sends elite troops to aid Iraq against insurgents (TIMES OF ISRAEL, AP AND AFP June 13, 2014)

Iran is sending special forces to Iraq to help Baghdad halt militants advancing on the capital, the Times of London reported on Friday.

June 12, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:35 PM


Teens are drinking, smoking and fighting less, the government says, but screen time is up (Mike Stobbe, June 12, 2014, Washington Post)

Generally speaking, the news is good. Most forms of drug use, weapons use and risky sex have been decreasing since the government started doing the biennial survey in 1991. Teens are wearing bicycle helmets and seat belts more, too.

"Overall, young people have more healthy behaviors than they did 20 years ago," said Stephanie Zaza, who oversees the risky-behavior study at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 PM


Primary Voters for Immigration (WSJ, June 11, 2014)

Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres surveyed 1,000 GOP primary voters, including talk radio listeners (17% of the sample) and tea party supporters (26%). The poll found strong support for a step-by-step approach that includes the elements that have been part of most reform proposals: border enforcement, earned legal status after paying a fine and back taxes, a temporary worker program, and going to the back of the line to gain citizenship down the road, and so on. By 56% to 36%, these voters supported some kind of legal status "like a worker permit" without full citizenship. But even earned citizenship was only narrowly opposed, 48% to 44%. The GOP voters even supported the much-maligned bill that passed the Senate last year once it was described to them--by three to one.

Posted by orrinj at 8:10 PM


What is Distributism? Understanding a Controversial Alternative to Socialism and Plutocracy (Joseph Pearce, 6/12/10, Imaginative Conservative)

Distributism is the name given to a socio-economic and political creed originally associated with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Chesterton bowed to Belloc's preeminence as a disseminator of the ideas of distributism, declaring Belloc the master in relation to whom he was merely a disciple. "You were the founder and father of this mission,'"Chesterton wrote. "We were the converts but you were the missionary.... You first revealed the truth both to its greater and its lesser servants.... Great will be your glory if England breathes again."[1] In fact, pace Chesterton, Belloc was merely the propagator and the populariser of the Church's social doctrine of subsidiarity as expounded by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum novarum (1891), a doctrine that would be re-stated, re-confirmed and reinforced by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931) and by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus (1991). As such, it is important, first and foremost to see distributism as a derivative of the principle of subsidiarity. [...]

Unlike the socialists, the distributists were not advocating the redistribution of 'wealth' per se, though they believed that this would be one of the results of distributism. Instead, and the difference is crucial, they were advocating the redistribution of the means of production to as many people as possible. Belloc and the distributists drew the vital connection between the freedom of labour and its relationship with the other factors of production--i.e., land, capital, and the entrepreneurial spirit. The more that labour is divorced from the other factors of production the more it is enslaved to the will of powers beyond its control. In an ideal world every man would own the land on which, and the tools with which, he worked. In an ideal world he would control his own destiny by having control over the means to his livelihood. 

...it's just a reaction to the capitalism of the Protestant world.  Which is why its advocates were Catholic residents of the Anglosphere.  

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 PM


U.S. Struggles to Draw Young, Savvy Staff (RACHEL FEINTZEIG, June 10, 2014, WSJ)

The percentage of its employees under the age of 30 hit an eight-year low of 7% in 2013, government statistics show, compared with about 25% for the private-sector workforce. Back in 1975, more than 20% of the federal workforce was under 30.

Without a pipeline of young talent, the government risks falling behind in an increasingly digital world, current and former government officials say.

Posted by orrinj at 8:03 PM


Starbucks to roll out wireless charging stations nationwide (Lauren Raab, 6/12/14, LA Times)

Starbucks is rolling out wireless charging stations in its coffee shops nationwide, starting with the Bay Area.

"Stores will be equipped with 'Powermat Spots' -- designated areas on tables and counters where customers can place their compatible device and charge wirelessly," the chain said in a statement.

Posted by orrinj at 7:43 PM


Back to the Land (PAUL WALDMAN, JUNE 12, 2014, American Prospect)

In a new study, a surprising number of conservatives say they'd like to live in a rural area. So what's stopping them?

Today the Pew Research Center released a gigantic and fascinating report on increasing levels of political polarization in America, and while many people will be picking over the data, there's one particular thing I want to point to. One of the questions they asked was this: "If you could live anywhere in the United States that you wanted to, would you prefer a city, a suburban area, a small town or a rural area?" The results were stark:

Posted by orrinj at 7:39 PM


Why Elon Musk Just Opened Tesla's Patents to His Biggest Rivals (Ashlee Vance,  June 12, 2014, Business Week)

From a competition standpoint, Musk considers Tesla's place secure. "What we are doing is a modest thing," he said. "You want to be innovating so fast that you invalidate your prior patents, in terms of what really matters. It's the velocity of innovation that matters." As long as Tesla keeps inventing and pushing the limits of the technology, it will remain of ahead of rivals.

Musk believes that opening up the patents around the charging technology could lead to important partnerships. He has talked this week to executives from BMW (BMW:GR) about sharing the cost of building recharging stations and creating a common infrastructure.

Tesla's nationwide network of recharging stations and its plans to build huge battery factories really bring Musk's point home. No other automaker is making anything like these types of investments in electric cars.

June 11, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:22 PM


 Excuse me, is that snake oil gluten-free? (Lynn Stuart Parramore, JUNE 11, 2014, Reuters)

Comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently featured a sketch asking health-conscious folks avoiding gluten what gluten actually is. They had no idea.

What we think we know about nutrition is often based on tenuous links and conflicting evidence. One day, egg yolks and butter are health villains. The next they are pardoned. Whole grains are either good for us or turning our brains into mush. Antioxidants are great  -- wait, they might accelerate cancer. Omega 3s prevent heart disease and boost brain power, or maybe they don't.

To this confusion, add a heaping helping of outright lies and untested products. Then a dollop of distrust for medical professionals and academic authority, plus a generous serving of poor regulation and big money politics. Top it off with celebrity pitches and plugs from someone like Dr. Oz.

/What you've got is a recipe for a public-health nightmare. Americans have been turning into do-it-yourself biochemists, unable to sort the bogus from the beneficial. Unfortunately, what we don't know can hurt us. We are spending our money on products that are useless -- or worse.

But could the tide be turning? There are signs that consumers may be starting to wise up and push back, forcing companies to listen.

Posted by orrinj at 6:18 PM


Over-confidence and neglect fuel Republican Cantor's stunning fall (JOHN WHITESIDES, Jun 11, 2014, Reuters)

Cantor, the second-ranked House Republican, had been widely viewed as a possible successor to House Speaker John Boehner. But his devotion to leadership and fundraising duties came at the expense of courting voters.

"All the hoopla about being a member of leadership doesn't mean anything to voters back in your district," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, who managed the 1992 campaign of the last member of leadership to lose a primary, Republican Guy Vander Jagt.

"I know just how those guys feel today," Galen said, sympathizing with Cantor's team. "If you have a choice on a Sunday between being interviewed on 'Meet the Press' or shaking hands with voters at Costco, you better be at Costco."

Posted by orrinj at 6:08 PM


An Honest Answer From David Brat (Justin Wolfers, 6/11/14, NY Times)

When an MSNBC interviewer asked David Brat, the economics professor at Randolph-Macon College who toppled Eric Cantor in a primary challenge Tuesday, whether he opposed the minimum wage, he responded on Wednesday, "Um, I don't have a well-crafted response on that one."

The political class is billing it as a gaffe. But Mr. Brat's fellow economists would probably be far more generous.

Assessing the evidence on the effects of the minimum wage is a tricky business, and the evidence isn't strong enough to support the certainties that pundits seem to demand.

A recent survey of leading economists by the University of Chicago's Initiative on Global Markets makes the point. The survey asked 38 economists -- who run the spectrum from left to right -- whether they agreed that "raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour would make it noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment." Not one of them strongly agreed, and not one strongly disagreed.

Posted by orrinj at 5:54 PM


How the U.S. Military Shaped American Soccer (AARON GORDON, June 09, 2014, Pacific Standard)

ONE COULD SAY WITH only the wryest of smiles that the Soviet blockade of Berlin was the most important event in U.S. soccer history. Once the blockade began, it was clear to the United States military that the Cold War would demand permanent bases in Germany. During the Cold War, there were hundreds of installations and nine major air bases in West Germany, including the U.S. Air Forces in Europe headquarters. The population of military bases, often numbering in the tens of thousands, would dwarf those of the small surrounding towns.

In an effort to "improve their contacts with the local people," the Air Force created soccer teams where soldiers would learn the game and compete against the local population. As reported by the Daily Boston Globe, within a year of the program's 1954 inauguration, 50 European bases had teams, while some had multiple squads that would compete against each other and in local leagues. The Globe called the Air Force's efforts "a scheme to popularize soccer, which soon may have its effect back home in the United States." While this prediction was off the mark, relationships with the locals certainly would improve, whether due to soccer or not.

As of 2009, there were 227 active bases in Germany. Despite many base closures in recent years--it's difficult to tell, based on military documents, which have actually closed or are scheduled to--there are still 40,328 United States military personnel deployed in Germany. Because the bases have existed for decades, many locals have developed an affection for them and the soldiers themselves.

For U.S. Soccer, these bases have proved fertile ground for new talent. Germany, like all of Europe, is soccer-obsessed. The German team is one of the best in the world, currently ranked second in FIFA's World Rankings. Players who wouldn't stand a chance to make the German roster seek out other countries for which they may be eligible that may not have Germany's soccer pedigree. For children of U.S. military personnel, America is an obvious second choice. U.S. Soccer has been happy to recruit these Americans who have been trained elsewhere.

Posted by orrinj at 5:46 PM


Asia's New 'Axis of Reform' (William Pesek, 6/03/14, Bloomberg View)

China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi and Japan's Shinzo Abe are simultaneously sketching out vague-but-promising plans to revitalize their rigid economies. It's not a coordinated process -- more of a serendipitous coincidence, driven by a dire need for change in all three nations. Still, the possibilities are enticing: A truly dynamic and innovative Asia would raise living standards for billions and fresh hope for a world wondering where all its big growth engines went.

"With Asia's giants in the firm grip of reformers, prospects have certainly improved," says Frederic Neumann, economist at HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong. "Not only are India and China now led by men that have spelled out an ambitious reform agenda, but so is Japan, with Abenomics ticking away in the background, too."

June 10, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:46 PM


Common Core, battered by midterm politics, gets higher-ed support. Too late? (Amanda Paulson, June 10, 2014, CS Monitor)

Common Core was the result of a state-led effort to develop a uniform set of high-quality standards that built on each other, emphasized critical thinking skills, and prepared high school graduates to be ready for college and careers, and was initially adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia - a remarkable achievement, especially given how quickly the adoption occurred. [...]

"There are a lot of myths out there, and bad information," said John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, in a phone call with reporters to announce a new higher-ed coalition in support of Common Core, Higher Ed for Higher Standards. "When you really explain to people this is about college-ready standards, not about how to teach or about curriculum ... that's a message that resonates."

Mr. Morgan and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, emphasized the stake higher education has in Common Core remaining intact, particularly given the large number of college students who currently enter school unprepared. Some 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and 20 percent of students entering four-year institutions require some form of remediation - a factor that's a huge contributor to students not graduating on time or at all from college.

Posted by orrinj at 6:10 PM

80-20 NATION:

Poll: 62 percent support pathway to citizenship (SEUNG MIN KIM | 6/10/14, Politico)

More than 60 percent of Americans back a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally -- winning support from majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, according to a sweeping new poll to be released Tuesday.

When it comes to undocumented immigrants, 62 percent of Americans believe they should be allowed to gain citizenship if they meet certain requirements, while 17 percent would support green cards but not citizenship for them. Meanwhile, 19 percent think the undocumented immigrants should be deported.

Posted by orrinj at 5:40 PM


California Teacher Tenure Laws Ruled Unconstitutional (JENNIFER MEDINA, JUNE 10, 2014, NY Times)

 A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under the state Constitution. The decision hands teachers' unions a major defeat in a landmark case, one that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states.

"Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students," Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court wrote in the ruling. "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."

Posted by orrinj at 5:36 PM


There Are Big Differences Between Republicans and Republicans Who Watch Fox News (ERIC LEVENSON, 6/10/14, The Wire)

The June 2014 study [PDF] comes courtesy the Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings Institute and ostensibly focuses on opinions on immigration reform. But the most interesting numbers include the impact of Fox News on shaping the reform debate. 

According to the surveys, "Only 42% of Republicans who most trust Fox News to provide accurate information about politics and current events support a path to citizenship, compared to 60% of Republicans who most trust other news sources." Overall, 51 percent of Republicans support creating a path to citizenship, giving a nine percentage point edge in each direction depending on whether the respondent goes to Fox for their news.

All you really need to know is that what they know they know from tv.

Posted by orrinj at 3:57 PM


How Doctors Might Make You Sick (GILBERT WELCH, 6/08/14, WSJ)

What's the biggest misconception about us doctors? It's that-when it comes to your current health-we know more than you do.

For most patients, it's simply not true.

I'm not saying we have nothing to offer; I am saying how you feel says a lot. That's why good doctors take the time to explore how patients feel. For those who feel bad, we'll explore what makes you feel worse-and what makes you feel better. Not infrequently, the information gleaned from this exploration-we call it the history-point to both a diagnosis and a strategy for managing the problem.

And for those who feel healthy, it's just possible you might be right.

The idea that only your doctor can tell whether you are healthy or not is an unfortunate side-effect of our current emphasis on preventive medicine.

Posted by orrinj at 3:54 PM


How a 78-Year-Old Estonian Composer Became the Hottest Thing in Music (CHRISTINE KANOWNIK, June 5, 2014, Vice)

Despite being a 78-year-old Estonian, devout Russian Orthodox Catholic, and classical music composer who made his name in the Soviet Avant-Garde through experiments with collage, 12-tone music, and inventing a form of music called Tintinnabuli that can best be explained through algorithm, Pärt has a transcendent appeal and is kind of blowing up right now.

How can a man who has often said that if you ever want to truly understand his music, that you must read "the Church fathers" have such a wide cultural cachet? There is absolutely no avoiding the religious nature of his work--while describing Tintinnabuli to Björk, he said, "One line is my sins. The next line is my forgiveness for sins." It is a facet of his work that he never compromises on, which actually got him into a lot of trouble with Soviet officials, who drove him from his native Estonia to Vienna and then Berlin.

Though stressful on Pärt personally, this forced immigration was the beginning of his international success. While Russia and Estonia basically struck his name from the official record, banning mention of his name or his work in official performances, Western Europe and America warmly embraced him. 

Posted by orrinj at 3:51 PM


Shale Gas Is America's Geopolitical Trump Card : Russia's $400 billion natural-gas deal with China pales beside the significance of U.S. drilling innovations. (JOSEPH S. NYE JR., June 8, 2014, WSJ)

[V]ladimir's Putin's haste to sign a deal that had been in the making for more than a decade confirmed his country's political weakness. Despite being buoyed by high energy prices in the first decade of this century, Russia is in decline. Demographically it is shrinking; it has severe health problems (the average Russian male dies in his early 60s); and it is a "one-crop economy" heavily dependent on energy exports. Russia needs reforms to build a diversified, entrepreneurial economy, but its actions in Ukraine have brought on sanctions that weaken its access to Western ideas and technology. Becoming China's gas station does nothing to reverse this trend.

The real geopolitical shift is the shale-energy revolution that took off in the past decade. While the technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are not new, their pioneering application to shale rock is largely a product of American entrepreneurship in the past decade.

Ten years ago, many experts were speaking of "peak oil"--the idea that even reserves in Saudi Arabia had topped off. The U.S. was regarded as increasingly dependent on energy imports and was building terminals to import high-priced liquefied natural gas. Instead, North America is now building terminals to export its low-cost LNG, and the continent is expected to be self-sufficient in energy in the 2020s, according to a broad consensus of energy experts. The Energy Department estimates that the country has 25 trillion cubic meters of technically recoverable resources of shale gas, which when combined with other oil-and-gas resources could last for two centuries.

Posted by orrinj at 3:45 PM


One way to end violence against women? Married dads. : The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids.  (W. BRADFORD WILCOX AND ROBIN FRETWELL WILSON June 10, 2014, Washington Post)

The dramatic social media response to the UC-Santa Barbara shooting, captured by the hashtag #YesAllWomen, underlined an important and unpleasant truth: across the United States, millions of girls and women have been abused, assaulted, or raped by men, and even more females fear that they will be subject to such an attack. As Sarah Kliff wrote in Vox: a "national survey of American women found that a slight majority (51.9 percent) reported experiencing physical violence at some point in their life."

This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers. The bottom line is this: Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.

So it turns out that men not respecting women and women not respecting themselves has negative consequences for women.  Who'da thunk?

Posted by orrinj at 3:40 PM


Jeb Bush and the Three Amigos Path to the Presidency (Francis Wilkinson, 6/09/14, Bloomberg View)

By entering the presidential race, Bush would be a spokesman for sane conservatism, but he would also be another force pushing against the party's contraction. His deliberately provocative comments on immigrants -- in which he described crossing the border as an "act of love" -- alienates him from the rank and file. And his refusal to walk away from his support for the Common Core education reforms won't help win those voters back. But by establishing himself as a Chamber of Commerce candidate who refuses to kowtow to the Cruz wing, he can help loosen the straitjacket that keeps Republican politics and policy so dangerously restricted.

That straitjacket strangled the 2012 Republican field. Texas Governor Rick Perry was clobbered for expressing empathy toward undocumented immigrants. Eventual nominee Mitt Romney spent the primary trumpeting his managerial superiority while insisting on his ideological fraternity with his opponents, right-wing loons included.

But imagine a 2016 presidential primary that includes the quirky Paul, the straddling Rubio and the defiantly establishment yet Hispanic-friendly Bush. The party would be stretched instead of constricted. The opportunities for policy entrepreneurship would grow along with the chances of a conservative politics based on something more broadly appealing than unremitting anger.

The danger, of course, is that Cruz would dominate the angry base vote while the three relative innovators competed over the party's less-energized remainder. By splitting the libertarian and mainstream conservative vote, the three amigos might deliver the nomination to Cruz. The Texan, however, will no doubt face competition of his own, even if it's from flavor-of-the-moment candidates such as the former surgeon Ben Carson.

Besides, for Bush, the risk is worth taking. Paul's appeal may be sufficiently idiosyncratic to power him to the end of the race, but not to victory. Either Rubio or Bush, however, would probably have to drop out without early primary victories and, of the two, Bush seems better suited to prevail. Ideally, once some ideological breathing space had been secured, whichever of the two is left standing could find a path to victory without having to endure Romneyesque contortions.

Posted by orrinj at 3:35 PM


Bad Times breed bad ideas (Martin Hutchinson, 6/09/14, The Prudent Bear)

Good times tend to be relatively infertile of new economic ideas. Even radical economists, grinding their teeth at the apparent success of the market, don't want to be accused of killing the golden-egg-laying goose. 

Conversely, bad times--lengthy or especially deep recessions--bring out the madmen from the woodwork. And with them comes the danger that idiocies will be permanently legislated into the economic system, warping it forever. We are in such a period now.

Oddly enough, the first such madman produced by bad economic times was an economist whose work resonates 200 years later: Thomas Malthus. The gradually improving living standards of the eighteenth century had given way to crisis conditions by 1798, as the costs of the French Revolutionary War, the partial French blockade and a series of poor harvests had caused an outbreak of working-class hunger. Malthus' gloomy prediction of population pressures leading to mass starvation may yet prove prescient in the 21st century, after the huge population increase caused by the Industrial Revolution. But in 1798 it was at least 200 years premature and contradicted by the relatively comfortable condition of the British working classes in peacetime.

Fifty years later, during the Hungry Forties and the Irish potato famine, Karl Marx produced "The Communist Manifesto." Being a fanatic, he then went on to write "Das Kapital," published in 1867, during a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity caused by almost pure capitalism (the protectionism and modest social programs of later in the century had yet to kick in). Still, the "Communist Manifesto," which first exhibited his fallacious economic doctrine, was, like Malthus' work, the product of hard times.

Henry George's "Progress and Poverty," published in 1879 at the bottom of the next major economic downswing, was a plea for redistribution via land nationalization and paper money. It was typical of the intellectual products of an economic downturn, whose depredations appear to have rendered questionable the verities of the previous upswing.

The Great Depression was prolific of such follies. The foremost among them was Keynes' 1936 "General Theory" with its "euthanasia of the rentier" and assumption that a caste of intelligent bureaucrats could manage the economy much better than the chaotic free market. However, there were others: the Townsend Plan, offering unfunded pensions of $200 a month to the aged, and Upton Sinclair's "End Poverty in California" movement. You can add to the list Huey Long and Adolf Hitler. Both demagogues, with economic policies both statist and populist, they flourished in an era when conventional politics and economics had seemed discredited.

In the long 1970s malaise, the Club of Rome approached the subject in a new way, using computer projection to predict that the world economy could not possibly survive another 40 years. Its projections were fallacious, but its spirit lives on, not least in the attempt by global warmists to convince us that we must load the global economy with massive extra costs and inefficiencies in order to forestall a global warming a century hence that is at worst modest and manageable.

This time around we have a wannabe Karl Marx in Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century."

Posted by orrinj at 3:21 PM



And how did this Sisi government so warmly congratulated by Western officials come into existence? Through terror. Sisi won 96.91 per cent of the vote in last week's presidential elections. If that sounds suspicious - remember all the Western mocking that would greet news that Saddam Hussein had won 97 per cent of the vote in Iraq? - that's because it is. Sisi won by effectively banning any serious force from standing against him. First the National Democratic Party - the party of Hosni Mubarak, the tyrannical president ousted by an uprising in 2011 - was banned from 'running in any presidential, parliamentary or council elections'. Then the Muslim Brotherhood was banned 'from taking part in presidential and legislative elections'. The Brotherhood had already been branded a terrorist organisation by the Sisi regime and was banned from gathering in public. With big hitters like Mubarak and MB forced aside, the vast majority of the other candidates for the presidency took the repressive hint and withdrew. In the end there were only two candidates: Sisi and a leftist named Hamdeen Sabahi. Sabahi actually came third, if you count spoiled ballots as a voting bloc. Most Egyptians, in particular MB-supporting Islamists, boycotted the elections, and on a turnout of 46 per cent, Sisi won nearly every vote.

In the months preceding the elections, Sisi had created a situation in which criticism of his regime, never mind organised electoral opposition to it, became a criminal offence. His opponents ran the risk of arrest, imprisonment and even death merely for expressing their political views. Last August, following Sisi's military coup against Morsi, Islamists who had voted for Morsi took to the streets to demand his reinstatement. They were massacred in their hundreds. It is estimated that at least 1,000 were killed, 'probably more than the number killed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square', says one report. In the most shocking incident, soldiers surrounded a pro-Morsi camp and 'fired into it for several hours'. Strangely, this didn't cause much consternation among leftists in the West, who save their outrage for far milder instances of police meddling in square-based protest camps in the US and Europe. In the 10 months since the August massacres, hundreds more pro-Morsi protesters have been killed by the police and army.

Those lucky enough not to be killed have found themselves in jail. Currently 16,000 anti-Sisi dissidents are in prison. Many are being sentenced to death in mass trials. In March, a court in southern Egypt took just one hour to sentence to death 529 Morsi supporters for the crime of taking part in violent protests. In April, another court sentenced to death 683 pro-Morsi activists, in what one Egyptian activist called 'the largest batch of simultaneous death sentences in the world in living memory'. Some of these pro-Morsi men have since had their sentences commuted to 25 years in jail; the rest face being hanged. In November last year, a court sentenced 21 women, seven of them under the age of 18, to 11 years in jail for taking part in a pro-Morsi protest. Their punishment was eventually reduced to one-year suspended prison sentences. They didn't become cause celebres here in the West, probably because they wear veils and don't sing punkish songs about pussies and Putin.

It isn't only supporters of Morsi who have found themselves silenced or suppressed by Sisi. So have journalists and even comedians who have dared to criticise him. Journalists have been imprisoned for making comments 'supportive of Morsi'. A political scientist was charged with 'insulting the judiciary' over a tweet he wrote. A newscaster was dismissed for using the c-word - coup - to describe what Sisi did to Morsi. Bassem Youssef, a TV political satirist described as Egypt's Jon Stewart, has been forced off air for mocking Sisi. Under Sisi, Egypt has risen to become the world's 'ninth most prolific jailer of journalists'.

These are the foundations on which Sisi's victory in the presidential elections were built. He assumed the presidency through banning his opponents, killing or imprisoning his most active critics, dismissing journalists who criticise him, and creating a political climate in which saying anything against his regime is a genuinely dangerous thing to do.

Posted by orrinj at 1:36 PM


The fascinating origin story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  The heroes in a half-shell began as a late-night goof between two friends (Andrew Farago, 6/10/14, The Week)

One night at Mirage Studios in November 1983, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were hard at work on the latest chapter of their Fugitoid comic when Eastman, struck by some unknown inspiration, drew a masked, nunchuck-wielding "ninja turtle." He showed it to Laird, and the two of them shared a laugh at the sheer goofiness of the premise.

"Pete drew a cooler one," remembers Eastman. "Then, of course, I had to top his sketch, so I drew four of them standing in a dramatic pose. That was in pencil, but Pete inked it, and added 'teenage mutant' to the 'ninja turtle' part. We were just pissing our pants that night, to be honest. 'This is the dumbest thing ever.'"

The more they thought about it, however, the more potential they saw in the offbeat concept. With their work on the first Fugitoid story coming to an end, the pair decided to make the Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles their next comic book project. Drawing inspiration from some of their favorite contemporary comics, including Frank Miller's epic samurai adventure Ronin and his celebrated run on Marvel Comics' Daredevil -- along with their mutual love of Jack Kirby -- they set to work developing the Turtles universe.
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Posted by orrinj at 1:23 PM


Iran head says he will 'do best' to secure nuclear deal (AFP, June 10, 2014)

"Iran will do its best for a final deal with the P5+1," said Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, speaking in Turkey.

The self-declared moderate was elected president last year, succeeding hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has launched a drive to mend fences with the West.

"Iran is ready to sit at the negotiating table for a solution" to both the nuclear dispute and "unfair sanctions," he said. [...]

The US-Iran meeting began Monday with a five-hour session, the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that American and Iranian negotiators have held direct, official nuclear talks.

June 9, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:28 PM


'Iraqi Kurds close to declaring independence' (ARIEL BEN SOLOMON, 06/09/2014 , Jerusalem Post)

"There are three scenarios for such a declaration: When the American administration changes; before [Iraqi Kurdistan] President Masoud Barzani leaves office in less than two years' time, as he might like to be remembered as the builder of Kurdistan; and finally if relations with Baghdad deteriorate further," explained Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Asked if the Iraqi Kurds would be more likely to declare independence if their efforts to export oil independently via Turkey become constant and sustainable, Bengio responded that "the main obstacle for separation is the economic dependence of Erbil [the region's capital] on Baghdad. If Erbil manages to export oil and gas independently of Baghdad it will make such a move much more plausible."

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 PM


Can Scott Brown Win Over New Hampshire? : The GOP Senate candidate is harnessing the power of the personal, determined to prove he's not a carpetbagger. (James Oliphant, June 5, 2014, National Journal)

[I]n New Hampshire, the very nature of Scott Brown's self is under siege. And on some level, it must bother him that, having been so achingly and unusually honest about the trials of his life, the biggest issue now facing him is his sincerity, his authenticity as a person.

Like many politicians--Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to name just two--Brown finds power in the personal. The tale of his triumph over poverty, indifferent parents, sexual predators, and bullying stepfathers is so potent that Brown published a searing memoir during his time in the Senate that pulled few punches. (One passage describes how he was tempted to buy the former home of his abusive stepfather just so he could burn it to the ground.) And as he showed at the Holiday Inn, he does not shy away from talking about it.

But running for the Senate in New Hampshire, Brown has had to reconcile his straight-talking, confessional, working-class persona with accusations that he is an opportunist so desperate to get back to the cosseted world of Washington that he pulled up stakes and moved across the state line. A conservative protester at the Concord event conveyed a typical sentiment, standing across the street holding a sign that read "Brownbagger Go Home."

Brown has sought to repel this line of attack by relating the role New Hampshire played in his childhood drama. He was born in Portsmouth and spent his summers in the coastal town of Rye with his grandparents--a refuge, he calls it, from the tumult of his time with his mother, which included living in 17 homes before Brown was 18 and vicious beatings from her and two stepfathers. "When I was going through my struggles, I could spend my summers in Rye," Brown likes to say. Supporters believe he's neutralizing the issue. "He was born here--his family goes back to the 1600s," says Joe Maloy, who owns a printing business in Hooksett that Brown recently toured.

Beyond that, Brown seems determined to defuse the carpetbagger issue the only way he knows how: by getting in that pickup truck and working as many rooms and rope lines as he can. "I have been surprised by how much retail he has been doing," says Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state GOP. "I'll go as far as to say he must need it."

Small rooms fit Brown best. He's not a born orator--and he doesn't come preloaded with talk-radio software, like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Neither is he into pledges and promises. (He wouldn't sign one at the gun meeting.) He operates, as someone here told me, like he always has--as a person who lives by his wits, minute by minute, never thinking too far ahead. The skills that saved him as a boy.

It's the same way he won the special election in Massachusetts in 2010. When I covered that race, the moment I realized Brown would win came when I overheard union members coming from a rally for Brown's opponent, Martha Coakley, saying that they were, in secret, going to vote for Brown instead. He had that kind of blue-collar appeal.

This is another state and another time, but Brown is certainly trying--as with the gun group in Concord. His campaign was worried enough about the event to demand that no tape recorders or video cameras be present. But by the end of the meeting, some in the crowd had given Brown credit for at least showing up and hearing them out.

Even as he fights to once again persuade voters of his authenticity, Brown also faces a tricky ideological balancing act. First, he has to win the September primary--although he appears to have a clear edge there. Smith, who served two terms in the Senate, is largely discredited because of his flirtation in the late 1990s with what was then known as the U.S. Taxpayers Party and a subsequent move to Florida, where he again ran for the Senate. Plus, right after Memorial Day, the state's popular Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte, endorsed Brown. A May poll taken by Vox Populi, a new GOP polling firm, showed Brown leading Smith by 25 percentage points.

But once he gets to the general election, he'll need to persuade the electorate to dump Jeanne Shaheen, and in that race, he's an underdog. The same GOP poll had Brown down 12 points to Shaheen; other polls have put the margin at 5 or 6 points. "I think it will take a good wave to take out Shaheen, and I don't see it yet," says Dante Scala, an expert on state politics at the University of New Hampshire.

June 8, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:06 PM


U.S. Debt Holds Broad Appeal (MIN ZENG, June 8, 2014, WSJ)

Overseas buyers, led by China, are buying U.S. debt to gather dollars and help weaken their currencies as a way to boost exports. Financial institutions are stocking up in response to regulations that require them to hold extra capital. Many investors are purchasing the bonds because they yield more than comparable securities.

The purchases are taking place while the supply of U.S. government debt is shrinking, due to an improving economy and narrower budget deficit. Strong global demand, shrinking supply and uneven economic growth have helped to limit the impact of reduced Treasury purchases by the Federal Reserve, fueling a price rally that few analysts predicted.

Posted by orrinj at 4:00 PM


When French Irrationality Was Deadly : The writers who fell in love with fascism : a review of The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 by Frederick Brown (David A. Bell, New Republic)

Dancing with the devil is an old pursuit among French writers. Even such a stalwart of the Enlightenment as Diderot created a fictional character (the seductive Nephew of Rameau) who could remark, "If there is any genre in which it matters to be sublime, it is evil, above all." From Diderot through de Sade and de Maistre, Baudelaire and Huysmans, down to Michel Houellebecq and Jonathan Littell, a powerful tradition within French writing has challenged the bounds of conventional morality, loudly defied the dictates of Enlightenment reason, and expressed an abiding fascination with blood. It is as if the culture that, perhaps more strongly than any other, celebrated reason and geometrical order, also provoked within itself a deep, wild, and willfully primitive reaction, a return of the repressed par excellence.

Never in French history did this cultural impulse prove more pernicious than during the troubled decades of the Third Republic (1870-1940). In this period, some of France's most talented writers gazed longingly into the abyss, and then turned the full power of their eloquence against the institutions of parliamentary democracy. 

The mistake here is obvious--the French embrace of communism and fascism was rational, just as surely as was the eagerness for the Terror.  It is the anti-reason Anglosphere that avoided such homicidal enthusiasms.  Eschewing Reason, we don't believe society can be perfected by the exercise of Man's mind.

Posted by orrinj at 3:40 PM


Taliban swapped for Bergdahl could be drone targets, Kerry indicates (Paul Lewis, 6/08/14, theguardian.com)

[K]erry told CNN the men were also being closed monitored by the US, which had "the ability to do things" if the terms of the arrangement with Qatar were violated. Although he did not overtly refer to drone strikes, he said the five men would be liable to be killed by the US if they returned to the ranks of the Taliban.

"I am not telling you they don't have the ability to go back and get involved [in the Afghan conflict]," he said. "But they also have an ability to get killed doing that. I don't think anybody should doubt the capacity of the United States of America to protect Americans."

Asked if that meant the US would kill the men, Kerry replied: "The president has always said he will do whatever is necessary in order to protect the United States of America ... so these guys pick a fight with us in the future, now, or at any time, at enormous risk. We have proven what we are capable of doing with the core al-Qaida in west Pakistan, Afghanistan."

The CIA is believed to have conducted more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing hundreds of al-Qaida-aligned fighters.

Meanwhile, the Taliban can do nothing.  Taking power anywhere would just make the targeting easier.

Posted by orrinj at 1:28 PM


Jackie Robinson and Nixon: Life and Death of a Political Friendship (MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, June 6, 2014, NY Times)

Although Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson championed what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Robinson quit his executive job at Chock Full o'Nuts that spring to campaign for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, a Republican, explaining that "we must work for a two-party system, as far as the Negro is concerned."

But Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 legislation as unconstitutional. When Rockefeller denounced political extremism at the party's San Francisco convention, Robinson, a "special delegate," shouted, "C'mon, Rocky!" As Robinson recalled, an Alabama delegate "turned on me menacingly" before "his wife grabbed his arm and turned him back."

Spoiling for a fight, Jackie cried, "Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose!" He later wrote with uncharacteristic overstatement that on leaving San Francisco, "I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany."

That fall, Robinson joined the 94 percent of the African-American electorate that backed President Johnson. (Since then, the percentage of the black vote for Democratic presidential nominees has never dipped below the low 80s.) In 1968, furious over Nixon's courtship of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had once led the segregationist "Dixiecrats," Jackie backed the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey.

It doesn't matter that Nixon was the most liberal president ther than LBJ we've ever had; the damage was done.

Posted by orrinj at 1:22 PM


The Story of the West: Who, Why, and How : Rodney Stark's new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, relates history that most Westerners have never heard (Gregory J. Sullivan, 6/02/14, Catholic World Report)

Modernity--the centerpiece of this project that Stark defines as "that fundamental store of scientific knowledge and procedures, powerful technologies, artistic achievements, political freedoms, economic arrangements, moral sensibilities, and improved standards of living that characterize Western nations and are now revolutionizing life in the rest of the world"--and its unique development in the West is Stark's emphasis. That is to say, this book is an investigation of why it happened here and not the Islamic world or anywhere else.

Of course, the advent and astonishing spread and influence of Christianity is at the core of Stark's analysis. Virtually everything we associate with the West is inextricably linked to it, though of course Stark readily acknowledges Greek, Roman, and Jewish contributions. He identifies the centrality of free will in Christian thinking and explains the process where "the Christian conception of God as the rational creator of a comprehensible universe, who therefore expects that humans will become increasingly sophisticated and informed, continually prodded the West along the road to modernity."

Stark develops this sophisticated thesis with a really adroit use of sources and data. Along the way he upsets one politically correct apple cart after another. He utterly demolishes the spurious conflict between religion and science. Properly understood, Christianity leads directly to the development of the scientific method. "The truth," summarizes Stark, "is that science arose only because the doctrine of the rational creator of a rational universe made scientific inquiry plausible. Similarly, the idea of progress was inherent in Jewish conceptions of history and was central to Christian thought from very early days."

Posted by orrinj at 1:19 PM


Survey finds majority of Iranians would give up nuclear program (JTA, 6/08/14) 

A majority of Iranians would support dismantling their country's nuclear program in exchange for a full removal of sanctions against Iran, according to a survey by an Israeli university.

The survey of Iranian citizens, conducted in May and June by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, an Israeli university, found that 54 percent of respondents would support Iran dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for world powers lifting sanctions against Iran. Forty-five percent would support removing Iran's capability to produce nuclear weapons in the future in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Iran is currently in talks with world powers, including the United States, to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.  

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 AM


How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution (Lyndsey Layton, JUNE 7, 2014, Washington Post)

On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates's sleek headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality.

Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign competitors.

The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world's dominant computer operating system.

"Can you do this?" Wilhoit recalled being asked. "Is there any proof that states are serious about this, because they haven't been in the past?"

Wilhoit responded that he and Coleman could make no guarantees but that "we were going to give it the best shot we could."

After the meeting, weeks passed with no word. Then Wilhoit got a call: Gates was in.

What followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history. [...]

One 2009 study, conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute with a $959,116 Gates grant, described the proposed standards as being "very, very strong" and "clearly superior" to many existing state standards.

Gates money went to state and local groups, as well, to help influence policymakers and civic leaders. And the idea found a major booster in President Obama, whose new administration was populated by former Gates Foundation staffers and associates. The administration designed a special contest using economic stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the standards.

The result was astounding: Within just two years of the 2008 Seattle meeting, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the Common Core State Standards.

The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and school districts.

Posted by orrinj at 8:06 AM



The emasculated society of Europe serves, then, as a warning to conservatives, and reinforces their belief that America must reverse the trend of modern politics, which has involved the increasing assumption by the state of powers and responsibilities that belong to civil society. Such has been the call of the Tea Party movement, and it is this same call that animated the Republican caucus in Congress as it prolonged the fight against Obamacare, to the point where, by jeopardizing the fiscal probity of the nation, it antagonized the American people. It is therefore pertinent to consider not only the bad side of government--which Americans can easily recognize--but also the good. For American conservatives are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all, and were in the business simply of opposing all new federal programs, however necessary they may be to the future and security of the nation. Most of all, they seem to be losing sight of the truth that government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation in a relation of mutual commitment.

The truth is that government, of one kind or another, is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows. We have rights that shield us from those who are appointed to rule us--many of them ancient common-law rights, like that defined by habeas corpus. But those rights are real personal possessions only because government is there to enforce them--and if necessary to enforce them against itself. Government is not what so many conservatives believe it to be, and what people on the left always believe it to be when it is in hands other than their own--namely a system of power and domination. Government is a search for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the "little platoons" extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow. For it is simply the other side of freedom, and the thing that makes freedom possible.

Rousseau told us that we are "born free," arguing that we have only to remove the chains imposed by the social order in order to enjoy our full natural potential. Although American conservatives have been skeptical of that idea, and indeed stood against its destructive influence during the time of the '60s radicals, they nevertheless also have a sneaking tendency to adhere to it. They are heirs to the pioneer culture. They idolize the solitary entrepreneur, who takes the burden of his projects on his own shoulders and makes space for the rest of us as we timidly advance in his wake. This figure, blown up to mythic proportions in the novels of Ayn Rand, has, in less fraught varieties, a rightful place in the American story. But the story misleads people into imagining that the free individual exists in the state of nature, and that we become free by removing the shackles of government. That is the opposite of the truth.

We are not, in the state of nature, free; still less are we individuals, endowed with rights and duties, and able to take charge of our lives. We are free by nature because we can become free, in the course of our development. And this development depends at every point upon the networks and relations that bind us to the larger social world. Only certain kinds of social networks encourage people to see themselves as individuals, shielded by their rights and bound together by their duties. Only in certain conditions are people united in society not by organic necessity but by free consent. To put it simply, the human individual is a social construct. And the emergence of the individual in the course of history is part of what distinguishes our civilization from so many of the other social ventures of mankind.

Hence we individuals, who have a deep and in many particular cases justified suspicion of government, have a yet deeper need for it. Government is wrapped into the very fibers of our social being. We emerge as individuals because our social life is shaped that way. When, in the first impulse of affection, one person joins in friendship with another, there arises immediately between them a relation of accountability. They promise things to each other. They become bound in a web of mutual obligations. If one harms the other, there is a "calling to account," and the relation is jeopardized until an apology is offered. They plan things, sharing their reasons, their hopes, their praise, and their blame. In everything they do they make themselves accountable. If this relation of accountability fails to emerge, then what might have been friendship becomes, instead, a form of exploitation.

Our world displays many political systems in which the basic relation of accountability has either not emerged or been distorted in the interests of family, party, ideology, or tribe. If there is a lesson to be learned from the so-called Arab Spring it is surely this: that the governments then overthrown were not accountable to the people on whom they depended for their resources. The Middle Eastern tyrannies have left a void in their wake, since there were no offices, no legal procedures, no customs or traditions that enshrined the crucial relation of accountability on which the true art of government depends--the art of government as we individuals understand it. In the Arab tyrannies there was only power, exercised through family, tribe, and confession, and without regard to the individual citizen or to the nation as a whole. In such a form of government there was no possibility of enduring civic friendship.

In everyday life, too, there are people who relate to others without making themselves accountable. Such people are locked into the game of domination. If they are building a relationship, it is not a free relationship. A free relationship is one that grants rights and duties to either party, and which raises their conduct to the higher level in which mere power gives way to a true mutuality of interests. That is what is implied by the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative, which commands us to treat rational beings as ends and not as means only--in other words, to base all our relations on the web of rights and duties. Such free relations are not just forms of affection: They are forms of obedience, in which the other person has a right to be heard. This, as I read him, is Kant's message: Sovereign individuals are also obedient subjects, who face each other "I" to "I."

There are other ways of expressing those truths about our condition. But we see them illustrated throughout human life: in the family, the team, the community, the school, and the workplace. People become free individuals by learning to take responsibility for their actions. And they do this through relating to others, subject to subject. The free individuals to whom the founders appealed were free only because they had grown through the bonds of society, to the point of taking full responsibility for their actions and granting to each other the rights and privileges that established a kind of moral equality between them.

In other words, in our tradition, government and freedom have a single source, which is the human disposition to hold each other to account for what we do. No free society can come into being without the exercise of this disposition, and the freedom that Americans rightly cherish in their heritage is simply the other side of the American habit of recognizing their accountability toward others. Americans, faced with a local emergency, combine with their neighbors to address it, while Europeans sit around helplessly until the servants of the state arrive. That is the kind of thing we have in mind when we describe this country as the "land of the free." We don't mean a land without government; we mean a land with this kind of government--the kind that springs up spon­taneously between individuals who feel accountable to each other.

Such a government is not imposed from outside: It grows from within the community as an expression of the affections and interests that unite it. It does not necessarily put every matter to the vote; but it respects the individual participant and acknowledges that, in the last analysis, the authority of the leader derives from the people's consent to be led by him. Thus it was that the pioneering communities of this country very quickly made laws for themselves, formed clubs, schools, rescue squads, and committees in order to deal with the needs that they could not address alone, but for which they depended on the cooperation of their neighbors. The associative habit that so impressed Tocqueville was not merely an expression of freedom: It was an instinctive move toward government, in which a shared order would contain and amplify the responsibilities of the citizens.

When conservatives grumble against government it is against government that seems to them to be imposed from outside, like the government of an occupying power. That was the kind of government that grew in Europe under communism, and which is growing again under the European Union--softer, gentler, perhaps, but also unaccountable. And it is easy to think that a similarly alien form of government is growing in America, as a result of the liberal policy of regimenting the American people according to moral beliefs that are to a certain measure alien, leading them to denounce government tout court. But this would be a mistake, not just about the fundamental human need for government, but also about the American situation as compared with Europe. And because it is a mistake that so many conservatives make, it is time to warn against it.

Posted by orrinj at 8:02 AM


New India PM to State Firms: Profit or Privatize (PRASANTA SAHU, 6/04/14, WSJ)

India's new prime minister Narendra Modi plans to do more with state-controlled companies than use them as piggy banks to break into whenever the government needs a revenue boost. He plans to sell off the hopeless firms and try to fix the struggling few with potential. [...]

During its last time running the country, Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party showed that it would not shy away from privatization. It offloaded majority stakes in state-owned companies to private companies such as its sale of controlling stakes in Bharat Aluminium Co. Ltd. and Hindustan Zinc Ltd.500188.BY +3.33% to UK-based Vedanta Resources PLC.VED.LN +0.18%

This time in power, the BJP is likely to start with minority stake sales in companies such as Coal India533278.BY -0.03%, Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd., Tehri Hydro Development Ltd. and defense firm Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., the official said.

While the previous government attempted similar sales, it was repeatedly blocked by opposition from the companies and bureaucrats not willing to give up control. Mr. Modi- thanks in part to his party's majority control of Parliament-is expected to be better able to force these sales through.

Posted by orrinj at 7:52 AM


What's powering cleaner air? Natural gas. (Marty Durbin, June 6, 2014, Christian Science Monitor)

The not-so-secret weapon in America's arsenal? Vast domestic supplies of clean, affordable natural gas that are transforming the economic, environmental, and energy security possibilities of our nation. As we mark the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, it's only fitting to note that carbon emissions per American are now at their lowest level since President Eisenhower left office in 1961.

With or without these new rules, natural gas will continue leading the way in providing affordable energy to grow our economy and cleaner air for us all. In addition to carbon reductions, growing use of natural gas in the power sector has driven down sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by more than two-thirds over the past two decades, all while creating jobs, reviving local economies and increasing the average US household's disposable income by $1,200 this year alone.

The Right's struggle to preserve coal is quaint, but futile.
Posted by orrinj at 7:47 AM


Daughter of Sweden's Princess Madeleine and New York banker baptized in royal ceremony (The Associated Press, June 8, 2014)

The daughter of Sweden's Princess Madeleine and New York banker Christopher O'Neill has been baptized outside Stockholm.

Posted by orrinj at 7:31 AM


My Christian Rock and Roll Ecstasy : The rules are the rules: rock and roll has nothing to do with Jesus. (Mark Judge, 07.06.2014, Aleteia)

Ironically, there is now an entire rock and roll industry that is very insistent that we know what rock and roll is. From the Chuck Berry to the Beatles, punk to hip-hop, rock is about rebelling against societal norms. But what about artists like Adele, U2, Coldplay, and Lykke Li, who seem to not only want to break new sonic ground but reexamine and even reinforce ancient truths about love, death, human nature, and God? Are they iconoclasts? Or are they rediscovering the truth of things, a truth that is not contradicted by the religious establishments that pop music is supposedly meant to dismantle?

Rock critics don't like to think about those questions, because it may mean questioning their own dogma. A few years go I wrote a piece for the Washington Post. It argued for a Catholic interpretation of some rock songs. The reaction from many readers was apoplectic; everyone knows that rock and roll is about sex, drugs, breaking furniture, and going to hell! One comment even blasphemed the name of Christ. It wasn't the reaction of a group that is comfortable with ambiguity, diversity, and spirituality, as most liberals claim to be; it was the hysterical sermonizing of a group whose orthodoxy was being challenged.

In his great book Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, music journalist Simon Reynolds notes that rock critics and fans often try and take the wide-open creativity of rock and roll and reduce it to antinomian attitude: "What rock discourses attempt to do is transform the heterogeneous dissensions and desires thrown up in periods of chaotic creativity (like the counter culture or punk) into a unity of alienation/aspiration. Rock criticism's drive is always to establish the 'we' of mass rhetoric as a plausible proposition. All that is for the consolidation and articulation of  culture: a counter culture is a home from home."

Reynolds argues that rock writers condemn high culture and embrace pop music, yet have themselves been so marinated in an academic worldview that they employ high culture jargon to celebrate rock, even as rock defies such categorization. In rock writing you wind up, concludes Reynolds, with a "high church dogmatism" that wallows in rock and roll's creative anarchy, yet insists on a very narrow meaning to that anarchy. Furthermore, interpretations that pop music might have philosophical ties to ancient truths is verboten.

All great rock songs are the same.

June 7, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 11:21 AM


Ukraine's new president: 'Crimea was, is and will be Ukrainian soil' (Sara Eberspacher, 6/07/14, The Week)

"I don't want war. I don't want revenge," Poroshenko said. But, "who comes with the sword will fall from the sword."

Promising a tough stance against Russian encroachment and separatist militants in Eastern Ukraine, Poroshenko said, "No one will protect us, if we do not learn to protect ourselves," and he added, "talking to gangsters and to killers is not our avenue."

As to Crimea, the country's disputed territory which was annexed earlier this spring by Russia, Poroshenko said that the fight is not yet over.

"Crimea was, is and will be Ukrainian soil," he said.

Posted by orrinj at 11:10 AM


More dads staying at home with the kids (Blake Ellis, 3 June 6, 2014, CNNMoney)

Stay-at-home dads are no longer such a rarity on the playground.

The number of stay-at-home dads has nearly doubled since 1989, according to a new Pew Research Center report released Thursday.

Numbering 2 million in 2012, men now represent 16% of stay-at-home parents -- up from 10% in 1989.

Driving this growth is a surge in the number of men who are staying home purely because they want to care for their children.

Posted by orrinj at 11:05 AM


Iranian president visiting Turkey, will sign agreements strengthening ties (JPOST.COM, 06/07/2014)

Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran are set to sign six new agreements to strengthen political and economic cooperation during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit to Turkey on Monday, reported Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Saturday.

The visit will be Iran's first presidential trip to Turkey since 1996.

Posted by orrinj at 11:02 AM


Isolated Obama stumbles as he tries to set the agenda (Paul Lewis, 6/07/14, The Observer)

In the space of a few days, he launched a new foreign policy doctrine, dispatched an embattled secretary of veterans' affairs, secured the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier in Taliban captivity whom he swapped for five Guantánamo Bay detainees, and unveiled historic cuts to pollution.

That probably makes the past fortnight the most eventful of Obama's second term. But it has also been one of his most calamitous. All four steps were intended to show a president taking control of the agenda. Yet each move either backfired or provided ammunition to critics constructing a narrative of a White House under siege.

Professor Stephen Wayne, an expert on the American presidency from Georgetown University, says it is "par for the course" for presidents in their second term to stumble then hunker down in the White House. In recent times, he says, only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have bucked that trend.

But the 44th president appears especially isolated, as though he has given up trying to forge alliances on Capitol Hill. "President Obama has a lot of strong points, but social interaction with people he doesn't know is not one of them," says Wayne. 

Although, in fairness, Carter got to this point in just one term.

June 6, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 10:04 PM


FDR's D-Day Prayer : Listen to the words that President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to mark Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944 (Jon Meacham,  June 5, 2014, TIME)

One of his sons once referred to Franklin Roosevelt as a "frustrated clergyman." The president, an Episcopalian, loved liturgy and found the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer and of the King James Bible at once stirring and reassuring. And so the time came for Overlord--what his friend and colleague Winston Churchill called "the most difficult and complicated operation that has ever taken place"--FDR decided to commemorate the moment and address the nation not with a Fireside Chat or a grand speech but with a prayer of his own composition.

The White House distributed the text on the morning of June 6, 1944, so that the afternoon newspapers could publish it and listeners could pray along with Roosevelt when he broadcast that evening. With an estimated audience of 100 million, FDR was to lead what must rank as one of the largest mass prayers in human history. Here are his words, spoken in an hour of peril and of promise.

Posted by orrinj at 7:38 PM


Japan's Population Problem in Five Charts (YOKO SUDO, 6/06/14, WSJ)

An annual demographics report out this week from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare gives a good picture of Japan's population problem. Here are the highlights in five charts:

Japan had 238,632 more deaths than births in 2013, a record.

Taking immigration into account, the total population in 2013 declined by 217,000 people compared to the previous year. Assuming the average woman has 1.35 children--a bit below the current level--Japan's population is predicted to shrink to 99.1 million in 2048 and 86.7 million in 2060, according to a report by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. That's down from 127 million currently.

Posted by orrinj at 7:27 PM


Why anti-immigrant fervor is destined to become a relic of the past (Shikha Dalmia | June 5, 2014, The Week)

[H]ostility to immigrants, even among the native born, is least pronounced in places with the biggest immigrant populations. In Inner London, a truly international city, only 16 percent of respondents admitted prejudice, a 17-point decline since 2000. Outer London likewise registered a decline.

England's experience is perfectly consistent with America's, where the most anti-immigrant states are those with the fewest immigrants -- and vice versa. USA Survey reported some years back that in New York and California, the most immigrant-dense states, far fewer people felt that "immigrants take away American jobs" and far more felt that they do "jobs Americans won't do" than in immigrant-poor states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, and, my own, Michigan.

Contact with immigrants humanizes them, making it harder to scapegoat them for existential anxieties created by a fast-changing world. It also creates a co-dependence, making it harder to fixate on the downside of foreigners when, say, professional moms rely on them for baby-sitting or accounting or other services.

But there's a deeper reason, too: Much anti-immigrant sentiment does not stem from racism, nativism, xenophobia, or any other affirmative hatred of foreigners -- although there is certainly an element of that. Rather, much anti-immigrant fervor stems from what George Mason University's Bryan Caplan has dubbed the "status-quo bias" -- a preference for the status quo because it is the status quo.

People have a natural affinity for a world that they know because it is hard for them to imagine the alternative. And what they've known are linguistically, culturally, and ethnically/racially homogeneous social arrangements stemming from a tribal or kinship-based past. Active bigotry and preference for the ethnically familiar are not the same thing, and advocates of immigration, myself included, who conflate the two do their cause no favor.

But as mass migration, still a relatively recent phenomenon in historical terms, makes cosmopolitan communities more of a norm, the status-quo bias will ineluctably swing. As natives begin to directly observe and experience the advantages of diversity, acceptance of immigrants will increase, even turning into an open embrace perhaps.

Posted by orrinj at 7:22 PM


Scholar Who Taught John Paul II To Appreciate Capitalism Worries About Pope Francis (Jerry Bowyer, 6/05/14, Forbes) 

Given Pope Francis' recent comments about economics, including a tweet endorsing 'legitimate redistribution', it seemed worthwhile to look back a few decades to the modern Pope who seemed to have been most sympathetic to free-market capitalism and most critical of socialist economic systems, including the Latin American version known as liberation theology. Michael Novak's memoirs, Writing From Left to Right, helped me understand how Michael and others helped guide John Paul II to come to an appreciation of capital which he had not learned earlier. [...]

Jerry: "Do you think that Pope Francis has any close friends who understand the virtues of the free market system?"

Michael: "John Paul II had a hard time coming to those because he did not have experience with them under the Nazis or under the communists for most of his life."

Jerry: "But he had a friend who helped him."

Michael: "He had a great love for America and admired many things and he was always open to new ideas, and it troubled him when he heard anti-market things, state-oriented things. And in that sense, he was ready. He applied himself diligently, step by step, to learning how this new system works. He asked in one of his letters, a letter called The Hundredth Year-"

Jerry: "Centesimus Annus, correct?"

Michael: "Correct. He asked in there, having described that the cause of wealth, of wealthy nations, is intellect, ideas, know-how. That's the primary cause of wealth, no longer the land. Lincoln got, a century earlier, the patent and copyright act making property and inventions and ideas-"

Jerry: "The fire of invention... "The fuel of self-interest and the fire of invention," right?"

Michael: "Yeah. He saw that that was the main cause of wealth, and therefore that it represented a break between thousands of years of an agrarian economy in which land was the most important value, [and] all of a sudden [it is] ideas. That meant the kind of equality that-you didn't have to be born a great landholder to be able to become very wealthy. You could have, however humble you were, [have] certain ideas that you could patent or copyright if they would be useful to the human race, and from these [comes] wealth [like] Bill Gates has from Microsoft. Almost every corporation among us, even Coca Cola, is built on a new idea, [but] they deliberately didn't patent it to keep it more secret."

Jerry: "And a different kind of man prospers from the two systems, right? To hold land you need soldiers, but to hold knowledge you need diligence and intelligence."

Michael: "And men and women who love what they're doing, who work for you more inventively so the product keeps improving. And then you want to pay them very well, too, you want to give them bonuses and a share in profits and they rise, too, with the rise of the firm, and that breeds a new kind of spirit in the firm. So, slowly, John Paul II came to understand the role in the market but even more than that the role of invention and discovery and of enterprise."

Posted by orrinj at 7:06 PM


At the 'End of History' Still Stands Democracy (FRANCIS FUKUYAMA, June 6, 2014, WSJ)

I argued that History (in the grand philosophical sense) was turning out very differently from what thinkers on the left had imagined. The process of economic and political modernization was leading not to communism, as the Marxists had asserted and the Soviet Union had avowed, but to some form of liberal democracy and a market economy. History, I wrote, appeared to culminate in liberty: elected governments, individual rights, an economic system in which capital and labor circulated with relatively modest state oversight. [...]

Twenty-five years later, the most serious threat to the end-of-history hypothesis isn't that there is a higher, better model out there that will someday supersede liberal democracy; neither Islamist theocracy nor Chinese capitalism cuts it. Once societies get on the up escalator of industrialization, their social structure begins to change in ways that increase demands for political participation. If political elites accommodate these demands, we arrive at some version of democracy.

The question is whether all countries will inevitably get on that escalator. The problem is the intertwining of politics and economics. Economic growth requires certain minimal institutions such as enforceable contracts and reliable public services before it will take off, but those basic institutions are hard to create in situations of extreme poverty and political division. Historically, societies broke out of this "trap" through accidents of history, in which bad things (like war) often created good things (like modern governments). It is not clear, however, that the stars will necessarily align for everyone.

A second problem that I did not address 25 years ago is that of political decay, which constitutes a down escalator. All institutions can decay over the long run. They are often rigid and conservative; rules responding to the needs of one historical period aren't necessarily the right ones when external conditions change.

Moreover, modern institutions designed to be impersonal are often captured by powerful political actors over time. The natural human tendency to reward family and friends operates in all political systems, causing liberties to deteriorate into privileges. This is no less true in a democracy (look at the current U.S. tax code) than in an authoritarian system. In these circumstances, the rich tend to get richer not just because of higher returns to capital, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has argued, but because they have superior access to the political system and can use their connections to promote their interests.

As for technological progress, it is fickle in distributing its benefits. Innovations such as information technology spread power because they make information cheap and accessible, but they also undermine low-skill jobs and threaten the existence of a broad middle class.

No one living in an established democracy should be complacent about its survival. But despite the short-term ebb and flow of world politics, the power of the democratic ideal remains immense. 

June 5, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 3:55 PM


America's homes are bigger than ever (Les Christie, June 4, 2014, CNNMoney)

The average size of homes built last year hit 2,600 square feet, an all-time high that surpassed even the housing bubble years, when homes averaged around 2,400 square feet, according to the Census Bureau. [...]

Not only are the homes bigger, they have more rooms as well. There's the obligatory playroom, the home office, the den and the FROG, or family room over the garage.

And, of course, few children have to bunk up in an older siblings' room these days. Only 59,000 homes built last year came with less than two bedrooms, compared with more than a quarter million with four bedrooms or more.

Posted by orrinj at 3:51 PM


European Central Bank Takes a Radical Step (JACK EWING, JUNE 5, 2014, NY Times)

The European Central Bank cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low on Thursday and, in an unprecedented attempt to stimulate the euro zone economy, said it would begin charging interest on deposits held by the bank.

The so-called negative deposit rate has never been tried on such a large scale and is a bid to push down the value of the euro and encourage banks to invest excess cash rather than hoard it in central bank vaults. [...]

Many economists have already criticized the moves, which were widely expected, as inadequate to combat the deflation threat that Mr. Draghi has acknowledged.

Posted by orrinj at 3:46 PM


Why China Lacks Do-Gooders (Adam Minter, 6/19/14, Bloomberg View)

What accounts for China's lack of good Samaritans? Theories vary, and point to factors as variable as the lack of obligations to strangers under the Confucian value system, and the social dislocation and mistrust that's inevitable in a rapidly urbanizing, formerly agrarian society. To be sure, there was very little social theorizing in the wake of the McDonald's murder. Instead there were recriminations and a sense that "something" had to be done. "As for the moral dimension of the problem," wrote Qiao Zhifeng, for the state-owned Yangtze River Network. "We need to introduce incentives, including rewards for courage, and material awards, as well."

Whether or not such policies will bring about a culture of good Samaritanism where none existed before is unlikely. Indeed, as discussion of the murder continues into the week, there's been a decided shift in tone, away from the self-critical to the defensive. After all, accompanying a senior citizen to the hospital and jumping in front of a deranged cultist screaming "demon" as he beats someone with an iron bar are two very different kinds of good Samaritanism and -- in the opinion of an increasing number of online voices -- it's crazy to expect everyone to do the latter. "Everyone has the right to cowardice and retreat," wrote Yi Zhenxing, a well-known online video director, in a widely circulated tweet that he posted to Sina Weibo late Sunday morning. 

Posted by orrinj at 3:42 PM


Jeb Bush Runs Ahead in South Carolina (David Catanese, June 5, 2014, US News)

A new Palmetto poll by Clemson University finds former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush leading a hypothetical six-person field for the GOP nomination with 22 percent of the vote.

Trailing in second place is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who registers 10 percent.

The rest of the field lags in single digits.

June 4, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:16 PM


The New Look of Globalization (Mohamed A. El-Erian, 6/11/14, Bloomberg View)

[T]he McKinsey study, led by James Manyika, represents a serious and much-needed contribution. There are at least four notable takeaways.

First, the financial crisis has not derailed the trend toward greater interactions and integration across national borders. Cross-border linkages are no longer limited to a small group of countries and multinational companies, and the developing world is playing an increasing role. Overall, flows of goods, services and people have already surpassed their earlier peaks. The main exception is financial flows, which are still down quite a bit from their 2007 peak -- a shift that can be seen as a positive adjustment from pre-crisis excess.

Second, the study adds to the evidence that connecting with the rest of the world is a good thing. Using an approach designed to evaluate causality, it finds that greater openness to all kinds of cross-border flows has beneficial effects on economic growth, contributing as much as $450 billion to global growth each year. The more connected the country, the better it does.

Third, today's globalization is about much more than outsourcing labor-intensive production to lower-wage countries. The study finds that inflation-adjusted flows of "knowledge-intensive" goods, which entail a lot of investment in research and development or highly skilled labor, have been growing at 1.3 times the rate of labor-intensive flows over the past decade. All kinds of knowledge-intensive activities, from business-related communications to professional travel, are on the rise.

Fourth, the information revolution is deepening and spreading to every level of global society, and doing so rapidly. By looking at the development of cross-border bandwidth, the study extends the analysis of global interactions to data and communication flows. It finds striking growth, turbocharged by advances in digital technologies and the Internet, along with the sharp fall in acquisition and access costs.

The report offers perhaps the best picture yet of a development -- the empowerment of people and companies in ways that were unthinkable not so long ago -- that will have long-lasting and, as yet, far from predictable effects. It also helps explain why others are taken out of their comfort zone, challenged to adapt their approaches to evolving consumer demand, production setups and delivery chains -- and how these challenges involve both what they do and how they do it. Finally, it puts into context the massive catch-up challenges facing our governance and coordination systems, be they national, regional or multilateral.

Posted by orrinj at 6:52 PM


Solar roads are more practical than they sound  (John Aziz, 6/04/14, The Week)

[T]he really strange thing about a lot of this rampant criticism is that Solar Roadways aren't really dependent on unproven technology, the way the Wright brothers' attempts at powered flight were. It's not like Scott and Julie Brusaw have claimed they can invent human teleportation. Tempered glass technology already exists, and many large companies beside Solar Roadways are already spending lots of money researching even stronger glass technologies, like Sapphire Glass. The solar cells also already exist, and are rapidly decreasing in cost and increasing in efficiency. Advanced and highly efficient battery technologies for energy storage are emerging.

So this isn't some wild utopian fantasy founded on untested or undeveloped technology. This is a bringing together of existing technologies. Ambitious, yes, but the Brusaws' small protoype -- built as part of a contract with the Federal Highways Agency -- is already generating electricity. 

Posted by orrinj at 1:53 PM


Obama Isn't Killing Power Plants. The Sun Is. (Carl Pope, 6/04/14, Bloomberg View)

The U.S. has barely begun to deploy solar panels for electricity. Even California gets only 1.3 percent of its electrons from the sun. Yet that modest start has upended the fundamental driver of utility profits -- the demand curve.

A note by Bernstein Associates said that among utility executives who spoke at a recent industry conference, "the issue of whether solar is going to ramp in the U.S. was not raised. Instead, the discussion from utilities themselves went directly to the issue of how to reach an accommodation with this rapidly expanding and disruptive technology."

Deregulated electricity generators make most of their profits on hot summer afternoons, when air conditioners and offices force grid operators to call up their most expensive electricity: natural gas "peaker" plants. Cheap to build but expensive to operate, these plants are essentially jet engines, producing power on demand for a few hours at a time. However, the entire industry benefits when peaker plants kick in, because every other generator, including the cheapest hydropower operator, receives the same top dollar during those peak hours.

Solar panels -- whether utility scale or residential rooftop -- generate maximum power on exactly those hot afternoons when demand peaks. What's more, they do so at no marginal cost; the sun is free. This reduces reliance on peakers, causing prices to fall across the board, including for customers without solar power.

This is what terrifies power companies. 

June 3, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:31 PM


Gas boom dulls carbon rule's effect (Don Lee, 6/02/14, LA Times)

In recent years new drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have yielded an abundance of natural gas, and the regulation will speed up what had been a market-driven shift to gas. Natural gas now is expected to exceed coal as the primary source of electricity generation by 2030.

The surfeit of cheap natural gas already has reduced U.S. dependence on foreign oil and become an important competitive advantage for domestic manufacturers. [...]

Apart from its expectation of a more stringent carbon-reduction rule than what was proposed, the chamber assumed that new natural gas plants would have to install so-called carbon capture and sequestration equipment -- a potentially powerful but expensive system of mitigating greenhouse emissions.

Based on the chamber's report, adding this technology in natural gas plants could double construction costs.

But the EPA did not specify this as a requirement, instead giving states flexibility to meet emission targets through renewable energy, more efficient use of electricity and programs such as cap-and-trade, a market-based approach that lets states set a limit on carbon emissions and buy and sell permits to pollute.

Posted by orrinj at 8:09 PM


The Robots Running This Way : Boston Dynamics is building robots that walk and run like living creatures. Some of these machines are now headed for the world's toughest terrain. (Will Knight, Technology Review)

The specific inspiration for the DARPA Robotics Challenge came in dramatic circumstances, when an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan in March 2011. Attempts at cleaning up the damaged nuclear reactor at Fukishima highlighted the limitations of the best existing robots and showed the need for machines that can better navigate the human world. DARPA devised its challenge to inspire robots that could help should such a situation occur again. The robots must be able not only to work in environments designed for humans but also to navigate those sites after they are severely damaged.

Atlas performed well in Miami, but it is a long way from perfect. For one thing, the power needed to drive its hydraulic systems limits its usefulness. The robots deployed in the contest each required external generators to power their hydraulics; the generators are too large to carry, relatively inefficient, and loud. Even though future versions of Atlas are meant to carry their own power source, this will still be a rudimentary solution until researchers can figure how to make the machines far more energy efficient.

Perception is another big challenge. Atlas uses dynamic balance, and it can scan its surroundings for obstacles, but the way it uses this information to navigate is still slow and crude. "If you watch someone dancing or climbing or doing parkour, we are incredibly far [away from] a robot that can do that," Pratt says.

During the DARPA challenge, Atlas operated partly autonomously, in that teams could provide specific instructions and command it to perform a task, but much of the robot's behavior, including its split-second rebalancing, happened automatically. DARPA's vision is for rescue robots to operate this way, with humans providing guidance and assistance but the robots functioning autonomously when needed, such as when a communications link fails. But if robots are ever to perform the kinds of tasks that some envision--such as helping the elderly in the home--they will need to have the ability to work with even greater autonomy.

Back in the pit lane, near a garage commandeered by a support team from Boston Dynamics, Raibert says humans and animals have extraordinary mobility, more than any human-made vehicle, so it makes sense to make robots with legs. "Let me just say I think the future of robotics has got to go there," he says, just before one of his robots starts walking assuredly over a pile of rubble. "You can do stuff now without it, but eventually you're really going to want that, and that's what we're hoping to enable."

Posted by orrinj at 8:03 PM


Robot workers could tear America's social fabric (Michael R. Strain, May 28, 2014, Washington Post)

Even if the standard economist's answer is correct when comparing the 21st century to the 19th, it omits the fact that living through this period of transformation was wrenching. Many economic historians believe that the British working class had to endure decades of hard labor with little improvement in their quality of life before they were able to enjoy the benefits of the new economy. Real wages fell dramatically for some occupations. Many who held those occupations couldn't be retrained to compete in the new economy. Lives were shattered. Some families suffered across generations. People flocked from the countryside to dirty, disease-infested cities.  For decades there was deep social unrest. British society was shaken to its core.

Marx and Engels, responding to these developments, thought it was self-evident that "constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production" caused changes in "the whole relations of society." As they famously put it, "All that is solid melts into air." This could be taken to be descriptive rather than speculative.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter thought "creative destruction" was "the essential fact about capitalism." Today, it is tempting to think of creative destruction as a relatively benign thing -- Starbucks replacing mom-and-pop coffee shops, or companies going out of business from time to time. In reality, creative destruction can be a massive, painful force. It certainly was during the Industrial Revolution. So will another technological revolution change the face of the West? Should we fear the rise of the machines?

There is no question that technology is already having a major impact on the labor market. Over the last several decades, employment in Western economies grew in both low- and high-skill occupations, but fell in middle-skill occupations. That's because middle-skill, middle-class occupations are those that can be most easily replaced by technology. (Think of a 1970s-era bank that employed a president, a bank teller, and a custodian. Today, it's the bank teller who's gone, replaced by an ATM.)

When technology replaces you, it's a gain in productivity.  When it replaces me, it's a social crisis.

Posted by orrinj at 8:00 PM


EPA Emissions Rule May Influence Decision on Keystone XL (Alan Neuhauser, June 3, 2014, US News)

Robert Stavins, professor of environmental economics at Harvard University, suspects the EPA rule gives Obama some clearance to approve the pipeline.

"The major [environmental] groups ... are uniformly pleased with the EPA proposal. Clearly that gives him some kind of leeway with Keystone, particularly given the fact that most economic analysts have said that Keystone is very likely to not have any sort of effect on CO2 emissions," Stavins says.

Posted by orrinj at 7:30 PM


THE CHEMISTRY OF CONVENIENCE (Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi, 6/01/14, Inlander)

Dr. H. Gilbert Welch makes people uncomfortable. He seems intent on upending a key tenet of modern health care: early diagnosis and treatment is best.

The Dartmouth professor, physician and author of Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health visited Spokane in February for the 2014 Stier Lecture.

The capacity crowd of health professionals, students and community members listened attentively as Welch outlined his theory: Otherwise healthy Americans are being needlessly -- even harmfully -- given diagnoses and treatment for conditions that would have never caused them any real problems.

The conundrum of overdiagnosis is that it can only be identified when the condition is left untreated and nothing bad happens. That's not a risk many clinicians, or patients, are comfortable taking. "Once we have a diagnosis, we tend to treat everybody," said Welch.

So is it even wise to look for problems? Welch tackles two diseases with the biggest screening efforts: breast cancer and mammograms; and prostate cancer and PSAs.

"The PSA is a simple blood test but it raises some of the most complex issues in medicine. 'Do you want the test?' My personal right answer for me is 'No, I don't.' That's not the right answer for everyone."

Mammograms raise similar questions. Of a thousand 50-year-old women undergoing mammography for 10 years, statistically speaking, 0.3 to 3.2 will avoid a breast cancer death. More than half will have at least one false alarm, 70 to 100 of them will undergo a biopsy, and three to 14 will be overdiagnosed and treated needlessly with surgery, radiation, and or chemotherapy, Welch says.

"To me, if you take 1,000 well patients and in a 10-year course, you alarm half of them, that's outrageous," he says.

He suggested a course correction is underway, with other criteria perhaps being added to a diagnosis of cancer: "There are hints that bigger lesions are more important than small ones. Should we add a dynamic dimension to our diagnosis? Should we ask whether things are growing?"

Ultimately, Welch says the medical system has failed to distinguish between two types of prevention: early diagnosis and health promotion. "Health promotion is what your grandmother would have told you: Get plenty of sleep, eat your fruits and vegetables, go play outside, don't start smoking. It's not high-tech. It's positive. Be healthy."

Conversely, early detection can create a sense of foreboding. He recalled a thyroid cancer awareness campaign with the tag line "Confidence Kills."

So, "If you feel good, you're about to die," Welch deadpanned, to laughter.

Posted by orrinj at 7:24 PM


Prepare yourselves for the robot economy revolution : We are at the beginning of a tidal wave of new economic innovation and growth that will change the way we think about the economy forever (John Aziz, 6/02/14, The Week)

The economist Thomas Malthus famously predicted famine due to a multiplying population that would have only a static amount of farmland. He was wrong, because he did not foresee the technologies of mechanized agriculture that allowed crop yields to rise hugely and feed the growing population. Similarly, those who predict stagnant growth today due to falling population growth are overlooking the changing technological dynamics of our time.

While the human population may level off, we are swiftly moving toward a world where humans are not the only productive agents. We're moving into the age of the robots -- with robots taking over many roles in the manufacturing industry (illustrated beautifully by this chart showing falling manufacturing employment and rising manufacturing output) as well as moving into fields including food servers, bank tellers, telephone operators, receptionists, mail carriers, travel agents, typists, telemarketers, and stock market traders. While human beings may be constrained in their productivity by their own time and energy, assisted by robots, the economy can produce more without any additional people.

Unlike traditional workers, robots don't need feeding, clothing, or sheltering. They don't need to be paid for their work. They simply need to be programmed (something which can itself be increasingly automated) and powered by electricity. And while electricity is a constraint in the age of fossil fuels (where fuels have to be pumped out of the ground), in the age of renewable energy -- the cost of which has fallen to such an extent that even Big Oil admits it will be the dominant form of energy on Earth by the end of the century -- electricity becomes far less of a constraint. Need more energy to power more robots? Have your robots assemble more solar panels or wind turbines.

The technology I'm talking about isn't some far-off fantasy. In Malthus' day, the agricultural advances which derailed his predictions occurred mostly after he had made his predictions. Today, robots are cleaning up nuclear accidents, cleaning up oil spills, playing the trumpet, performing surgery on humans, killing al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, driving around California, coordinating to design and build complex structures, and (yes) building more robots. This is the beginning of a tidal wave of new economic innovation and growth that will change the way we think about the economy forever, just as the agricultural revolution that proved Malthus' predictions wrong did.

June 2, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 9:25 PM


Junk Bonds Are Back! : And actually, they never really went away. (Zachary Karabell, 6/02/14, Slate)

We've lost track of what these bonds actually were and are: Instruments that allow riskier ventures to be funded. Historically, risk didn't necessarily mean financial risk. The rise of modern Las Vegas was facilitated by junk bonds because traditional banks wouldn't lend to an industry considered to be (for good reason) the playground of the mafia. There aren't many more surefire business ventures than owning a casino in the right location. But they just couldn't get funding.

Today, with so many banks chary of risk and forced by a new regulatory framework to be more diligent than they were in the early 2000s, the only way more speculative, untested, and creative companies can finance themselves is by turning not to banks, but to the marketplace. When these companies raise debt, they are first graded by a ratings agency such as S&P, Moody's, or Fitch, which assigns the debt a rating based on an analysis of the company's debt, metrics, and its chances of meeting its obligations under a variety of scenarios. Companies that are seen as riskier get a lower grade, and then lower ranks are considered "junk."

It might come as a surprise that companies rated "junk" include the likes of Sprint, T-Mobile, and Chrysler. They're rated junk because they all require massive amounts of spending and take on high levels of debt. These are hardly sketchy companies.

In a world where the cost of capital is cheap and perhaps getting cheaper, however, the primary risk is not that rates will spike and a business won't be able to meet its debt payments. The primary risk is that the business itself will fold. And on that score, most companies that successfully raise debt in public markets have passed enough scrutiny that they can repay their debts. There is very little equivalent in the bond market of the almost non-existent lending standards that existed in the mortgage markets in the early 2000s. Firms whose bonds are rated junk, therefore, may be riskier than GE or U.S. Treasuries, but they are likely to be much less risky than the market thinks.
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Posted by orrinj at 9:20 PM


Why Google, Comcast, and AT&T Are Making Power Utilities Nervous (Ehren Goossens, Mark Chediak, and Jim Polson May 29, 2014, Bloomberg Businessweek)

Because its customers are still hooked up to the grid, Vivint is able to sell any excess power back to the utilities under state-mandated net metering programs. Vivint and others are also learning how to deploy smart technology that can consolidate energy savings from millions of homes and businesses. Vivint offers a security system that incorporates computerized energy-conserving features--including the ability to set thermostats and control appliances. Utilities can contract with home-automation companies like Vivint to get their customers to defer the use of big appliances or turn down their air conditioning units during peak periods, helping utilities avoid power outages or the need to buy power on the spot market to make up for shortages. Consumers like it because they get paid for saving energy.

Google, which holds a wholesale power license, remains coy about its energy ambitions. Yet it's already a power generator through its more than $1.4 billion invested in clean energy. In February, Google acquired Nest, which makes a "learning thermostat" that can be adjusted via mobile phone and helps homeowners get a better grip on their energy usage. That $3.2 billion deal "ought to give utility officials a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs," says Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril Networks, an energy services management company based in Boulder, Colo. AT&T entered the smart thermostat market last year.

"The next 10 years are going to change the electricity industry more than the past 100," says Patty Durand, executive director of the SmartGrid Consumer Collaborative, which counts utilities and tech companies among its members. "Consumers will be the recipients of attention, instead of the way utilities have treated them for the past 100 years." Power in the U.S. has begun to flow both ways.

Posted by orrinj at 9:14 PM


Fatah, Hamas unity deal raises hopes in Gaza (Deutsche Welle, 6/02/14)

Fatah, which lost the elections in 2006 and had to retreat from power in the coastal area after the violent takeover by Hamas in 2007, is showing optimism on the reconciliation process.

"It would be wrong to think that anything can be built on top of division," says Faisal Abou Shahla, a Fatah leader in Gaza, adding that the new government will not include two separate ministries for handling the same responsibilities.

What remains unclear is how much power each faction will be willing to cede in the coming weeks and months. The new interim government is intended to work in an independent fashion toward preparing for long overdue parliamentary and presidential elections. Simultaneously, Palestinians expect it to deal with the pressing needs of citizens in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Posted by orrinj at 9:09 PM


Obama circumvents laws with 'signing statements,' a tool he promised to use lightly. (Karen Tumulty, Monday, June 2, 2014, Washington Post)

Back when Barack Obama was a presidential candidate who boasted his background as a constitutional law professor, he frequently criticized then-President George W. Bush for what Obama said was a "clear abuse" of executive power.

Now, as president, Obama is being accused of doing the same, albeit not as frequently.

Posted by orrinj at 8:09 PM


How Robots Are Getting Smarter : New Models Bring Greater Skills to the Factory Floor, From Navigating on Their Own to Learning by Doing (Georgia Wells, June 1, 2014, WSJ)

Drop a box in front of Lynx, from Adept Technology Inc. ADEP -3.23%  in Pleasanton, Calif. The small, squarish robot on wheels can sense the object in its path and plot a new course around it--and then communicate the change in landscape to the other units in its fleet.

Robots have been mobile for many years, but unlike previous generations, Lynx doesn't need to follow tape on the floor and isn't restricted to a grid. That's because Adept, the largest U.S.-based manufacturer of industrial robots, designed Lynx to be able to work autonomously while moving objects around a chaotic factory floor, where the ability to navigate around unpredictable obstacles such as humans and pallets is essential.

To do this, Lynx stores its own internal map of the layout of the location where it's working. To sense the terrain, Lynx has ultrasonic detectors that scan to see if anything is on the floor in its vicinity, and a laser in front to measure the distance to objects such as walls and moving people. As Lynx cruises the factory floor, it compares the actual terrain with its stored map and chooses the best path, taking into account any new obstacles.

Posted by orrinj at 8:06 PM


As Ties With China Unravel, U.S. Companies Head to Mexico (DAMIEN CAVE, MAY 31, 2014, NY Times)

With labor costs rising rapidly in China, American manufacturers of all sizes are looking south to Mexico with what economists describe as an eagerness not seen since the early years of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s. From border cities like Tijuana to the central plains where new factories are filling farmland, Mexican workers are increasingly in demand.

American trade with Mexico has grown by nearly 30 percent since 2010, to $507 billion annually, and foreign direct investment in Mexico last year hit a record $35 billion. Over the past few years, manufactured goods from Mexico have claimed a larger share of the American import market, reaching a high of about 14 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund, while China's share has declined.

"When you have the wages in China doubling every few years, it changes the whole calculus," said Christopher Wilson, an economics scholar at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "Mexico has become the most competitive place to manufacture goods for the North American market, for sure, and it's also become the most cost-competitive place to manufacture some goods for all over the world."

Posted by orrinj at 8:04 PM


Reuven Rivlin, Israeli presidential front-runner, champions pluralism in politics but not Judaism (Ben Sales, June 2, 2014, JTA) 

The front-runner in Israel's presidential election has equated Reform Judaism with "idol worship" and refused to refer to Reform rabbis by their title.
Former Knesset speaker Reuven "Ruby" Rivlin, considered a Likud party elder statesman, is one of six candidates running to succeed Shimon Peres in the largely ceremonial post chosen by the Knesset every seven years. Rivlin is backed in the June 10 vote by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and much of the center-right governing coalition. [...]

His most scathing remarks about Reform Judaism came in 1989 after visiting Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in New Jersey.

"I was completely stunned," Rivlin said in an interview published in Yediot Acharonot. "This is idol worship and not Judaism. Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism."

Posted by orrinj at 7:59 PM


Data And Your Doctor Are Coming Together To Revolutionize Health Care (Jonathan Bush, 6/02/14, Co.Exist)

The way I see it, we can expect three data revolutions in health care. The first wave helps medical practices and hospitals run their businesses efficiently. The data lets them see (often for the first time) what they're doing. It spotlights where they're wasting time, energy and money. This process alone, while it sounds simple, promises to bring astounding efficiency gains to health care. The second stage uses data to help with diagnoses and treatment, and to manage the health of a population. It backs up the doctor's informed gut intuition, which is still valuable, with science. This should result in immense qualitative gains.

In the third stage, we move from Big Dumb Medicine to Small Smart Medicine. For this, we look at all of society as a vast laboratory. What are people doing? How are they eating and exercising? For the first time, we have the wherewithal to carry out research on how people live in the real world. How are the different medicines working? Maybe one medication works far better in hot climates, or for non-smokers, or only for heavy drinkers. While historically we have approved only the medicines and therapies that are safe and work for all of us, as if we were farm animals, we now have a chance to figure out the right medicines, diet, and therapy for each individual. The opportunities are near limitless.

The impact of these three revolutions on health care will be enormous, so big in fact that it's ridiculous for government officials and corporate accountants to be drawing up projections of health care spending in 2025 or 2030. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:57 PM


Robot Truck Convoy Tested In Nevada (Kelsey D. Atherton, 06.02.2014, Popular Science)

Like Olympic skiers racing in single file to reduce air resistance,  two 18-wheeler trucks in Nevada recently proved that uncomfortably close convoys can save drivers fuel and money. The key, instead of bold Olympic athleticism, is robotic assistance. A computer-assisted truck was able to follow closely behind a human-driven truck perfectly, maintaining exactly 33 feet of distance between the vehicles. The promise is a future of safer, more fuel efficient, and more robotic trucking.

While Nevada is a friendly state for driverless cars, the system tested is only partially automated, with a driver in the computer-assisted truck still responsible for steering. In a way, that makes this a very, very advanced cruise control. The technology, developed by Peloton Tech, uses radar and a wireless link so that the following trucks travel at the same speed, braking simultaneously for safety, and doing so on an automated system that doesn't have the delays of human reaction time. In addition, the drivers of both vehicles also have a video display, expanding both drivers' vision and reducing blind spots. 

Besides safety, the major selling point of this system is that the reduced drag saves fuel costs. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:41 PM


Alcohol Taxes Should Be Tripled (Reihan Salam, 5/27/14, Slate)

One thing that is really striking about the new Pew data is that 69 percent of Americans believe, correctly, that alcohol is more harmful to society than marijuana. When asked if alcohol would still be more harmful to society than marijuana if marijuana were just as easy to get a hold of as alcohol is now, 63 percent said that yes, it would be. Most people see marijuana's relative harmlessness as a reason for us to regulate marijuana as lightly as we regulate alcohol. I see things differently. The fact that alcohol is more harmful to society than marijuana is a reason to regulate alcohol more stringently than we regulate marijuana. In other words, let's ease up on marijuana Prohibition and ramp up good old-fashioned alcohol Prohibition. More precisely I favor something like what the libertarian journalist Greg Beato calls, and not in a nice way, "Prohibition Lite." [...]

Why would I, a great lover of the free enterprise system, want the alcohol market to be more heavily regulated? Precisely because I'm a believer in the power of the profit motive, I understand how deadly it can be when the product being sold is intoxication. For-profit businesses exist to increase sales. The most straightforward way to do that is not to encourage everyone to drink moderately, but to focus on the small minority of people who drink the most. That is exactly what liquor companies do, and they'll do more of it if we let Big Liquor have its way. In Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, the authors estimate that at current beer prices, it costs about $5 to $10 to get drunk, or a dollar or two per drunken hour. To get a sense of what the world would look like if that price fell significantly, go to a typical town square in England on a weekend night, where alcohol-fueled violence is rampant, or to Russia, where the ruling class has used cheap vodka as a tool to keep the population drunk, passive, and stupid for generations.

We shouldn't be satisfied with keeping the per dollar cost of getting drunk where it is today. We should make it higher. Much higher. Kleiman and his colleagues Jonathan P. Caulkins and Angela Hawken have suggested tripling the federal alcohol tax from 10 cents a drink to 30 cents a drink, an increase that they estimate would prevent 6 percent of homicides and 6 percent of motor vehicle deaths, thus sparing 3,000 lives (1,000 from the drop in homicides, 2,000 from safer highways) every year. Charging two-drink-per-day drinkers an extra $12 per month seems like a laughably small price to pay to deter binge drinking. Then, of course, there is the fact that a higher alcohol tax would also raise revenue. If you're going to tax tanning beds and sugary soft drinks, why on earth wouldn't you raise alcohol taxes too? If anything, 30 cents a drink isn't high enough. Let's raise the alcohol tax to a point just shy of where large numbers of people will start making illegal moonshine in their bathtubs.

People should make their own and it should be for special occasions in the home.
Posted by orrinj at 6:36 PM


Rouhani Mocks His Critics, Reactionary Clerics (Arash Karami, 6/02/14,Al-Monitor)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded today against critics who have publicly reprimanded him for saying that "heaven cannot be forced" onto people. He also compared some of the clerics opposed to change to the reactionary clerics who were also once opposed to private showers and daylight savings on the grounds that it would harm religion. 

"Some people seriously have nothing better to do," Rouhani said May 31 during a speech in front of environmental officials, without addressing his critics by name. "They have no work, no profession, they are with delusions. They are incessantly worried about people's religion and the afterlife. They know neither what religion is nor the afterlife, but they're always worried," Rouhani added to applause. [...]

Rouhani said that technological advancements have been good but have also brought challenges. But he also mocked reactions of some of the clergy to these changes. He joked that when Iran's traditional-style public baths were eliminated in favor of showers, many clerics argued that "half of religion would be destroyed." He laughed, and said he was in Qom during this change and remembers the commotion over it. 

In continuing his attacks, laughing intermittently at his own comments, Rouhani said, "There were two great events in Qom during those years. One was the bath becoming a shower, a tragic event in the minds of some, and the other was when they wanted to change the time, winter and summer hours. They said that this was to 'eliminate religion.' They said, 'How will we know noon prayers?' Well, how did we know until then? We used to pray at 12:15, now we pray at 1:15, will something happen?" 

Rouhani also made it clear that he would not use his administration to promote religious activities but rather would facilitate religious activities that are initiatives of the people. "A religious government is a very good thing, but a governmental religion, I don't know, we need to discuss that," Rouhani said. "We must not give religion to the administration, religion is in the hands of experts themselves, the clerics, the seminaries, the specialists. It is them who have to propagate religion, the administration must support them, help them, all of this is right." 

June 1, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 9:21 AM


Conservative Senator Kicks Tea Party to the Curb (David Freedlander, 5/31/14, Daily Beast)

At the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans this week, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson tried to distance himself from the Tea Party groups that helped elect him in 2010.
If Ron Johnson was running any faster from the Tea Party he'd leave skid marks.

Back in 2010, the Wisconsin senator was one of the Tea Party's first candidates. His upset victory over incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold in that deep purple swing state was seen as proof that a new brand of conservatism was on the march.

But Johnson, a businessman and political novice when he was first elected, told reporters at a gathering of grassroots conservatives activists in New Orleans this week that it may be time for that march to slow down.

"I think the conservative movement may just be maturing a little bit."

Posted by orrinj at 9:16 AM


In Search of Gladstonian Republicans : The liberalism of Britain's great 19th-century prime minister is a model for the next conservative revolution. (JOHN MICKLETHWAIT And ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE, May 30, 2014, WSJ)

Imagine that the world's superpower reduces the size of government by a quarter over the next 30 years, even as its population grows by 50%. Imagine further that the superpower performs this miracle while dramatically increasing both the quality of public services and the nation's diplomatic clout. And imagine that the Republican Party leads this great revolution while uniting its manifold factions behind one of its favorite words: liberty.

Impossible? That is exactly what Britain, then the world's superpower and pioneer of the new economy, did in the 19th century. Gross revenue from taxation fell from just under £80 million in 1816 to well under £60 million in 1846, even as the population surged and the government helped build schools, hospitals, sewers and the world's first police force. The Victorians paid for these useful new services by getting rid of what they called "Old Corruption" (and we would call cronyism) and by exploiting the new technology of the day, like the railway. For these liberal reformers were the allies of the new commercial classes who were creating the industries that were transforming the world.

And they kept on cutting government for decades. William Gladstone, four times prime minister in the second half of the 19th century, believed in cutting taxes so that money could "fructify in the pockets of the people." Confronted with socialist protesters who demanded "no taxation without representation," the giant of Victorian liberalism replied that he believed in "no taxation" (something even Grover Norquist cannot match). He paid for his passion for social reform by a ruthless campaign against waste. The head of the Liberal Party prided himself on "saving candle ends and cheese-parings in the cause of the country," opening up every branch of government to competition. [...]

First, rip out cronyism. Between 1815 and 1870 British Liberals replaced a government based on patronage, sweeping aside the special privileges for the East India Company, West Indian sugar makers and British landowners. Today the American right's dirty secret is its love of big government, especially tax breaks for business (including sugar). The U.S. tax code has $1.6 trillion of exemptions, most of which go to the well-off.

Gladstone would get rid of them all--gradually, perhaps, with the concessions for health-insurance and mortgage interest--and in return chop income- and corporate-tax rates. Having helped dismantle Britain's protectionist Corn Laws in the 1840s, he would be astonished that America still doles out $30 billion a year in agriculture subsidies and employs 100,000 people in the Agriculture Department.

Second, concentrate the state on what it needs to do. Why does the federal government own 900,000 buildings and 260 million acres of land? Why does it continue to run utilities? Why are so many American airports still in public hands? Gladstone would concentrate money on the poor, targeting the welfare state for the rich. More money goes to the top 5% in mortgage-interest deduction than to the bottom 50% in social housing. He would set about reforming entitlements to make sure that they are fundable, for example raising the retirement age to 70 in line with life expectancy (as other countries like Sweden have done).

Posted by orrinj at 9:03 AM


Unjust Deserts (J. Bradford DeLong, 5/31/14, Project Syndicate)

If you win the lottery - and if the big prize that you receive is there to induce others to overestimate their chances and purchase lottery tickets and so enrich the lottery operator - do you "deserve" your winnings? You are happy to be paid, and the lottery operator is happy to pay you, but the others who purchased lottery tickets are not happy - or, perhaps, would not be happy if their best selves understood what their chances really were and how your winning is finely tuned to mislead them.

Do you have an obligation to spend your post-victory life telling everyone that what they really ought to do is put the money they spend on lottery tickets in an equity-heavy tax-favored retirement account, whereby, rather than paying the house for the privilege of gambling, they are in fact the house, earning 5% annually? 

Now suppose that you are a public intellectual who knows that's what people should be doing with their money : don't you, likewise, have an obligation to advocate for public policies--like personalized SS accounts and HSAs--that do exactly that with the citizenry's money?