November 3, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 5:41 PM


Iraqi Shi'ite militia says will fight IS in Syria border town (Reuters, 11/04/17) 

An Iraqi Shi'ite militia fighting Islamic State in Iraq near the border with Syria will also take on the jihadist group in the Syria border town of Albu Kamal, the militia's spokesman was quoted as saying on Friday.

Jaafar Hussaini, the spokesman for the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, one of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) fighting alongside the Iraqi army against Islamic State, was speaking to Lebanese television channel al-Mayadin.

Posted by orrinj at 2:37 PM


Trump's Talent for Remaining Unpopular -- in This Economy -- Is Truly Impressive (Eric Levitz, 11/02/17, New York)

Last month, the American economy added 261,000 jobs -- payroll growth that pushed the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent, a low unmatched since the end of the Clinton presidency. Over those same 31 days, Donald Trump's approval rating fell by 2.1 percent in RealClearPolitics' poll of polls, with just 39 percent of the public expressing a favorable opinion of their nation's leader on All Hallow's Eve.  [...]

It's hard to overstate what a remarkable achievement this is -- and not just for Trump himself. Generally speaking, the ruling party enjoys credit -- and suffers blame -- for America's macroeconomic conditions. And yet, despite inheriting one of the strongest economies the U.S. has seen this millennium, the Republican Party spent much of the past month trailing Democrats by double digits in the 2018 congressional race: By October's end, roughly 47 percent of Americans wanted Democrats to take over Congress next year, while just 38 percent wanted to see the GOP retain it, according to FiveThirtyEight's poll aggregator.

Posted by orrinj at 11:20 AM


NAFTA Withdrawal Would Increase, Not Lower, U.S. Trade Deficit With Mexico (John Brinkley , 11/02/17, Forbes)

There is no scenario under which withdrawing from NAFTA would benefit the United States economically. Most economists say it would reduce economic growth and increase the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and the world. It would not create jobs, particularly now with the United States at nearly full employment.

Mexico and Canada will continue pursuing free trade agreements with other countries, including the nine other parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump jettisoned on his second day in office. The 11 TPP countries are reportedly close to a deal. Canada has a new free trade agreement with the European Union. Mexico and the EU are negotiating one. The United States was negotiating an FTA with the EU, but that went into the ditch when Trump took office.

So "all our biggest competitors will have access to Canada and Mexico, and we won't," National Trade Council president Rufus Yerxa said. "This is more the U.S. withdrawing from the trend in the world than the U.S. joining the trend in the world."

Posted by orrinj at 11:15 AM


Unemployment Rate Drops to 4.1%, Lowest Level in 17 Years (Ali Meyer, November 3, 2017, dAILY bEACON)

The unemployment rate for all Americans declined from 4.2 percent in September to 4.1 percent in October, the lowest level in 17 years, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of unemployed individuals dropped from 6,801,000 to 6,520,000 in October.

The unemployment rate measures the percent of those who did not have a job and actively looked for one over the month.

The "real" unemployment rate, otherwise known as the U-6 measure, declined from 8.3 percent in September to 7.9 percent in October. [...]

The labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of the population that has a job or actively looked for one in the past month, declined from 63.1 percent in September to 62.7 percent in October.

Posted by orrinj at 11:11 AM


Most Counties Will Have Free 2018 Exchange Plans for Low-Income Enrollees (Caroline F. Pearson , Chris Sloan, Elizabeth Carpenter | Nov 02, 2017, aVALERE)

New analysis from Avalere finds that nearly 98% of counties with exchanges operated by will have free bronze plan options for low-income consumers aged 50 earning 150% of poverty or less ($18,090 for an individual or $36,900 for a family of four).

"This year, more than ever, it is important for consumers to shop around and compare their options across metal levels," said Chris Sloan, senior manager at Avalere. "The dramatically higher subsidies mean consumers could be getting much better deals for bronze and gold plans for 2018." 

In 2018, these highly-subsidized consumers will also have access to free silver plan options in 18% of counties. Further, 10% of counties will have free gold plan options available to individuals making $18,090, or 150% of poverty, per year. While availability of free subsidized options decreases for individuals with higher incomes, 2018 will have a high number of free subsidized options. 

Avalere experts link the increased availability of free plan options to the Administration's decision to end cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurers. This decision has led to substantially higher premium subsidies in 2018, as insurers increase premium levels to make up for the lack of CSR payments. 

"The curious effect of the Administration's elimination of the cost-sharing reduction payments is that many subsidized individuals may find that they pay less for premiums in 2018," said Caroline Pearson, senior vice president at Avalere.

Posted by orrinj at 11:06 AM


DoD is Losing the Budget Endgame (JOHN CONGER, 11/03/17, Defense One)

It turns out that a budget deal has indeed been struck, but it left DoD out in the cold. The House and Senate just passed a concurrent budget resolution for fiscal year 2018, but they focused their negotiations on making sure they could pass a tax reform bill, and designated all of their budget flexibility toward that end. The defense budget was left at the BCA cap level: $52 billion below the budget request.

Posted by orrinj at 9:04 AM


The Sins of Leon Wieseltier : The climb and fall. (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, 11/02/17, Weekly Standard)

Upon his quitting the New Republic, a famous think tank quickly took Leon on as its Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow (Daddy would have been proud) and the Atlantic appointed him a contributing editor. The wealthy widow of Steve Jobs stepped up to fund a new magazine he planned to edit called Idea. In a well-known anecdote, the conductor Herbert von Karajan is said to have got into a cab, and when the driver asked him where he wished to go, von Karajan replied, "It doesn't matter. They want me everywhere." Leon Wielseltier seemed to be in the same condition.

Even better punch-line : "No, that is Christ, He just thinks He's von Karajan"

Posted by orrinj at 8:54 AM



[A] funny thing happened on the way to a third Obama term. Winning endowed the things Trump said during the campaign with an import they'd previously lacked. He was, back then, a hopeless renegade, troubling but not threatening. Then, the returns from Florida and Wisconsin came in on the evening of November 8. And while many understood that his "rigged system" was just an excuse, "drain the swamp" sure sounded like a promise.So as the presidential inauguration approached, anticipation bubbled through the sulfurous nexus of Capitol Hill politicians, special interest groups and their K Street lobbyists, the media, the establishment and just about everyone else who had dismissed Trump and his slogans as a publicity stunt. There was now a question, rather urgently in need of an answer: Was he serious about all that "swamp" stuff?

Not really, revealed former House Speaker and loyal Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, admitting to NPR on December 21 that "drain the swamp" was never a genuine promise. "I'm told he now just disclaims that," Gingrich said a month before Trump was to assume the Oval Office. "He now says it was cute, but he doesn't want to use it anymore."

Someone from Trump Tower must have placed an angry call, because the former speaker soon tweeted that he'd overstated the case. But that didn't kill the story. That same day, Politico wondered if "drain the swamp" would be Trump's "first broken promise." It cited the access-peddling lobbying firm of Trump's first campaign manager, Corey R. Lewandowski, as well as the consulting firm with troubling foreign ties run by his incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. "Trump and his allies have engaged in some of the same practices they accused Hillary Clinton of exploiting and vowed to change," Politico wrote.

Now, a year after the election--and more than a year after Trump first made that pledge to the American people--many observers believe the swamp has grown into a sinkhole that threatens to swallow the entire Trump administration. The number of White House officials currently facing questions, lawsuits or investigation is astonishing: Trump, being sued for violating the "emoluments clause" of the U.S. Constitution by running his Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.; Paul J. Manafort, the second Trump campaign manager, indicted on money laundering charges in late October; Flynn, for undisclosed lobbying work done on behalf of the Turkish government; son-in-law and consigliere Jared Kushner, for failing to disclose $1 billion in loans tied to his real-estate company; and at least six Cabinet heads being investigated for or asked about exorbitant travel expenses, security details or business dealings. [...]

Trump friend Christopher Ruddy, the publisher of conservative outlet Newsmax, laughed off the suggestion that Trump would enter public service to enrich himself, as critics have suggested. At the same time, he added, "I don't think it's like they wake up in the morning and say, 'How can we drain the swamp today?'"

Ruddy thinks Trump can only do so much to fulfill his promise on ethics. "At the end of the day, the swamp rules," he told me, referencing the enormous class of unelected technocrats that will outlast Trump's presidency, as well as all the ones that come after.

But according to the presidential historian Robert Dallek, no American leader has acted with more unadulterated self-interest as Trump. Dallek says that in terms of outright corruption, Trump is worse than both Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, presidents who oversaw the most flagrant instances of graft in American political history. Grant's stellar reputation as a Civil War general is tarnished in part by the Whiskey Ring scandal, in which Treasury Department officials stole taxes from alcohol distillers; members of Harding's administration plundered oil reserves in Teapot Dome, a rock outcropping in Wyoming that has lent its name to the most notorious example of government corruption in American political history. In both cases, the fault of the president was in his lack of oversight. As far as Dallek is concerned, something more nefarious is at work in the White House of Donald Trump.

"What makes this different," Dallek says, "is that the president can't seem to speak the truth about a host of things." Trump isn't just allowing corruption, in Dallek's view, but encouraging it. "The fish rots from the head," he reminds.

Posted by orrinj at 6:30 AM


War of All Against All (Lindsey Hilsum NOVEMBER 23, 2017, New York Review of Books)

Syria was not the cradle of the Islamic State, but the revolution created a vacuum into which the militants stepped to impose their experiment in living. Their propaganda films show the glory of martyrdom for Allah, set to a soundtrack of heroic Koranic chanting, but reality is more banal: last year, a few days after Syrian government forces drove ISIS out of Qaryatayn, a largely Christian village near Homs, in the ruins of a desecrated monastery I found a notebook detailing payments to fighters, including a record of who had been on leave, extra money allocated to those with disabled relatives, a log of loan repayments, and a note about a fighter who had missed his wedding because he was with the tank division at the time.

Tadmur, the modern town adjacent to the ancient site of Palmyra, which had also been occupied by ISIS, was destroyed by Syrian regime and Russian bombing. Among the black flags and religious slogans was a sign reading "Department of Human Resources." In the rubble, I found advertisements for administrative jobs: ISIS had needed people skilled in Excel, Word, and Photoshop for their printing department. They replicated the most unlikely bureaucratic structures--in The Caliphate at War, Ahmed S. Hashim notes that an early attempt at government included the creation of a Ministry of Fisheries.

Pulling together speeches, other documents, and firsthand journalistic accounts, Hashim describes in detail the genesis of the group in Iraq, including the rift between the upstart caliphate and al-Qaeda, the first global jihadist movement. He traces much of the new, more extreme ideology back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the "sheikh of slaughterers," who led al-Qaeda in Iraq until he was killed by a US air strike in 2006. A Sunni Arab chauvinist, Zarqawi was more interested in killing Iraqi Shias than those Osama bin Laden used to call "the far enemy," the Americans. In the end, the split between the two groups was less about ideology and more about territory and power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, refused to obey an edict from the al-Qaeda high command demanding that he confine himself to Iraq. He claimed that, on principle, he would not recognize the Sykes-Picot line, the colonial boundary between Syria and Iraq imposed by the British and French in 1916. In fact, he accurately assessed the weakness of the forces ranged against him and realized that no one could stop him from declaring himself caliph of the entire region.

As a former "politico-military" adviser to US forces, Hashim has expertise in Iraq, not Syria, and he has little new to say about what it was like to live under ISIS in either country. He does, however, assemble interesting statistics on how they governed. In 2015, according to The Economist, the GDP of the Islamic State reached $6 billion, more than several Caribbean island states and small African countries. Income streams included kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion, taxation, confiscation of property as punishment, sales of antiquities, and sales of oil and gas. Contrary to widespread belief, donations from wealthy Gulf Arabs accounted for a very small part of ISIS financing. The move into Syria enabled it to seize oil fields around Deir Ezzor and Hasakah. Once Western governments realized that the best way to undermine ISIS was to disrupt the market for smuggled oil while launching air strikes on the oil fields it controlled, the days of jihadist government were numbered.

Exacerbating sectarianism necessarily diminishes the Alawite state.

Posted by orrinj at 6:10 AM


Exclusive: Carter Page testifies he told Sessions about Russia trip (Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb, Thu November 2, 2017, CNN)

Former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page privately testified Thursday that he mentioned to Jeff Sessions he was traveling to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign -- as new questions emerge about the attorney general's comments to Congress about Russia and the Trump campaign.

Posted by orrinj at 6:06 AM


Mueller grand jury investigating top DC lobbyists (DESMOND BUTLER, 11/02/17, AP) 

Special counsel Robert Mueller's grand jury is investigating a prominent Democratic lobbyist and a former GOP congressman for their involvement in an influence campaign on behalf of Ukrainian interests tied to Paul Manafort, according to a person with direct knowledge of the investigation.

At the center of the widening probe are Tony Podesta, a longtime Democratic operative, and Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman and leader of his own high-powered lobbying firm, Mercury LLC. The two men were hired as part of a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort directed by Manafort and longtime associate Rick Gates.

With the emphasis on the Ukrainian lobbying efforts, Mueller's criminal probe is moving beyond investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and is aggressively pursuing people who worked as foreign agents without registering with the Justice Department. More witnesses are expected before the grand jury in coming weeks.

Representatives for Weber's firm and Podesta said they are cooperating with the special counsel's investigation.

No one actually gets prosecuted just for failing to register, but you can make their lives miserable.

Posted by orrinj at 5:58 AM


Census shows pervasive decline in 2016 minority voter turnout  (William H. Frey, May 18, 2017, Brookings)

Racial minorities, especially black Americans, played a pivotal role in Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential wins. Now, newly released Census Bureau data confirm what many have anticipated: that both minority and black voter turnout took a decided downturn in last November's elections-- helping to compound the impact of the lower than 2012 vote margins that Democrat Hillary Clinton received in her loss to Donald Trump. Minority and black turnout was not only lower in the national statistics but also in key swing states.