May 5, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 7:05 PM


Leaked Document Indicates Big Proposed Cuts To Drug Czar's Office (Tamara Keith, 5/05/17, NPR)

In an all-staff email to employees in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, acting Director Richard Baum shared some news he described as "very discouraging for our Nation's effort to address drug abuse." A draft document from the White House budget office, obtained by NPR, proposes nearly zeroing out funding for the ONDCP and fully eliminating several programs involved in fighting the opioid crisis. Leaked documents indicate about a 94 percent overall cut.

"These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking," wrote Baum, whose position is also referred to as "drug czar." His email explained that the document was "pre-decisional" and could change. He asked that the information not be shared outside of the agency. But it quickly leaked out, causing alarm in the tightknit addiction help community and among lawmakers.

"We have a heroin and prescription drug crisis in this country, and we should be supporting efforts to reverse this tide, not proposing drastic cuts to those who serve on the front lines of this epidemic," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement. [...]

President Trump made combating the epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths a central theme of his campaign, delivering a speech in mid-October 2016 outlining a detailed policy prescription.

Posted by orrinj at 6:06 PM


UK Election Countdown: blue Britain (Sebastian Payne, 5/05/17, Financial Times)

The results of the local and mayoral elections are extraordinary. A Conservative tide is sweeping across the UK, delivering some surprising results in traditionally Labour areas. The Tories have bagged the Tees Valley mayoralty in the north east of England -- one of the six new "metro mayors". Their candidate had such low expectations of winning that he even pledged to nationalise the local airport (good luck with that). In Glasgow, the Scottish Tories have returned councillors in areas they have never won before. And in the tight West Midlands mayoral race, the Conservatives' Andy Street has triumphed.

Projecting local results on to a general election is tricky but there are some clear trends. The UK Independence party looks to be finished. Since last year's EU referendum, it has struggled to find a purpose and Friday's results suggest that its voters have abandoned it. Theresa May's strategy as Conservative leader has been to build her electoral coalition from the centre ground rightward. Instead of trying to win over centre-left switchers (the approach of her predecessor David Cameron), the prime minister has been focused on winning back Ukippers and reuniting the British right after 20 years of division over Europe. It has worked this week and will probably work again in the general election on June 8. 

Electoral doom lies ahead for Labour. There is no plausible positive spin on its performance in the local elections. Sustaining a loss of more than 300 seats while in opposition bodes very badly for the general election. Those who suspect Jeremy Corbyn is driving the party off a cliff have concrete proof that his leadership is one of the worst things to have befallen the party.

Posted by orrinj at 5:54 PM


Trump says 'everybody', not just Australia, has better healthcare than US (David Smith, 5 May 2017, The Guardian)

The president triggered astonishment and glee by drawing the comparison in Australia's favour during a meeting with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, hours after the House narrowly passed a bill to repeal parts of Obamacare.

On Friday, Trump stuck to his guns - with a clarification. "Of course the Australians have better healthcare than we do - everybody does," he wrote on Twitter. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:19 PM


4 reasons Rouhani is winning Iran's foreign policy debate (Hassan Ahmadian, 5/05/17, Al Monitor)

[T]here are four reasons to believe that Rouhani has the upper hand in the foreign policy debate.

First, he has a clear foreign policy vision and agenda. While this can make a clear shot out of him for his critics, it affords him a robust attitude and rhetoric during the campaigning, including the important presidential debates.

Second, a good part of the foreign policy shortcomings under Rouhani go beyond his administration's wishes. Trump's election and Saudi Arabia's aggressive posture would arguably have troubled any Iranian government's policy in the same way, and Rouhani has shown repeatedly that he can use this point effectively.

Third, criticism of the JCPOA and Rouhani's regional policy has reached exhausting levels over the past two years, and at this point, it is far-fetched to believe that his critics will be able to come up with new and appealing arguments that the administration has not already answered.

Fourth, Rouhani's personality and rhetorical capabilities impact voters. His key sentences, such as "foreign policy should serve the economy" and that "the JCPOA has freed us," have been very effective in terms of impacting voter sentiment. This capability will come to his aid during campaigning, and especially the debates.

Iranians like America.

Posted by orrinj at 5:14 PM


The U.S. Job Market Is On A Historic Growth Streak (Ben Casselman, 5/05/17, 538)

April marked the 79th straight month of job growth, by far the longest such streak on record. The U.S. has added 15 million jobs over that period, nearly 200,000 per month. When the streak began in October 2010, the unemployment rate stood at 9.4 percent, and it would have been higher if government economists counted the millions of Americans who had stopped looking for work; today, the unemployment rate has fallen so far that many economists question how much lower it can go.

Perhaps more remarkable than the recovery's length has been its resilience. Time and again, one or two weak months of hiring have sparked fears that the recovery was nearing its end; time and again, job growth rebounded. The past two months are a good example: Hiring slowed sharply in March, when employers added just 79,000 jobs, but quickly rebounded in April.

Posted by orrinj at 3:11 PM


Robot & Us: Self-Driving Trucks Are Coming to Save Lives and Kill Jobs (Jack Stewart, 5/05/17, Wired)

WHEN IT COMES to self-driving technology, some of the biggest and earliest gains could come in the biggest vehicles. More than a few companies are working to deliver 18-wheelers that eliminate the human behind the wheel, drastically reduce their workload, or relocate them to a driving simulator in a cubicle.

That's great for trucking companies eager to cut costs, and for safety as well: Crashes involving trucks kill about 4,000 people on US roads every year. Artificial intelligence systems excel at the kind of monotonous concentration where humans so often fail. They don't get bored, complain about roadside food options, or demand pay raises. They see farther and react faster, so it makes sense to bake computer control into big-rigs, to make them safer and more efficient.

The tech is not so great, however, the people who work one of the most common jobs in the country, one that provides a steady middle class income. "It's a hard life," says Allie Knight, who drives a big rig and vlogs about life on the road. "You have to maintain a large vehicle on the road for three to four weeks at a time. It's not just a job, it's a lifestyle."

Caught on Film: The Dark World of Truck Stop Sex Workers (JEREMY LYBARGER, JUL. 13, 2013, Mother Jones)

"The truth is, making the movie was a really traumatic experience. I suspect I may have developed some mild PTSD." This is how filmmaker Alexander Perlman describes shooting Lot Lizard, his hypnotic new documentary about truck stop prostitution. While his claim might sound hyperbolic--or like a canny bit of marketing--it rings true: He logged thousands of miles and hundreds of hours to make the film, braving roach motels, crack highs, and homicidal pimps. Indeed, what Perlman captures in Lot Lizard is visceral and harrowing.

The film's three protagonists--Betty, Monica, and Jennifer--work on the fringes of the trucking industry. America's Independent Truckers' Association estimates there are nearly 5,000 truck stops across the country, and although many offer nondescript places to sleep, eat, or shower, many others host a bustling shadow economy of sex and drugs. Lurk on truckers' online message boards long enough and you'll likely come across what amounts to a guide to interstate sex, replete with lurid tall tales (see here, here, and here).

Life on the road, they say, is lonely. To quote one trucker in Lot Lizard: "These walls close in on you. Being in this truck can actually make you crazy." As Perlman discovered, however, the women--and, occasionally, men--who cater to this loneliness don't fare much better. Betty and Monica are addicted to crack, Monica is homeless when she's not crashing with friends or sympathetic drivers, and both are entangled in dysfunctional relationships. "I can feel money," Betty says, a kind of human divining rod, and yet she spends most of the film desperately searching for just that.

Jennifer, an ex-addict and single mother who recently quit prostitution, struggles to maintain her sobriety. She buys a house but can't find a job. With time and money running out, she weighs the economics of earning minimum wage at a McJob versus hustling on the lot again. (Guess which pays more?) It's a particularly wrenching moment in a film loaded with them.

Posted by orrinj at 3:07 PM



American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero issued the following statement:

"Today's executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order's text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.

"President Trump's prior assertion that he wished to 'totally destroy' the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of 'fake news.'

Posted by orrinj at 2:59 PM


U.S. economy stays hot, but wages aren't keeping up (aXIOS, 5/05/17)

Steady as she goes: The labor market has been remarkably consistent, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month for the past five years. That's more than enough job growth to consistently lower the unemployment rate, which has fallen from 8.2% in April of 2012 to 4.4% today.

Posted by orrinj at 10:44 AM


Islamic State magazine steers followers to U.S. gun shows for 'easy' access to weapons (Derek Hawkins May 5, 2017, Washington Post)
In August, a former Islamic State recruit caused a stir when he described how the terrorist organization sought to exploit America's lax gun laws.

"They say the Americans are dumb -- they have open gun policies" the recruit told the New York Times from a German prison. "They say we can radicalize them easily, and if they have no prior record, they can buy guns, so we don't need to have a contact man who has to provide guns for them." [...]

In the most recent issue of Rumiyah, its glossy multilingual propaganda magazine, the Islamic State encouraged recruits in the United States to take advantage of laws that allow people to buy firearms without having to present identification or submit to background checks.

Recruits should seek out gun shows and online sales in particular, said the write-up in the magazine, which was released Thursday.

"The acquisition of firearms can be very simple depending on one's geographical location," the piece read. "In most U.S. states, anything from a single-shot shotgun all the way up to a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle can be purchased at showrooms or through online sales -- by way of private dealers -- with no background checks, and without requiring either an ID or a gun license."

"With approximately 5,000 gun shows taking place annually within the United States," it added, "the acquisition of firearms becomes a very easy matter."

Posted by orrinj at 10:40 AM


SHOCK POLL: Nearly Two-Thirds Of Arizona Voters Think Trump's Border Wall Is Unnecessary (Eric Owens, 05/05/2017, Daily Caller)
A poll released Thursday suggests that registered voters in Arizona largely reject President Donald Trump's plan to construct a large wall along the border separating the United States and Mexico.

According to the poll, 62 percent of Arizona's voters do not believe a border wall is necessary. Only 37 percent say a wall is needed. [...]

"The numbers were frankly shocking," OH Predictive Insights chief pollster Mike Noble said in a statement sent to The Daily Caller. "When you have one-third of Republicans, 70 percent of independents and almost all Democrats thinking a wall is not necessary, that should raise a red flag."

Posted by orrinj at 7:31 AM


In House Health Vote, Reince Priebus Sees a Much-Needed Reprieve (GLENN THRUSH and MAGGIE HABERMAN, MAY 5, 2017, NY Times)

"Priebus has made rookie mistake after rookie mistake, and he started by making the biggest one of all: not insisting he be the first among equals," Mr. Whipple said. "Fatal mistake. I'm not sure anybody could make that demand, but he didn't even really try."

"At some point, the president is either going to embrace failure or pick a grown-up, like a C.E.O. or maybe Mattis, as his chief," he added, referring to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The signature image of Mr. Trump's first 100 days in office, people close to the president said, is that of Mr. Priebus standing just inside the open door of the Oval Office, agitated and rolling his eyes, as Mr. Trump beckons another seemingly random gaggle of aides, friends, family, visitors, reporters -- even the White House decorator -- in for an unstructured chat or, worst of all, policy discussions.

Mr. Priebus, who has said he has self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, tried at first to restrict these interactions, often by keeping the president busy with ceremonial events like executive order signings and meetings with business leaders.

Over time, Mr. Trump bridled and demanded the unstructured time he had so valued as an executive at Trump Tower. Mr. Priebus, who initially outsourced the details of Oval Office scheduling and paper flow to a deputy, has now taken over those tasks himself. He has reduced the pace of public events and, like a Montessori teacher, modulates structured work time with the slack periods Mr. Trump craves.

In recent days, Mr. Priebus cut back on his stalking-butler tendency to hover over the president, realizing his antsy boss had grown resentful of his constant companionship. "What are you doing in here? Don't you have health care to take care of?" Mr. Trump asked Mr. Priebus at one recent meeting around his desk, according to a senior White House official.

Mr. Priebus is increasingly focused on big-picture issues like improving the "interagency" process linking the West Wing to the federal bureaucracy. He has also tried to reduce what he calls inputs -- the number of people talking to the president each day -- to 20 or so from about 50, and to keep Mr. Trump to a tighter schedule through short, agenda-driven meetings: a suggestion made by many outside advisers he consulted, including John H. Sununu, the chief of staff to President George Bush.

That entails trying to cut the number of Oval Office meeting attendees from 15 to eight or fewer, according to an aide.

One small but significant recent victory: excluding Omarosa Manigault, the former "Apprentice" contestant and Trump favorite, from as many meetings as possible.

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 AM


Why your 'organic' milk may not be organic (Peter Whoriskey May 1, 2017, Washington Post)

[A] closer look at Aurora and other large operations highlights critical weaknesses in the unorthodox inspection system that the Agriculture Department uses to ensure that "organic" food is really organic.

The U.S. organic market now counts more than $40 billion in annual sales and includes products imported from about 100 countries. To enforce the organic rules across this vast industry, the USDA allows farmers to hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as "USDA Organic." Industry defenders say enforcement is robust.

But the problems at an entity such as Aurora suggest that even large, prominent players can fall short of standards without detection.

With milk, the critical issue is grazing. Organic dairies are required to allow the cows to graze daily throughout the growing season -- that is, the cows are supposed to be grass-fed, not confined to barns and feedlots. This method is considered more natural and alters the constituents of the cows' milk in ways consumers deem beneficial.

But during visits by The Washington Post to Aurora's High Plains complex across eight days last year, signs of grazing were sparse, at best. Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but during most Post visits the number of cows seen on pasture numbered only in the hundreds. At no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out. A high-resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July by DigitalGlobe, a space imagery vendor, shows a typical situation -- only a few hundred on pasture. 

The one thing you can be certain of is that no consumer tasted any difference.

Posted by orrinj at 6:47 AM


The Shi'a Revival (MOHANAD HAGE ALI, May 04, 2017, Carnegie-Diwan)

Four years after Lebanon's Hezbollah first appeared in Syria, and following the military victory in Aleppo last December, there is great change in Syria's Shi'a Twelver community. The community makes up no more than 1-2 percent of the total Syrian population, a few hundred thousand people at most, but has been largely militarized since 2012. It is now demanding a greater share of power, alongside the Alawi community to whom the Assad family belongs.

Iraqi Shi'a militias, under the banner of Liwa Abul al-Fadl al-Abbas, first emerged in the predominantly Shi'a suburb of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus. There, thousands of Shi'a pilgrims and refugees, most of them from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, had settled starting in the early 1980s, some receiving Syrian nationality.

As Iraq's battle against the Islamic State raged after 2014, many Iraqi fighters returned home, while others joined Iraqi militias fighting in Syria, such as Harakat al-Nujaba. This gave Syria's Shi'a an opportunity to expand their independence under the umbrella of Iran-led armed groups. As a sign of their emerging self-empowerment, the Syrian Shi'a militias established last year a unit named the 313 Special Operations battalion.

Posted by orrinj at 6:14 AM


Climate-Change Activists Are the Real Science Deniers (Oren Cass,  May 1, 2017, National Review)

This shift in focus from the basic science of climate change to its public-policy implications has been a disaster for climate activists, exposing the flabbiness at the core of their position. Softened by years of punching down at their opponents' worst arguments, they became addicted to asserting that "science says so," and they are now lost when it doesn't.

When Sanders, back in the Senate, questioned Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt during the latter's confirmation hearing to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, it was the interrogator who couldn't keep his facts straight. Pruitt asserted that "the climate is changing, and human activity contributes to that in some manner," explaining that he had inserted the caveat ("in some manner") because "the ability to measure, with precision, the degree of human activity's impact on the climate is subject to more debate." Pressed by Sanders, he stated again: "The climate is changing, and human activity impacts that."

Pruitt wanted to discuss "the job of the [EPA] administrator," which he noted was "to carry out the statutes passed by [Congress]." He also agreed that the "EPA has a very important role at regulating the emission of CO2." But Sanders was determined to show that Pruitt rejected the scientific consensus, even if this meant falsifying the contents of that consensus.

Sanders claimed that "97 percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change." That is wrong. A survey-of-surveys published last year in Environmental Research Letters reported that prior surveys had found 78 percent of scientists agreeing that "the cause of global warming over the past 150 years was mostly human," 82 percent agreeing that "human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures," and 85 percent agreeing that "anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the dominant driver of recent global warming." Of course, even among those expressing agreement about the "significant" or "dominant" human role, debate would presumably have emerged about whether natural factors accounted for 0, 10, 25, or 50 percent. [...]

[I]n fact, scientists and economists hold widely varying views on the costs that climate change has caused and will cause. Surveys of scientists rarely address social consequences or policy implications. When President Obama tweeted that "Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man-made and dangerous," even Salon had to acknowledge he was wrong to say "dangerous." Only half of the economists surveyed by NYU's Institute for Policy Integrity in 2015 believed "immediate and drastic action is necessary" on climate change; only 56 percent said that "if nothing is done to limit climate change in the future" it would be a "very serious" problem for the United States; only 41 percent believed "climate change is already having a negative effect on the global economy." [...]

At least one might assume that reasonable minds could be allowed to differ on the ultimate question of how well society is likely to cope with the effects of climate change -- a political, social, and economic question several degrees removed from anything resembling a scientific consensus. Not so. I addressed these issues in a recent Foreign Affairs essay, in which I called the IPCC "the gold-standard summary," cited it repeatedly, and adopted its estimate that temperatures could rise by 3 to 4°C this century. My essay further embraced the Obama administration's "Social Cost of Carbon" analysis and adopted its high-case model for economic cost. But the essay argued that the likely impact of all this was "manageable" rather than "catastrophic." Mann decried it as "#Koch climate denial propaganda." Eric Holthaus, meteorologist and host of the podcast Our Warm Regards, called it "a master class in modern climate denial."

The most important thing is that the Left's warming hysteria gives conservatives an easy opportunity to enact good economic policy, taxing consumption, forcing innovation and defunding undemocratic petro-states.

Posted by orrinj at 6:09 AM


Octopuses can defy their genetic instructions - and it's slowed down their evolution (Luke Dunning, 5/05/17, The Conversation )

Are octopuses so clever because they ignore their genetic programming? Research has shown that octopuses and other cephalopods edit the messages sent from their DNA instead of following them almost exactly like most living things usually do.  The Conversation

Previously, scientists thought this process of molecular Chinese whispers was largely insignificant in animal evolution. But a new study published in the journal Cell shows this is certainly not true for these tentacled ocean dwellers.

Posted by orrinj at 5:43 AM


Trump Praises Australia's Universal Health Care, Says It's Better Than U.S. System (Margaret Hartmann, 5/05/17, New York)

President Trump has praised universal health care on many occasions, even dating back to his 2000 book The America We Deserve, but when questioned about this during the campaign, he said he doesn't think single-payer health care would work in the United States. Trump stirred more confusion in January when he said he was working on a plan that provided "insurance for everybody."

The issue of where Trump really stands on health care appeared to be resolved on Thursday when he gathered House Republicans to celebrate the passage of a bill that will cost 24 million Americans their coverage by 2026, or maybe even more.

But it wasn't settled at all. Hours later, during his delayed meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday night, President Trump declared that Australian has better health care system than the United States.

On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer predicts America will have single-payer health care within 7 years (The Week, 5/05/17)

"I saw a piece this week entitled 'The Conservative Case for Single-Payer,'" Carlson said. "I'm not sure most conservatives are there yet, but do you think that's where it's going?" Krauthammer said yes. "Whether it will end up single-payer, like in the Canadian system, or not, I'm not sure, but I will guarantee you this," he said: "Within a few years there won't even be an argument about whether or not government has an obligation to ensure that everybody gets health coverage."

A conservative case for single-payer health care (Matthew Walther, May 3, 2017, The Week)

Nearly everyone agrees that our semi-private insurance-driven system is mad. It makes all the logistical sense of having the clerk at the Shell station file a claim with Geico every time you put gas in your car. The Affordable Care Act exacerbated everything wrong with the present arrangement by creating a permanent carve-out for insurance companies. Millions of Americans were left feeling the way villagers would have if the Magnificent Seven had shown up at the last minute and thrown in their lot with the bandits.

Meanwhile, conservatives insist on getting rid of the only good part of the legislation: the expansion of Medicaid. This is not because it hasn't worked but because it conflicts with Republicans' increasingly ethereal principles. Put aside for a moment the question of whether it would be desirable to return to those halcyon days when simple country doctors gave big bills to the rich, smaller ones to ordinary people, and treated the poor gratis. Is it even possible, much less feasible? No one, not even Tea Party members during the movement's heyday, has been clamoring at the door to get rid of Medicare. Even if their wildest dreams came true and they managed to get government out of health care altogether, what would happen to people in the meantime while their hypothetical army of altruist medicos mustered its forces?

The solution should be obvious. Single payer is the only way forward. The U.S. government should provide health insurance for every one of its citizens.

Already I hear the chorus of well-rehearsed objections from the right. Who's going to pay for it? Please. Every other wealthy country in the world ensures universal health-care coverage, and we are spending far more than any of them to let people above the bottom and well into what remains of the middle fall through the cracks. What about innovation? they say, as if Costa Rica, with a GDP smaller than New Hampshire's, were not a leader in the treatment of diseases such as pancreatic cancer and a destination for innovation-seeking medical tourists from around the world. (It is curious how this objection never seems to spring up in the case of the military. Should we privatize that too, lest we fall behind the denizens of the SeaOrbiter in the quest for better fighter jets?)

Single payer just isn't "conservative." Of course it is, at least if the word still means anything. Conservatism is about stability and solidarity across class boundaries, not a fideistic attachment to classical liberal dogma. When Winston Churchill's Conservative Party returned to power in the U.K. in 1951, they did not attempt to dismantle the National Health Service established six years earlier by the post-war Labour government. They tried to do a better job of running it. Conservatives in this country should get used to the idea of being prudent stewards of the welfare state, not its would-be destroyers.

Then there is the old concern about "rationing," with which I must admit to very little patience, probably because, like the claret-soaked Tories of old, I am not myself terribly interested in health. I have no doubt that if America were to adopt a single-payer system, those with sprained ankles or runny noses would indeed face longer lines. This is a good thing. Health is not the be-all end-all of human existence, and half the reason care costs what it does is that providers across the country know that they can charge BlueCross whatever they want when wealthy suburban mothers bring Dylan in after soccer practice for X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and goodness knows what other radiological marvels, when what he really needs is a $1 ice pack.

Putting the government in charge of health care would restore it to its proper place in our lives. If conservatives' worst fears turn out to be justified, then visiting the doctor will become a very occasional half-day-long exercise in mandatory tedium, like going to the DMV or having your passport renewed. I do not visit the clinic down the street for aches or minor ailments, much less stop in to see my non-existent family physician to engage in morbid speculations concerning the potential diseases to which I might one day succumb -- and neither should you.