January 31, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:07 PM


Report May Ease Way to Approval of Keystone Pipeline (CORAL DAVENPORT, JAN. 31, 2014, NY Times)

The State Department released a report on Friday that could pave the way toward President Obama's approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The long-awaited environmental impact statement on the project concludes that approval or denial of the pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, is unlikely to prompt oil companies to change the rate of their extraction of carbon-heavy tar sands oil, a State Department official said. Either way, the tar sands oil, which produces significantly more planet-warming carbon pollution than standard methods of drilling, is coming out of the ground, the report says.

...pace, not policy.

Posted by orrinj at 2:05 PM


Compared with 1999 sets, today's leading-edge TVs are cheap (Consumer Reports, January 31, 2014)
If you still need a new TV to watch the Super Bowl, there's a good chance you'll get a good deal. That's true even among the leading-edge TVs--that is, models that comprise the 10 best TVs for the big game--the top-rated 65-inch Ultra HD Sony XBR-65X900A costs just $5,000.

Think we're nuts? How is $5,000 for a TV a bargain?

We'll explain. When you compare that Ultra HD Sony--which gives you four times as many pixels as a 1080p set and a jaw-dropping, stunning picture--to the first HDTV sets we tested in 1999, $5,000 is something of a steal.

Posted by orrinj at 1:54 PM


Obama takes a shot at a key part of his base -- art history majors (JULIET EILPERIN, January 30, 2014, Washington Post)

"Manufacturing jobs typically pay well," he said. "We want to encourage more of them."

And while some young people might not think of the skilled trades as a lucrative career, Obama added, they can probably earn more "than they might than [with] an art history degree."

Actually, they should learn trades. Robots can do the manufacturing work better and cheaper.

January 30, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:51 PM


We Need School Choice Now : The best solution to our nation's failing educational system is empowering parents. (Jeb Bush, 1/30/14, National Review)

Consumer choice created the most innovative and powerful economy in the world. Choice makes computers cheaper, images sharper, cars safer, and services faster.

Choice rewards success and weeds out stagnation, inefficiency, and failure.

This is why school choice is critical to the education-reform movement, and why National School Choice Week, which began this Sunday, January 26, is more than just a proclamation. It is a call to action for one of our most cherished principles.

How is it that parents have a say over every aspect of their children's lives, yet often must delegate the critical decision of where they go to school to political boards and government bureaucracies? This has created an education monopoly that spurns accountability, views innovation as a threat, and prioritizes the job security of employees over the learning of children.

The result is hardly surprising: America has become a global leader in education spending and a global laggard in academic achievement. Last year we learned that Vietnamese 15-year-olds outperformed American teenagers in math and science on the Program for International Student Assessment.

That is not a wake-up call. It is a five-alarm fire.

The Ma Bell model of public education has failed.

Posted by orrinj at 2:21 PM


What sank the Senate's Iran sanctions bill? (Peter Weber, 1/29/14, The Week)

If there is any momentum on the bill now, it's on the other side. Obama reiterated his veto threat in the very public setting of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, saying that "for the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed." Jan. 20 marked the beginning of a six-month period of negotiations between the U.S., Iran, and five other world powers aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

The negotiations won't be easy, and "any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action," not trust, Obama said. But "if John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today."

After the speech, at least four Democratic cosponsors -- Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), and Ben Cardin (Md.) -- said they didn't want to vote on the bill while negotiations are ongoing. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had already adopted that position earlier in the month.

Posted by orrinj at 2:19 PM


Pete Seeger: A Mean-Spirited and Vengeful Recollection (Spengler, January 29th, 2014, PJ Media)

 The notion of folk music he espoused was a put-on from beginning to end.

There is no such thing as an American "folk." We are a people summoned to these shores by an idea, not common ties of blood and culture. There is folk music in America where pockets of ethnicity resisted assimilation: African-American blues, for example, or the English songs frozen in amber in white Appalachia. That is why the best American popular music always came from black sources, performed either by black musicians or white emulators from George Gershwin on down.

Seeger's (and Guthrie's) notion of folk music had less to do with actual American sources than with a Communist-inspired Yankee version of Proletkult. The highly personalized style of a Robert Johnson and other Delta bluesmen didn't belong in the organizing handbook of the "folk" exponents who grew up in the Communist Party's failed efforts to control the trade union movement of the 1940s. The music of the American people grew out of their churches. Their instrument was the piano, not the guitar, and their style was harmonized singing of religious texts rather than the nasal wailing that Guthrie made famous. Seeger, the son of an academic musicologist and a classical violinist, was no mountain primitive, but a slick commercializer of "folk" themes with a nasty political agenda. His capacity to apologize for the brutalities of Communist regimes -- including their repression of their own "folksingers" -- remained undiminished with age, as David Graham reported in the Atlantic.

Posted by orrinj at 2:07 PM


Time is ripe for US to embrace Iran (Farhang Jahanpour, 1/29/14, Asia Times)

[T]he constitution that was approved in a referendum was quite progressive on paper, with the big exception of the inclusion of Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of the religious guardian) and clerical boards, such as the Guardians Council that supervises the selection of presidential and parliamentary candidates. 

These powers have certainly compromised and restricted Iranian democracy, but they have not diminished the thirst of the Iranians for democracy and freedom. The elections have also been far from rubber stamps for official candidates, but have often produced many surprises. 

Up to a week before the 1997 election, a senior conservative cleric Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri who was the establishment candidate was expected to win. However, Mohammad Khatami's reformist campaign attracted the biggest turnout in the history of Iranian presidential elections and he won with over 20 million to Nateq-Nouri's 7 million votes. 

President Khatami initiated a period of major social reforms at home and a policy of rapprochement with the West. He called for a dialogue of civilisations and even proposed a grand bargain to the US in 2003 covering Iran's nuclear programme, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Persian Gulf security. 

However, in return, he was rewarded with President George W Bush's inclusion of Iran in the Axis of Evil. The rejection of Iran's outstretched hand strengthened the hardliners and led to the victory of the right-wing candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election. In 2009 again the majority of people voted for the reformist candidate Mir-Hoseyn Mousavi, but Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in what many people regarded as a rigged election. 

Millions of Green Movement supporters demonstrated in the streets, but they were put down by force, and Iran and the world had to endure four more years of Ahmadinejad's rule. 

When Hassan Rouhani declared his candidacy for the June 2013 presidential election, opinion polls put his popularity at only five percent, but an energetic campaign with promises of greater freedoms at home and a policy of engagement with the West brought more than 72% of the electorate to the polling stations, and he won in the first round with about 51% of the vote. 

The main candidate of the hardliners, Saeed Jalili, only received just over 11% of the vote and the other conservative candidate, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati who has been the Supreme Leader's foreign policy advisor for many years received just over six percent of the vote. 

While the president has to balance his powers with a number of other influential players, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the conservative clerics and the Revolution Guards, nevertheless, he is the chief executive and his policies can make a huge difference in both domestic and foreign policies. 

Within the first 100 days of his tenure, Rouhani reversed 34 years of mutual hostility with the US and reached a landmark agreement in face-to-face negotiations between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif and the US Secretary of State John Kerry. 

The agreement limits Iranian nuclear activities and virtually makes it impossible for Iran to move towards a breakout without being detected in plenty of time by the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who have been given the power of daily inspection of Iranian sites. A rapprochement with Iran helps calm the situation in a turbulent Middle East, reduces hostility towards Israel, helps America with her withdrawal from Afghanistan and fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. 

A country of 80 million youthful and educated people, with the world's largest gas and the second largest oil deposits can provide a huge market for the West. If Iran's outstretched hand is once again rejected, it would send a message to Iranians that the West is not sincere in her dealings with Iran.

January 29, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:29 PM


The Employee of the Month Has a Battery (MICHAEL SALTSMAN, Jan. 29, 2014, WSJ)

Asked if he supported a higher minimum wage, Mr. Gates urged caution and said the policy would create an incentive for employers to "buy machines and automate things.

Mr. Gates is right, but the transition toward self-service began long before tabletop computers were a viable option. Self-service soda machines, available at fast-food restaurants since at least the late 1970s, were a labor-saving device. Even coffee carafes left on the table for customers to serve themselves allowed restaurants to reduce the staff needed to fill cups. More recently, major restaurant chains such as Bob Evans and Chili's have updated their service model to eliminate bus boys, relying on servers to clear tables themselves.

Technology has enabled much bigger overhauls. Consider the modern department store: At some Target and Macy's locations, customers can check their own prices, as well as check themselves out at self-service kiosks after shopping. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2012 that the number of these establishments has grown by 23% over the last 10 years, while total employment at the firms has fallen by 6%.

Tablet-based ordering is coming into vogue at U.S. restaurants: Chefs polled by the National Restaurant Association recently ranked computerized menus as the top tech trend for 2014. Airports in locations like New York City and Minneapolis now feature "restaurants" that are waitstaff-free. In 2011, McDonald's announced it was replacing human cashiers with touch-screen alternatives at more than 7,000 European locations.

Customers may find the new technology convenient, but the thousands of young adults who used to earn money filling these roles won't. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:53 PM


Rep. Ryan: GOP Looking at Legal Status, Chance for Citizenship (LAURA MECKLER, 1/29/14, WSJ)

Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), a leading GOP advocate for tackling immigration, confirmed Wednesday that Republicans are looking to give illegal immigrants legal status right away, with the chance for a green card--and citizenship--down the line.

Posted by orrinj at 7:39 PM


Visiting Iran, Erdogan looks to double trade (YIFA YAAKOV AND AP January 30, 2014, Times of Israel)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Tehran on Wednesday for a two-day state visit, and inked three trade deals with the Islamic Republic.

The agreements include reductions in tariffs on 220 Turkish industrial products and on Iranian food products, and come amid an easing of economic sanctions on Iran, as part of an interim deal with Western powers.

Turkey and Iran aim to more than double the current levels of trade between the countries, going from $13.5 billion (9.9 billion euros) in 2013 despite strained relations to $30 billion (21.9 billion euros) in 2015, Erdogan said Wednesday.

Posted by orrinj at 2:33 PM


REVIEW: of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present Recklessness and Resignation: Democracy in a Time of Crisis by David Runciman (Daniel Cohen, January 28th, 2014, LA Review of Books)

If the din of certain commentators is to be believed, democracy is in trouble today. For Joshua Kurlantzick, it is a time of "democracy in retreat," as he called his recent book chronicling the "worldwide decline of representative government." Philip Coggan, a respected columnist at The Economist, has a narrower focus in The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy. He's worried about Europe and the United States, where he identifies low turnout, the rise of extremist parties, growing inequality, and ageing populations as a few of the many perils for our democratic stability.

For today's doomsayers, there are historical analogies to be mined, namely the 1930s and 1970s. But no matter how alarming or alarmist these are, they are also a reminder that democracies have managed to defeat -- or at least outlast -- fascism (with help from the Soviet Union) and state communism (with help from the Soviet Union). To truly frighten readers, you have to convince them that this time will be different. [...]

The story starts with Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Runciman calls "the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis." It is a telling choice: like Runciman, Tocqueville is a calm thinker who shuns extremes and easy pieties. Central to The Confidence Trap is Tocqueville's idea of "democratic fatalism." In democracies, citizens feel confident that the form of government will survive, and consequently they "follow the course of their destiny weakly rather than make a sudden and energetic effort when needed to address it." But as Runciman notes, while this often engenders passivity, it can also have the opposite effect:

It was part of Tocqueville's genius to recognise that democratic fatalism went along with recklessness as well as resignation. What's more, he understood that it could sometimes be hard to tell the difference between the two.

For Runciman, recklessness and resignation serve a purpose. In the history of democracy that he wants to tell, "good news and bad news feed off each other."

This is the democracy trap: "You cannot have the good of democratic progress without the bad of democratic drift." Runciman insists that, for democracies, mistakes are survived but they are not learned from; this encourages complacency and guarantees future mistakes. In a signature chiastic flourish, he writes: "The ongoing success of democracy creates the conditions for repeated failures, just as repeated failures are a precondition for its ongoing success."

Crisis can therefore be useful -- and not just for the politicians who stand to profit from it. In 1962, West Germany's defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss, signed off on a raid on the office of the magazine Der Spiegel with the consent of Konrad Adenauer, the country's chancellor. The resulting scandal forced Strauss's resignation and an agreement from Adenauer to stand down the next year (he was 86 at the time). In the first decade and a half of West Germany, Adenauer justified his strong-man rule as necessary to nurturing democracy at a time when it could ill afford a crisis. But as Runciman notes, "it turned out that a crisis was precisely what West German democracy needed at this stage of its development": it enabled debate and brought a new generation of intellectuals into the public conversation.

The years that Runciman has chosen are often surprising and characteristic of his counterintuitive approach. Few would argue that 1933 was a bad year for democracy, but for Runciman, it is an example of how we see such events through hindsight's distorted lens. He shows how, for contemporaries, the event that exemplified the failure of the democracies was not Hitler's election as chancellor but the failure of the World Economic Conference in London, seen as "a final chance for the world's leading economies to arrest the slide into chaos." At a time when admiration for fascism and Stalinism could be found in the mainstream (Runciman quotes Keynes hailing both of "these magnificent experiments"), the inability of the conference's attendees to come to an agreement seemed to confirm the fundamental ineffectiveness of liberal democracy -- a criticism that recurred throughout the century.

Even more unexpected is Runciman's devoting of a chapter to 1989. Today, the year is commonly regarded as one of democracy's great victories and a high-water mark of democratic triumphalism: the time of walls falling and history ending. Runciman reminds us that the intellectual atmosphere at the time was in fact much gloomier -- the 1980s were "an extension of the 1970s rather than a preview of the 1990s." The non-fiction blockbusters of the time -- Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind -- were marked by pessimism and familiar fears about the decline of the west. Francis Fukuyama, for all his misplaced confidence in the victory of liberal democracy, was not especially cheery about the world it would bring: the end of history would, he lamented in his famous article of that year, be "a very sad time," in which there would be "neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history."

We'd rather lie to ourselves and pretend we face unprecedented challenges than acknowledge that we live unheroic lives.

Posted by orrinj at 1:25 PM


Does the public still care about the NSA? (Marc Ambinder, JANUARY 29, 2014, The Week)

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls finds that a plurality of Americans have no idea whether Snowden did the right thing in stealing and then leaking the documents. Twenty-three percent support Snowden's actions. But the rest are split between opposing them or not having an opinion. "When 'no opinion' leads, it means they really don't care," is how NBC News put it. [...]

The public seems less concerned that the NSA works to actively undermine encryption or tinkers with virtual worlds to try and discover and disrupt new means of clandestine communication because, it turns out, they do a passable job of keeping our communications out of it. The premise of the leaked documents -- that they show an unvarnished truth -- tends to cancel out the most extreme versions of the world that Snowden portrayed. They show an agency that got well ahead of its skies and was in need of a hard dollop of truth and transparency -- props to him for that -- but they also show an agency that struggled to get it right, in secret, when no one was looking.

Posted by orrinj at 1:23 PM


Obama Punts on Immigration (GABRIEL ARANA JANUARY 29, 2014, American Prospect)

[T]here are at least two areas where progressives say the president should have pushed harder last night: immigration and protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the workplace. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT people, passed the Senate in November but has floundered in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, who has said publicly the legislation is unnecessary, said he will not bring it to a floor vote. Obama made no mention of ENDA last night, and has on a number of occasions downplayed the use of executive action to ensure rights for LGBT workers.

The president did, however, address immigration, weaving the topic into the broader theme of spurring economic growth. "If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement and fix our broken immigration system," Obama said. "Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same." But the issue got less airtime this year than last year, when post-election soul-searching from defeated Republicans made many hopeful the GOP would move forward on immigration as a way to placate Latino voters. 

Some supporters of immigration reform say this was a calculated political move. "In the crazy world of Washington, D.C., the more [the president] says about immigration reform, the more Republicans are likely to resist it," says Frank Sharry, executive director of immigrant-rights group America's Voice. "In fact, you could say that he wants immigration reform legislation so badly, he downplayed it in the speech." 

Posted by orrinj at 1:21 PM


India-Japan ties 'increasingly important' (Deutsche Welle, 1/29/14)

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the chief guest an annual ceremony held on Sunday, January 26 in New Delhi to commemorate the anniversary of India becoming a republic in 1950. Sitting alongside Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee, Abe was the first Japanese leader ever to attend the event and watched intently as units of the Indian army held a march-past.

The position of honor extended to the Japanese leader underlines the growing importance both Tokyo and New Delhi place on their relationship across a range of areas, ranging from trade to energy, transportation links, new investment and tourism. Most critical to both nations, however, will to pose a united front against China.

Posted by orrinj at 1:19 PM


Obama offers new 'MyRA' retirement accounts (Jennifer Liberto, January 29, 2014, CNNMoney)

President Obama on Tuesday offered up a new kind of "starter" retirement accounts aimed at employees of companies that don't offer such plans.

Obama is calling them the "MyRA" and said he would, by executive order, direct the Treasury Department to create them.

Details were scarce Tuesday night, but employees will be able to contribute part of their wages to the savings accounts, which would be backed by the U.S. government. [...]

The Obama administration has been moving to try and promote savings through executive maneuvers. In 2010, Treasury set up a new program to allow Americans to automatically use their tax refunds to buy savings bonds.

Stock funds would be a better option, since the returns are higher, especially given our deflationary epoch.

Posted by orrinj at 1:08 PM


Obama promises security for 'Israel - a Jewish state (REBECCA SHIMONI STOIL, January 29, 2014, Times of Israel)

"As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel - a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side," Obama told both houses of Congress, gathered for the annual report.

Remember when we used to object to the idea that Zionism is racism?

Posted by orrinj at 1:01 PM


Good Speech, Modest Agenda, Diminished Leader  (Ron Fournier, January 28, 2014, National Journal)

Is that all there is?

In what may be his last, best chance to revive a presidency that has fallen far short of its promise, Barack Obama unveiled his 2014 agenda Tuesday night: small-bore executive orders, studies, summits, and legislation, long-seasoned and stalled. "America does not stand still," he said, "and neither will I." 

He focused on the era's seminal issue, loss of social mobility and income equality in a post-industrial, global economy. "The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by--let alone get ahead," Obama said to a joint session of Congress attending his annual State of the Union address.

Another cold, hard fact: Obama may not have the skill, the will, or the time to do much about it.

Posted by orrinj at 12:55 PM


Scientists in US and Japan achieve possible breakthrough on stem cells (Deutsche Welle, 1/29/14)

Scientists reported in this week's Nature journal that they had found a way to reprogram mature mouse cells into an embryonic-like state that allows them to generate many types of tissue. 
The research suggests that scientists could in the future similarly reprogram human cells, offering a simpler way to replace damaged cells or grow new organs for sick and injured people. 

The experiments, reported in two papers in the journal Nature on Wednesday, involved scientists from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan and Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the United States.

"It's very simple to do," said Dr. Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "I think you could do this actually in a college lab."

Stem cell 'major discovery' claimed (James Gallagher, 1/29/14, , BBC News)

Stem cell researchers are heralding a "major scientific discovery", with the potential to start a new age of personalised medicine.

Scientists in Japan showed stem cells can now be made quickly just by dipping blood cells into acid.

Stem cells can transform into any tissue and are already being trialled for healing the eye, heart and brain.

The latest development, published in the journal Nature, could make the technology cheaper, faster and safer.

Where does Michael; J. Fox go to buy back his soul?

Posted by orrinj at 12:51 PM


Republicans Just Won the Food Stamp War (Erika Eichelberger, Jan. 29, 2014, Mother Jones)

Here's why the compromise level of cuts is a Republican win: In addition to the $9 billion in food stamp cuts in this five-year farm bill, another $11 billion will be slashed over three years as stimulus funding for the program expires. The first $5 billion of that stimulus money expired in October; the rest will disappear by 2016. In the months since the first $5 billion in stimulus funding was cut, food pantries have been struggling to provide enough food for the hungry. Poverty remains at record high levels, and three job applicants compete for every job opening.

And yet, despite the $5 billion in cuts that already happened and the guarantee of $6 billion more, Republicans succeeded in getting their Democratic peers to cut food stamps further. This is the first time in history that a Democratic Senate has even proposed cutting the program. Now the upper chamber is expected to pass cuts twice the level it approved last year.

"It's a net loss" for Democrats," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tells Mother Jones. "It's absolutely a GOP win," agrees a House Democratic aide.

When wars end social programs get cut.

January 28, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:09 PM


Time for Pete Seeger To Repent (RON RADOSH | June 12, 2007, NY Sun)

The film's most egregious moment comes when it tells us that Mr. Seeger joined the Communist Party in 1939, and drifted out of it a decade later. It relates how in 1941 he joined the first folk music group, the Almanac Singers, which sang for the labor movement and the CIO. Next the film mentions that Mr. Seeger entered the Army during World War II, another sign of his patriotism.

Nowhere does this documentary describe the Almanac Singers' very first album, "Songs for John Doe." As readers of this newspaper know, in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and became allies. Overnight the communists took a

180-degree turn and became advocates of peace, arguing that Nazi Germany, which the USSR had opposed before 1939, was a benign power, and that the only threat to the world came from imperial Britain and FDR's America, which was on the verge of fascism. Those who wanted to intervene against Hitler were servants of Republic Steel and the oil cartels.

In the "John Doe" album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, "I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won't be safe till everybody's dead." Another song, to the tune of "Cripple Creek" and the sound of Mr. Seeger's galloping banjo, said, "Franklin D., Franklin D., You ain't a-gonna send us across the sea," and "Wendell Willkie and Franklin D., both agree on killing me."

The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when -- two months after "John Doe" was released -- Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing "Dear Mr. President," in which he acknowledges they didn't always agree in the past, but now says he is going to "turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise," i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.

For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called "Hey Zhankoye," which helped spread the fiction that Stalin's USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn't Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?

According to the film, one of Mr. Seeger's greatest accomplishments was his tour with third-party Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace in 1948. Viewers are told only that Wallace was a peace candidate opposed to the America-created Cold War, and that he was falsely accused of being a communist. Nowhere do we learn that Wallace's campaign was in fact a Communist Party-run affair, and that had he been elected, Wallace announced he was going to appoint men to his Cabinet who we now know were bona fide Soviet agents. Instead, we are asked to assume that every position taken by the old pro-Soviet left wing has been proved correct.

When the blacklist came to an end -- of course the film concentrates on his victimization in those dark years -- Mr. Seeger finally reached millions of Americans who, during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, came to believe there was never any merit to anti-communism, that it was the same as McCarthyism. Mr. Seeger went to visit North Vietnam in 1972, and came away ecstatic about the beautiful country and the peace-loving people there. We hear nothing about the political prisoners, the boat people, or about Ms. Baez's lone protest after the war's end against political oppression on the part of those she called "aging Stalinist leaders," a protest that Mr. Seeger, for once, took no part in. Instead we see the video of him singing his anti-war hit, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."

In the film, Mr. Seeger says he slowly drifted away from the Communist Party because he didn't like its top-down organization. He does not address the policies for which it stood. He never pauses to criticize the communist regimes he once backed, nor the few that still exist, like Castro's prison camp in Cuba. Mr. Seeger's cries for peace and his opposition to every American foreign and military policy (even ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan) show that he has learned little from the past. Mr. Brown's film lionizes him, and lets viewers believe that his old causes were on target, that his opponents were in essence war criminals.

A sympathetic but accurate film would praise Mr. Seeger as an individual and an artist, and would honor him for his contribution to American music and for his dedication to causes he believed in. But it would dare to criticize him for his anachronistic and false political views.

He served--wittingly and unwittingly--an evil ideology while it killed 100 million people.  That's a heck of a lot to answer for.

Posted by orrinj at 5:50 PM


Public-sector unions interfere with the public interest (Charles Lane, January 27, 2014, Washington Post)

It may be only a matter of time before these disparate debates converge and squarely pose the question that lies at the root of them all: Is public-sector collective bargaining in the public interest?

The answer is no. All members of the public use schools, roads, parks and other government services -- and pay taxes to support them. Their interest lies in receiving the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost. Period.

Public-sector unions interfere. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:45 PM


'Inventing the Individual', by Larry Siedentop (David Abulafia, Financial Times)

Medieval Catholic theology, philosophy and law are not the most obvious places to look for the roots of western liberalism, which, according to Larry Siedentop, can be found in the idea of "moral equality" among individual human beings. It is this concept, he believes, that marks out the Christian west from the rest of the world, and that provided the seed bed from which sprouted a liberal ideology that has proclaimed itself to be staunchly secular, forgetting its Catholic origins.

"In its basic assumptions," he asserts, "liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity", for "liberalism rests on the moral assumptions provided by Christianity".

How can it be otherwise if you believe Man was Created in God's image?  How could it be if you don't believe God created man?

Posted by orrinj at 5:38 PM


The presidency: A job shapes a jobholder (John Yemma, January 26, 2014, CS Monitor)

This is a president who campaigned on the need for change, who was deeply skeptical of the national security state, who vowed to close the Guantánamo detention center, and who criticized his predecessor for circumventing Congress. He has changed his mind on all those issues. He is on a track that will at least match George W. Bush's use of executive action. 

But then, the presidency isn't a job that can be made into what the jobholder wants it to be. Maneuvering room is limited. Domestic and international conditions can't be ignored. The job shapes the jobholder.

Posted by orrinj at 5:35 PM


Retirement prospects are fairly good for people with 401(k) plans (Walter Hamilton, January 22, 2014, LA Times)

People with access to 401(k) plans for at least 30 years will likely have enough money for a reasonably comfortable retirement.

That's the upshot of a new study measuring how Americans will fare in retirement.

The combination of Social Security benefits and 401(k) savings will provide most people with at least 60% of their inflation-adjusted pre-retirement annual income, according to the analysis by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute.

January 27, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 5:17 PM


States Weigh New Plans for Revenue Windfalls (MARK PETERS, Jan. 26, 2014, WSJ)

Governors across the U.S. are proposing tax cuts, increases in school spending and college-tuition freezes as growing revenue and mounting surpluses have states putting the recession behind them.

How spending has fallen under Obama (Jeanne Sahadi, 1/27/14, CNNMoney)

As a share of the economy, spending on domestic and defense programs has been on the decline since 2010, and is on track to reach the lowest level in more than 50 years by 2023.

At its height in 2010, "discretionary spending" under Obama reached 9.1% of GDP. That was largely due to the stimulus law intended to dig the country out of a deep recession. But even at that high level, it wasn't that much higher than the 40-year average of 8.4% and was still below the 40-year peak of 10% reached in 1983.

Today, levels are well below the long-term average. And the Congressional Budget Office projects that by 2023 discretionary spending will fall to 5.3% of GDP, the lowest since 1962.

Posted by orrinj at 3:57 PM


Stem Cell Company in Crisis (Heidi Ledford, 1/27/14, Nature magazine)
The company is running the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved clinical trials of embryonic stem (ES)-cell therapies. [...]
Yet a series of financial missteps could cost ACT the opportunity to see that potential become reality. On 22 January, the firm announced that its chief executive, Gary Rabin, was stepping down. The news came a month after ACT--which had $5.5 million in cash on-hand as of 30 September 2013--announced that it would pay $4 million to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charge alleging that the company had illegally sold billions of shares of stock.

Posted by orrinj at 3:50 PM


Netanyahu son's romance with non-Jew sparks Orthodox outcry (MARISSA NEWMAN AND AFP January 27, 2014)

In an interview with ultra-Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat, Ben-Artzi urged his nephew to cut ties with his new girlfriend, and warned him that should he choose to pursue the relationship, Ben-Artzi would personally see to it that he would not be allowed near his grandparents' graves.

"It's terrible," Ben-Artzi said. "Just terrible, and the son of the prime minister no less. It is the worst thing that is threatening and was a threat throughout the history of the Jews."

Should his nephew marry Leikanger, Ben-Artzi said he "would bury myself, I don't know what I would do with myself, I'd take to the streets and rip the hair out of my head -- and here it's coming true."

If his father was alive, Ben-Artzi added, that is precisely how he would respond too.

Ben-Artzi and Sara Netanyahu have not been in touch for years for undisclosed reasons.

Earlier on Monday, ultra-Orthodox Shas MK Arye Deri responded to news of the relationship by saying, "If God forbid it's true, then woe to us, woe to us."

Deri told the Kol Barama radio station the relationship was no mere personal matter because Netanyahu is a "symbol of the Jewish people."

"I know friends of mine who invest tens of millions and more, hundreds of millions to fight assimilation in the world," Deri said.

Posted by orrinj at 3:46 PM


Somali militant killed in missile attack (AP, January 27, 2014)

A member of Somali rebel group al-Shabab was killed Sunday by a missile fired by a suspected drone, a rebel commander said, blaming the US for the strike.

Credit, not blame.

Posted by orrinj at 3:40 PM


Are House Republicans planning to pull a fast one on immigration? (BYRON YORK, JANUARY 27, 2014, Washington Examiner)

[T}he Wall Street Journal stirred a lot of interest this weekend when it reported that GOP leaders are hoping to put one over on voters who oppose reform. The plan, the Journal said, is to delay a vote on a bill until after the deadline passes for primary challenges across the country. That way, a GOP lawmaker whose constituents oppose reform could lay low until the coast was clear -- no primary challenge! -- and then vote against his voters' interest. From the Journal:

House leaders hope to bring legislation to the floor as early as April, the people close to the process said, after the deadline has passed in many states for challengers to file paperwork needed to run for Congress. Republican leaders hope that would diminish chances that a lawmaker's support for immigration bills winds up sparking a primary-election fight.

If true, such a GOP strategy would certainly set off a lot of anger among conservative voters. 

Rightwing, not conservative, and who cares?  They aren't going anywhere.  As with the Reagan Amnesty, they'll be oiver it as soon as it happens

Posted by orrinj at 3:34 PM


The post-Khamenei era (RAMIN PARHAM, SAEED GHASSEMINEJAD, 01/26/2014, Jerusalem Post)

How will the IRGC move in the post-Khamenei era? The options are threefold: First, that IRGC commanders stay neutral, not intervening in the process of selecting a new supreme leader, while safeguarding the stability of the regime in the transitional period. However, well aware of the possibility of being ousted by the new leadership and its entourage, high-ranking IRGC commanders, all indebted to Khamenei for their current positions, risk more than just their wealth and power.

The post-Khamenei era could well become for them a matter of life or death. Thus IRGC commanders have both the ability and the incentive to weigh in, with all their means, in the selection process of the new leader.

The second scenario is that IRGC commanders do intervene, installing their own pick for the supreme spot.

At the moment, the best option for them is Mojtaba Khamenei, son of the current leader. Symbolic as it might be, the ambitious heir has already started teaching his own seminars, known as "kharej," interpreted as a sign of established religious credentials, a scholarly credit his own father did not have prior to his accession to leadership. However, it is no secret that Mojtaba's most valuable credentials are his close ties with the IRGC and its related security apparatus.

Following in his father's footsteps, Mojtaba Khamenei is personally involved in military programs and intelligence affairs. Also well known are the strong bonds between Mojtaba and Qasem Soleimani - the commander of the IRGC's Qods Force and the most powerful operative in the Middle East according to Western sources.

The final scenario is that IRGC commanders stage a coup against the clerical establishment. After over 30 years of disastrous management of the country in all aspects, IRGC commanders are well aware of the profound unpopularity of the clerical establishment. It would thus not be unlikely for the IRGC to plan to present itself as the savior of both the country and the people from the catastrophic reign of corrupt and unpopular mullahs. This in turn may well guarantee the IRGC's own power, at least in the short run. Such an ambitious move would, of course, face many obstacles, primarily within the IRGC itself, making it a possible yet perilous move.

Posted by orrinj at 3:25 PM


Grand Canyon 'formed recently' (Jonathan Amos, 1/27/14, BBC News)

Posted by orrinj at 3:13 PM


Genetically-modified purple tomatoes heading for shops (David Shukman, 1/27/14, BBC News)

The prospect of genetically modified purple tomatoes reaching the shelves has come a step closer.

Their dark pigment is intended to give tomatoes the same potential health benefits as fruit such as blueberries.

Developed in Britain, large-scale production is now under way in Canada with the first 1,200 litres of purple tomato juice ready for shipping.

The pigment, known as anthocyanin, is an antioxidant which studies on animals show could help fight cancer.

Scientists say the new tomatoes could improve the nutritional value of everything from ketchup to pizza topping.

January 26, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:44 AM


Catalan Academics Press Separatist Drive (MATT MOFFETT, Jan. 24, 2014, WSJ)

Buoyed by polls showing majority support for secession, the Catalan parliament in Barcelona this month voted to hold a referendum on Nov. 9. The central government in Madrid has vowed to block a vote, which it says would be unconstitutional, but that hasn't quieted the debate.

On blogs, in interviews and in meetings with business and citizen groups, the six academics argue that Spain's system of sharing tax revenues among the 17 regions shortchanges Catalonia by about €16 billion ($22 billion) annually. That amounts to more than €2,000 per inhabitant, or around 8% of Catalonia's output, based on public tax and investment data, the academics say.

They argue that the northeastern region of 7.5 million people could become not only a viable country, but quite possibly an economic juggernaut.

Catalonia, which has a distinctive culture and language, has long had a strained relationship with Madrid, but the collapse of Spain's economy in 2008 has left regions scrambling for resources and brought tensions to a boil.

Posted by orrinj at 7:41 AM


Salem's Marilinda Garcia announces congressional campaign in 2nd District (BEN LEUBSDORF, November 25, 2013, Concord Monitor)

Garcia, 30, a Salem Republican serving her fourth term in the House, is running in the 2nd District, which stretches from the Massachusetts border to the North Country and includes the cities of Concord and Nashua.

"I'm running because, like most of New Hampshire's citizens and the wider U.S., I'm very frustrated with the inability of our current political leadership to solve pressing problems. It's why the majority of Americans, for the first time, are less confident that their children and grandchildren can achieve the American dream," Garcia said yesterday. "So I'm running because I believe America is the last great hope on Earth, and that this is a nation worth fighting for, and I believe I have the skill-set and can benefit from a new generation of ideas and help bring America back on the right path again." [...]

Kuster, 57, an attorney from Hopkinton, ran for Congress in the 2nd District in 2010 but lost narrowly to Republican Charlie Bass, who had previously held the seat for six terms. Two years later, in 2012, she defeated Bass in a rematch.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll taken last month showed Kuster tied with Lambert for 2014 - 34 percent for Lambert, 33 percent for Kuster and 31 percent undecided, with a 5.4 percent margin of error. The poll of 333 residents of the 2nd District was taken Oct. 7-16.

"Clearly they think Ann Kuster is in danger, so they're starting to attack me today, apparently," Garcia said. "They see she's weak."

Garcia was first elected to the state House in 2006, when she was 23. She sits on the powerful House Finance Committee and serves in the House with her sister, Rep. Bianca Garcia, also a state representative from Salem.

Marilinda Garcia is vice president for client relations at Axon Global Services, a cybersecurity firm. A harpist, she also teaches the instrument at Phillips Exeter Academy - the private school where Tom Hassan, husband of Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, is the principal.

The Republican National Committee in August named Garcia a rising star, and she's a member of the Future Majority Caucus, a GOP group that seeks to recruit and support women and candidates of color.

Garcia said yesterday her youth is an asset to her campaign.

"I do think that I'm uniquely poised to help a younger generation of people that, frankly, need to be involved and obviously are most concerned about the future of our country," she said. "I think it's about time we stepped up and had a voice, so that's why I'm stepping up."

Posted by orrinj at 7:33 AM


Iranian President Rouhani's trip to Davos gets good reviews at home (Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Sandels, January 25, 2014, LA Times)

To some skeptics, however, Rouhani's comments echoed remarks made in Davos a decade ago by then-President Mohammad Khatami. Khatami wooed the international community and tried to persuade foreign investors to return to Iran.

Many Iranians back then were hopeful of a broad democratic and economic transformation. Expectations are now largely scaled back to some marginal improvements in the nation's faltering economy, battered by international sanctions.

"We do not want democracy now; we want jobs for our educated youth," said Kamaran, 60, a civil engineer who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons.

Khatami eventually ran afoul of conservatives and left office without having accomplished the broad reforms he had promised. He was succeeded by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose combative administration was blamed for worsening Tehran's relations with the world. Rouhani took office last year amid renewed hopes of reform.

The moderate daily Mardom Salari praised Rouhani's remarks in Switzerland in an opinion piece titled "A different Iran."

"Hassan Rouhani knows very well that the conduct of the previous government has tarnished the image of Iran in the world," the column stated. "That is why he insists on behaving so well during his diplomatic visits so that the world knows that extremism has come to an end in Iran."

Rouhani has already pushed for an accommodation with world powers on Iran's controversial nuclear program, resulting in an interim deal with the United States and other nations. Iran has agreed to constraints on its nuclear efforts in exchange for a reduction in international sanctions.

Many analysts predict that Rouhani's popularity will plummet should the nuclear deal fall through, dashing the public's hopes for economic improvement.

"After his election victory last year, Rouhani is raising people's expectations and if for any reason sanctions are not lifted and the [nuclear] deal ... fails, then we will witness a backlash of frustration," Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, an Iranian businessman, wrote on his website.

There was considerable buzz about Rouhani's comment in Davos on Thursday that reopening of the U.S. Embassy "is not impossible" -- a stunning statement considering the mutually hostile U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution and seizure of the embassy and 52 hostages.

One of the signal failures of George W. Bush was not taking advantage of the Khatami/Khamenei outreach last time.
Posted by orrinj at 7:18 AM


Obama's rough 2013 prompts a new blueprint (Scott Wilson, January 25, 2014, Washington Post)

An internal White House assessment concludes that President Obama must distance himself from a recalcitrant Congress after being badly damaged last year by legislative failures, a government shutdown and his own missteps. [...]

As a result, Washington veterans have been brought into the West Wing to emphasize an executive style of governing that aims to sidestep Congress more often. A central ambition of Obama's presidency -- to change the way Washington works -- has effectively been discarded as a distraction in a time of hardening partisanship.

The White House postmortem also concluded that the administration suffered from a lack of focus in a year without an election. The 2012 campaign imposed discipline on the White House, providing a political filter to assess every new initiative. Obama wanted to know how his decisions would be explained to voters, a demand that vanished once the election was won.

...given that Congress is moving major legislation (like budgets) that he's signing.

Posted by orrinj at 7:12 AM


Breaking barriers: The Indo-Israeli cybersecurity alliance (Vishal D. Dharmadhikari, 1/26/14, Times of Israel)

Cybersecurity can progressively stand out as economic and political cornerstones of a vital partnership between two natural allies; Israel and India. Israeli cybersecurity firms, ranging from major product-based companies to start-ups, have focused primarily on markets in North America and Europe. However, in January 1992, Israel acquired diplomatic partnerships with a major Asian giant that considerably influences the present-day international system: India.

22 years since this accomplishment, Israeli cybersecurity vendors have increasingly looked at the Indian market's tremendous potential for economic rewards, and this gradually accentuates cybersecurity as an element of the ever-growing Indo-Israeli alliance. The United States, Canada, and major European countries undeniably provide a vast market for Israeli cybersecurity firms to grow at an exponential rate. However, monumental growth of the Indian cyberspace gives Israeli cybersecurity firms with cutting edge technologies the chance to partner with Indian cybersecurity companies.

Posted by orrinj at 7:09 AM


As sanctions recede, Iran looks to develop gas industry (AFP, January 26, 2014)

"We would welcome foreign companies and investors if they want to come back," said Hamid Reza Massoudi, chief engineer at an unfinished South Pars refinery near the town of Assaluyeh, 920 kilometres (570 miles) south of Tehran.

"They would definitely speed up the progress," Massoudi said, as work proceeded on the refinery's structure.

Development at the mammoth offshore field has been hobbled for years by sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, a lack of foreign and domestic investment and technical challenges.

Iran struggled to fill the vacuum after the departure of France's Total, Spain's Repson and the Royal Dutch Shell, and efforts to continue development through state-owned and quasi-private companies had mixed success.

But President Hassan Rouhani's stated ambition to resolve the dispute with the West over Iran's nuclear drive has raised hopes of relief from financial sanctions and embargoes that have drastically curtailed oil production and vital exports.

The diplomatic rapprochement could also spark foreign investment and lead to a return of oil majors to revive ageing oilfields and to South Pars.

Posted by orrinj at 6:56 AM


HSAs drive greater employee health engagement (Michelle Hicks, January 24,2014, Idaho Business Review)

On Dec. 8, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Medicare Modernization Act into law, which included not only the expansion of Medicare Part D for prescription drugs, but also the introduction of health savings accounts. Ten years later, Americans have almost $20 billion dollars invested in more than 9 million accounts, designed to help pay for eligible medical expenses when used with a high-deductible health plan.

Their appeal is growing. One in four employers in 2013 said they are increasing their emphasis on high-deductible health plans with HSAs, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Part of what makes them attractive to employers is that HSAs can help reduce employer health care expenses. A study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found total health care spending for an employer with a high-deductible plan and HSA fell by 25 percent in the first year. But that's not the only draw.

Employers are, of course, concerned with how much they spend on health care, but most offer it to ensure their workforce is healthy and productive. The old models of providing health plans with $10 co-pays to visit the doctor or fill a prescription don't reflect the true health care cost to employees, making them less likely to pay attention to their health or their health care spending. When they have "skin in the game" through a plan that requires them to meet a higher deductible before their benefits kick in, studies now show employees pay more attention to not only spending, but their overall health.

A recent study by Buck Consultants found employees who contribute to health savings accounts generally become more engaged in managing their health after enrolling. Fifty-one percent of respondents are setting aside more money for potential health care costs than before they had HSAs, and 29 percent have more discussions with their doctors about the cost of care.

The Rise of Consumerism : Recent research reveals employees with health savings accounts are slowly becoming better consumers when it comes to buying medical care. Here's what HR can do to ride that wave to a healthier workforce. (Tom Starner, December 30, 2013, Human Resource Executive Online)

The health savings account and high-deductible, consumer-driven health-plan concepts are nothing new, as HSAs first hit the employer healthcare market a decade ago.

And, while HSA popularity got off to a slow start, some recent studies suggest that HSAs not only are picking up steam with employers, but they also are starting to transform plan members into better healthcare consumers -- a benefit of HSAs and consumer-driven healthcare touted by vendors who offer them. [...]

The Buck survey found that employees who contribute to HSAs generally become more engaged in managing their health after enrolling. For example, among the most telling findings, 51 percent of respondents set aside more money for potential medical costs than before they had HSAs. Twenty-nine percent have more discussions with their doctors about the cost of care and 13 percent more actively manage their chronic disease.

"In fact, respondents indicated greater engagement with each of 11 health-management activities we measured," says Atlanta-based Travis Klavohn, director of consumer health solutions at BenefitWallet. "Best of all, these results are consistent across the three surveys we conducted over a five-year period."
Since HSA members are responsible for a greater portion of their health costs, they also expect plan-provided tools and resources to help them make informed, rational decisions, Klavohn adds. When ranking important HSA product features, 44 percent of respondents ranked the ability to view claims on the HSA site as most important. They ranked paying medical claims on the HSA member portal second at 35 percent.

"Our data shows that HSA members are making wiser healthcare decisions," Klavohn says. "They are evaluating costs more closely before receiving care, shopping for lower priced drugs and choosing less costly services. And they attribute that changed behavior to owning an HSA."

Sander Domaszewicz, a principal in Mercer's Health Care practice, says offering employees proper tools and resources to help them manage their HSA spending is critical to achieving the goal of increasing their willingness to think about medical care cost and quality. He cited a 2008 Blue Cross Blue Shield Association survey that found employees who were HSA-eligible (with an account versus no account) reported that participants chose a lower cost treatment option 36 percent of the time, while 23 percent in non-CDHC traditional health plans did the same. When it came to asking their doctor about treatment costs, 52 percent with HSAs did so, while 33 percent did so in non-CDHC plans.

"If you give employees the tools and resources to make the best choices and don't just throw them to the wolves, they are much more willing to engage and be better healthcare consumers," he says, adding that the personal financial situation and the account portion contributed by the employer also are important. "No two HSA plans are the same, and you can have a wide variety of funding scenarios, which also can have an impact."

Domaszewicz says the best practice for HR leaders is to offer both the insurance coverage portion and the HSA financial account, because both are required for real success.

"You need both," he says. "And you need to wrap the best possible tools and resources into the mix so employees will take on that extra accountability."

Posted by orrinj at 6:48 AM


The States of Our Union ... Are Not All Strong : We ranked all 50, from fabulous to failed. (MARGARET SLATTERY January 24, 2014, Politico)

[P]olitico Magazine rounded up 14 different state rankings from reputable sources like the Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FBI, and on important factors such as high school graduation rates, per capita income, life expectancy and crime rate. Then we averaged out each state's 14 rankings to come up with a master list--atop which sits none other than New Hampshire. The approach isn't scientific or comprehensive (hey, neither was Mencken's), and not all states are created equal--California's economy is the world's eighth largest, for instance, and Texas's population outranks that of most countries. We also hold no grudges against the State of Mississippi, which came in last not just overall but on four of the individual lists, and certainly don't attribute its woes to "hordes of barbaric peasants," as Mencken did. But given that eight of the lowest-ranking states on our list overlap with the bottom 10 on his, maybe less has changed in the past 83 years than you'd think.

Overall rank (1 = best)

1  New Hampshire  Maggie Hassan (D)

Don't fret, we need population growth so you're all welcome.

Posted by orrinj at 6:45 AM


House Republicans to Offer Broad Immigration Plan (ASHLEY PARKER and JONATHAN WEISMAN, JAN. 25, 2014, NY Times)

"The principles they lay out I'm sure won't satisfy everybody," Michael R. Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, said at an immigration forum on Friday. But, he added, "if we can make some compromises here for the good of the country, I think we have a very good chance for the first time in a long time of changing something that is really damaging all of us."

The Senate, led by Democrats, passed a broad bipartisan measure in June to overhaul immigration that included a 13-year path to citizenship. But the legislation stalled in the Republican-controlled House, where some of the party's more conservative members oppose any form of legal status as "amnesty."

But heading into the three-day Republican retreat, even some of the most ardent conservatives say consensus is forming around an immigration package that would include several separate bills on border security; a clampdown against the hiring of undocumented workers; expanded guest-worker programs; a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children; and a path to legal status for undocumented workers with family ties to citizens or employer sponsors.

The White House has said it wants a path to citizenship for both children and adults in any new immigration legislation.

"The president's pathway to citizenship is a stumbling block," said Representative Andy Harris, a conservative Republican who represents the Maryland district that will host the retreat. "But legalization with no path to citizenship can gain some votes." [...]

Critics worry that House Republican leaders and Senate Democrats are essentially negotiating a final deal, bypassing formal House-Senate negotiations, where conservatives had hoped to derail the process. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, one of the Democratic architects of the Senate bill, said: "One thing is certain, just as with the budget, at some point both the House and the Senate will have to sit down and resolve all the contentious issues."

January 25, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 1:37 PM



This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's black comedy about nuclear weapons, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as "dangerous ... an evil thing about an evil thing." Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. 

...of the film entire.

Posted by orrinj at 8:10 AM


Why Hiring Lags Behind Even as U.S. Factories Hum (THEO FRANCIS, Jan. 22, 2014, WSJ)

Prime-Line quickly ramped up production. It still relied on employees, many earning $9 to $10 an hour, to move medium-density fiberboard manually between machines that sawed, molded and primed it.

Automating the line in 2011 roughly doubled the plant's efficiency, letting it produce 100,000 feet of molding with about six people, instead of 12, Mr. Feeney said. The company's workforce, then about 55, fell to about 40 early last year, though average pay rose to about $15 an hour.

Posted by orrinj at 7:57 AM


Thoughts on a Center-Left Entitlements Strategy : How we might shape Social Security and Medicare for the future (William Galston, The American Prospect)

 The principles that should guide reform are reasonably clear and uncontroversial (I hope): the measures we adopt should preserve and enhance the program's universality, progressivity, and intergenerational equity while minimizing the negative consequences for growth and employment.

The following are some steps consistent with these principles:

When Social Security began, it did not include any state and local government workers.  Today, despite legal changes, some remain outside the system.  As state and local pension systems come under increasing pressure, these workers are vulnerable.  Including all new state and local public employees in Social Security and would give them greater long-term security and would modestly bolster the system's finances during the next few decades.

Since 1977, the financial structure of Social Security has rested on the assumption that wages subject to the payroll tax would represent about 90 percent of the kinds of earnings covered under the law.  For various reasons, including the explosion of wages at the very top, taxable wages now amount to only 83 percent of covered earnings.  Over time, we should increase the cap on taxable wages to bring 90 percent of such earnings back under the cap.

Two measures would increase the progressivity of Social Security while reducing financial pressures on the system.  For low-income beneficiaries, we should institute a minimum benefit such that no one qualifying for benefits would receive annual payments amounting to less than 125 percent of the poverty line.  And for beneficiaries above the median of earnings, we should change the current formula for calculating initial benefits to reflect, on a sliding scale, consumer prices as well as wages.  This would mean that initial benefits for workers in the 30th percentile would continue to be based entirely on wage inflation; for workers in the 60th percentile, mainly on wage inflation; for those in the 90th percentile, mainly on price inflation.  Formula parameters would be set to ensure that (a) progressive indexation amounts to no more than half the package needed to restore the system's 75-year actuarial balance; and (b) workers at the top continue to receive higher benefits than those in lower earnings percentiles. 

Because employers make hiring decisions at the margin on the basis of total compensation rather than wages and salaries, steep increases in the payroll tax are likely to depress employment growth.  While the system needs more revenue, raising the payroll tax rate is not the best way to go.  Along with many others, I favor a broad-based carbon tax yielding a revenue stream sufficient at least to keep the payroll tax rate where it is now, and preferably to roll it back.  I do not favor eliminating the payroll tax altogether, however, because the link between individual contributions and individual benefits strengthens the moral basis of Social Security--and the program's political support.

Means-testing and transitioning from income taxes to consumption taxes are good initial steps, but maximizing growth requires personal accounts.

Posted by orrinj at 7:49 AM


To Save Threatened Owl, Another Species Is Shot (ELIZABETH SHOGREN, January 16, 2014, NPR)

In desperation to save the rare northern spotted owl, biologists are doing something that goes against their core -- shooting another owl that's rapidly taking over spotted owl territory across the northwest. [...]

A few decades ago, the plight of the spotted owl sparked an epic struggle between environmentalists and the timber industry. In 1990, the federal government put the spotted owl on the endangered species list, giving it a "threatened" designation. Protecting the bird, and the old growth forests where they nest, accelerated the decline of the logging industry in the northwest.

At the time, small numbers of the bigger barred owls, which are native to the east, had already made their way across the continent and into historic spotted owl turf. Now, they are outcompeting spotted owls -- disrupting their nesting and eating their food.

During the 1990s, a few barred owls showed up in an area of forest along Redwood Creek that was prime spotted owl territory. Barred owls, which reproduce much faster than spotted owls, now claim nearly all this territory. No spotted owls have nested in this stretch of forest in recent years.

"It's very upsetting and there's nothing that's going to stop this expansion of barred owls from continuing," says Diller, who has studied spotted owls for 25 years. The only feasible solution, Diller says, forces him to go against his nature.

Given their interbreeding, the biologists are shooting spotted owls.

Posted by orrinj at 7:47 AM


Cleaning Bank Notes Could Save Millions Of Dollars (But Not As Much As Doing Away With Cash Completely) (Ben Schiller, 1/24/14, Co.Exist)

However, there is a simpler way of reducing cash's cost, and that's doing without it altogether and moving towards digital forms of exchange. Soiling isn't the only problem. There's also the price of securing cash and paying for bank robberies. Then there's the role of cash in enabling crime and tax evasion, and keeping poor people out of the formal economy. (David Wolman's book The End Of Money explores these and other problems.) Doing away with cash completely could save countries as much as 1% of GDP, one study showed. For the U.S., that would mean about $150 billion a year.

So, yes, let's launder banknotes to keep them fresher. But then let's think about going cashless. It could save even more dough.

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 AM


THE LIGHTER SIDE OF SCANDI NOIR (Robert Butler, January 25th 2014, More Intelligent Life)

Someone asked, after the closing moments of the six episode, "Is it really that easy in Scandinavia to ring up directory enquiries and get the mobile number of a shipping magnate?" Someone else replied that it was. "It's amazing how much information on Swedish citizens is in the public domain. Phone numbers, addresses, cars". Another added, "You can find anything about anyone online. Every resident has a unique ID number."

There's the business about the front door, too. One comment said, "A Swedish colleague found it strange that people in the UK don't have their full names on the front door by the doorbell." Another added, "When I lived in Sweden someone (the caretaker?) put my name on the door the very same afternoon I moved into my flat."

And--judging from the stream of comments--this Scandinavian openness goes well beyond names, phone numbers, addresses, car registrations. "Not only is all that information available on the internet," someone else said, "but everyone's annual salaries in Sweden are also posted on the tax office website, linked to your personal number."

Posted by orrinj at 7:41 AM


De Blasio pre-K tax called 'charade' for unions (Aaron Short and Carl Campanile, January 25, 2014, NY Post)

The clash between Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over pre-K funding is turning into an all-out brawl, with allies of the governor claiming the mayor is pushing higher taxes to fund new contracts for his labor buddies, sources told The Post.

"We're hearing chatter from people that de Blasio wants to raise the income tax on the rich to use it any way he wants -- including paying for labor contracts and raises," said a Democratic Party insider close to Cuomo.

"The people who are pushing this are from the Working Families Party. De Blasio is married to them."

The Cuomo ally noted the WFP is basically run by the most leftist leaders in the labor movement -- the Transport Workers Union, the Communication Workers of America and United Federation of Teachers, among others.

It's the same coalition, the source familiar with Cuomo's thinking said, that opposes the governor's $2 billion proposal to cut property, business and estate taxes as he seeks re-election.

Posted by orrinj at 7:37 AM


Study: Believing You've Slept Well, Even if You Haven't, Improves Performance : The positive effects of "placebo sleep"  (JULIE BECK, JAN 24 2014, Atlantic)

Results: Participants who were told they had above-average REM sleep performed better on the test, and those who were told their REM sleep was below average performed worse, even when researchers controlled for the subjects' self-reported sleep quality.

Implications: A great victory was won here for lies, over truth. This study shows that if you're in the mindset that you're well-rested, your brain will perform better, regardless of the actual quality of your sleep. Conversely, constantly talking about how tired you are, as so often happens in our culture, might be detrimental to your performance.

Posted by orrinj at 7:24 AM


Unriddling Robots (Steve King, 1/25/14, BNR)

The intersection of evolution and robotics inspires Darwin's Devices, John Long's study of "What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology." A biology professor at Vassar College, Long and his team use an ever-adapting series of bio-robotic tadpoles ("Tadros") to help explain fish evolution:

Like a clumsy criminal, adaptation leaves behind many clues in the DNA and anatomy of extinct and living species. But adaptation never leaves behind witnesses or surveillance tape. Biologists inevitably have to guess at the process of evolution. The best guesses about what went on come from reconstructing events. Using the clues -- the physical evidence -- good investigators can piece together a step-by-step sequence of places, agents, and interactions that most likely caused the outcome.

And what can we do to test this sequence? We can build models, let them run, and see if their behavior matches our predictions based on our evolutionary reconstruction. But we can also do one better: let the models evolve.

January 24, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 1:17 PM


US Army Studying Replacing Thousands of Grunts with Robots (PAUL McLEARY, 1/20/14, Defense News)

The postwar, sequestration-era US Army is working on becoming "a smaller, more lethal, deployable and agile force," according to Gen. Robert Cone, head of the service's Training and Doctrine Command.

But just how much smaller might come as a surprise.

During remarks at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 15, Cone quietly dropped a bomb. The Army, he said, is considering the feasibility of shrinking the size of the brigade combat team from about 4,000 soldiers to 3,000 over the coming years, and replacing the lost soldiers with robots and unmanned platforms.

"I've got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force," he said, adding that he also has "clear guidance to rethink" the size of the nine-man infantry squad.

The ratio will be closer to the reverse.

Posted by orrinj at 1:05 PM


In U.S., Uninsured Rate Shows Initial Decline in 2014 (Jenna Levy, 1/24/14, Gallup)

The U.S. uninsured rate is 16.1% so far in January, modestly down from 17.3% in December after the Affordable Care Act's requirement for Americans to have health insurance took effect on Jan. 1. The percentage of uninsured adults aged 18 and older for Jan. 2-19 is slightly lower than what Gallup has measured in any month since December 2012.

The GOP should offer to trade genuine universality for making HSA's the default.

January 23, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:48 PM


Marilinda Garcia announces campaign for U.S. Congress (LAURA McCRYSTAL, 1/23/14, Concord Monitor)

Republican state Rep. Marilinda Garcia kicked off her campaign for Congress yesterday with a promise to shrink the federal government.

"The continuous flow of government mandates, regulations and taxes are literally making it impossible for local government to solve local problems," said Garcia, a four-term state representative from Salem.

She is running for the seat in New Hampshire's 2nd Congressional District now occupied by U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster. Garcia will face a primary for the Republican nomination against former state senator Gary Lambert of Nashua.

Posted by orrinj at 6:14 PM


Energy is gradually decoupling from economic growth (Izabella Kaminska, Jan 17, 2014, Financial Times)

"The widening gap between GDP and energy consumption illustrates the impact of falling energy intensity; and the gap between energy and CO 2 emissions reflects changes in carbon intensity, brought about by changes in the fuel mix. Without the projected decline in energy intensity, CO 2 emissions in 2035 would be more than 40% higher than our forecast, given the projected economic growth. The effect of the expected change in the fuel mix is much smaller - about one fifth as large - though bigger than in the past."

The question is, are inflation-concerned central bankers watching these trends? And if so, are they ready to adapt their models to a new, less-energy-intensive type of growth?

Posted by orrinj at 5:28 PM


Upward Mobility Has Not Declined, Study Says (DAVID LEONHARDT, JAN. 23, 2014, NY Times)

The odds of moving up -- or down -- the income ladder in the United States have not changed appreciably in the last 20 years, according to a large new academic study that contradicts politicians in both parties who have claimed that income mobility is falling.

Both President Obama and leading Republicans, like Representative Paul Ryan, have argued recently that the odds of climbing the income ladder are lower today than in previous decades. The new study, based on tens of millions of anonymous tax records, finds that the mobility rate has held largely steady in recent decades, although it remains lower than in Canada and in much of Western Europe, where the odds of escaping poverty are higher.

Posted by orrinj at 5:23 PM


Evangelical campaign says everyone -- even gays -- reflect God's image (Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Jan 23, 2014, RNS)

Six Christian leaders, including Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, "Touched by an Angel" star Roma Downey and her producer husband Mark Burnett, have created a coalition called "Imago Dei," Latin for "image of God," to encourage people to treat each other with respect.

"If we had the image of God in mind for every human being, we could change the world," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who is leading the cause. "I want Christians to not be known for what we oppose but for what we propose." [...]

Rodriguez and Daly were included in a movement of religious leaders that created the Manhattan Declaration, a 2009 manifesto that emphasized protecting religious liberty and resisting abortion and gay marriage. The document included a section on the idea that humans bear the image of God.

"We shouldn't forget that the doctrine of Imago Dei necessarily leads to other commitments, especially as it relates to life, marriage and religious freedom," said Eric Teetsel, director of the Manhattan Declaration. "Christians have been emphasizing the Imago Dei for a long time. It's often fallen on deaf ears. If this movement causes people to hear it for the first time, that's a wonderful thing."

Posted by orrinj at 5:22 PM


Oil starts flowing through Keystone pipeline in Texas (Ramit Plushnick-Masti, 1/22/14, Associated Press)

The $2.3 billion pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas is the Gulf Coast -- or southern portion -- of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline. This shorter leg will begin transporting an average of 300,000 barrels of oil daily and should end the year at an average of about 520,000 barrels, Pourbaix said.

The longer Keystone XL, which would transport heavy tar sands crude from Canada and oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale, requires a permit from President Barack Obama because it crosses an international border. That $5.4 billion segment has not yet been approved. Obama fast-tracked the shorter, southern portion of the pipeline with the hope of relieving a bottleneck in Oklahoma.

Posted by orrinj at 5:11 PM


Iran: A Good Deal Now in Danger (Jessica T. Mathews, February 20, 2014, The New York Review of Books)

Iran has a bizarre combination of authoritarian rule and active politics. Thus the Guardian Council, under the direction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, disqualified 678 of the 686 individuals who applied to run for office. Yet in the campaign, those who did get to run took specific positions and vigorously debated them. The foreign policy debate, televised nationwide, went on for three hours. Voter turnout at 75 percent was almost half again higher than in the United States in 2012.

Rouhani campaigned for greater moderation in government, "an end to extremism," and flexibility in reaching a nuclear accommodation in order to end Iran's international isolation and stalled economy. A cleric and senior member of the ruling inner circle and a personal friend of the Supreme Leader for forty years, he is an advocate for change in both foreign and domestic policy, but very much a member of Iran's political establishment. Speaking fluent English, he served as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator a decade ago.

The mandate of the election was clear--not to dismantle nuclear facilities, end enrichment, or surrender Iran's rights as Iranians see them, but to seek an agreement through flexibility and moderation. The Supreme Leader underlined the point, calling for "heroic flexibility." And while the outcome of the election was greeted with joyous celebrations in the streets, Rouhani has powerful enemies, the Revolutionary Guard among them, who have made no secret of their hope that he will fail. He has to deliver results reasonably soon, or he will be ousted.

His first step was to appoint Iran's most talented diplomat as foreign minister. Javad Zarif impressed the world in his years as Iran's representative to the UN; after living for many years in the US, he understands its politics well. With the Supreme Leader's blessing, Rouhani then transferred the nuclear portfolio from the hard-line Supreme National Council to the Foreign Ministry, which reports to him. He changed the government's tone radically. Though still an enemy, Israel was no longer "the Zionist entity" but the state of Israel. Just after he won the election, Rouhani tweeted a picture of himself visiting an American-supplied field hospital in southeastern Iran some years before.

Initially, these and other moves were dismissed by critics as a "charm offensive." In an unusually intemperate speech to the General Assembly, Netanyahu warned that Rouhani was a "wolf in sheep's clothing" set on duping the international community. But as the weeks passed and Iranian acts added up, most had to conclude that, unlikely as it seemed against the pattern of past decades, this was in fact an Iranian administration with new goals that had, at least for a time, the backing of the Supreme Leader.

Through the fall, negotiations in Geneva accelerated, often stretching around the clock. On November 24 came the announcement of a first-phase, six-month nuclear deal to be followed by a more comprehensive, permanent agreement six months or a year later.

The essential elements of a bargain acceptable to the P5+1 negotiators were well defined in advance. To prevent Iran from once again using the negotiations to buy time to advance its program, Tehran would have to agree to halt production of 20 percent highly enriched uranium. It would have to keep its capacity for enrichment stable by stopping the operation or the installation of additional advanced centrifuges. It would have to halt progress on the reactor under construction at Arak that is designed to produce plutonium, also a weapons fuel. Specifically that reactor could not be fueled or turned on so that, if the agreement were ever violated, it could be bombed without spreading radiation.

The actual agreement goes far beyond this. Most important, and perhaps most unexpected, Iran agreed to eliminate its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium either by diluting it down to low enrichment or converting it to an oxide form that is not adaptable for further enrichment. Netanyahu had famously held up a cartoon poster of a bomb before the General Assembly with a red line drawn across it at the threshold level of 90 percent enriched uranium. The agreement takes Iran's less enriched stockpile to zero.

The terms also provide that Iran can build no additional centrifuges except to replace broken ones. While existing centrifuges may continue to spin, the product must be converted to oxide so that Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium does not grow. The agreement bans the testing or production of fuel and new components for Arak and requires Iran to turn over important design information that will help the IAEA safeguard the reactor there.

To strengthen the assurance that all this will happen, the agreement requires daily access for inspectors as well as downloads from cameras used for surveillance, including at the Fordow underground enrichment plant. To reduce the possibility that Iran could be running covert, hidden fuel cycles, it extends monitoring for the first time to uranium mines and mills and to centrifuge production and assembly facilities. These inspections are unprecedented in both frequency and extent.

In return, the P5+1 agree to lift about $7 billion worth of sanctions, though leaving the most important oil and financial sanctions in place. Further, the US and its allies pledge not to impose any new nuclear-related sanctions while the agreement is in effect.

There is much left to be dealt with in the permanent agreement. In the view of the P5+1 negotiators, Iran must permanently cap enrichment at 5 percent and reduce the size of its stockpile, which holds far more low-enriched uranium than it needs for any foreseeable peaceful purpose. Similarly, the total number of centrifuges needs to be proportional to civilian needs. The Arak reactor must be defanged--most likely converted to a different design. And the final agreement must deal with Parchin and perhaps other facilities where research and development directly related to making weapons are believed to have taken place.

What remains to be done does not diminish the historic dimension of what has been achieved. After more than a decade of failed negotiations and, for the US and Iran, three decades of unproductive silence, diplomacy is working. As of January 20, 2014, the short-term agreement is in full effect. Twenty percent enrichment is suspended. If the agreement is sustained by both sides, Iran's enrichment progress will be halted and in important respects rolled back. The time it would take to break out and dash for a nuclear weapon is lengthened by perhaps two months and the new inspection requirements mean earlier warning of danger and more time to respond. In return, the P5+1 gave remarkably little. Indeed, this deal only becomes attractive for Tehran if it is followed by a permanent agreement that brings major relief from sanctions.

January 22, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:35 PM


Iran's Rouhani says possible to overcome animosity with U.S. (Dmitry Zhdannikov, 1/22/14, Reuters) 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday it was possible to turn more than three decades of enmity with the United States into friendship if both sides made an effort.

He was speaking in a Swiss television interview after arriving at the World Economic Forum in Davos where he will court the global business community and meet a series of oil company executives on Thursday.

Asked whether there could one day be a U.S. embassy again in Tehran instead of the Swiss embassy representing U.S. interests in Iran, the president told public RTS television: "No animosity lasts eternally, no friendship either lasts eternally. So we have to transform animosities into friendship."

Posted by orrinj at 6:19 PM


When Public Opinions Collide : The progressive challenge of adjusting to a new climate of public opinion on deficits, entitlements, and jobs. (Andrew Levison, 1/22/14, American Prospect)

Faced with the public's failure to view or understand issues from a consistently Keynesian framework, progressive political strategists and commentators have generally responded in one of two ways. One group simply "cherry-picks" the polling data to find a subset of results that support their perspective and justifies this selective approach by arguing that most people must "really" believe a progressive, basically Keynesian perspective and are merely reciting superficial conservative clichés when they reply in ways that seem to support the alternative view. A second group of commentators accepts the deeply contradictory range of opinion data and draws from it the conclusion that most Americans simply do not understand enough about economics to have any real, meaningful opinions. In their view, the views most Americans do express are, in effect, merely superficial "wish lists" of things that sound nice or are parroted versions of dimly grasped clichés that provide no guidance for what they actually will support or vote for on Election Day.

Neither of these responses is satisfactory.  There is, however, an alternative way of interpreting what the apparently contradictory opinion data indicates about the actual structure of public attitudes. In-depth polling and focus group research by Democracy Corps in its ongoing Economy Project has shown that for most ordinary Americans public attitudes are actually not cognitively organized into consistent progressive or conservative ideological frameworks but rather into what can be called sets of distinct "attitude clusters" or "attitude structures." These are robust "bundles" of attitudes about a particular topic.

The Democracy Corps research identified three major attitude clusters that are important for understanding the public's views on jobs, deficits and economic policy. They are (1) attitudes about government, (2) attitudes about debt and deficits and (3) attitudes about jobs, business and the economy.

The kinds of attitudes that Democracy Corps found within these attitude clusters commonly included the following:

Opinions about government:  Although people will grant that the government does indeed have a number of positive roles and functions, the most prevalent attitudes tend to be heavily negative. Government is perceived as inefficient and bureaucratic, as deeply corrupt and beholden to corporations and the wealthy and as committed to distributing money to undeserving people and imposing unpopular liberal ideas. 
Opinions about deficits and balanced budgets: Keynesian ideas are only rarely expressed. Far more frequent are expressions of deep disquiet based on analogies with the negative consequences of household debt and "going into hock." There are also frequent expressions of concern that a large national debt weakens America's position in the world, particularly in relation to potentially hostile nations like China.
Opinions about business, jobs and the economy: There are expressions of support for business, particularly small business, but in recent years the most common attitudes are deeply negative views that have to do with the profound change in the way business operates. Job security is seen as a thing of the past, wages are lower and less reliable, people are just barely "making due" and are observing the disappearance of the "middle class dream" while the business community and the wealthy seem indifferent and even contemptuous of their distress. In the rust belt areas of the country the decades long "export" of industrial jobs to other countries and the consequent collapse of the surrounding communities continues to be deeply resented.
What makes the opinions in these basic clusters unique and distinct from other kinds of personal opinions is that when focus group leaders ask participants their opinions about these topics they receive an extended, spontaneous and deeply heartfelt monologue rather than a brief, straightforward reply. People tend to have firm, thought-out views on these basic topics that they buttress with a range of anecdotes, narratives and personal experiences. People often express a deep emotional commitment to the views they articulate.

In contrast, if a pollster or focus group leader asks a question that assumes the respondents actually conceptualize issues in a Keynesian perspective (for example, if focus group participants are asked a question like "is it right for the government to increase the current budget deficit in order to finance necessary investments in research and infrastructure"?), the participants will not respond immediately and at length. On the contrary, they will pause to stop and think. They will consider the information contained in the question itself and then try to access and retrieve relevant information from various places in their memory in order to try to arrive at a conclusion. To an observer it is obvious that they do not have a fixed opinion on this question stored somewhere in memory; instead they are "deducing" or "computing" an opinion on the spot.

Although this description of the Democracy Corps research is very rudimentary, these two basic facts - (1) that people have a core of well thought out and firmly held ideas that are organized in clusters and (2) that the answers Americans give to questions that assume a Keynesian framework are very often actually computed on the spot by synthesizing a mixture of distinct positive and negative opinions they hold about government, deficits and the economy  - actually goes a long way to explain the apparently incoherent nature of the  poll results. 

This view has two very clear and important implications for progressive strategy.

First, significant elements of traditional progressive rhetoric no longer resonate with large sectors of the American public. Concepts like "the government should substantially increase spending in times of high unemployment in order to reduce joblessness" are not rejected only by doctrinaire conservatives. They are also rejected by many average citizens who simply do not grasp or accept the implicit economic model that is involved. Progressive solutions that are framed in traditional Keynesian terms like "stimulating the economy," or arguments that recite the classic Democratic union hall speech about "the government's responsibility to fight unemployment" or to "help the unfortunate" seem like distant echoes of past decades and not convincing responses to current problems.

Second, and perhaps more critical, the substantial degree of success the conservative economic narrative has enjoyed basically depends on invoking and then exploiting the widespread negative views about deficits and government in general in order to predispose people against both entitlement programs and job creation rather than directly debating about specific progressive proposals which are substantially more popular than their conservative counterparts. In particular, the conservative argument is based on appealing to a general prejudice that "deficits" and "government spending" are inherently bad things regardless of their purpose and also to the superficially plausible notion that job creation and the maintenance of a social safety net are in an absolutely rigid zero-sum relationship with deficit reduction. Because a substantial number of Americans accept these flawed premises, progressive solutions that are based on a Keynesian perspective have little chance of winning their support.

The alternative approach that is suggested by the Democracy Corps research is to recognize the conceptual centrality of the basic "attitude clusters" for many average Americans and to focus progressive messaging on directly comparing the specific progressive and conservative "solutions" to the current economic problems associated with them. For example:

Regarding Government: the long-range conservative goal is actually to privatize and dismantle the social safety net including Social Security and Medicare, the progressive goal is to maintain them for future generations.
Regarding Deficits: the conservative goal is to rely entirely on spending cuts to reduce deficits in order to insure permanently low or even nonexistent taxes on business and the wealthy; the progressive goal is to fund the necessary functions of government with a set of equitable, reasonably progressive taxes on all Americans and by closing special interest tax loopholes.
Regarding jobs and the economy: the conservative goal is to remove all possible taxes, regulations, barriers to the "export" of jobs, support systems like unemployment insurance and protection of US workers from unfair foreign competition in order to maximize profits and revenues; The progressive goal is to balance the need for economic growth with insuring a basic minimum level of economic security for American workers.
In effect, what this approach does is to define the basic progressive agenda as a direct response to the specific policy prescriptions endorsed by the conservative view and in this regard It is critically important to note one key fact: public opinion regarding this set of arguments does not exhibit the deep inconsistency and incoherence that plagues arguments that assume the public accepts a basically Keynesian view of the economy. 

The three progressive alternatives above - (1) to defend the social safety net (2) to fund government with fair, progressive taxes and (3) to moderate pro-corporate policies with support for working class needs -- receive consistently high support across the vast majority of opinion polls. In contrast, the corresponding conservative alternatives, (1) to dismantle the social safety net, (2) to reduce upper income taxes, and (3) to promote "trickle down" economic policies to create jobs, generally do not poll well at all.

...but the easiest is obviously to the first, where privatization is not only the best way to strengthen the social safety net but to make it more generous.

Posted by orrinj at 6:15 PM


America Unleashed: Why We'll Be Number One Once More (Paul Salmon, 1/22/14, PBS : Business Desk)

Here with another dose of optimism is Milken Institute senior fellow and former Harvard Business Review editor Joel Kurtzman, who identifies four forces of economic change propelling the U.S. toward a brighter future. The following is adapted from his forthcoming book, "Unleashing the Second American Century."

Joel Kurtzman: For some odd reason, Americans like to think of our nation -- which is by far the largest and most sophisticated economy in the world -- as the underdog. It wasn't that long ago -- at least it doesn't seem like it was that long ago to me -- that books were being published like, "Japan as Number One." And now it's China.

Case in point: a chart in the Wall Street Journal about research and development in a number of countries was titled "China Catches Up," despite the fact that the amount China spent on R&D, according to the chart, was only about half of what the United States spends. Not only that, but if you think about it, whereas the U.S. spends big on R&D since we have a robust research infrastructure already in place, a lot of what China spends is to set up labs and train people, which we've already done. Now, I have nothing against China, in fact I admire it, but catch up to the United States? Not for a while. In my view, the United States is about to undergo a "growth spurt," just as China, and much of the emerging world, are slowing down.

There are four forces that explain why the United States will be entering a period of very strong growth: our creativity is ahead of all other countries; there is a renewal of manufacturing; we have enormous newly accessible supplies of energy; and we are flush with investible capital.

Posted by orrinj at 6:12 PM


Iran: a door opens : Iran's culture is deep. Its people are complex. Its doors have for too long shut out the rest of the world. A Monitor reporter who returned to Iran after being barred for more than four years found Iranians eager to talk. (John Yemma, January 6, 2014, CS Monitor)

Under Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian government has been opening up. The changes have been quick. No one knows how deeply they are rooted. Iran has agreed to a first-phase deal to ease sanctions in return for nuclear inspections. It has welcomed back Scott and other reporters. If the opening lasts - even expands - the effect could be felt far beyond the Middle East.

Scott's diary of seven days in Tehran lets us ride along with him on a journey of both rediscovery and discovery. As everywhere, there are millions of points of view, some warm, some angry, and many that are both wary and willing to suspend judgment for now. 

 The opening with Iran may be temporary and tactical. As with the Arab Spring, today's new thinking could be followed by tomorrow's second thoughts. No one is sure, maybe not even Mr. Rouhani. Skepticism is understandable. But it is equally possible that something is happening, that a small thaw could become a bigger warm-up.

January 21, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:55 PM


Wendy Davis Slams Paraplegic Opponent: 'Hasn't Walked a Day in My Shoes' (Andrew Stiles, January 21, 2014, National Review) 

Wendy Davis is under fire following a Dallas Morning News report that found a number of factual discrepancies in the personal narrative she has made a centerpiece of her long-shot campaign for Texas governor.

Davis, who is quoted multiple times in the article, issued a statement after its publication suggesting that her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, was behind the "attacks."

Davis said that for Abbott, who has been a paraplegic for nearly three decades, to question her story proves that he "hasn't walked a day in my shoes."

If you're going to gaffe, go all in baby!

Posted by orrinj at 5:23 PM


Obama Should Stop Taking Credit: Health Savings Accounts Are Driving Down Costs (Peter Ferrara, 1/21/14, Forbes)

[H]ealth Savings Accounts (HSAs) were enacted into law in 2003, which is when the slowdown in health costs began.  Mr. Obama was still in the Illinois state legislature at that time.  Participation in HSAs has been growing at double digits every year since then.

HSA accounts grew by 22% in 2012, with total HSA assets soaring by 27% to nearly $15.5 billion.  Over 15 million Americans were estimated to be covered by HSAs at the start of 2013, with close to 30 million overall covered by Consumer Directed Health Plans, which include the similar Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRAs) more commonly offered by large employers.  HSA assets were projected to grow another 22% in 2013, totaling close to $27 billion.

Along with the rise of these Consumer Directed Health Plans, national health spending growth declined, slowing to 3.9% each year from 2009 to 2011, and 3.6% for 2012, almost two-thirds slower than a decade ago.  That is the slowest rate of increase since the 1960s (which was the last time the government role in health care exploded). [...]

HSAs are designed to reduce the growth in health costs by giving patients more power and control over their own health care, and market incentives to reduce those costs.  HSAs include catastrophic health insurance with a high deductible, in the range of $2,000 to $6,000 a year or more.  The premium savings due to that high deductible, as compared to more traditional, first dollar coverage insurance, would be saved in the HSA, and used to pay for health expenses below the deductible.  The catastrophic health insurance pays for health costs above the deductible.  The patient keeps any remaining funds in the HSA each year for future health care expenses, or to spend on anything in retirement.

This framework creates full market incentives to control costs for all non-catastrophic health care expenses, because the patient is effectively using his or her own money to pay for them.  Since the patient is now concerned about costs, doctors and hospitals will compete to control costs.

After one healthy year, the insured typically has more than enough in the HSA to pay for all expenses below the deductible.  Moreover, patients with HSAs enjoy complete control over how to spend their HSA funds.  They don't need to ask for approval from an insurance company to spend their HSA funds on whatever health care they want.

HSAs can be advantageous for vulnerable populations, particularly the sick and the poor.  Because they have complete control over their HSA funds, the sick become empowered consumers in the medical marketplace.  Because they can pay for care themselves out of their HSA account, the poor have ready access to a wide range of providers (unlike in Medicaid today).

HSAs and their incentives have proven very effective in controlling costs in the real world.  Total HSA costs have run about 25 percent less than costs for traditional health insurance with much lower deductibles.  Annual cost increases for HSA/high-deductible plans have run more than 50 percent less than conventional health care coverage, sometimes with zero premium increases.  A 2012 Rand Corporation study found that those covered by HSAs spend 21% less on average on health care in the first year after switching from more traditional coverage.  Rand estimated that national health costs would fall by nearly $60 billion if half of all workers were covered by HSAs.

The bipartisan deal writes itself : universal HSAs from birth until means-tested Medicare at 72 or whatever age, government funded/subsidized for the lower classes.

Call it Obamacare II.

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Posted by orrinj at 5:10 PM


Bill Gates predicts almost no poor countries left by 2035 (Shan Li, January 21, 2014, LA Times)

Billionaire and former tech mogul Bill Gates predicts that there will be almost no poor countries left in the world by 2035.

Almost all nations will be either lower-middle income or wealthier, and most will have surpassed the 35 countries that are currently defined by the World Bank as low-income, Gates says in his annual letter for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. [...]

The first myth, about poverty-stricken countries staying down, has been negated by the jumps in income of countries around the world, the letter says. Gates points out that since 1960, China's real income per person has gone up eightfold, India's has quadrupled, and Brazil's has almost quintupled.

"In the next two decades, desperately poor countries will become the exception rather than the rule," Gates wrote. "Billions of people will have been lifted out of extreme poverty."

Of course, there are no poor Americans either, but we're obsessed with "poverty."  Some nations will have less than others, even though none are poor.

Posted by orrinj at 5:06 PM


Iran: Rule banning musical instruments on TV is broken (BBC, 1/21/14)

Iran's Channel One television has caused a sensation by showing musical instruments on screen for the first time in 30 years, it's reported. [...]

IRIB, the Iranian state broadcaster, has faced criticism over the long running ban. Singer Alireza Qorbani complained that Iranian children are being cut off from their cultural legacy by a broadcaster that is happy to show knife fights in feature films. In response to the debate, IRIB recently showed jazz-fusion outfit Palett miming instruments during a recent performance.

Posted by orrinj at 2:37 PM


Triumph and Tribulation : How progressives might approach changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. (Henry J. Aaron, 1/21/14, American Prospect)

These trends contain both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to maintain the progressivity of Social Security. The opportunity is to modify support for the elderly in ways that encourage those who can do so without undue hardship to remain economically active until later ages than in the past. These changes could include reductions in Social Security benefits paid when people with above-average incomes claim benefits at an early age. Such changes should be combined with increased access to and support levels in Supplemental Security Income and with incentives to encourage employers to retain older workers and with income-related incentives for older workers to remain in the labor force. The higher earnings from increased labor supply would flow disproportionately to older workers who otherwise would leave work. Added income from earnings would flow primarily to those with low education and earnings who now retire comparatively early. The increased tax revenues from the added output that these workers would produce would contribute noticeably to closing projected budget deficits.

Nor should progressives resist Medicare changes that promote competition between properly compensated managed care organizations (MCOs) and traditional Medicare, provided that the rules of competition are designed to prevent premiums for traditional Medicare from being driven up by MCO cream-skimming.

Raising retirement age, hiking taxes and means-testing are all worthwhile goals for the coming compromise, but oughtn't a Progressive movement worth its name be looking to use the safety net to spread and increase wealth for society's poorest?  And the way to do that, as everyone recognizes, is to give them saving/investment accounts. 

January 20, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:30 PM


Egypt: return of the deep state (ECKART WOERTZ, 20 January 2014, OpenDemocracy)

If someone fell into a coma in 2011 before the Egyptian "revolution" and woke up today he or she would not notice many changes. Then as now a general ruled, the opposition was illegal or curtailed, elections were managed, the turnout was low, but results were stellar. With the 98 per cent approval of the new constitution by only 39 per cent of voters the deep state is back in Egypt. In a way it was never gone. When Mubarak became untenable the army let him fall in order to preserve its vested interests. During their short rein the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi never managed to penetrate the pillars of the ancien regime, the Ministry of Interior, the judiciary and the military.

With the new constitution the latter has solidified its position. It appoints the Minister of Defense for the next eight years and retains extensive rights to charge critics in military courts. In the upcoming presidential elections next summer this process will likely come full circle; General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi has already said that he would stand ready if the people called him.

 The new constitution cements the privileges of the military, which presides over an array of economic interests ranging from bakeries to car factories and bowling alleys. The military is not only a state within a state it is also an economy within an economy, characterized by stasis and unfair advantages. Its shadowy networks of enterprise control between 8 and 30 percent of Egypt's GDP according to various estimates. It enjoys tax privileges and supply monopolies. Cheap labour in the form of recruits helps, too. Who would have thought that such benefits would be given up easily?

Posted by orrinj at 7:26 PM


The Great Mom & Dad Experiment : The federal government has spent nearly a billion dollars to help poor couples stay together--with almost nothing to show for it. So why aren't we pulling the plug? (Tom Bartlett, 1/20/14, The Chronicle Review)

 In the fall of 2012, the government released the results of a three-year study of eight such programs, including this one in Oklahoma. They were nothing short of bleak: The programs, the study concluded, did not make couples more likely to stay together or get married. They did not increase the amount of time fathers spent with children. The parents were not more financially stable. Their children were not more emotionally secure. Worse, some programs showed negative outcomes: that is, the control group fared better than those who took the classes.

According to the government's own study, the programs "did not succeed."

You might think such a harsh assessment would spell the end of relationship education for the poor. But that isn't the case. The effort, which grew out of welfare reform under President Clinton, got its start under President Bush, and has been enthusiastically embraced by President Obama, enjoys broad bipartisan support. For the left, it's a shot at leveling the playing field. For the right, it's about strengthening families. For researchers who study families and relationships, it's a chance to watch their theories play out on a grand stage. And for organizations that run the programs, it is a significant source of income.

Plus it just feels right. Spend time with these couples--the teenage mother with a newborn on her shoulder, the middle-aged dad dangling his keys just beyond his infant's reach--and you can't help but root for them and for relationship education. Here is a way to help that goes beyond a handout. Here is a way to change the world, one couple at a time. As Mary Myrick, director of the Oklahoma program puts it: "Who could be against this?"

Matthew D. Johnson, for one. Not that he's against helping poor couples or even necessarily against relationship education. In fact, Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at Binghamton University and director of its Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory, examines why marriages fall apart and what can be done to keep people together. This is the stuff he cares about. And he started out believing that these programs were worthwhile. "I thought this would work," he says. "I wanted to apply these interventions to these populations." It made sense to him, and he eagerly awaited the results.

Now, as he sees it, the numbers are in, and they're terrible. Attempts to spin the data as anything other than a train wreck strike him as "optimistic or quixotic." "My bias is science and data," Johnson says. "I look at these data and say, 'They're not working.'"

Johnson wrote an article published last spring in American Psychologist making essentially that case. In the genteel, acronym-laden language of academic discourse, Johnson pretty much accused scholars who argue for continuing these programs of closing their eyes and pretending that the whole thing wasn't a bust. Even before the latest results were released, Johnson had argued in a 2012 paper that the programs were underperforming and perhaps ill-conceived. "For all of the energy invested in this issue, the outcomes thus far are unacceptable," he wrote. "There are clearly many new initiatives and interventions that are being implemented, but too few of them are built on solid science or are quantitatively tracking their success."

It's not just energy that's been invested. Since 2005, the federal government has spent more than $100-million annually on such programs (coming up with a more precise figure is tricky because of how the funds are divvied up). The money is drawn from the budget of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, created as part of the Clinton administration's welfare-reform law, which gives grants to states allowing them to provide assistance to those who fall below certain income levels. The number of families who receive direct support through TANF has dropped from 3.9 million in 1997 to 1.6 million in 2013, and some states have cut the size of payments in recent years. A 2011 report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that because of those cuts the payments "do much less to help families escape deep poverty than they did in 1996."

The money spent on relationship education is little more than a rounding error in TANF's $17-billion budget, but why spend any of those precious resources on a program that appears to be failing miserably?

That's what Benjamin Karney wonders. For the last couple of decades, Karney, a professor of social psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, has studied marriages, how they either remain stable or deteriorate. He thinks the very idea of teaching relationship skills to low-income couples was probably misguided from the get-go, based on an unproved, and somewhat condescending, assumption. "The reason divorce rates are high among poor people isn't that they don't know things that other people know," Karney says. "In fact, there's a lot of evidence from my lab and from other labs that the ability to communicate effectively with your spouse is significantly associated with the stress that you're under in your life." Stress is toxic. We know, from multiple studies, including a much-discussed 2010 paper by the Nobel Prize-winning social scientist Daniel Kahneman, that higher levels of stress are associated with lower levels of emotional well-being. A 2009 study published in Clinical Psychology Review found that "stress may undermine otherwise adequate communication skills, lead to alienation in the couples and a higher risk for divorce."

Karney's point, then, is that poor couples don't get divorced because they're less adept at communication than couples with healthy 401(k)s and three-car garages. Poor people get divorced because they're poor, and being poor makes you stressed, and being stressed makes it harder for you to communicate, which makes it more likely that you'll split.

In some ways, though, that argument is now beside the point. The verdict is in, and Karney, like Johnson, thinks everyone should acknowledge that reality. "I don't believe our field and our science is served well by clinging to ideas that don't look promising," he says. "It makes us look like bad scientists."

Posted by orrinj at 7:22 PM


Is the Universe Made of Math? : In this excerpt from his new book, Our Mathematical Universe, M.I.T. professor Max Tegmark explores the possibility that math does not just describe the universe, but makes the universe (Max Tegmark, 1/10/14, Scientific American)

The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis implies that we live in a relational reality, in the sense that the properties of the world around us stem not from properties of its ultimate building blocks, but from the relations between these building blocks. The external physical reality is therefore more than the sum of its parts, in the sense that it can have many interesting properties while its parts have no intrinsic properties at all. This crazy-sounding belief of mine that our physical world not only is described by mathematics, but that it is mathematics, makes us self-aware parts of a giant mathematical object. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:19 PM


Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All (MARK OPPENHEIMER, JAN. 17, 2014, NY Times Magazine)

First off, mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones. It was highest at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, where the figure was 10 percent. More important, according to Hampton, was the fact that mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups. People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break. Of course, there's still the psychic toll, which we all know, of feeling tethered to your phone -- even while relaxing at the park. But that's a personal cost. From what Hampton could tell, the phones weren't nearly as hard on our relationships as many suspect.

When I met Hampton, he proved this point by gesturing around us, at our fellow diners at the Bryant Park Grill, where we were eating on a beautiful summer day, and at the hundreds of others beyond us in the park, enjoying the sun at tables, in chairs and on the lawn beyond us. "In the busiest public spaces, where there are a lot of groups, like this kind of public space, it's like 3 percent," he said. "Three percent. I can't even see someone on a cellphone right now, but yet how many times have you seen a story that says, 'People on cellphones in public spaces is rude, it's creating all sorts of problems, people are walking into traffic.' I mean, we really have a strong sense that it's everywhere."

Hampton's project offers an explanation for that misperception. It turns out that people like hanging out in public more than they used to, and those who most like hanging out are people using their phones. On the steps of the Met, "loiterers" -- those present in at least two consecutive film samples, inhabiting the same area for 15 seconds or more -- constituted 7 percent of the total (that is to say, the other 93 percent were just passing through). That was a 57 percent increase from 30 years earlier. And those using mobile phones there were five times as likely to "loiter" as other people. In other words, not that many people are talking, or reading, texting or playing Candy Crush on the phone, but those who do stick around longer. (In the case of Bryant Park, it doesn't hurt that the area is no longer an open-air drug market -- a major problem that P.P.S. was trying to root out in the '80s.)

According to Hampton, our tendency to interact with others in public has, if anything, improved since the '70s. The P.P.S. films showed that in 1979 about 32 percent of those visited the steps of the Met were alone; in 2010, only 24 percent were alone in the same spot. When I mentioned these results to Sherry Turkle, she said that Hampton could be right about these specific public spaces, but that technology may still have corrosive effects in the home: what it does to families at the dinner table, or in the den. Rich Ling, a mobile-phone researcher in Denmark, also noted the limitations of Hampton's sample. "He was capturing the middle of the business day," said Ling, who generally admires Hampton's work. For businesspeople, "there might be a quick check, do I have an email or a text message, then get on with life." Fourteen-year-olds might be an entirely different story.

Philadelphia was the only location of the four where Hampton found more people by themselves than the P.P.S. films did. But Hampton claims the effect was offset by something more profound: The apparent uptick could be explained in part by an increase in the number of women on the street, many of them alone.

In fact, this was Hampton's most surprising finding: Today there are just a lot more women in public, proportional to men. It's not just on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. On the steps of the Met, the proportion of women increased by 33 percent, and in Bryant Park by 18 percent. The only place women decreased proportionally was in Boston's Downtown Crossing -- a major shopping area. "The decline of women within this setting could be interpreted as a shift in gender roles," Hampton writes. Men seem to be "taking on an activity that was traditionally regarded as feminine."

Posted by orrinj at 7:15 PM


With al-Qaeda, what's in a name? (Dana Milbank, January 14, 2014, Washington Post)

[L]awrence Korb doesn't dispute that there are all kinds of groups that identify with al-Qaeda or are embraced by al-Qaeda, but of all the groups on Kagan's list Korb argues that only one, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, comes close to sharing al-Qaeda's reach and focus on attacking the United States.

"When you call someone al-Qaeda," Korb says, "it conjures up this international threat rather than people who are using the terrorist threat over there to accomplish local goals and who like to use 'al-Qaeda' because it's a chic name."

Calling a group "al-Qaeda" has a political benefit for President Obama's critics: It undermines the administration's assertion that it has destroyed al-Qaeda's capability. "Al-Qaeda is on the march," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said after the Benghazi attack in 2012.

But this supposed al-Qaeda group is Ansar al-Sharia, and even Kagan says "we do not assess that Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi is a formal affiliate of al-Qaeda." It may be, at most, linked to another group affiliated with al-Qaeda.

That this group killed the U.S. ambassador and three others in Benghazi makes it monstrous and dangerous. But calling it al-Qaeda doesn't make it so any more than calling it Chick-fil-A will make it serve tasty nuggets.

Posted by orrinj at 7:10 PM


Nissan Leaf sales hit the 100,000 mark (Antony Ingram, January 20, 2014, CS Monitor)

2014 could be an even more exciting year, as Nissan draws up plans for an expanded range of electric vehicles--including a quirky city car and a sports EV.

Posted by orrinj at 1:40 PM


Pharaoh Al-Sisi Takes Control In Egypt: Obama Administration Sacrifices Security, Human Rights, And Democracy (Doug Bandow, 1/20/14, Forbes)

A new pharaoh is rising in Egypt.  Gen. Abdel Fata al-Sisi is preparing to grasp supreme power, most likely as the country's next president.  He is posing as democracy's savior while his troops are detaining or killing those who oppose him.  The arrests and shootings continued during last week's constitutional referendum.

After some time out of the news, Egypt has reemerged as perhaps the administration's greatest foreign policy failure.  Washington has proved impotent in the face of political revolution, Islamist activism, and military repression.  Terrorism is accelerating, and Egypt is likely to end up without stability, liberty, democracy, or prosperity. 

Posted by orrinj at 1:37 PM


Care about democracy? Then smash the EU (Brandan O'Neill, JANUARY 2014, Spiked)
Did I fall asleep and wake up in the fifteenth century?

I ask because, according to news reports, the unelected lords of Britain's second chamber are currently trying to prevent the British public from having a say on our relationship with unelected suits in Brussels. Enraged by Conservative prime minister David Cameron's proposal that we should have an in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union in 2017, various lords have accused him of putting our nation's fate in the hands of a 'lottery' in which much of the electorate, won over by 'the daily war drums of the unyielding Europhobes', will probably dumbly vote to leave the EU.

In short, one oligarchical sect - the well-fed lords who, outrageously, still get to moan about and rewrite laws being passed by politicians we the public actually elected - are seeking to erect a pleb-deflecting forcefield around another oligarchical sect: the cut-off officials of Brussels who issue edicts and write constitutions that impact on vast numbers of Europeans without ever bothering to ask us how we feel or what we want.

Posted by orrinj at 1:30 PM


Iran halts enrichment to 20% as nuclear deal commences (AP AND TIMES OF ISRAEL, January 20, 2014)

An Iranian state TV broadcast said IAEA inspectors were present at Natanz when Iran began implementing its obligations, part of a deal reached in Geneva on November 24, 2013. They then left to monitor the suspension at Fordo.

Ahead of the start of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, an official in the Islamic Republic called limiting uranium enrichment and diluting its stockpile the country's "most important commitments," state radio reported on Sunday.

January 19, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 9:10 PM


Egypt vote raises concerns about future  (AP, 1/19/14)

Another worrying aspect is that young Egyptians appear to have stayed away from the polls, probably because of frustration over the lack of real change and anger over the perceived return of Mubarak-era figures, along with such hated practices as police brutality and other heavy-handed tactics by security agencies.

The 98.1 percent "yes" vote cannot be seen as an accurate reflection of public opinion in "a country as big and as complex and divided as Egypt," said Khaled Fahmy, a political analyst who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo. "This is a very alarming figure... Something has gone very wrong."

Posted by orrinj at 6:49 PM


Moving to An Area With More Green Space Can Improve Your Mental Health for Years (Joseph Stromberg, JANUARY 16, 2014, Smithsonian)

There's plenty of evidence for the idea that humans thrive when we have frequent exposure to nature--even when it's just a patch of greenery in the midst of a city's concrete jungle.

Studies have found that, after looking at nature scenes, people are kinder and more charitable. They've suggested that children with ADHD have an easier time concentrating when they spend time outdoors. A 2008 study even found that, for office workers, a mere glimpse of green through a window or a live plant on their desk were, on the whole, associated with lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.

Posted by orrinj at 10:38 AM


Phil Robertson's Victory Over the Secular Theocracy (David J. Theroux, 1/16/14, Patheos)

One of seven children raised in a log cabin in northern Louisiana with no electricity, bathtub, or toilet, Robertson grew up in a poor family living off garden fruits and vegetables; deer, squirrels, fish, and other animals that they hunted and fished; and the pigs, chickens, and cattle that they raised. Nevertheless, in high school he became All-State in football, baseball, and track and received a football scholarship to Louisiana Tech University. At Tech, later football legend Terry Bradshaw was at the time benched as second-string to Robertson, who was star quarterback. And although Robertson chose to quit football in college for the freedom to hunt during duck season, he went on to receive a master's degree in education, taught school, and became a commercial fisherman. In 1972, the young enterprising Robertson patented his first duck call and created the Duck Commander Company, which has been leveraged into today's vast fortune and cultural phenomenon that includes Duck Dynasty. His autobiography Happy, Happy, Happy became a number one New York Times bestseller, and his new book for 2014, Phil-osophy, will share his philosophy of life, as he outlined in an interview before the release of his autobiography:

My message is to get human beings to love God, love their neighbor and for the life of me I just don't see the downside of human beings not being so mean to one another and actually care for one another and not steal from one another and not murder each other for their tennis shoes. That's the message I have. . . . America and the world, we have a love problem. I'm trying to get people aware of that. A loving person is not going to pick up a spear or a knife because when the Ten Commandments were written it was before guns, and God was saying, "Look, quit murdering each other." Now I'm just trying to say, "Folks, let's try to love one another no matter what the color of their skin." [...]

[A]ccording to Nielsen, when the boycotts began, A&E's ratings immediately dropped by 13 percent, with the percentage of adults ages twenty-five to fifty-four who watched the network dropping 22 percent and that of adults from eighteen to forty-nine falling 18 percent. So if A&E were indeed pursuing a publicity campaign, that strategy has seriously backfired.

When major Duck Dynasty sponsor Cracker Barrel also tried to follow A&E's lead and announced that its stores would no longer carry Duck Dynasty merchandise, they also reversed their ban within forty-eight hours and issued an apology: "Dear Cracker Barrel Customer: When we made the decision to remove and evaluate certain Duck Dynasty items, we offended many of our loyal customers. Our intent was to avoid offending, but that's just what we've done. You wrote, you called and you took to social media to express your thoughts and feelings. You flat out told us we were wrong. We listened. Today, we are putting all our Duck Dynasty products back in our stores."

Meanwhile, days before Christmas, Walmart, the major retailer for Duck Dynasty, had completely sold out of show merchandise; five (and counting) Duck Dynasty books had become 2013 bestsellers (with at least three more scheduled for 2014 already heading up the sales charts in pre-release); the Duck Dynasty Christmas album Duck the Halls debuted at number one on the Billboard Chart; 250,000 fans had signed a petition to reinstate Robertson; and GLAAD began "reeling from [the] biggest backlash in years."

According to a Radar Online source "with inside knowledge of the network's machinations," the New York Daily News has reported that "It's an absolute disaster for A&E. . . . Now, it's a standoff between the family and the network, who is going to blink first? There is no way Phil is going to apologize for his comments because he doesn't think what he said is hateful or prejudice, it's his religious beliefs. . . . A&E isn't going to walk away from 'Duck Dynasty,' they can't afford to do it. It's just a matter of getting both sides to agree on how to move forward."

Posted by orrinj at 10:23 AM


Derailing the GOP Jihad (David Ignatius, January 19, 2014, Washington Post)

Driving the Republican jihad was a claim, first reported in October 2012 by Fox News, that CIA personnel had wanted to respond more quickly to the Benghazi attack but were ordered to "stand down," perhaps by political higher-ups. Although this claim was promptly rebutted by CIA officials, it was repeated by Fox at least 85 times, according to a review by the liberal advocacy group Media Matters. This barrage fueled Republican charges that the Democrats were engaging in a cover-up.

The Senate Intelligence report addressed this inflammatory charge head-on. "The committee explored claims that there was a 'stand down' order given to the security team at the annex. Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the mission compound, the committee found no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the chief of [the CIA] base or any other party."

The Senate panel also rejected the insinuation, made repeatedly by Republicans, that the Obama administration failed to scramble available military assets that could have defended the Benghazi annex and saved the lives of the four American victims. "There were no U.S. military resources in position to intervene in short order in Benghazi," the report says flatly. "The committee has reviewed the allegations that U.S. personnel ... prevented the mounting of any military relief effort during the attacks, but the committee has not found any of these allegations to be substantiated."

These are bipartisan findings, mind you, endorsed by the panel's Republican members as well as Democrats. [...]

The Republican tirades about Benghazi were unfortunate not just because they were based on erroneous speculation but because they distracted policymakers from the real challenge of framing coherent policy in the Middle East. Sometimes, it seemed as if Benghazi finger-pointing was the only issue that leading Republicans cared about.

In fact, the Senate Intelligence report echoes many of the themes of the earlier report by the Accountability Review Board, which noted "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies." Warnings about deteriorating conditions in Benghazi were ignored; proposals to add additional security there were rejected; even as evidence mounted of al-Qaeda's growing power in Benghazi, the State Department failed to respond adequately. The Senate report makes clear that some important security mistakes were made by Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the courageous but sometimes incautious diplomat who was among those who died in the attack.

Why improve national security when you can score political points with your base?

Posted by orrinj at 10:15 AM


At Last, Conservative Reform (Ross Douthat, JAN. 18, 2014, NY Times)

The conservative policy larder was genuinely bare by the end of the Bush presidency. But that changed, reasonably swiftly, across President Obama's first term. A new journal, National Affairs, edited by Yuval Levin, began incubating alternatives to a re-ascendant liberalism. The older magazines and think tanks were reinvigorated, and played host to increasingly lively policy debates. And a new generation of conservative thinkers coalesced: James Capretta and Avik Roy on health care, Brad Wilcox and Kay Hymowitz on social policy, Ramesh Ponnuru on taxes and monetary policy, James Pethokoukis on financial regulation, Reihan Salam on all of the above, and many others.

By 2012, it was possible to discern the outlines of a plausible right-of-center agenda on domestic polity -- a new "reform conservatism," if you will.

But the Republican Party simply wasn't interested.

Of course, the entirety of conservative reform is just a return to the politics of Clinton and  W. It consists of: personal investment accounts for education, health care, unemployment and retirement; neoconomics (taxing consumption instead of income to encourage those savings/investments); free trade; home ownership; and immigration reform.

It is compassionate conservatism.

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January 18, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:52 AM


The Ice Is Breaking Part III: Tea Party Institutions And Conservative Reformism (Pete Spiliakos, 1/17/14, Postmodern Conservatism)

Two National Review reporters have taken prominent positions in right-leaning institutions. This is good news for the country.

Over the last eight or so years, a group of conservative writers (Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru and many - though not enough - others) have tried to shift the right in the direction of a middle-class politics that focuses on the problems of today rather than the problems of the Reagan Era.

That is difficult for multiple reasons. Many people in the conservative base (which skews older than the country in general) had their sensibilities formed in the seventies and eighties. Earlier in the week, a local conservative talk show host asked callers to talk about when they shifted right. The most recent conversion experience I heard recounted was set in 1984. 

One of the main dangers of conservatism (along with reaction and race) will always be that sort of backwards-looking politics. It's why you still hear the Right arguing that it can do away with the Second Way and return to the First. 

Anglospheric Conservatism is progressive and has moved on to the Third.  

Posted by orrinj at 8:42 AM


There's No Simple Solution for Economic Mobility (Ronald Brownstein, January 17, 2014, National Journal)

The more researchers learn about what it takes to build an effective ladder of opportunity, the more the answer looks like, well, a ladder.

In other words, research tells us that no single crossroads determines whether young people born in modest circumstances can advance to a better life than their parents. [...]

As the Brookings Institution's Richard Reeves and Kerry Searle Grannis noted in a perceptive paper this week, a child raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution now is almost six times as likely to remain there as to reach the top fifth.

The big insight from Reeves and Grannis is that reversing these trends requires more than "a one-shot policy." Their summary of the research finds that kids from low-income families are much less likely than those with more-affluent parents to receive effective parenting in early childhood; to start school ready to learn; to be equipped for postsecondary education; and to get a strong start in the labor market or when forming a family. Closing these gaps requires smart, sustained engagement, because evidence shows that the positive effects of even the best interventions at one level (such as good Head Start programs) "wear off over time unless there are additional, reinforcing interventions at the next life stage."

That means there's no silver bullet to close the opportunity gap. Even expanded early-childhood education--where most experts would place the most chips--can't guarantee later success. 

Actually, we know exactly how to make the "poor" even wealthier than they currently are in America.  But, since such solutions will be universal, everyone else will grow wealthier as well.


Initiatives to Promote Savings From Childhood Catching On (Amy Goldstein, 8/20/05, Washington Post)

[P]resident Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul H. O'Neill, has been giving speeches around the country, promoting an even bolder plan he has devised for children's accounts that he says would guarantee every American at least $1 million by age 65, eventually eliminating the need for Social Security.

Fostering savings from childhood is, in a sense, a spillover from the debate over whether to establish private investment accounts in Social Security, the nation's fragile retirement system. But unlike the partisan rancor that runs through the Social Security debate, children's accounts are gaining proponents across the ideological spectrum. Conservative Republicans construe them as a form of the market-oriented "ownership society" that Bush touts. Liberal Democrats view them as an extension of the Great Society of the 1960s that created government programs to lift people from poverty.

"It's a simple kind of merging of the stereotypes of the parties," said Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), sponsor of a bill that would create KIDS Accounts. "You give to people; you put some responsibility on people to save, as well."

Posted by orrinj at 8:34 AM


Aaron Hernandez can't watch Patriots (AP,  January 17, 2014)

If former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez wants to know the score of Sunday's AFC Championship Game, he'll have to hope he overhears it from an officer or a fellow inmate.

"He's not allowed to watch any TV," Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson told The Associated Press on Friday. "As far as finding it out, if they hear an officer talking about it, they might find out that way. He could probably hear about it if some other inmate were to call home and he were to yell out."

Hernandez was part of a potent tight end tandem for the Patriots, combining with Rob Gronkowski for 106 receptions and 16 touchdowns in 2012.

The most revealing stat in NFL history : the Pats are 4-0 ion playoff games where Tom Brady--the best playoff QB of all time--doesn't complete a TD pass.  Players don't matter.

January 17, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 12:57 PM


PM, Livni said to support Liberman's land-and-people swap plan ( LAZAR BERMAN AND STUART WINER, January 17, 2014, Times of Israel)

Unnamed official sources told the newspaper that Netanyahu has concluded that, in the event of an agreement with the Palestinians, the demographic factor must be taken into consideration, which would mean amending the borders to include some Israeli Arab towns in the new Palestinian state as Israel would include some West Bank Jewish settlements. The officials said that, during negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in recent months, Livni brought up the names of specific towns and villages to be included in the Palestinian state.

"She is now expressing support for expanding the principle in the direction of the Liberman plan," one source said. "Pay attention to the fact that, after the things Liberman said at the ambassadors' summit [to the effect that peace required exchanging territory and populations], there were two people who chose not to discuss the issue -- Netanyahu and Livni," a senior official said. "It's not a coincidence."

In the past, Netanyahu has rejected such an approach. Earlier this month, President Shimon Peres rejected the idea of a population transfer as "impractical," adding that "Israel cannot take away its citizens' citizenship simply because they're Arab."

Posted by orrinj at 12:28 PM


Lebanon's Hariri willing to share power with Hezbollah (REUTERS, 01/17/2014)

 Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri says he is now ready to share power with his rivals Hezbollah if that's what it takes to help Lebanon finally form a government after nine months of political deadlock. [...]

Asked why he was willing to work with a group accused of playing a role in his father's killing, he said he was committed to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty".

"We know that they are allegedly persons who committed these crimes... But at the end of the day, this is a political party that has a big coalition, with Aounis (the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun) and other political parties," he said.

Posted by orrinj at 12:21 PM



Throughout the year a popular explanation for Republicans' unwillingness to move on immigration was the lack of diversity in their gerrymandered congressional districts. Simply put, most don't have enough Hispanics for the issue to really matter to their reelections. A few of the less tactful Republicans seemed to even go out of their way to express disdain for immigrants. In July Steve King, a tea party Republican from Iowa, compared DREAMers to drug mules with "calves the size of cantaloupes." King's comments sparked blowback, prompting Speaker Boehner to address the issue at a press conference. The speaker deemed King's comments "deeply offensive and wrong" and reassured the public that the comments did not "reflect the values of the American people, or the Republican Party."

The Democratic caricature of the speaker is that he's an overly tan, overly emotional cat-herder who has lost control of his flock, but in person, he comes across as approachable and down-to-earth, and you can see how he earned the trust of his colleagues and became their leader. On a day not too long after Boehner's political body check of Steve King for his immigration comments, the speaker was milling around the aisle walkway in the middle section of the House floor where the Democratic and Republican territories meet. Another Texas Democrat and I were standing a few feet away, and as the speaker passed us we thanked him for denouncing King's offensive comments. He slowed his stride and then paused to turn toward us. "What an [*******]," he said. My thoughts exactly, Mr. Speaker. 

King himself does not represent many Hispanics; his district is nearly 96 percent white. I know that there are many places in America like that, places where the number of people with brown skin makes them easy to miss, where the gardeners disappear between rush hours to the "bad" part of town and the construction workers toil invisibly in the burning sun, hoping the boss will actually pay what he said he would. There are places like that. But there aren't many in Texas. In Texas the faces of immigration are inescapable. 

During the second week of the government shutdown, I went to get a haircut. I was back home for 36 hours, so I drove out on Huebner Road to Rios Golden Cut, a family-owned chain of barbershops I'd been going to since I was a kid (a couple of years ago, the price for a basic cut finally went up from the $4.95 I'd paid for years to $10.95). But it was Sunday, and Rios was closed. So I drove a few blocks toward a strip mall looking for some other place that was open. Set between a Dollar Tree and an alteration shop was a storefront with a plastic sign that read "J Cuts" in black letters. The sign was the kind you might put up for a grand opening or to advertise a limited-time offer--something temporary. But it had clearly been up for a while. The scrawny drawstrings that tethered it to the building were sagged and uneven, giving it a crooked, unprofessional appearance.

The proprietor of the place was Elisabeth Gonzales, originally from Honduras. As she cut my hair, she told me how she'd come to the United States as a 19-year-old almost 25 years ago, crossing the Rio Grande on a raft of inner tubes. She cleaned houses and businesses when she first arrived. Broken promises by employers racked up; one job that promised $100 per week turned into $100 per month. She learned to speak English while training to cut hair and worked for 11 years at Supercuts before taking the leap to open her own salon. I imagined her perfecting the language by struggling to understand the requests from West Side teenagers for fade haircuts with a zero or one clip or from the girls who would come in for perms the Friday before a Saturday quinceañera.

As it turned out, that plastic sign was not supposed to be there anymore. Ms. Gonzales had paid a vendor $2,000 for a company sign. He took the money and never put up the sign. Shortly after that a woman selling advertising presented her with a contract for two months of free advertising that eventually led to collection calls and bills totaling $779 per month.

I wondered how she kept the faith, whether those low moments ever led her to question her decision to come here in the first place. I asked whether she'd become a citizen. "Yes, I came here to work, for the American dream."

After the Great Disaster of 2013 ended, I went back to J Cuts for another trim. As I arrived, Ms. Gonzales was finishing up with someone, so she waved at me to come sit down. I glanced across the room and noticed a young blond woman working on the hair of another young blond woman. They spoke in English while I tried to keep up with Ms. Gonzales in Spanish. I asked her if her family had plans to dress up for Halloween, but she said they were Christian and did not celebrate it.  

As the small talk moved to more-serious topics, my Spanish skills were exhausted and I switched to English. She had just about finished with my hair when she asked me about the prospects for immigration reform. The question had come up many times over the past year--at the grocery store, Valero, the airport. Just as I had in so many media interviews, I had always projected optimism. "I believe we'll pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013," I'd say. And I believed that. But after the shutdown and the we'll-get-to-it-later approach of the Republican majority, I had grown tired of living on the sunny side in the face of obstruction. I was ready to speak my mind.

Before I could unload, this Christian small-business owner spoke her mind. "If they don't pass it," she said, "they won't get our vote." 

Posted by orrinj at 12:14 PM


Egypt's Coptic Church Takes Rare Foray Into Politics (MATT BRADLEY and TAMER EL-GHOBASHY, 1/16/14, WSJ)

During the campaign over the new military-backed charter, the minority religion's church took a rare posture of open advocacy for it, with Coptic priests preaching the document's virtues to churchgoers. And Pope Tawadros II, the church's newly elected patriarch, broke with the institution's usually muted politics to urge Egyptians to vote "yes" in an editorial in the country's state-owned newspapers.

But the church's public position has irked some of its leaders and rank and file. They caution that the move is opening the Middle East's largest Christian population--Copts make up about 10% of the population--to accusations that they are part of a Western-backed conspiracy. Others say the move undermines Egyptian Copts' customary stance that religion should be separated from matters of state.

...that they aren't anti-democratic anymore.

Posted by orrinj at 12:02 PM


Interview: Hugh Hewitt on The Happiest Life (Ed Driscoll, January 16th, 2014, PJ Media)

In order to write his latest book, Hugh Hewitt looked back over his 25-year broadcast career and 10,000 or so interviews to "reverse engineer" the lives of the people who in his estimation "had the happiest demeanor and the most ebullient step and what was it about them that made for the common denominators of their attitude towards living," Hugh tells me in our new interview, discussing  The Happiest Life: Seven Gifts, Seven Givers, and the Secret to Genuine Success. "And so whether it was George W. Bush or Julie Andrews or, you know, Tony Blair, or a Pulitzer winner, like Lawrence Wright, who was happy and why?  It's a pretty good question, actually, to pursue for anyone." [...]

During our interview, Hugh will discuss:

● Why he wants fellow talk radio host and happiness author Dennis Prager arrested!

● What role does religion play in achieving happiness?

● Does Hugh know people who are happy without faith? (Answer: Yes.)

● Was former President Richard Nixon, Hugh's early former employer, a happy man?

● What is the relationship of over-diagnosis of mental illness and happiness?

● Is being happy hindered by a societal prejudice against that simple positive emotion?

● Who is the least emotional politician on the world stage? (And no, it's not Obama.)

● What's Hugh's early prognosis for the GOP and November of 2014?

● The origins and meaning of Hugh's catchphrase, "Morning Glory, Evening Grace"...finally revealed!

January 16, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:15 PM


Why So Few English Words for Odors? (Jessica Love, 1/14/14, American Scholar)

The English language has many words for colors, and many more--checkered, mottled, paisley--describe how they may be patterned. Tastes are also well represented: a latte can be sweet or bitter, rich, or bland. Words like smooth and ticklish and hot all depict how the world feels on our fingertips. And from musical terms to onomatopoeias, our language does not skimp on ways to describe sounds.

But--though I can't say I'd ever noticed before--there's something of a lexical void when it comes to words for smells.

Posted by orrinj at 3:31 PM


Is Common Core Really Dangerous? (GRACY OLMSTEAD, January 16, 2014, American Conservative)

Conservatives are out to lampoon and destroy Common Core. Their reasons for this are legion, but their main objections boil down to one giant fear: the centralization of education. As George Will stated in a Thursday Washington Post column, "What begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials." But "must" this centralization truly happen? Are these founded predictions, or phantasmagoric fancies? [...]

First: all proponents and opponents of Common Core should take a good look at the standards themselves. When one actually looks at the material, it becomes clear that they focus on skills, not content. To use one analogy: the Common Core does not say how you should teach your child to ride a bike. That is up to your discretion. But Common Core will test your child on their ability to ride the bike proficiently. Thus, one cannot really "adopt Common Core for curriculum"--it doesn't really provide curricular content. One could use it to measure the difficulty and proficiency of one's curriculum, but that's slightly different.

January 15, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:14 PM


Duck Dynasty and the Secular Theocracy (David J. Theroux, 1/14/14, Patheos)

As was the case with such earlier TV shows as Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, as well as NPR's long-running Prairie Home Companion, A&E was seeking an entertainment show portraying Middle America as "hickville" in order to get people to disparage and laugh at those who do not subscribe to "progressive" culture (social liberalism achieved and policed through bullying and government mandates). What A&E was not expecting is that instead of the audience laughing at a self-described "bunch of rednecks from Louisiana," the 14.6 million who view the program each week have been laughing with the Robertson's at the hypocrisy, foolishness, and tyranny of "progressive" elites.

All comedy is conservative.

Posted by orrinj at 4:59 PM


Arab Neighbors Take Split Paths in Constitutions (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and CARLOTTA GALLJAN. 1/14/14, NY Times)

" 'Train wreck' might be a charitable way to describe where Egypt is right now," said Nathan J. Brown, an expert on Arab legal systems at George Washington University. In Tunisia, he said, "everybody keeps dancing on the edge of a cliff, but they never fall off."

The difference, scholars said, lies in the shape of the shards left after each country's revolt. Tunisia's brutal security police virtually collapsed during its revolt, while its small, professionalized military historically had no interest in political power. In civilian politics, its Islamist and secular factions were relatively evenly matched, with the Islamists winning only a plurality in Tunisia's first free vote. Each side needed the other to govern.

In Egypt, where the military has been a political player since Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 coup, the generals stepped in to remove President Hosni Mubarak, himself a onetime military man, and never fully receded. Further complicating matters, each side of the political divide had reason to hope it might rule alone: The Islamists dominated the elections, while their opponents knew the military was waiting in the wings.

"The opposition knew that, first, it might never win another election and, second, the military was there," Mr. Brown said.

With the ouster of Mr. Morsi and the violent crackdown on his supporters last summer, what started out as a revolution in Egypt became just another chapter in "the very old and always violent story" of "the rivalry between the security state and the Muslim Brotherhood," said Zaid al-Ali, a legal expert in Cairo tracking both charters for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Posted by orrinj at 4:53 PM


Administration Is Seen as Retreating on Environment in Talks on Pacific Trade (CORAL DAVENPORT, JAN. 15, 2014, NY Times)

The Obama administration is retreating from previous demands of strong international environmental protections in order to reach agreement on a sweeping Pacific trade deal that is a pillar of President Obama's strategic shift to Asia, according to documents obtained by WikiLeaks, environmentalists and people close to the contentious trade talks.

The negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be one of the world's biggest trade agreements, have exposed deep rifts over environmental policy between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. As it stands now, the documents, viewed by The New York Times, show that the disputes could undo key global environmental protections.

Posted by orrinj at 4:48 PM


Senate report: Attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi could have been prevented (Adam Goldman and Anne Gearan, January 15, 2014, Washington Post)

A long-delayed Senate Intelligence Committee report released Wednesday faulted both the State Department and the intelligence community for not preventing attacks on two outposts in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, about 16 months ago.

The bipartisan report laid out more than a dozen findings regarding the assaults on a diplomatic compound and a CIA annex in the city. It said the State Department failed to increase security at its mission despite warnings, and blamed intelligence agencies for not sharing information about the existence of the CIA outpost with the U.S. military.

The committee determined that the U.S. military command in Africa didn't know about the CIA annex and that the Pentagon didn't have the resources in place to defend the State Department compound in an emergency. [...]

The document contains only one mention of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is named by the panel's Republicans as the official who should ultimately be held responsible for the failures at Benghazi. But the broader report also finds no evidence of the kind of political coverup that Republicans have long alleged -- providing fodder for both sides as Clinton ponders a possible presidential run in 2016.

The committee described the attacks as opportunistic and said there was no specific advance warning that they were about to be carried out.

Posted by orrinj at 4:47 PM

60 in '14:

Poll: Scott Brown 3 points behind Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire (Emily Schultheis, January 15, 2014, Politico)

If Scott Brown were running now for Senate in New Hampshire, he'd trail incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen by just 3 points, according to new numbers out Wednesday.

Posted by orrinj at 4:43 PM


Iran invites Gulf states to visit nuclear plant (TIMES OF ISRAEL, January 15, 2014)

Iran's atomic energy chief on Wednesday invited delegates from Persian Gulf states to visit the Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr as a trust-building gesture between the Islamic Republic and its Arab neighbors.

Ali Akbar Salehi said Tehran was prepared to hold expert-level talks with Gulf nations to discuss the safety of the Islamic Republic's nuclear power plant, Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency reported. He further called for the formation of a Persian Gulf Nuclear Cooperation Organization to allay regional concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

January 14, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 3:34 PM


Criminal Charges Not Expected in IRS Probe (DEVLIN BARRETT,  Jan. 13, 2014, WSJ)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn't plan to file criminal charges over the Internal Revenue Service's heightened scrutiny of conservative groups, law-enforcement officials said, a move that likely will only intensify debate over the politically charged scandal.

The officials said investigators didn't find the kind of political bias or "enemy hunting" that would amount to a violation of criminal law. Instead, what emerged during the probe was evidence of a mismanaged bureaucracy enforcing rules about tax-exemption applications it didn't understand, according to the law-enforcement officials.

Posted by orrinj at 3:31 PM


Will Iran's New Support of Human Rights Go Deeper Than Rhetoric? (Helen Alkin and Jose Vericat, 1/14/14, ISN Blog)

Delegates in the UN General Assembly have been noticing a turnaround in the way that the country's representatives engage with social, humanitarian, and human rights issues. In October, observers were taken aback by the palpable softening of Iran's tone1 in the delegate's reaction to the latest report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. In its statement, the Iranian representative to the Third Committee sounded conciliatory as she declared that "Iran emphasizes the need to use the momentum engendered by this election [of President Rouhani] to adopt a new and constructive approach by all relevant parties towards cooperation and dialogue for the promotion and protection of all human rights" adding that the "government does not claim that the situation of human rights within the country is perfect."

In November, the same tone was apparent in the response of the Iranian Permanent Representative Mohammad Khazaee to the resolution presented by Canada on "the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Though he still rejected the country-specific nature of the resolution--which Canada puts forward yearly--characterizing it as "politicized" and "subjective," he also noted the country's "long term approach," "genuine measures," and "constructive engagement" to safeguard all human rights, signaling future improvements.

However, the clearest evidence of this new approach is perhaps the effort to present the resolution, "A World Against Violent Extremism" to the General Assembly--to be voted on this week. Iran, traditionally perceived as a spoiler on humanitarian and human rights issues, has untypically chosen to be a main sponsor of a resolution attempting to build consensus around the subjects of violence and extremism.

Despite the fact that resolutions such as these have a mostly symbolic value, they are an indication that the new Iranian president has launched a wide-ranging diplomatic campaign attempting to change perceptions in areas such as human rights, humanitarian issues, and the culture of peace, which fall under the Third Committee of the General Assembly. In fact, the Permanent Representative of Iran has been personally invested in dozens of démarches--that is, hours and hours of discussions with other permanent representatives.

Posted by orrinj at 3:19 PM


Who is a Jew? (The Economist, Jan 11th 2014)

For Orthodox Jews like Rabbi Tubul, the solution is simple and ancient: you are a Jew if your mother is Jewish, or if your conversion to Judaism accorded with the Halacha, Jewish religious law. Gentiles might be surprised that for Jews by birth this traditional test makes no reference to faith or behaviour. Jews may be atheist (many are: apostasy is a venerable Jewish tradition) and still Jews. Joel Roth, a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, likens this nativist criterion to that for American citizenship: Americans retain it regardless of their views on democracy or the constitution. Some strict rabbis even think that a child is not Jewish if born to a devout mother but from a donated gentile egg.

As some Jewish leaders privately acknowledge, this formula has uncomfortable racial undertones. 


Posted by orrinj at 3:14 PM


In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear (Abigail Hauslohner, January 8, 2013, Washington Post)

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world's largest country that the best path to stability -- after three years of political turmoil -- might be to do things the military's way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions. [...]

[M]any Egyptians have lost faith in democracy and the freedoms it briefly delivered.

January 13, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 2:11 PM


Democrats prove barrier for Obama in quest for trade deals (Richard McGregor, 1/12/14, Financial Times)

The tabling of legislation on Thursday to allow the administration to pass trade agreements swiftly and without changes through Congress triggered a wave of opposition from Democrats and their supporters.

The "fast track" legislation, also known as "Trade Promotion Authority", is essential to win congressional support for Mr Obama's sweeping second-term trade agenda, including deals with 12 Pacific countries and the EU.

Posted by orrinj at 2:07 PM


Deaths from Airplane Crashes Are Lower Than They've Ever Been (DANIELLE WIENER-BRONNER, 1/13/14, The Wire)

[L]ast year was the safest ever in terms of airliner crash fatalities, with only 265 casualties out of roughly 31 million flights throughout the world, compared to a ten-year average of 720 annually. That's the fewest number of fatalities on record.

January 12, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 4:52 PM


Iran nuclear deal to go into effect January 20 (AP AND TIMES OF ISRAEL, January 12, 2014)

 Iran and six world powers have agreed on how to implement a nuclear deal struck in November, with its terms starting from January 20, the Islamic Republic's official state news agency reported Sunday.

Posted by orrinj at 8:42 AM


U.N. watchdog eyes increased Iran presence to verify nuclear deal (FREDRIK DAHL,  Jan 12, 2014, Reuters) 

The U.N. atomic watchdog is considering increasing its presence in Iran to better handle a bigger workload in verifying Tehran is implementing a landmark deal with world powers to curb its nuclear programme, diplomats said. [...]

The extent of IAEA monitoring can be controversial in the Islamic Republic, which in the past has accused the Vienna-based watchdog of acting like a Western-manipulated intelligence agency and of leaking confidential information to adversaries seeking to sabotage its nuclear programme.

But relations have improved since the June election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president, paving the way for a diplomatic thaw with the West later in the year.

Posted by orrinj at 8:18 AM


Here's What My Company Will Pay for Health Insurance (PAUL DOWNS, 12/18/13, NY Times)

 Of 17 employees, five declined coverage altogether. They are already insured through spouses or, in one case, parents.

My bookkeeper, who works part time but meets the definition of an employee, realized that it would be cheaper for her to get coverage individually through the exchange because her family qualifies for substantial subsidies. In the past, we had included her in our group, but I'm not required to offer part-timers insurance, so I changed our company policy to exclude her (with her complete agreement).

As a result, she can now buy on the exchange, and I don't need to cover her. Coincidentally, she and her husband were the oldest people in our group -- so taking her off our policies will bring a significant reduction in our costs.

The remaining 11 chose a wide range of plans: one took the gold HMO that was equivalent to our current coverage, two chose a gold HMO with tiered pricing, one took a silver HMO, and three took a bronze HMO. The most popular choice was a bronze PPO with a health savings account. Three employees took that option, and so did I. The company will make an initial contribution of $500 into those health savings accounts.

The net result? It depends on the point of comparison. Our total cost for 2013 was $108,856. Of that, the company paid $72,937 and employees paid $35,919.

If I had taken my agent's first proposal (put everyone in a Gold HMO), the total cost for premiums would have been $135,738. Company share: $88,344. Employee share: $47,394.

The agent's cheaper option (put everyone in a Silver HMO) would have resulted in a total cost of $114,895. Company share: $76,620. Employee share: $38,275.

Our actual choice (a range of plans, with one employee choosing to leave the group) produced a total premium cost of $87,194. Company share: $59,005. Employee share: $28,189.

One of my goals was to reduce the cost of our coverage to the company. And in that respect, all of the hard work paid off. The cost that the company will bear was reduced by $13,932, or 19 percent, over last year's premiums, and it will be $29,339 cheaper, or 33 percent, than the cost I would have incurred had I simply accepted the quote that the agent dropped on my desk on Oct. 30.

Real Health Care Reform, Wal-Mart Style (IBD, 01/07/2014)

Businesses across the country have struggled for years to get their health costs under control, and these efforts are finally paying off, as they increasingly shift to consumer-directed plans that encourage workers to economize on health spending.

Health savings accounts, for example, have exploded in popularity. These plans combine higher deductibles with lower premiums and tax-free savings accounts for out-of-pocket costs. HSAs now account for more than 20% of the employer market, up from zero in 2005.

A RAND study concluded that expanding the HSA market share to 50% would cut health costs by nearly $60 billion a year.

Wal-Mart offers its employees individual coverage for about $40 a month. And that's for a plan with a deductible of $2,750, access to a wide network of doctors and hospitals, and at least $250 deposited in a worker's own health reimbursement account, according to the Washington Examiner.

Health Savings Accounts: Ten Years On (Greg Scandlen December 16, 2013, Heartland Institute)

HSA-Health Savings AccountsOn a wintery Monday night in Washington about 70 people gathered at a banquet to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the signing of Health Savings Accounts into law.

Fittingly, the dinner, organized by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), was held in the O'Byrne Gallery of the DAR's Constitution Hall where President Bush signed the law on December 8, 2003.

Represented were many of the people who conceived of the idea in the 1980s, the policy staff and legislators who enacted the first Medical Savings Accounts (MSA) law in 1996, the entrepreneurs and regulators who took the concept and created Health Reimbursement Accounts in 2002, and the companies who have turned the law into the products and services that benefit tens of millions of people today. [...]

Kyle Rolfing and Dr. Mike Parkinson, formerly of Definity Health and Lumenos respectively, spoke of taking the MSA concept a step further after the collapse of managed care in the late 1990s. They found a way to apply the idea under current tax law and sell it to large corporations. They found a receptive audience in the Bush Treasury Department, according to Bill Sweetnam, which termed the effort Health Reimbursement Arrangements.

Posted by orrinj at 7:35 AM


Blount gives Pats a new blueprint (Jackie MacMullan, 1/14/14, ESPNBoston.com)

Coming into this game, the Colts were ranked 26th in the league in rushing defense, relinquishing a gaudy 5.1 yards per carry. So it was hardly a shock that New England decided to run the ball on a day when high winds and driving rain descended on Gillette Stadium.

But rushing it 46 times? For 234 yards and six touchdowns? For a team whose resident legend and future Hall of Famer just happens to be a quarterback? [...]

In the first half alone, the Patriots ran the ball 25 times and threw it just 11 times, yet the running backs' average was a modest 3.2 yards a carry. Who would have questioned offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels if he put the ball in Brady's hands more for the final two quarters?

"I wouldn't have blamed him if he went to Tom," Blount said with a shrug. "He's the best quarterback in the game."

Instead, McDaniels stuck to his game plan. He reminded Blount, Stevan Ridley et al that the 2-yard and 3-yard gains wear down the defense and eventually lay the groundwork for the crack in coverage that allows for the big gain.

"We always want to be the most physical team, so when we have the opportunity to go in there and really pound the rock -- McDaniels really likes to do that," explained tight end Mike Mulligan. "I really liked that he stayed with it and gave us the opportunity to seize the moment." On a night of big moments, none was more stunning than Blount's 73-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were holding tight to a tenuous 29-22 advantage. Blount's bulldozed his way behind his stellar offensive line, cut right, found daylight and kept running until he reached the end zone, thereby setting a new Patriots franchise record of four rushing touchdowns in one postseason game.

Was, the best quarterback.  He might still be top 10, though that's debatable.  They don't have a tight end.  They don't have a significant receiver over 6'. What they do have is Belichick & Dante Scarnecchia. 

January 11, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 10:11 PM


$12 an hour is conservative rocket fuel, says Ron Unz (Neil Munro, 1/10/14, Daily Caller)

A nationwide minimum wage of $12 per hour would shrink government, aid families, curb illegal immigration, spur high-tech investment, and boost GOP support among working-class voters, says Ron Unz, the California libertarian entrepreneur who wiped out his state's Spanish-only K-12 classes.

The $12 wage would slash the huge taxpayer subsidies now given to companies that hire low-wage immigrants, and move tens of millions of Americans into the middle class and sharply reduce the 47 percent of the population who are now completely or partly dependent on federal handouts, Unz told The Daily Caller.

"Politics would be completely different... what you're doing is reducing the 47 percent by 10 to 15 points and giving Republicans a chance to make their case about cutting government spending and reducing taxes," he said.

...it's just a matter of whether you hate the very idea of government enough to cripple the economy by having the government force business to transfer wealth via jobs.

Posted by orrinj at 10:01 AM


Compassionate Conservatives Are Confusing A Slogan With An Agenda : Good government inevitably becomes big government. (Ben Domenech, JANUARY 10, 2014, The Federalist)

In the year since President Barack Obama's re-election, a handful of advocates for compassionate conservatism have re-emerged to push back against limited government conservatives with the same agenda they've been peddling for nearly 15 years. Built around a message of governance in favor of the public good, they have chided the Tea Party and its limited government allies for ignoring the plight of the poor, heartlessly pursuing libertarian ends, and adopting a view of government's proper role which is unrealistic and ahistorical.

The problem is that their own views are based on assumptions undermined by the failings of the George W. Bush presidency and by the organic growth in distrust in government among all Americans - and they fail to recognize the inherent weakness of their message, which confuses a political slogan with a coherent philosophy of governance and would allow for sweeping expansions of the state.

Even just completing the reforms that W left unfinished would be a major agenda for the next administration : moving taxation from income towards consumption; converting SS to personal stock accounts; liberalizing immigration; extending the HSAs that he set loose; and boosting home ownership rates.

It's hard to see what more you could add without diluting your own message.  

As friend Domenech says, this sort of good government does mean bigger government.  What he fails to reckon with is that the opposite is likewise true : the Right's advocacy of small/no government inevitably means bad government.  

Posted by orrinj at 9:57 AM


Iran looking beyond the nuclear issue (Shahir Shahid Saless, 6 Jan, 2014, asharq al-awsat)

The economic pressures resulting from the sanctions undoubtedly played an important role in shaping Tehran's flexibility. However, it should also be noted that the inclusion of the issue of uranium enrichment was fundamental. As stated in the agreement's preamble, the parties have committed to "[reaching] a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution" that "would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program." Would such a monumental agreement have been possible without the inclusion of the issue of enrichment? President Obama's recent statements on the issue may help shed some light.

At the annual Saban Forum on December 7, 2013, Obama remarked, "You'll hear arguments . . . that say we can't accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation . . . One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said: 'We'll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it's all gone.'" Then the US president sarcastically quipped, "I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful." These statements show that the US administration has concluded that a 'no enrichment in Iran' policy precludes any agreement with the Iranians.

So the Geneva Accord is not only the product of sanctions on Iran; the re-positioning of American policies has also played a prominent role.

Despite some disagreement between the administration and a faction in Congress, this new US approach to relations with Iran may well have an impact beyond the nuclear issue, on a much wider strategic level.

Amir Mohebbian, considered a prominent strategist and theorist of the Principlists, or conservatives, in Iran, wrote a paper two years ago entitled: 'Scenarios of possible threats against Iran.' The article garnered little attention. However, it was significant enough to be published on the website of Iran's current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Such placement indicated endorsement of the research by Iran's leadership. Mohebbian wrote: "The Iranian leadership . . . has demonstrated that it is not seeking to pursue the 'hostility for hostility' thesis. If there is a change in the behavior of the United States, Iran will consider it."

Now following the perceived drastic change in the US position toward Iran's nuclear program, there are indications that Tehran may be prepared to take the next step in crossing its decades-old 'red line' of no relations with the US.

In an article in December, The Christian Science Monitor's Middle East correspondent Scott Peterson quoted Mohebbian's unprecedented view: "This is the last opportunity of shifting from the first generation to the second generation of leaders . . . and the [Supreme] Leader wants to solve the issue of the US under his leadership."

Posted by orrinj at 9:45 AM


Rouhani pledges to ease restrictions on artists (Asharq Al-Awsat, 1/11/14)

The moderate cleric also warned of the social and economic risks facing Iranian society, including moral and economic corruption.

He said: "Unless we find solutions to these problems, the relationship between the government and people will deteriorate."

The Iranian president also pointed to the difficulties Iranian artists are facing, issuing assurances that the "government will fulfill its duties within the framework of the constitution and support art as much as possible."

Rouhani said that art is meaningless without freedom, and that artistic creativity is only possible in a free society.

Criticizing those who censor art, Rouhani stressed that artists are not a threat to the security of Iran and that the government should trust art and artists.

Iranian Minister of Culture Ali Jannati, who was present at the meeting, expressed his hope that cultural institutions in Iran would flourish during Rouhani's presidency.

Jannati said: "Artists do not expect from the government to work miracles because they realize the enormous local and international political pressures it is under."

Posted by orrinj at 9:32 AM


No Jobs, No Benefits, and Lousy Pay (THE EDITORIAL BOARD, JAN. 10, 2014)

The report showed that average monthly job growth in 2013 was 182,000, basically unchanged from 2012. Even the decline in the jobless rate last month, from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, was a sign of weakness: It mainly reflects a shrinking labor force -- not new hiring -- as the share of workers employed or looking for work fell to the lowest level since 1978. That's a tragic waste of human capital. It would be comforting to ascribe the dwindling labor force mainly to retirements or other long-term changes, but most of the decline is due to weak job opportunities and weak labor demand since the Great Recession.

We can't know whether that human capital is being wasted until we know what folks are doing with that time. If they're homemaking, busy at church and in the community, volunteering at school and after-school, etc. then it's obviously not wasted.  Indeed, the waste came in the form of the jobs they were doing that the Great Recession demonstrated were nothing but boondoggles.

Posted by orrinj at 9:25 AM


The Ingenious General (Edward N. Luttwak, 1/11/14, Project Syndicate)

Consider the Yom Kippur War. On October 16, 1973, ten days after Egypt's army surprised the Israelis by crossing the Suez Canal, Sharon turned defeat into victory by leading his own troops across the canal through a narrow gap in the Egyptian front. The Israelis swiftly spread out behind the Egyptians, overrunning anti-aircraft batteries and blocking supply and reinforcement routes.

Within six days, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had to plead for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire: so many Egyptian units were cut off, wrecked by air strikes, under attack, or fully encircled that no major forces were left to stop the advancing Israelis - not even to guard the road to Cairo.

The Egyptian high command was convinced that Sharon's crossing was only an overnight raid by light forces. Their reasoning was sound: The Israelis did not control even their own side of the canal, so they could not possibly reinforce the first wave of a few hundred men with a handful of tanks. Rather than pulling their units back across the canal to chase the raiding Israelis, the Egyptian commanders believed that their forces could capture all of them by converging toward one another, thus closing the two-mile gap that Sharon had exploited.

Sharon's superiors agreed with their Egyptian counterparts. They ordered Sharon to stop sending forces across the canal, and instead to widen the gap on the Israeli side. Sharon did not obey, pleading communications difficulties while sending as many of his forces as possible across the canal. He calculated that attacking the Egyptians from their own rear - destroying the missile batteries that impeded the Israeli air force, ambushing reinforcements and supplies, and simply causing massive confusion across the entire front - would induce organizational collapse in the Egyptian army.

That is exactly what happened. But Sharon's fellow generals were furious at him, as was often the case.

Posted by orrinj at 8:32 AM


Al-Qaida repeats old mistakes as a new act in Falluja's tragedy unfolds (Peter Beaumont, 1/11/14, Guardian)

Paradoxically, however, Isis's recent successes have underlined not its strength but rather its structural weaknesses, as once again an al-Qaida franchise has attempted to impose its own austere and brutal caliphate in captured territory.

And it is in Falluja's bloody history that lie indicators of its probable future, and the fate of Isis across the region.

Even before the first battle of Falluja - the US marine-led assault on the city in April 2004 following the murder of four US contractors - the "city of mosques" concealed complex realities under the banner of "resistance" to US occupation.

When I first visited the city a decade ago, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, I found a conservative but hospitable place. Western journalists could work there independently. Within a year, however, its jumble of metal shops would be making bombs, the first generation of largely nationalist and tribal insurgents already being replaced by a more dangerous group of jihadi fighters.

In truth, this ancient city on a bend of the Euphrates has long bridled at outsiders. Under the Ottoman Turks Falluja was developed as an administrative centre to control the powerful Dulaimi tribe, and it was here in 1920 that the explorer and British colonial official Gerard Leachman was murdered.

By the time of Saddam Hussein, this city, 50 miles from Baghdad, had become, along with other locations in what US officials would later call the Sunni Triangle, an important centre of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baathist regime, providing a disproportionate number of security personnel and other officials. Even then its tribal leaders could be restive, forcing Saddam - more than once - to buy their loyalty.

What is now largely forgotten is that it was not inevitable that Falluja would become associated with violence. It was largely untouched by the 2003 invasion and the wave of looting that convulsed Iraq immediately afterwards, and the first American troops to enter Falluja found a local defence force in place and a mayor willing to work with them.

All of that changed on 28 April 2003, when US paratroopers fired indiscriminately into a noisy demonstration outside a school they were occupying, killing 17 civilians. A year later, in the aftermath of the first battle of Falluja, the Coalition Provisional Authority would issue its infamous de-Baathification order, throwing tens of thousands of Sunnis who had once worked for the regime out of work, and effectively excluding them from the political process.

The consequences of those two acts cast a very long shadow, one that persisted even beyond the withdrawal of US combat troops.

The reality is that, despite its depiction at the time by America, armed opposition to the US occupation was never a simple affair. Even as the insurgency grew in size and pace, it was defined by competition and changing allegiances between groups - Baath nationalists against the first jihadis, who would become al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which a decade later would later morph into Isis, and which has at various times included a large contingent of international fighters - and between local leaders vying for prominence, not least in the Buessa tribe.

Through the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq to the second battle of Falluja and the emergence of the Sunni Awakening Movement - which began in 2006 and saw substantial numbers of tribal fighters turn against al-Qaida and join forces with the US - those tensions persisted. As Brian Fishman, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US's West Point military academy, noted in November, when he comparing al-Qaida in Iraq in the previous decade and its rebranded version in Syria (and now again in Iraq), the militant group originally foundered for reasons that remain valid.

"The determination to build an Islamic state," he wrote before the latest upsurge in violence in both Iraq and Syria, "put AQI out of step with many Iraqi Sunnis, who felt a sense of nationalism even as they were isolated from governing institutions. AQI's attempts to impose draconian social policies on a population unaccustomed to them alienated AQI from their would-be constituency, and that led the group to spend as much time fighting potential allies as it did trying to overthrow the Shia-led government. AQI's strategy aimed to provoke a Shia backlash against Sunnis that AQI would rebuke, thereby winning the hearts and minds of that constituency. Yet attempting to establish a jihadist state in a majority Shia country by challenging the existing tribal social framework was a course fraught with risk from the start."

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 AM


Navy's new $12b aircraft carrier beset with performance problems (Bryan Bender, JANUARY 10, 2014, Boston Globe)

The US Navy's newest aircraft carrier, a multibillion-dollar behemoth that is the first in a next generation of carriers, is beset with a number of performance problems, even failing tests of its ability to launch and recover combat jets, according to an internal assessment by the Pentagon.

The early tests are raising worries that the USS Gerald R. Ford, christened in honor of the 38th president in November, may not meet the Navy's goal of significantly increasing the number of warplanes it can quickly launch -- and could even be less effective than older vessels. The carrier is undergoing testing at a Virginia shipyard and is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in 2016, with a price tag estimated at more than $12 billion.

It's stimulus, not strategy.

Posted by orrinj at 8:19 AM


Netanyahu, Rouhani to attend World Economic Forum in Davos (REUTERS, 01/10/2014)

The occasion will bring the two leaders, whose nations have been sworn foes for decades, into a tightly guarded conference that gives many of the world's rich and powerful a chance to rub shoulders away from the public eye.

It was not immediately clear if the two might meet at the January 22-25 gathering, which will include thousands of guests, including politicians, billionaires, celebrities, academics and activists.

Posted by orrinj at 8:11 AM


As automakers tap smartphone technology, concerns grow about use of drivers' data (Cecilia Kang and Michael Fletcher, January 9, 2014, Washington Post)

A tablet, running Google's Android operating system, will pop out of the dashboard. The device can be passed around so passengers can find YouTube clips and order songs and audio books from the Google Play store for the car's entertainment system.

Prefer Dunkin' Donuts over Starbucks? Google may be able to decipher that by driving behavior and deliver the appropriate ads to an e-mail account or smartphone.

Audi executives said they view the relationship with Google as crucial to the automaker's future. Customers listed technology as the second-most important criteria in buying Audi vehicles last year.

The executives added that Google, not the automaker, would control any personal data generated by the car. And, they said, the information would be stored in servers, not the actual vehicles, to safeguard the data in case the car is stolen or sold.

Google declined to answer specific questions about how it would use geographic and other data about drivers and how that eventually could be used in advertising.

"This week we announced a joint effort between automobile and technology companies to bring Android into vehicles in a safe and seamless way," Christopher Katsaros, a spokesman for Google, said in a statement. "We don't have specific plans to share just yet but, as with any product at Google, we're focused on the privacy and security of our users' information."

Privacy experts said Google has much to gain from tracking the way people drive. Smartphones can be turned off. And Google has limited access to what users of iPhones are doing. But a car running Google's Android system could feed data constantly to the search giant.

Already, tens of millions of cars are outfitted with "black boxes" that continuously record data such as a vehicle's speed, acceleration and seat-belt use. But the amount of information cars will produce by simply motoring down the street will grow exponentially as they become more integrated into the Web.

As Google is getting something of value from you, they need to pay you.

Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM


Muslim majorities open to democracy, but cautious (OMAR SACIRBEY, 1/11/13, Religion News Service)

More than half the people surveyed in Turkey and Tunisia and nearly half in conservative Saudi Arabia said women should choose what they wear outside their homes, but majorities in all three countries also said women should wear headscarves in public. [...]

The report, which surveyed people in Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, too, offered surprising findings on attitudes toward secular government, religious tolerance and attitudes toward Americans.

Large majorities of people in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey said their country would be better off if religion and government were separated. In Pakistan, only 9 percent of people said the country would be better off with church-state separation, while no results were available in Saudi Arabia.

In all seven countries, overwhelming majorities said that democracy, which was not defined, is the best form of government. At the same time, strong majorities in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt, as well as half of Iraqis, said government should implement Shariah (Islamic law), a view shared by only 20 percent to 27 percent of people in Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey.

"These numbers tell us that people want democracy, but they don't want a democracy that is antithetical to religion -- they don't want a democracy where religion has no role," said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religion and Islamic studies at Duke University.

People in the West and in Muslim countries have very different notions of what Shariah, or Islamic law means, too, Moosa said. While Westerners think of Shariah as a harsh penal code, many Muslims think of it as justice, equality, fairness.

Posted by orrinj at 8:01 AM


Israel's indomitable protector, Ariel Sharon emblemized military audacity, evolving politics (MITCH GINSBURG, January 11, 2014, Times of Israel)

Sharon, as both military leader and prime minister, was the man to whom the Israeli public looked in its hours of need, yearning for the protection he provided and cognizant of the consequences it sometimes entailed. As Ari Shavit wrote in a piercing profile in the New Yorker in 2006, Israelis turned to Sharon in the 1950s, during the devastating fedayun raids; as they did on Yom Kippur 1973, when even the defense minister was said to have feared the "fall of the Third Temple"; and yet again, most overwhelmingly, during the savagely bloody days of the Second Intifada.

He was defense minister during the 1982 Lebanon War and was found to bear personal responsibility for failing to prevent the Phalangist massacre of Palestinian Muslims in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Early in his career, in October 1953, he led a reprisal raid on the Jordanian village of Qibya in response to a terror attack in Israel. Forty two houses were detonated in the raid and 69 people were killed. In the field with his troops, Sharon had a reputation for pushing the license and limits of his orders to the maximum.

Toward the end of his political career, he was welcomed into the mainstream. In August 2005, he presided over the withdrawal from Gaza, uprooting some 24 settlements in total and irrevocably severing his ties with the settlement movement that he had an instrumental role in founding.

Three months later, on November 21, 2005, Sharon announced his departure from Likud, the party he had co-founded in 1973. A reporter asked at the press conference why he thought he would succeed where so many others had failed, with a centrist party. He laughed -- even his greatest detractors admitted that he could be charming -- and said: "Planning is something a lot of people know how to do, but executing, as you know, far fewer, far fewer." [...]

General Sharon, as he was often known abroad, never went to officer's school.

He was, however, a gifted commander. In 1967, he planned the IDF's first divisional battle, against the Abu Agheila stronghold in the Sinai, completely on his own; till today, the battle is taught in military academies across the world.

During the Yom Kippur War, he led Israeli troops across the Suez Canal, breaking the back of the Egyptian offensive. As his troops encircled Egypt's Third Army, Sharon, a reserves officer at the time, instructed them to plant Israeli flags on the high ground, so that the Egyptians would look back across the water and see that they were trapped.

Sharon, known to all as Arik, did not need to have orders spelled out for him. In 1952, Moshe Dayan asked him "to see" whether it would be possible to capture Jordanian soldiers and exchange them for Israeli POWs. That same day, without being told, Sharon rounded up a friend and a pickup truck and drove down to the Jordan River. He waded into the water, pretended to inquire about missing cows, and promptly disarmed two Jordanian soldiers. He cuffed and blindfolded them, and drove them back to headquarters in Nazareth, his friend Shlomo Hever riding on the sideboard with a pistol aimed at their heads. When they arrived, Dayan was out. Sharon left him a note: "Moshe -- the mission is accomplished, the prisoners are in the cellar. Shalom. Arik."

Dayan, who recommended him for a citation after that mission, famously said of his generals that he preferred to restrain war horses than "prod oxen who refuse to move." Sharon, though, proved difficult to contain. In 1956, during the Suez War, he stretched his orders to the maximum and beyond, when he sent paratroopers into the Mitla Pass, engaging in a gruesome and unnecessary face-to-face fight with the Egyptian soldiers who were dug into the craggy mountain side. The mission resulted in 38 Israeli deaths and cemented a lifelong feud with future chief of the General Staff Motta Gur.

In the aftermath of the Suez War, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote of Sharon in his journal: "The lad is a thinker, an original. Were he to be weaned of his fault of not speaking the truth in his reports he would make an exemplary military leader."

Ben-Gurion, nonetheless, supported Sharon throughout his military life. In 1953, after the unintentional massacre in Qibya, the elder statesman kindly changed the young major's name from Scheinerman to Sharon, reassuring him that what is important is "how it will be looked at here in this region," to which Sharon remarked in his 1989 autobiography, tellingly entitled "Warrior," "I couldn't have agreed with him more."

Despite Ben-Gurion's persistent backing -- he told military historian Uri Milstein that Sharon was "the greatest field commander in the history of the IDF" - and Sharon's stunning tactical successes in the Six Day War, he was eventually pushed out of the army -- after many previous attempts -- on July 15, 1973.

January 10, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:07 PM


Obama and the Sunni-Shiite War : The U.S. tilt to Iran is upsetting allies and disrupting the Middle East. (Fouad Ajami, 1/10/14, WSJ)

[B]y deeds of commission and omission, the U.S. is caught up in a deadly sectarian struggle between Shiite Iran and its "sister republics" in the Arab world on one side, and the Sunni order of Arab power on the other. Mastery of the arcane details of the Shiite-Sunni schism may not be an American specialty, but over the last two years this president and his advisers have placed the U.S. on the side of Iran and its Arab satraps in Lebanon and, now, Iraq.

Iran planned and prepared for this fight. Its role in Lebanon dates to the early 1980s, when the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini found fertile soil among the Shiites of that country. Iran formed the Hezbollah militia in the country's south and in the Bekaa Valley to the east. Hezbollah fighters, newly urbanized young men in search of financial patronage and a sense of mission, came to think of themselves as soldiers in Khomeini's a Shiite notion involving ordained supremacy. The Sunnis had their Arab nationalism and ties to the Arabs of Egypt and the Gulf; the Christians had their sense of Lebanese identity and their ease with the West. With Iran at the head, this was the Shiites' opportunity to conquer their self-contempt and sense of isolation.

When W decided to remove the Sunni boot from the Shi'a neck in Iraq and call for the sort of self-determination that empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon it was all over for our former Sunni "allies."  Now it's just a matter of counting the days. It's democrats vs authoritarians and we all know how that always ends.

Posted by orrinj at 6:02 PM


Breakthrough in Iran nuclear talks in Geneva (Deutsche-Welle, 1/10/14)

"We found solutions for all the points of disagreement," Iran's deputy chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi told Iranian state-run TV Friday after two days of talks in Geneva.

"We had two days of good, constructive and intense negotiations in which we made good progress," he said adding that the implementation of the deal reached in Geneva in November now depends on the final ratification of negotiating delegations and their governments.

Posted by orrinj at 5:59 PM


"I Was Trapped in My Own Body" : Henry Evans is exploring how robotics can make life easier for the severely disabled--like Henry himself. (Brian Eule, Jan/Feb 2014, Stanford Magazine)

IN 2002, Henry's life was full. He was physically fit and a towering presence. The chief financial officer at a startup, he and Jane had four young children. Eight months earlier, they had bought their first house on a beautiful piece of land in Los Altos Hills. Henry, good with his hands, looked forward to renovating it. He was 40, and life was just beginning.

One August morning, despite a headache that had begun the night before, Henry was driving his children to school on the way to work. His vision narrowed and his speech began to slur. He focused on the road and dropped his children off, and then he turned around. Six miles back up the hill, Henry stumbled into the house. He braced against the walls and told Jane that he just wanted to lie down. She said they were going to the doctor. Henry had to crawl to get back to the car.

In the emergency room, Henry's right arm went limp. "I'm so scared," he told Jane. And then he fell into a coma.

Doctors initially thought Henry might have meningitis. It turned out that a birth defect had precipitated the stroke-like symptoms. The inner lining of his basilar artery had become detached and was blocking the blood flow. He was on life support, and when he finally emerged from the coma, he was unable to speak or move. Jane noticed he tracked her with his eyes.

"I soon realized they were all I could move," Henry writes. "My dad explained that I had no motor control, and I got it--I was trapped in my own body."

At first, Henry was unable to breathe on his own. He had a tracheostomy and a feeding tube, and he was on about 25 medications. Two blinks became "yes," and one, "no." He was barely alive, but his mind and his senses were perfectly intact.

"Minutes were hours, and hours were days," Henry writes. At the same time, his wife wasn't getting encouraging news. "They took Jane into a room full of doctors and told her that, in their professional opinion, I would never move and her best bet was to pump me full of antidepressants and stick me in an institution, and soon. Well, that was the wrong thing to say to Jane."

Four months later, Jane and Henry returned home. And though Henry had developed use of a finger and better control of his neck, he had a hard time thinking about living. For the next three years, Henry talked to Jane about helping him with suicide. Jane would try to get him laughing, saying that with his 6-foot-4-inch body, she could never pull it off. She also let him know she understood.

"I know how normal you are by asking me to do that," she would tell him. But she also told him something else.

"There is a reason God left you with your mind and you have life," Jane said. "Those are two incredible gifts that we take for granted every day. And the hardest thing you have to do is figure out why you're left here on Earth. It wasn't your time. Why? You have a purpose here."

IT STARTED WITH AN IDEA. Henry envisioned a head-mounted laser pointer that he could use to activate electrical switches. He made a sketch on the computer and sent it to a friend who was mentoring a robotics team at Palo Alto High School. The students designed a working prototype called the LaserFinger, which later won a grant from MIT. Though it was yet to be used in Henry's daily life, it got him thinking.

A few years later, while watching CNN, Henry saw an interview with Georgia Tech professor Charlie Kemp. Kemp was discussing his collaboration with Willow Garage, a robotics research lab in Menlo Park, and its robot, the PR2. Henry fired off emails to Steve Cousins, PhD '97, at Willow and to Kemp. Thus began a long collaboration between Henry and Jane, Willow Garage and the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech to use robots to function as body parts for the severely disabled. Henry called it Robots for Humanity, describing his work as "using technology to extend our capabilities, fill in our weaknesses and let people perform at their best."

"From a distance, all humans are disabled," Henry notes. "As humans, we adapted to our environment through evolution. We developed sight and hearing and speech. Yet these adaptations are quite limited. We can't run faster than about 25 miles per hour. We can't fly. We can't stay underwater forever and we can't be in more than one place at the same time. All humans are limited by nature in many ways.

"Now, I may have lost a few of the natural adaptations which evolution afforded me, but I have adapted to these limitations, often in a way similar to how you have adapted to nature's limitations. For example, I use a wheelchair to increase my mobility. You use a bike. You use a keyboard and mouse, I use a headtracker and a clicker to operate a computer."

One of the first things Kemp and Cousins did with Henry and Jane was ask them to identify tasks that would be the most helpful for a robot to perform. Scratching and shaving ranked high on their lists.

Posted by orrinj at 5:56 PM


Wall Street Predicts $50 Billion Bill to Settle U.S. Mortgage Suits (JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG AND PETER EAVIS, 1/10/14, WSJ)

Bracing for a potential reckoning, the banks and their outside lawyers are quietly using JPMorgan Chase's record $13 billion mortgage settlement in November to do the math and determine just how much each bank might have to pay to move beyond the torrent of government mortgage litigation that has dogged them since the financial crisis. Such calculations, people briefed on the matter said, have gained particular urgency among the banks' board members.

If the settlements materialize, they could yield, according to the analysis, $15 billion in relief for consumers -- a mixture of cash payments and other assistance, like reductions in the size of homeowners' loan payments. A payment of $50 billion, made up of a string of separate deals, would amount to roughly half the total annual profit of large American banks in 2012. The $50 billion figure does not include JPMorgan's $13 billion payout, which means the ultimate industry tab could exceed $60 billion, according to the analysis.

Posted by orrinj at 1:01 PM


U.S. Pro-Life Groups Bite Their Tongues as Israel Expands Abortion Coverage : The Jewish State will spend millions more to subsidize the controversial procedure this year. Why that doesn't anger the American right. (Daily Beast, 1/08/14)

You would expect conservative groups to go ballistic when it comes to taxpayer funding of abortions, but when Israel announced just that last month, the news was greeted with a subdued response among pro-life and pro-Israel groups in the U.S.

Israel will pay for all approved abortions for women aged 20 to 33, thanks to a recommendation accepted by its health ministry. Starting this year, Israel will spend 16 million shekels ($4.6 million) to cover abortions for approximately 6,300 women.

January 9, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:38 PM


In Norway, everyone is now a millionaire, thanks to oil (Reuters, 1/09/14)

Everyone in Norway became a theoretical millionaire on Wednesday in a milestone for the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund that has ballooned thanks to high oil and gas prices. [...]

Norway has sought to avoid the boom and bust cycle by investing the cash abroad, rather than at home. Governments can spend 4 percent of the fund in Norway each year, slightly more than the annual return on investment.

Still, in Norway, oil wealth may have made the state reluctant to make reforms or cut subsidies unthinkable elsewhere. Farm subsidies allow farmers, for instance, to keep dairy cows in heated barns in the Arctic.

It may also have made some Norwegians reluctant to work. "One in five people of working age receives some kind of social insurance instead of working," Doerum said, despite an official unemployment rate of 3.3 percent.

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 PM


Cheap Battery Can Store Energy for a Rainy Day (Mark Peplow and Nature magazine)

Power harvested from the Sun and wind is pouring into electricity grids by the gigawatt. That makes it ever more important to find an efficient and convenient way to store renewable energy for those times when the breeze dies or the skies cloud over.

"Now we have a good chance of solving that problem," says Michael Aziz, a materials scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His solution is a flow battery that packs a high energy density with no need for the expensive metals found in other models.
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Posted by orrinj at 7:18 PM


10,000 Steps : How one number became sacred in fitness circles. (Wayne Curtis, 1/09/14, Smart Set)

So what exactly does 10,000 steps involve? And do researchers think that number actually results in health gains?

Give or take, 10,000 steps is five miles -- depending on terrain, your natural stride, and your proclivity to game the number by gently jiggling your wrist while sprawled on a couch. Not that I've ever done that. So it's about 90 minutes of walking every day. It's also about twice what the average American walks daily in general getting about: moving from parked car to mall, from office cubicle to break room.

Many recent studies have shown that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise results in a dramatic increase in health benefits. Moderate exercise can include brisk walking, which is often defined as a pace at which you can carry on a conversation with a companion, but are still too winded to sing. If you can belt out, "Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow" while walking, you're not walking fast enough. (Also, you're walking too close to me.)

Research shows that by walking 30 minutes a day your chances of a premature death can drop by 20 percent. Studies have also shown that increasing your walking from 30 to 90 minutes doesn't come close to tripling the benefits. In fact, it cuts premature mortality merely by an additional four percent.

So why bother with 10,000 steps? For reasons that are still being figured out, studies still show that it's a number that works. (The fact that researchers are testing the scientific merits of a Japanese marketing slogan is charming -- akin to the National Institutes for Health launching a major study to see if Wheaties actually produces champions.)

A 2004 study published in Sports Medicine found "growing evidence that 10,000 steps/day is an amount of physical activity that is associated with indicators of good health," including lower body fat and blood pressure. Another study of people with type 2 diabetes found that those who walked 10,000 steps or more (sometimes nearly twice that) over a nearly two-month period lost on average 16 pounds more than a control group that walked just 4,000 steps a day.

What's more, there's a utilitarian advantage to aiming high: If you come in low, you're still reaping benefits. And there's the fact that all your daily steps won't be brisk (is that "Tonight" from West Side Story I hear you singing?). By shooting for 10,000 you're bettering the odds that more of your steps will fall in the brisk zone.

It's about fitness, not fatness

Posted by orrinj at 5:34 PM


Christie Nails It (PETER ROFF, January 9, 2014, US News)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just schooled President Barack Obama and every other politician in America on the proper way to handle a crisis.

Up to now, what some folks have been calling "Bridgegate" has been nipping at the heels of the newly-re-elected governor and 2016 presidential prospect. The discovery of emails and text messages showing that the closure of lanes leading up to the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge was indeed undertaken as political retribution, and not for a traffic study as some had claimed, turned what had been laughable into a serious allegation.

In his Thursday press conference, Christie dealt with the whole matter openly and with apparent candor. He explained what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did and would be doing as a result. No excuses, just the facts.

He just enhanced his presidential pedigree.

Posted by orrinj at 5:00 PM


A Conservative Vision of Government (MICHAEL GERSON and PETER WEHNER, Winter 2014, National Affairs)

In important respects, Abraham Lincoln continued the philosophical arc of the framers of the Constitution. No president revered the founders as much, spoke about them as often, or read them as closely as did Lincoln. His presidency "undertook no permanent reconstitution of the federal government on Leviathan-like proportions," writes the scholar Allen Guelzo -- but Lincoln insisted, as the founders did, that government adjust to shifting circumstances. And he believed, as they did, in a federal government strong enough to achieve large national purposes.

For Lincoln, those purposes included the transcontinental railroad, "land-grant" college legislation, the National Banking Act, tariffs, and the imposition of temporary federal personal income taxes to cover the cost of the Civil War. He also believed the federal government should play a key role in promoting ownership and entrepreneurship: the foundations of a free economy. Most famously, and in direct continuity with Washington and Hamilton, he believed the federal government should be powerful enough to protect itself from dissolution in the name of state sovereignty.

Lincoln's governing philosophy, however, ran even deeper than that, extending beyond that of the founders in a direction that prefigured some of the policy developments of 20th-century America. In what is known as his "Fragments on Government," he wrote:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities.

Among the things requiring the "combined action" of government in Lincoln's view were "public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself." Government, Lincoln went on to say, "is a combination of the people of a country to effect certain objects by joint effort"; he included in those objects of joint effort "providing for the helpless young and afflicted." Nor did he shrink from the financial implications of so large a role. "The best framed and best administered governments," he acknowledged, "are necessarily expensive."

Lincoln therefore understood the role of government (though of course not necessarily the federal government) to be to help those who cannot individually do for themselves, to advance justice in an unjust world, and to lift up the weakest members of society. Lincoln would later say that "government is not charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world" but that it "rightfully may, and, subject to the constitution, ought to, redress and prevent, all wrongs which are wrongs to the nation itself."

It speaks well of conservatives that they want to be thought of as the defenders of the Constitution. But at a minimum, "constitutional conservatives" should recognize what both the federalist founders and Lincoln actually envisioned for the republic they created and preserved. They were, on the whole, rigorous, empirical, modern thinkers, as well as sober and skeptical heirs of the Enlightenment, who believed they were fortunate to inhabit an age of progress. Far from being constrained by the prevailing physical, political, or economic arrangements of America in 1787, the founders fully expected America to spread across a continent, undergo economic and social change, and emerge as a global actor. And they purposely designed a constitutional system that could accommodate such ambitions. [...]

Government should, as a first resort, set the table for private action and private institutions -- creating a context in which social and civic institutions can flourish. People are right to be generally skeptical of centralized government action because the world is too complicated to be run by technocrats and planners. Limited government is more often good government; and it is good government because it secures individual liberty, takes into account human nature and people's self-interestedness, and allows people to pursue their potential and achieve great things that improve lives beyond their own.

Conservatism is heavily context dependent, however, so when private institutions are enervated or insufficient in scale -- perhaps in part because of unwise government policies, though often for reasons that go beyond government -- society has a duty to respond, including with public and not merely private actions. When communities are in crisis, to simply pull government away would allow those communities to decline or collapse, and pull down innocent lives in the process. And historical context should matter. The institutional arrangements appropriate to 18th-century Massachusetts are going to be very different than the institutional arrangements appropriate to inner-city Chicago in the 21st century.

The key to the art of governing is to figure out when government should pull back and when it should engage, and when it engages, precisely how it should do so. In other words: Does government have an appropriate role to play in a particular situation?

Health care provides an example. Advances in medical technology, health-care infrastructure, and national wealth have made health care a different type of social good than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a legitimate and appropriate public goal to ensure broad access to modern health care. But the first instinct of President Obama's Affordable Care Act was centralization and heavy regulation, inviting a cascade of unintended consequences. The proper conservative reaction is not to imagine a government stripped of public obligations when it comes to the health of citizens. It is to propose an alternative health-care plan that doesn't centralize all power in Washington and that keeps costs down, solves the problem of insuring those with pre-existing conditions, and reduces the number of uninsured.

The real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. America's education system too often fails to adequately prepare workers for global competition. Our tax code, our physical infrastructure, and our immigration system are badly misaligned with obvious economic needs and desires. Our entitlement system threatens over time to consume the federal budget and undercut other indispensable purposes of government.

Each of these institutions needs to be improved and modernized. Conservatives should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms. And they should connect these reforms to the larger purpose of "the happiness of the people," thus bringing us back full circle to the founders.

Conservatives have accomplished this before. In the 1990s, a cadre of conservative political leaders achieved remarkable success against three seemingly intractable problems: welfare dependency, drug use, and violent crime. They did so not by simply scaling back government's involvement but by implementing better public policies at the federal, state, and local levels. We have already mentioned the 1996 welfare reform, which grew out of ambitious reform efforts by several Republican governors. To take another example, the massive drop in crime from which Americans are still benefiting was attributable to such Republican-initiated policies as an increase in police presence per capita, improvements in policing techniques, the incarceration of dangerous criminals, and measures addressing urban disorder and vandalism. [...]

The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson summarized this political reality in a single sentence: "Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics." Seconding Wilson, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, recently noted that the "government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society....We have to declare peace on the safety net." Providing such services and securing that safety net does not mean accepting the technocratic mindset of the liberal welfare state. It means replacing that mindset with a conservative approach that puts government on the side of civil society and private enterprise in order to achieve a more just and thriving society.

Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government.

Homestead Act (Lincoln's Legacy)

Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. Ten percent of the United States, or 275,000,000 acres of land, were given to settlers under this act. Between 1879 and 1886, more than 100,000 people settled in northern Dakota. To claim 160 acres of free land, a man or woman had to be head of a household and 21 years old. The homesteader had to pay an $18 filing fee and live on the homestead for 5 years. The law required that they build a house, measuring at least 10' x 12', and have at least 10 acres of land under cultivation. Immigrants from foreign lands were required to become U.S. citizens in order to claim land.

Posted by orrinj at 4:56 PM


Obama makes pitch for 'Promise Zones' to boost depressed areas (Tom Curry, 1/09/14, NBC News)

Obama's Promise Zones proposal bears some similarity to Paul's Economic Freedom Zones Act which the Kentucky Republican introduced in the Senate last month.

Exiting the White House event, Paul told reporters, "I am supportive of the president's ideas... What he said was uplifting and encouraging." But he added, "We need to do something more dramatic" than Obama's proposed incentives for economically distressed areas.

Paul's bill would create tax breaks for residents and businesses in areas that have 1.5 times the national unemployment rate, or where at least 30 percent of the residents have incomes below the national poverty level.

Paul's bill would cut the income tax rate to 5 percent for individuals, families, and small businesses, would trim the payroll tax rate, and would suspend the capital gains tax.

Paul's proposal is similar to one made 25 years by then Rep. Jack Kemp, R- N.Y., who later became Housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Posted by orrinj at 11:58 AM


ADHD does not exist (Kyle Smith, January 4, 2014, NY Post)

After a long career treating patients complaining of such problems as short attention spans and an inability to focus, Saul is convinced that ADHD is a collection of symptoms, not a disease, and shouldn't be listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Treating ADHD as a disease is a huge mistake, according to Saul. Imagine walking into a doctor's office with severe abdominal pains and simply being prescribed painkillers. Then you walk away, pain-free. Later you die of appendicitis.

Patients show up at the clinic with their own ADHD diagnoses these days, simply because ADHD is in the air all around us -- and because they want to score some delightful drugs..., or because their parents want an easy way to get them to sit down and shut up.

Posted by orrinj at 11:58 AM


ADHD does not exist (Kyle Smith, January 4, 2014, NY Post)

After a long career treating patients complaining of such problems as short attention spans and an inability to focus, Saul is convinced that ADHD is a collection of symptoms, not a disease, and shouldn't be listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Treating ADHD as a disease is a huge mistake, according to Saul. Imagine walking into a doctor's office with severe abdominal pains and simply being prescribed painkillers. Then you walk away, pain-free. Later you die of appendicitis.

Patients show up at the clinic with their own ADHD diagnoses these days, simply because ADHD is in the air all around us -- and because they want to score some delightful drugs..., or because their parents want an easy way to get them to sit down and shut up.

Posted by orrinj at 11:57 AM


Iran offers to help Iraq army with equipment and advice against al Qaeda (deutsche-Welle, 1/08/14)

Iran has offered help to Iraq as Iraqi troops try to dislodge fighters belonging to the al Qaeda group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from two key cities in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

The deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces for logistics and industrial research, Brigadier-General Mohammad Hejazi, was reported as saying in Tehran on Sunday that Iran was ready to provide Iraq with "military equipment or consultation" to help the Iraqi army in Anbar if it were asked to do so.

Posted by orrinj at 11:54 AM


Gallipoli was not Churchill's great folly (Ross Cameron, 4/14/11, Sydney Morning Herald)

The first land attack stalled and reports quickly reached London and Sydney of unprecedented carnage. Gallipoli would fall to become the seventh bloodiest campaign of the war but at the time it had no peer in casualties. Outraged critics, the public, the press and his own prime minister turned on Churchill and within a month of the first troops hitting the beaches he was sacked from the war cabinet.

Churchill was relentless, publicly calling for 95,000 more troops to be sent to Gallipoli but securing only 25,000. Fresh boots made few gains and opposition to the campaign intensified. In October 1915 the British commander, General Ian Hamilton, was instructed to consider withdrawal but refused and was dismissed.

Hamilton's replacement, General Charles Monro, arrived at Gallipoli and was sufficiently appalled to order immediate evacuation. Churchill said of Monro: ''He came, he saw, he capitulated.'' The Allies were out by January 1916 and the deeply unpopular Churchill spent the rest of the war near the front line in France.

Russia had been warming to the world in the decades before the war and moving towards a democratic constitutional monarchy. But its promising future was cruelled by post-Gallipoli isolation. A year later Russia crumbled, the tsar abdicated and the world's first communist state was born. Its first act was surrender. More Russians died in the war than Germans and Britons combined - but life for ordinary Russians was about to get much worse as all Churchill's premonitions were made real.

With Russia out, Germany hurled its fury at France and by mid-1918 was within sight of Paris. The Allies were saved years more carnage by a late American rescue. After the war Churchill led calls for the West to send troops to support Russia's anti-communist resistance. A modest force departed but Lenin prevailed and the USSR became HQ for every communist revolution of the 20th century.

Communism enslaved one-third of the world by 1980 but there was nothing inevitable about its advent. When Marx died in 1883, 10 people attended the funeral of an obscure radical. No nation was threatened by communism before 1917.

January 8, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 4:54 PM


The Greatness of Frank Thomas (Jeff Sullivan, January 8, 2014, FanGraphs)

All the great players in the Hall of Fame have stories about them, anecdotes that capture glimpses of how they were exceptional, even among the already exceptional. Anecdotes developed in part out of exaggeration but largely founded on inconceivable truth. Here's an old anecdote about Frank Thomas:

"We had this competition, even when he was a freshman, in which we'd wager a Coke on whether he could guess--within one mile an hour--how fast a pitcher was throwing. We had a radar gun. He'd call out the velocity. He was always on. Almost never fooled."

It's been my understanding that policemen are trained to do this with vehicles. Frank Thomas wasn't a policeman, but he was sort of an officer of home plate in a way, and he was liberal with discipline. What was apparent, even early in college, was that Thomas had an unusually gifted sense of the zone. He went on to pair that with one of the best swings ever and now he's on his way to Cooperstown, a part of baseball immortality. Pretty simple. Thomas was just one of the best at something, and also one of the best at a related something. That allowed him to be one of the best overall. [...]

Thomas was drafted in 1989, and he was in the majors in 1990. He hit instantly, and he was consistently unbelievable all the way through 1997. Through that year -- Thomas' age-29 season -- he posted a 177 wRC+, batting .330 while slugging .600. Through his own age-29 season, Albert Pujols posted a 169 wRC+, batting .334 while slugging .628. Over the past four years, Miguel Cabrera has posted a 176 wRC+, batting .337 while slugging .612. Frank Thomas at his best was Albert Pujols at his best and Miguel Cabrera at his best. And Thomas' best lasted several seasons. He didn't do much of anything in other areas, but he didn't have to, being an all-time great destroyer of pitched baseballs.

Posted by orrinj at 4:48 PM


Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements (Eliseo Guallar, MD, DrPH; Saverio Stranges, MD, PhD; Cynthia Mulrow, MD, MSc, Senior Deputy Editor; Lawrence J. Appel, MD, MPH; and Edgar R. Miller III, MD, PhD, Ann Intern Med. 2013)

The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided. This message is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, who represent most supplement users in the United States and in other countries.

The evidence also has implications for research. Antioxidants, folic acid, and B vitamins are harmful or ineffective for chronic disease prevention, and further large prevention trials are no longer justified. Vitamin D supplementation, however, is an open area of investigation, particularly in deficient persons. Clinical trials have been equivocal and sometimes contradictory. For example, supplemental vitamin D, which might prevent falls in older persons, reduced the risk for falls in a few trials, had no effect in most trials, and increased falls in 1 trial. Although future studies are needed to clarify the appropriate use of vitamin D supplementation, current widespread use is not based on solid evidence that benefits outweigh harms.

With respect to multivitamins, the studies published in this issue and previous trials indicate no substantial health benefit. This evidence, combined with biological considerations, suggests that any effect, either beneficial or harmful, is probably small. As we learned from voluminous trial data on vitamin E, however, clinical trials are not well-suited to identify very small effects, and future trials of multivitamins for chronic disease prevention in well-nourished populations are likely to be futile.

In conclusion, β-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful. Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases. Although available evidence does not rule out small benefits or harms or large benefits or harms in a small subgroup of the population, we believe that the case is closed-- supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.

Posted by orrinj at 2:02 PM


Help Wind Power Go Big : Low-cost materials could make storing hours of power from a wind farm economically feasible. (Kevin Bullis, January 8, 2014, Technology Review)

Harvard University researchers say they've developed a new type of battery that could make it economical to store a couple of days of electricity from wind farms. The new battery, which is described in the journal Nature, is based on an organic molecule--called a quinone--that's found in plants such as rhubarb and can be cheaply synthesized from crude oil. The molecules could reduce, by two-thirds, the cost of energy storage materials in a type of battery called a flow battery, which is particularly well suited to storing large amounts of energy.

If it solves the problem of the intermittency of power sources like wind and solar, the technology will make it possible to rely far more heavily on renewable energy.

Posted by orrinj at 2:00 PM


What Iran Wants in 2014 (Hassan Rouhani, 1/08/14, Project Syndicate)

[W]e are committed not to work toward developing and producing a nuclear bomb. As enunciated in the fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, we strongly believe that the development, production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are contrary to Islamic norms. We never even contemplated the option of acquiring nuclear weapons, because we believe that such weapons could undermine our national-security interests; as a result, they have no place in Iran's security doctrine. Even the perception that Iran may develop nuclear weapons is detrimental to our security and overall national interest.

During my presidential campaign, I committed myself to doing everything in my power to fast-track a resolution to the standoff over our nuclear-energy program. To fulfill this commitment and benefit from the window of opportunity that the recent election opened, my government is prepared to leave no stone unturned in seeking a mutually acceptable permanent solution. Following up on November's interim agreement, we are ready to continue to work with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and others with a view to ensuring our nuclear program's full transparency.

The peaceful nuclear capability that we have achieved will be used within an internationally recognized framework of safeguards, and it will be accessible to multilateral monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as has been the case in the past several years. In this way, the international community can ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of our nuclear program. We will never forgo our right to benefit from nuclear energy; but we are ready to work toward removing any ambiguity and answer any reasonable question about our program.

Posted by orrinj at 1:40 PM


Who Counts as Poor in America? (Simone Pathe, 1/08/14, PBS: Business Desk)

The calculation on which the poverty level is based is the brainchild of one woman, but she never set out to develop a general poverty measure. In 1963, Social Security Administration statistician Mollie Orshansky was calculating a subsistence budget for poor families that grew out of her interest in determining the incidence of childhood poverty, an experience with which she was personally familiar.

Orshansky's subsistence level was set at three times the 1963 U.S. Department of Agriculture's economy food budget (based on the assumption that families spent one-third of their income on food). 

When, in reality, we spend less than a fifth of that.

January 7, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:36 PM


Chart of the greatest and most remarkable achievement in human history, and one you probably never heard about (Mark J. Perry | December 31st, 2013, AEIdeas)


[T]he chart above could perhaps qualify as the "chart of the century" because it illustrates one of the most remarkable achievements in human history: the 80% reduction in world poverty in only 36 years, from 26.8% of the world's population living on $1 or less (in 1987 dollars) in 1970 to only 5.4% in 2006. (Source: The 2009 NBER working paper "Parametric Estimations of the World Distribution of Income," by economists Maxim Pinkovskiy (MIT) and Xavier Sala-i-Martin (Columbia University).

Posted by orrinj at 6:24 PM


MakerBot shows off a trio of new 3-D printers (Heather Kelly, 1/06/14, CNN)
There's a new option for anyone who's wanted to dabble in 3-D printing but didn't know where to start. On Monday, MakerBot founder Bre Pettis unveiled a trio of 3-D printers, including a new device for beginners, at a news conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The company has come a long way since it was founded in 2009. An entire commercial 3-D printing industry has spring up since then, and this year, 28 exhibitors are showing off their 3-D printer-related products on the CES show floor.

Posted by orrinj at 6:22 PM


Fatah official to head to Gaza for reconciliation talks with Hamas (KHALED ABU TOAMEH, 01/07/2014, Jerusalem Post)

Senior Fatah official Azam al-Ahmed is expected to head to the Gaza Strip soon to discuss ways of ending the dispute between his faction and Hamas.

The planned visit was announced one day after Hamas declared a series of measures to pave the way for reconciliation with Fatah.

Posted by orrinj at 6:19 PM


Antismoking crusade has saved 8 million lives in 50 years, study says (Noelle Swan, January 7, 2014, CS Monitor)

Since that report, states, hospitals, and public health institutions have launched a multi-front campaign to change the public perception of smoking through a myriad of tobacco controls. Mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages, additional taxes, and public education campaigns have become ubiquitous during the past 50 years.

Such efforts have paid off to the tune of 8 million lives and a total of 157 million years of life saved, a new study released Tuesday from Yale University School of Public Health found. That's an additional 20 years for each person that quit or never started smoking as a result of tobacco controls, with one quarter of those years gained under the age of 65.

Posted by orrinj at 3:51 PM


U.S. and Iran Face Common Enemies in Mideast Strife (THOMAS ERDBRINK, 1/07/14, NY Times)

On Monday, Iran offered to join the United States in sending military aid to the Shiite government in Baghdad, which is embroiled in street-to-street fighting with radical Sunni militants in Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he could envision an Iranian role in the coming peace conference on Syria, even though the meeting is supposed to plan for a Syria after the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, an important Iranian ally. [...]

Yet even Iranians outside the reformist camp see the shared interests as undeniable. "It is clear we are increasingly reaching common ground with the Americans," said one of them, Aziz Shahmohammadi, a former adviser to Iran's Supreme National Security Council. "No country should have an eternal enemy, neither we nor the United States."

Posted by orrinj at 3:36 PM


Obama Lost Faith in His Afghan Strategy, Book Asserts : In His New Memoir, Robert M. Gates, the Former Defense Secretary, Offers a Critique of the President (THOM SHANKER, January 7, 2014, NY Times)

In a new memoir, Mr. Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Mr. Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions "opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats." But Mr. Gates says that by 2011, Mr. Obama began expressing his own criticism of the way his strategy in Afghanistan was playing out.

At a pivotal meeting in the situation room in March 2011, Mr. Gates said, Mr. Obama opened with a blast of frustration over his Afghan policy -- expressing doubts about Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

"As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his," Mr. Gates writes. "For him, it's all about getting out." [...]

Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden "a man of integrity," but he questions the vice president's judgment. "I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," Mr. Gates writes. [...]

Mr. Gates reveals the depth of Mr. Obama's concerns over leaks of classified information to news outlets, noting that within his first month in office, the new president said he wanted a criminal investigation into disclosures on Iran policy published by The New York Times.

Robert Gates, former defense secretary, offers harsh critique of Obama's leadership in 'Duty' (Bob Woodward, January 7, 2014, Washington Post)

Gates writes about Obama with an ambivalence that he does not resolve, praising him as "a man of personal integrity" even as he faults his leadership. Though the book simmers with disappointment in Obama, it reflects outright contempt for Vice President Joe Biden and many of Obama's top aides. [...]

He writes: "Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying."

Posted by orrinj at 1:35 PM


Toyota's Hydrogen-Powered Car Of The Future Is Rolling Out Next Year (Co.Exist, 1/07/14)

With its new FCV concept car, the company that made hybrids cool shows it's not giving up on the idea of fuel cell vehicles--and maybe you shouldn't either.

A world of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, long touted as an alternative to gasoline vehicles, sounds far-fetched. Then again, hybrid electric technology once seemed unlikely, too. Toyota, the car company behind the Prius--the vehicle that brought hybrids to the mainstream--thinks it can do the same sort of mainstreaming for fuel cell vehicles with its new FCV concept car, expected to be released in 2015.

Posted by orrinj at 4:47 AM

60 in '14:

Republicans Really Could Win It All This Year : A definitive guide to the 2014 elections from our new columnist. (LARRY J. SABATO, January 06, 2014, Politico)

At this early stage, the combination of these three factors suggests a good election year for the GOP. The president is a Democrat and his approval is weak. The economy may be improving, based on GDP growth (4.1 percent in the third quarter), but voters still don't believe their personal economy, at least, has picked up much. Instead, the major national issue of the moment is Obamacare, which at this point is a loser for Democrats. The structure of the election in the House and Senate also bends in the GOP direction.

Just wait'll the House cuts an immigration deal.

Posted by orrinj at 4:45 AM


Liberman: Kerry proposals are the best Israel could hope for (RAPHAEL AHREN, January 5, 2014, Times of Israel)

Liberman emphasized that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state and appreciates the current efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to reach a final status deal, but added that he would not agree to an agreement that would allow "even one" Palestinian refugee to return to Israel.

He also suggested that Kerry's positions on the peace process, including his understanding of Israel's security needs and its demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, were the best offer Israel could expect from the international community. "Any alternative proposals brought forward by the international community will suit us much less," he said.

Liberman spoke at the opening of the Foreign Ministry's Ambassadors Conference for heads of Israeli missions across the world. At the conference, which took place at the Foreign Ministry headquarters building in Jerusalem, Liberman sounded decidedly less hawkish than in recent years. The foreign minister who has insisted in the past that a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority was unattainable and accused PA President Mahmoud Abbas of "political terrorism," on Sunday sounded as if he accepted the idea that a Palestinian state will be created in the near future.

Posted by orrinj at 4:37 AM


Europe Faces Specter of Deflation (Stephen Fidler, 1/06/14, WSJ)

[I]nflation is stubbornly low, under 1% on average across the 18-nation bloc, despite the money that the European Central Bank has been pumping into the economy with the aim of spurring investment and growth, actions that often push up inflation. That is way under the ECB target of "below, but close to 2%," and, if the average is below 1%, more economies using the euro are at risk of deflation.

Why worry? If economies cope with inflation, why not with deflation? For centuries until World War II, capitalist economies experienced periods of severe deflation interspersed with spells of inflation and continued on a path of long-term growth.

As Jim Grant said: "What deflation is not is a drop in prices caused by a technology-enhanced decline in the costs of production. That's called progress. Between 1875 and 1896, according to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, the American price level subsided at the average rate of 1.7% a year. And why not? As technology was advancing, costs were tumbling."

Posted by orrinj at 4:34 AM


UK-Iranian ties thaw after storming of embassy as Straw leads MPs to Tehran (Saeed Kamali Dehghan, theguardian.com)

A four-member parliamentary delegation from the UK has travelled to Tehran in the first such visit to Iran in five years as long-strained bilateral ties improve under the administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

Members of the all-party parliamentary group on Iran, led by the former foreign secretary Jack Straw, were due to arrive in Tehran on Monday after being invited by their counterparts in the Iranian parliament, the Majlis. They plan to meet senior Iranian officials and hope to arrange a reciprocal visit to London by Iranian MPs.

The visit comes a month after Britain's newly appointed chargé d'affaires, Ajay Sharma, travelled to Iran in a first diplomatic visit by a UK envoy since London withdrew all staff from Tehran after the storming of its embassy in 2011.

January 6, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 5:17 PM


Posted by orrinj at 5:14 PM


Abolish the Corporate Income Tax (LAURENCE J. KOTLIKOFF, 1/06/14, NY Times)

Making, rather than just stating, this case requires constructing a large-scale computer simulation model of the United States economy as it interacts over time with other nations' economies, and then seeing how the model reacts when you change the American corporate income tax. I've developed such a model with three colleagues through the Tax Analysis Center, a nonpartisan research group. Our findings make a very strong, worker-based case for corporate tax reform.

In the model, eliminating the United States' corporate income tax produces rapid and dramatic increases in American investment, output and real wages, making the tax cut self-financing to a significant extent. Somewhat smaller gains arise from revenue-neutral corporate tax base broadening, specifically cutting the corporate tax rate to 9 percent and eliminating all corporate tax loopholes. Both policies generate welfare gains for all generations in the United States, but particularly for young and future workers. Moreover, all Americans can benefit, though by less, if foreign countries also cut their corporate tax rates.

The size of the potential economic and welfare gains are stunningly large and don't reflect any extreme supply-side (a k a, voodoo economics) assumptions. Fully eliminating the corporate income tax and replacing any loss in revenues with somewhat higher personal income tax rates leads to a huge short-run inflow of capital, raising the United States' capital stock (machines and buildings) by 23 percent, output by 8 percent and the real wages of unskilled and skilled workers by 12 percent. Lowering the corporate rate tax to 9 percent while also closing loopholes is roughly revenue neutral and also produces very rapid increases in capital (by 17 percent), output (by 6 percent) and real wages (by 8 percent).

Mr. Kotlikoff's notion of taxing personal income makes no sense though.

Posted by orrinj at 5:09 PM


Iran Tries to Reverse a Slumping Birth Rate (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, 1/06/14)

 In Iran, free condoms and government-backed vasectomies are out, replaced by sermons praising larger families and discussions of even offering gold coins to the families of newborns.

Having successfully curbed birth rates for two decades, Iran now is promoting a baby boom to help make up for its graying population. But experts say it is difficult to encourage Iranians to have more children in a mismanaged economy hit by Western sanctions and 36 percent inflation.

"A gold coin won't change couples' calculations," said Mohammad Jalal Abbasi, head of Demographics Department at Tehran University. "Many young Iranians prefer to continue their studies, not marry. Lack of financial ability to buy a house and meet expenses are among other reasons why the youth postpone marriage or have no interest in raising many children."

Posted by orrinj at 5:06 PM


Health Spending Growth Slows, But Obamacare Impact 'Minimal' (Devin Dwyer, Jan 6, 2014, ABC)

For the fourth year in a row, Americans' spending on health care grew at one of the slowest rates ever recorded.

Posted by orrinj at 2:41 PM


Iran offers to help Iraq army with equipment and advice against al Qaeda (Deutsche-Welle, 1/06/14)

Iran has offered help to Iraq as Iraqi troops try to dislodge fighters belonging to the al Qaeda group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from two key cities in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

The deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces for logistics and industrial research, Brigadier-General Mohammad Hejazi, was reported as saying in Tehran on Sunday that Iran was ready to provide Iraq with "military equipment or consultation" to help the Iraqi army in Anbar if it were asked to do so.

Iran is an ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.

Posted by orrinj at 2:38 PM


Did John Boehner Win the Shutdown in the End?  (MOLLY BALL, JAN 3 2014, Atlantic)

Obviously, Republicans' current good fortune is partly thanks to the problems Obamacare has encountered, which they didn't create and couldn't have fully predicted. But Boehner's strengthened position is also the result of strategy on his part. He chose to prolong the shutdown and take the short-term pain in order to increase the prospects of order down the road.

When the shutdown hit on October 1, Boehner had a choice. He could have overruled the small but vocal group of House Republicans who were refusing to fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded. He could have put the "clean" continuing resolution passed by the Senate up for a vote. It probably would have passed, with mostly Democratic votes. As the shutdown went on for two and a half weeks, Boehner faced increasing pressure, including from his own worried advisers, to put the clean CR on the floor.

But Boehner knew that even if he did that, when the country hit the debt ceiling, on October 17, there would be another confrontation, this one threatening to put the country in default. And after that, there would be another confrontation after the short-term CR expired, and another one after that, and another one after that. He didn't want a deal that ended the shutdown without resolving the more serious matter of the debt ceiling, and he wanted his unruly caucus to learn a lesson. So he waited.

The agreement that ended the shutdown on October 17 also raised the debt ceiling. Additionally, it required the House and Senate to start negotiating a budget agreement, with a December 13 deadline. Nobody thought this would actually happen; since 2009, the government had been operating under "continuing resolutions" instead of budget agreements, essentially treading water at the same level of government spending (or less, after this year's sequestration cuts). When the Senate finally passed a budget this year, it was so far from the tax-cutting, Medicare-reforming plan the House had approved that any talk of compromise seemed laughable. The pre-shutdown House GOP refused to even send negotiators to try to harmonize the two.

But post-shutdown, things changed. The negotiators--House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray--actually got together. They worked out a compromise. They hit the deadline. And then both houses of Congress passed it. Over the past year, House Republicans had repeatedly humiliated Boehner by refusing to go along with his legislative gambits; nothing makes a speaker look worse than having to withdraw a vote because his own side won't support him. But in this case, despite criticism from conservative outside groups like Heritage Action, House Republicans overwhelmingly supported Boehner, 169 to 62.

Boehner also took the opportunity to strengthen his position relative to those outside groups. For too long, he and other Republican leaders felt, Heritage, the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and other self-appointed arbiters of conservative purity had been yanking members of Congress around, warning of consequences if they voted the wrong way. The groups were among the cheerleading chorus that brought about the shutdown by insisting on defunding Obamacare. Yet after the shutdown ended, Heritage Action's CEO admitted, in a televised interview, that defunding was an impossible goal as long as Obama remains in office. For Boehner, that was the last straw, proving that the groups didn't care about being realistic or constructive. In December, before the budget deal came up for a vote, he publicly thumbed his nose at the groups: "Frankly, I just think that they have lost all credibility," he said.

So Boehner is in good position politically, has solidified the support of his caucus, and has seized control back from conservative pressure groups. The budget deal also ensures that the government can't shut down again for at least another year; it might marginally improve the image of the House as uncompromising and unreasonable; and it could pave the way for another piece of legislating Boehner would like to do, immigration reform. 

January 5, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 8:56 AM


The Closing of the Scientific Mind (David Gelernter, 1/01/14, Commentary)

Bullying Nagel.

The modern "mind fields" encompass artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and philosophy of mind. Researchers in these fields are profoundly split, and the chaos was on display in the ugliness occasioned by the publication of Thomas Nagel's Mind & Cosmos in 2012. Nagel is an eminent philosopher and professor at NYU. In Mind & Cosmos, he shows with terse, meticulous thoroughness why mainstream thought on the workings of the mind is intellectually bankrupt. He explains why Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness--the capacity to feel or experience the world. He then offers his own ideas on consciousness, which are speculative, incomplete, tentative, and provocative--in the tradition of science and philosophy.

Nagel was immediately set on and (symbolically) beaten to death by all the leading punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld. Attacking Darwin is the sin against the Holy Ghost that pious scientists are taught never to forgive. Even worse, Nagel is an atheist unwilling to express sufficient hatred of religion to satisfy other atheists. There is nothing religious about Nagel's speculations; he believes that science has not come far enough to explain consciousness and that it must press on. He believes that Darwin is not sufficient.

The intelligentsia was so furious that it formed a lynch mob. In May 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece called "Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong." One paragraph was notable:

Whatever the validity of [Nagel's] stance, its timing was certainly bad. The war between New Atheists and believers has become savage, with Richard Dawkins writing sentences like, "I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad...." In that climate, saying anything nice at all about religion is a tactical error. [...]

Banishing Subjectivity. 

Subjectivity is your private experience of the world: your sensations; your mental life and inner landscape; your experiences of sweet and bitter, blue and gold, soft and hard; your beliefs, plans, pains, hopes, fears, theories, imagined vacation trips and gardens and girlfriends and Ferraris, your sense of right and wrong, good and evil. This is your subjective world. It is just as real as the objective physical world.

This is why the idea of objective reality is a masterpiece of Western thought--an idea we associate with Galileo and Descartes and other scientific revolutionaries of the 17th century. The only view of the world we can ever have is subjective, from inside our own heads. That we can agree nonetheless on the observable, exactly measurable, and predictable characteristics of objective reality is a remarkable fact. I can't know that the color I call blue looks to me the same way it looks to you. And yet we both use the word blue to describe this color, and common sense suggests that your experience of blue is probably a lot like mine. Our ability to transcend the subjective and accept the existence of objective reality is the cornerstone of everything modern science has accomplished.

But that is not enough for the philosophers of mind. Many wish to banish subjectivity altogether. "The history of philosophy of mind over the past one hundred years," the eminent philosopher John Searle has written, "has been in large part an attempt to get rid of the mental"--i.e., the subjective--"by showing that no mental phenomena exist over and above physical phenomena."

Why bother? Because to present-day philosophers, Searle writes, "the subjectivist ontology of the mental seems intolerable." That is, your states of mind (your desire for adventure, your fear of icebergs, the ship you imagine, the girl you recall) exist only subjectively, within your mind, and they can be examined and evaluated by you alone. They do not exist objectively. They are strictly internal to your own mind. And yet they do exist. This is intolerable! How in this modern, scientific world can we be forced to accept the existence of things that can't be weighed or measured, tracked or photographed--that are strictly private, that can be observed by exactly one person each? Ridiculous! Or at least, damned annoying.

And yet your mind is, was, and will always be a room with a view. Your mental states exist inside this room you can never leave and no one else can ever enter. The world you perceive through the window of mind (where you can never go--where no one can ever go) is the objective world. Both worlds, inside and outside, are real.

The ever astonishing Rainer Maria Rilke captured this truth vividly in the opening lines of his eighth Duino Elegy, as translated by Stephen Mitchell: "With all its eyes the natural world looks out/into the Open. Only our eyes are turned backward....We know what is really out there only from/the animal's gaze." We can never forget or disregard the room we are locked into forever.

Other than Protestantism--because of Protestantism?--the single greatest advantage the Anglosphere ever enjoyed was our rejection of objectivity as a scientifically/rationally sustainable idea. This insulated us from all the nonsense that Rationalists fell for with such disastrous consequences. 
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Posted by orrinj at 8:32 AM


Inglorious Revolutions (David A. Bell, January 2, 2014, National Interest)

WHY DO most observers today seem so oblivious to the historical record of revolutions? What are the consequences of this obliviousness? And what might it actually take, in the way of concerted international action, to help revolutions like the one in Egypt take place in a way that accords better with observers' ideal script?

In addressing the first of these questions, one place to start is with a rather odd development: current expectations about revolutions in fact represent something of a return to a very old understanding of such events. Up until the mid-eighteenth century, the word "revolution" meant little more than "political upheaval." Revolutions were held to be sudden, unpredictable and largely uncontrollable. History books told the story of countries' violent changes of dynasty almost as if they were a series of earthquakes. Revolutions were things that happened to people, not things that people themselves were seen as capable of consciously directing. A typical usage can be seen in the title of a pamphlet by the seventeenth-century English radical Anthony Ascham: A Discourse: Wherein is Examined, what is Particularly Lawful During the Confusions and Revolutions of Government. Samuel Johnson's dictionary gave "revolution" as a synonym for "vicissitude." Tellingly, at the beginning of what we now call "the American Revolution," very few people actually described what was taking place as a "revolution." The word does not appear in the Declaration of Independence, or in Thomas Paine's great 1776 pamphlet Common Sense (except in reference to 1688 in Britain). In 1777, John Adams could write to his son John Quincy about "the late Revolution in our Government," implying that the event was already finished and in the past.

These ideas began to change in the late eighteenth century, with significant consequences for the events that would continue to convulse the Atlantic world for half a century. In America, by 1779 it was becoming clear that the political and social transformations set in motion by the War of Independence had yet to run their course. In that year, Richard Henry Lee wrote to Thomas Jefferson about "the progress of our glorious revolution," and Jefferson himself finally began to use the word in reference to American events. By 1780, John Adams was writing to his wife Abigail about "the whole course of this mighty revolution," treating it as something still taking place. Yet even then, he did not present it as a process he himself had a hand in directing, but as a great natural upheaval sweeping him along.

It was in France where the most decisive conceptual transformation took place. As the country's "old regime" began to crumble in 1789, observers immediately started to refer to what was going on as a "revolution" in the traditional fashion. Then, within a matter of months, they began speaking of it less as a sudden and cataclysmic event than as an ongoing process. Soon they went even further, presenting the revolution as something that could be controlled and directed. Stanford's Keith Baker, who has written luminously on this shift, characterizes it as one from revolution as "fact" to revolution as "act." Before this moment, the word "revolutionary" did not exist, and would have made little sense to people, referring as it does to people or actions that actively drive revolutions forward. But in September 1790, the radical deputy Bertrand Barère referred to the demolition of the Bastille as "a truly revolutionary act," and soon his colleague Georges Danton was describing himself as "a steadfast revolutionary." In 1792, Maximilien Robespierre renamed the executive committee of Paris's municipal government the "General Revolutionary Council," making it the first political institution in history to bear such a title.

Baker's colleague Dan Edelstein has added a further fascinating wrinkle to the story, noting that by 1792-1793, "the revolution" seemed to be taking on a life of its own, becoming, in the eyes of its advocates, a quasi-mythic force and a source of political legitimacy. After armed crowds stormed the royal palace in 1792 and overthrew Louis XVI, there were calls to put the king on trial. The radical Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, however, insisted that the people had already delivered a verdict through their revolutionary action. Any procedure that might exonerate the king therefore amounted to "putting the Revolution itself on trial," in the words of his patron, Robespierre. A year later, with France at war with much of Europe, Saint-Just made a remarkable speech demanding that the ruling National Convention formally suspend the new constitution it had just approved, and declare the government "revolutionary" until the end of hostilities. He insisted on a full overhaul of the government's personnel and procedures, arguing that "the laws are revolutionary; those who execute them are not." And he added the following, remarkable sentence: "Those who make revolutions, those who wish to do good, must sleep only in the tomb."

This new understanding of revolutions partly reflected the simple fact that the French Revolution was indeed a very different sort of event from its predecessors. Instead of its principal political changes coming to an end quickly, culminating in a document such as a declaration of independence, a process of explosive radicalism continued to build, leading to the deadly Reign of Terror of 1793-1794. But the new ways of thinking themselves provided a spur to radicalization, by giving the political actors of the day a way to see "revolutions" as exceptional historical moments in which ordinary practices and principles could be suspended. The leading figure of the Terror, Robespierre, developed an entire political theory on this basis. In a legislative report he wrote in the winter of 1793-1794, he distinguished between ordinary "constitutional" government, whose role was to govern a republic, and "revolutionary" government, whose role was to found the republic. In the latter, he argued, the state needed far greater leeway, both to protect its citizens and to ensure that institutions would be given a durable form. "The Revolution," he thundered, "is the war of liberty against its enemies." Several of Robespierre's allies openly urged him to become a "dictator," a title still then associated with the ancient Roman military office of the name, and which they viewed favorably. In theory, the dictatorship would end once the republic had been durably founded, and the revolution completed, but given the vastness of the radicals' ambitions, it was not clear when this goal would be reached. "Revolution" was becoming not just a process, but also a utopian one that might extend into the future, indefinitely.

This new concept of revolution as what G. W. F. Hegel would call a "world-historical" event helped to justify the French revolutionaries' most outlandish projects. These included a new calendar, which started with the birth of the French Republic; the attempt to replace Christianity either with state-sponsored atheism or Robespierre's deistic "Cult of the Supreme Being"; plans for universal education and charity; and, dangerously, the transformation of a war against other European powers into a crusade for universal human liberation. Robespierre and his allies went so far as to characterize "revolutions" as millennial projects that could literally change human nature. "The French people seem to be about two thousand years ahead of the rest of the human race," he mused in the spring of 1794. "One is tempted to regard them as a separate species."

IT IS HARD to exaggerate the hold that this French model of revolution exerted over imaginations throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In country after country, generations of would-be revolutionaries plotted to take power and instigate upheavals of similar or even greater ambition. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the model was potently combined with socialist visions of history as a story of class struggle, but the idea of revolution itself as an ongoing, consciously directed process remained much the same. In Russia, China, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, self-proclaimed "revolutionary" regimes took power with goals of nothing less than transforming human beings into something new and better. In Terrorism and Communism, written at the height of the Russian Civil War, Leon Trotsky (a great admirer of the French Revolutionary Terror) expressed sentiments very close to those of Saint-Just and Robespierre:

We were never concerned with . . . prattle about the "sacredness of human life." We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.

Mao Zedong, who repeatedly spoke of revolution as a long and arduous road, called its ultimate goal the changing of society and the establishment of a new sort of human freedom (he also famously remarked that "a revolution is not a dinner party").

Of course, in country after country these later revolutions produced even greater chaos and bloodshed than in France. In Russia and China and Southeast Asia, the number of victims stretched into the millions. And finally, after the Russian Civil War, Stalin's terror, the Gulag, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian holocaust, the myth of a redemptive, world-transforming revolution lost its allure, as one moment of dreadful disillusionment followed another. By the late twentieth century, when the self-proclaimed revolutionary regimes of the Soviet bloc began to crumble, the dissidents who stepped into the breach generally refused the label of "revolution" altogether. As the Polish Solidarity leader Jacek Kuron informed French readers in a remarkable newspaper column in the summer of 1989--as the Poles were ousting the Communists and the French were marking the bicentennial of 1789--the age of revolution was over, and a good thing too. Germans self-consciously refer to the events of 1989-1990 not as a "revolution," but as die Wende--"the change."

In some cases, the exhaustion that has followed upon bloody utopian experiments has itself created the conditions under which moderate democratic regimes could eventually take root. In France, for instance, the events of 1789 marked the start of nearly nine decades of astonishing political turmoil. Monarchies, republics and empires succeeded each other so rapidly that, according to one popular joke, libraries began storing copies of the constitution in the "periodicals" section. But finally, after the fall of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian War, and one final outburst of radical utopianism in the doomed Paris Commune of 1871, a relatively stable, moderate republic was established, and it lasted until the Nazi occupation of 1940. François Furet, one of twentieth-century France's great historians, labeled the entire long period from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth as "the French Revolution." In his view, it only came safely "into port" with the Third Republic in the 1870s. But it is hard to argue that the turmoil and bloodshed was necessary to achieve this relatively limited goal. And, of course, in many other countries--Russia and China, most obviously--similarly long periods of revolutionary disruption have so far failed to produce similarly benign outcomes.

THIS LONG PROCESS of disillusionment helps explain why, today, revolutions are expected to be so quick and neat. If revolutionary movements no longer come bearing utopian hopes of redemption, then there is less need for them to extend indefinitely into the future. And indeed, most of the revolutions that have taken place since 1990, such as the "color revolutions" in the Soviet bloc and the revolutions of the Arab Spring, have aimed at relatively modest goals, in comparison with their French or Russian or Chinese predecessors: representative democracy, stability, the rule of law, human rights. The great exceptions to this rule, of course, are the Islamists, who hope to impose their vision of godly order on human societies. The Iranian Revolution was in this sense the last of the great line of utopian revolutions that began in the eighteenth century. Francis Fukuyama has been widely mocked for his 1989 National Interest article "The End of History?" and his prediction that free-market democracy would become universal throughout the world. But with the exception of the Islamic world, free-market democracy has indeed overwhelmingly become the preferred political model in most countries. As Fukuyama himself put it: "At the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society." At the heart of these earlier ideological pretensions was the idea that the means to these "higher forms" was a French-style revolution.

The golden opportunity for the Third World came at the end of WWI, when Wilson could have rammed decolonization down the allies throats, but instead grasped for the utopian League. The result was hypocrisy on such a scale that indigenous independence movements became reactions to our system rather than demands to benefit from the same system.  We're still paying the price of this stupidity, but, more importantly, these peoples are stuck tracing a needlessly bloody path to the End of History.

Posted by orrinj at 8:25 AM


The robots are coming. Will they bring wealth or a divided society? (Gavin Kelly, 1/04/14, The Observer)

To get a better sense of the impact of technology on our labour market we don't need to rely entirely on frothy speculation about the future. There is a decade or more of research to draw on. The rise of information and communications technology (ICT) is hardly new. The dominant view, both in the UK and elsewhere, is that it has already been eroding a swath of jobs that involve repetitive tasks capable of being automated and digitised. This has disproportionately affected roles in the middle of the income distribution - such as manufacturing, warehousing and administrative roles.  

This doesn't result in lower overall employment - for most economists the main change is to job quality, not quantity.  There has been a rapid growth in demand for high-skill roles involving regular interaction with ICT, as well a rise in lower-paid work that is very hard to automate - from caring to hospitality. Consequently the balance of employment has shifted upwards and downwards with less in between; as Manning puts it, the labour market has been polarising into "lovely and lousy jobs". The impact of technology has been gradual but inexorable - "it only goes one way", he tells me. In some sectors the decline in employment and relative pay has been dramatic: the typical heavy goods driver receives less in real terms today than a generation ago.   

Some of this is contested. Recent evidence suggests the extent of polarisation may be overstated as it hasn't taken into account entirely new middle-income roles that replace old ones. Others point out that job-title inflation means that yesterday's mid-level jobs are sometimes counted as today's high-level ones.  Some roles that are popularly assumed to have fallen prey to machines have adapted and survived - as President Obama realised to his cost when he asserted that ATMs have led to the demise of bank tellers (their numbers have risen).  And it's important to keep a sense of proportion: between 1990 and 2010 employment in hard-hit occupations in the UK like skilled trades fell by 25% and administrative jobs by 20%. Big losses, but they hardly represent the death of mid-level jobs. 

A narrow focus on technology is also inadequate, as it fails to explain some of the big shifts of the last decade like the explosion in rewards at the very top - 60% of the enormous increase in the slice of income flowing upwards to the richest 1% over the last decade went to those working in finance. To lay this at the door of the anonymous force called "technology" is to excuse way too much. Sure, developments in ICT were relevant, but they don't explain political choices over deregulation or account for rapacious rent-seeking by the financial elite.  Wage inequality has many authors, from the demise of collective bargaining to the rise of globalisation. As the influential Washington-based EPI thinktank has argued: don't make robots the fall guy.

Nor does an exclusive techno-focus illuminate the post-crisis polarisation of our jobs market, which has seen recession-busting increases in high-paying jobs in sectors like business services alongside a big growth in low-paid work, with sharp falls in between in sectors like construction. Further signs of the impact of technology? Doubtful. This pattern has coincided with a demand-starved economy, an investment strike by business and plummeting wages. Indeed recently the robots could be forgiven for worrying about their prospects given the falling cost of labour.  It all adds up to a complex story. The hollowing out of the jobs market is real and important. But its scale can be overstated and technology, though crucial, is by no means the only factor at work. None of this means we should be sanguine about the future. 

Given the uncertainties and the capacity of market economies to adapt to shocks, many will assume that things will continue much as they have done. Perhaps. But if the techno-enthusiasts are at least partly right, the consequences will be far-reaching. 

Fortunately, perhaps, at least some of the issues that this would mean grappling with are more extreme versions of those we should be worrying about already. The rise of the robot is likely, for instance, to result in an increasing share of GDP flowing to the owners of capital at the expense of labour - something that has recently been occurring across many OECD countries (though less so in the UK than is often assumed). An acceleration of this should rekindle interest in finding ways to distribute the ownership of assets more evenly as well as finally prompting a serious discussion about shifting some of the burden of taxation from labour towards wealth.  

Accelerating wage inequality, together with a rise in economic insecurity, would sharpen the need to bolster our working-age welfare system at a time when it's already creaking and has few political friends.

January 4, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 2:12 PM


'Polar vortex' set to bring dangerous, record-breaking cold to much of US (FoxNews.com, 1/04/14)

As much of the country digs out from a powerful winter storm that buried parts of the Northeast, tundra-like temperatures are poised to deliver a rare and potentially dangerous blow to the Midwest, with forecasters predicting a near-record or historic cold outbreak.

The "polar vortex," as one meteorologist calls it, is expected to send cold air piled up at the North Pole down to the U.S., funneling it as far south as the Gulf Coast and driving temperatures below freezing for most of the nation.  

Posted by orrinj at 8:03 AM


Boeing vote a blow to Southern California (W.J. Hennigan and Maria L. La Ganga, January 3, 2014, LA Times)

The eight-year contract, which begins in 2016, will cut some pension and healthcare benefits.

In addition, conventional pension plans for newly hired machinists will be converted to a 401(k)-type of retirement program. Boeing will contribute 10% the first year, 10% the second, 6% the third and 4% for each year up to the end of the contract.

For the new vote, Boeing said it sweetened its offer with an additional lump-sum signing bonus of $5,000 for each union member in 2020. That is on top of the previously offered $10,000 bonus. Employees also will receive additional dental benefits, the company said.

January 3, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 2:51 PM


The Anglosphere's long shadow (Matt Ridley, January 02, 2014, Times of London)

 The recent book by Daniel Hannan MEP -- How we Invented Freedom and Why it Matters -- might have been titled to annoy foreigners, but it contains a challenging idea. Bottom-up systems work best.

As Hannan points out, while we tend to stress the differences between Britain and America, foreigners usually see the similarities. The secret ingredient of the Anglosphere is not, of course, racial. We can bury the Victorian notion that there is something specially clever or tough about pale-skinned folk with mostly Celtic DNA, mostly Saxon words and a mostly Protestant faith.

Nor was it inevitable in the Whig-history sense. It was not manifest destiny, but a chain of semi-happy accidents that gave the English-speaking people their chance -- including a sea channel to protect against invaders, a randy king, a Dutch commercial takeover, a coastal coalfield, a brilliant customs official from Kirkcaldy, and a well timed tax revolt.

The secret is institutional. For Hannan, the habit of liberty under the law proved good at generating prosperity wherever it was adopted and whatever the skin colour of the people who caught it -- and even if it was sometimes honoured in the breach. It was a peculiarity of the British that, early on, they got into the habit of dispersing both property and power and never quite lost that habit even under some strong Norman or Tudor rulers.

The monarchy was at least partly elective, the common law was evolutionary and derived from cases rather than principles, property was at least partly sacred, the press was fairly free, Parliament was eventually sovereign. The Government was subject to the law, rather than the other way round. Even in the Middle Ages these features were visible to an unusual degree in Britain.

The common law plays a central role in Hannan's argument -- what he calls "that beautiful, anomalous system that belongs to the people, not the state". Having government under the law, rather than in charge of it, gave rise to security of property and contract, which proved peculiarly helpful when the free market came along and tipped the balance of incentive from predation to production. The roots of these institutions go very deep into Saxon times but many of the key features came together in 1688 and 1787.

For all its periodic lurches into hierarchy and imperialism, the Anglosphere has always hemmed in its rulers with bottom-up traditions.

Posted by orrinj at 2:45 PM


Iran wants American tourists, and a boomlet has begun (Christopher Reynolds, December 30, 2013, LA Times)

[T]he U.S. government has never blocked travel to Iran the way it has restrained travel to Cuba. Thus, when Iran's new leadership started showing signs of increased openness to the West after Rouhani's election in June, U.S.-based tour operators quickly saw a jump in curiosity about visiting Iran.

Janet Moore, owner of the Long Beach-based tour operator Distant Horizons, said she arranged Iranian trips for 50-60 U.S. travelers in 2013. In 2014, she expects that number to be at least 250 people, including three trips in connection with the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia and one with the San Francisco-based Commonwealth Club of California. 

Barring disasters, Moore said, in 2015 there will be "even more, because we've already got departures for UCLA, Berkeley and Stanford" with other university groups bookings likely.

At San Francisco-based Geo Ex (formerly known as Geographic Expeditions) - which has been taking travelers into Iran since the early 1990s and brought 50-60 Americans there in 2013 --  CEO Jean-Paul Tennant said he's hoping to double traffic to Iran in 2014.

Though it comes across in the popular press as "an unfriendly place for Americans," Tennant said, GeoEx travelers have returned "raving about the warmth and openness of the Iranian people. Of all the places we at GeoEx send our clients, Iran stands out as the one with the biggest gap between pre-trip perceptions and on-the-ground reality."

At Seattle-based Caravan-Serai Tours, owner Rita Zawaideh says she'll probably expand from two group trips to Iran in 2013 to three next year, and she expects to arrange an additional 10 or more individual trips - more than she's had in the last several years.

In September, Zawaideh and Moore said, they met with Iranian tourism officials in a New York gathering that included several other U.S.-based tour operators. Just to hold such a meeting "was very unusual," said Moore. "It gave me a lot of encouragement."

 "We in Iran should take the first step in persuading westerners that they should have no fear in coming to Iran," the Guardian newspaper quoted Mohammad-Ali Najafi , head of Iran's cultural heritage and tourism organization, saying in October.

Posted by orrinj at 2:43 PM


Why your health insurance could go the way of the 401(k) (Jacqui Kenyon, LearnVest)

Industry experts at the annual Employee Benefit Research Institute policy forum believe that, in the next five years, employee health care plans will begin to mirror the shift in popularity of pensions to 401(k)s, according to MSN Money.

The 401(k) is a type of defined-contribution plan -- or a plan where you contribute your own money that your employer may match. If your employer does "sponsor" you, their contribution is a set amount, but there is no guaranteed benefit for workers when they reach retirement. Defined-contribution plans are beneficial to employers because they shift a majority of the risk to the employee.

In a defined-contribution health plan, an employer would provide a set amount of money for each employee to use to shop on a health insurance exchange. The Affordable Care Act currently limits the use of exchanges to companies with fewer than 100 employees, but in 2017, this type of program could be more widespread as the states will be allowed to open the exchanges to larger employers, as well.

So far, it looks like employers could embrace defined-contribution health plans with open arms.

Posted by orrinj at 2:41 PM


Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac may be too profitable to shut down (Jim Puzzanghera, January 2, 2014,LA Times)

Fannie and Freddie are not only making money but also sending huge dividend checks to the Treasury -- a combined $39 billion this week for their latest quarterly payment -- and some are wondering why they should be put out of business.

"We're a country that's running huge deficits, and here are two government entities that are going to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 billion to $50 billion a year for the government," said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance Publications, which produces industry newsletters. "Can we really afford to kill off cash cows?"

Big payments from Fannie and Freddie this summer helped delay the deadline for raising the nation's debt limit. And with the latest dividend checks received Tuesday, Fannie and Freddie have paid the government a total of $185.3 billion since 2008, nearly offsetting the entire cost of the bailout.

Their turnaround has made the companies attractive to private investors.

January 2, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:04 PM


Belief in God doesn't undermine evolution (Eli Federman, December 31, 2013, USA Today)

This week's survey by the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project shows that 60% of Americans believe that "humans and other living things have evolved over time." That means most Americans accept evolution.

This also means that many of those who are religious and believe in God, also believe in evolution. [...]

[R]oughly 24% of adults said they believe "a supreme being guided the evolution of living things." And over 90% of Americans believe in God, which further reinforces that, to many, the belief in God is not incompatible with accepting evolution. Even 51% of scientists are reported to "believe in some form of deity or higher power."

Genesis is an evolutionary tale, just not a Darwinian one.
Posted by orrinj at 5:05 PM


America Passed More Abortion Restrictions in the Last 3 Years Than the Previous 10 (ABBY OHLHEISER, 1/02/14, The Wire)

A survey of abortion trends has produced a somewhat startling quantification to the increasing effort to legislate restrictions to abortions. From 2011 to 2013, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted in the U.S. That's more than the total number enacted for the entire decade between 2000 and 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute's year-end report. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:00 PM


Monty Python's Life of Brian 'extraordinary tribute to Jesus', says theologian decorated by Pope Francis (John Bingham, 31 Dec 201, The Telegraph)

The film follows the life of a hapless fictional character called Brian, who is born at the same time as Jesus and is inadvertently proclaimed to be the messiah.
Jesus's only appearance in the film is during the Sermon on the Mount. Brian is standing at the back of the multitude and cannot hear, mistaking "Blessed are the Peacemakers" for "Blessed are the Cheese-makers".

Prof Burridge said that the fact that the Pythons had set out to write a satire about Jesus but had to resort to using a fictional failed messiah was a tribute to the uniqueness of Christ which Christians had failed to capitalise on.

He said: "What is interesting about what Cleese says is that when they sat down to read the gospels they were struck by Jesus, his teaching, and realised that you couldn't actually make a joke of these things which is why the accusation from Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge that they were trying to use Jesus was so patently false.

"I think it is an extraordinary tribute to the life and work and teaching of Jesus - that they couldn't actually blaspheme or make a joke out of it.

"What they did was take ordinary British people and transpose them into an historical setting and did a great satire on closed minds and people who follow blindly.

"Then you have them splitting into factions ... it is a wonderful satire on the way that Jesus's own teaching has been used to persecute others.

"They were satirising closed minds, they were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus, which I think is remarkable and I think that the church missed that at the time."

Which made the criticism part of the satire.  

Posted by orrinj at 4:57 PM


Ford to debut solar car (Chris Isidore, 1/02/14, CNNMoney)

Ford said its internal data show that the sun could power up to 75% of all trips made by an average driver. And it estimates that the solar C-Max could reduce the annual greenhouse gas emissions a typical owner would produce by four metric tons.

Posted by orrinj at 4:50 PM


How Walgreens went off the grid (Chris Gaylord, January 2, 2014, CS Monitor)

Pharmacy chain Walgreens opened what it calls America's first "zero energy" store. Installations throughout the building should generate enough energy to run it without a single electron from the power grid.

The new shop in Evanston, Ill., packs in more than 800 solar panels, two wind turbines, and geothermal technology. Altogether, they will generate an estimated 220,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, 28 percent more than the store will need.

Posted by orrinj at 4:47 PM


Fannie-Freddie Settlement Tab in 2013: $7.9 Billion (NICK TIMIRAOS, Jan. 2, 2014, WSJ)

The FHFA, which controls government-backed Fannie and Freddie, sued 18 financial institutions in 2011 seeking unspecified damages on about $200 billion of mortgage investments. It alleged that financial institutions misled Fannie and Freddie about the quality of loans underlying mortgage bonds sold to the mortgage-finance giants. [...]

Legal analysts expect the remaining cases to be settled before going to court because of a series of legal rulings that have largely undercut banks' efforts to narrow their potential liability.

While Fannie and Freddie don't make loans directly, they support housing markets by buying mortgages from banks and then selling them to investors as securities, providing guarantees. During the housing boom, Fannie and Freddie augmented their role in the housing market by purchasing privately issued securities as investments.

The U.S. Treasury in 2008 rescued Fannie and Freddie as mortgage losses mounted. All told, the two received more than $150 billion in infusions to stay afloat. They have become highly profitable over the past year and are close to having paid as much to the U.S. in dividends as the government was forced to inject to stabilize the firms.

Posted by orrinj at 4:43 PM


Wal-Mart recalls fake donkey-meat snacks in China (Don Lee, January 2, 2014, LA Times)

The retailer said it was recalling "Five Spice" donkey meat sold at its stores in Jinan in eastern China's Shandong province after authorities indicated that the popular snacks were actually made from fox.

January 1, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 4:38 PM


Ben-Dahan must go (REUVEN HAMMER, 01/01/2014 , Jerusalem Post)

 Imagine for a moment that the religious affairs minister in some democratic country - England or Switzerland for example - were to make a public statement that "the souls of all Christians are superior to the souls of Jews." Would Israel not make a fuss? Would not the ADL and the Weisenthal Center cry out in protest? Would not Jews in that country demand the immediate resignation of such an official? But in Israel, the man who fills such a slot - Deputy Religious Services Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan - recently said just that about Christians. He is quoted as saying in an interview which he knew would be published that the souls of all Jews are higher than those of Christians or Muslims or anybody else, yet his job is secure.

Of course, the difference is that it would be wrong theologically for a Christian to believe such a thing.

Posted by orrinj at 11:07 AM


Lebanon arrests al Qaeda linked head operative (Deutsche-Welle, 1/01/14)

Lebanese Army Intelligence officials have arrested the leader of an al Qaeda-linked group that claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing at the Iranian embassy in November, the defence minister told the news agency, AFP on Wednesday.

Majid al-Majid, the leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Levant, "was arrested by the intelligence services of the Lebanese army in Beirut," Defence Minister Fayez Ghosan said, without providing details of when the arrest took place. [...]

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades immediately claimed responsibility for the November 19 attack. The group said it intended to force the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement to withdraw its troops from Syria.

Posted by orrinj at 8:50 AM


Poll: Republicans doubt the Theory of Evolution (Joel Connelly, 12/30/13, SeattlePI.com)

The Theory of Evolution received a big boost 90 years ago in the Scopes Trial, in which a young Tennessee teacher was tried for having introduced the views of Charles Darwin to his students. But Darwin has his doubters among Republicans in 21st Century America.

Just 43 percent of self-identified Republicans in America believe that humans and other living beings evolved over time, according to a newly released Pew Research Center poll. The figure has fallen sharply from 54 percent in a similar survey taken in 2009.

Misunderstanding the Theory causes these stories to radically understate the level of skepticism in America. Once you remove from the Believers those who think evolution is a guided process or, at least, that evolution begins after a Creation event, the number is de minimus for the entire citizenry, not just Republicans. Indeed, the number falls so low that it is fair to consider those who believe in The Theory as something of a cult.. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:37 AM


Decision aids reduce mammograms among older women (KATHRYN DOYLE, Dec 30, 2013, Reuters)

"Approximately, 20 percent of U.S. women 75 and older have less than five year life expectancy and these women should not be screened since they are very unlikely to benefit and can really only be harmed," she said. [...]

"In practice, it may be faster for a physician to simply recommend a mammogram than to discuss patients' preferences around screening," she said. Doctors should be compensated for spending time discussing this issue with patient, she said.

"In addition, most of the educational materials regarding mammography screening have been uniformly positive. It takes a change in culture to acknowledge that there are both benefits and risks to screening and that each woman should be allowed to make an informed decision for herself."

All women should be informed of the risks and benefits of screening, she said, but especially those over 75, since there are more risks and uncertain benefits for this group.

The study did not follow the women to determine which, if any, were later diagnosed with breast cancer.

"Most women over age 75 should not get mammograms," Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice in Hanover, New Hampshire, said. "But this is not unique to mammography, or women," he said.

Welch authored another study on the risks of mammography screening for older women in the same issue of JAMA Internal Medicine. In it, he estimates that for 1,000 women who get annual mammograms starting at age 50 for 10 years, "0.3 to 3.2 will avoid a breast cancer death, 490 to 670 will have at least 1 false alarm, and 3 to 14 will be overdiagnosed and treated needlessly."

"As people get older - closer to death - there is less reason to look for cancer early," he said. "Most people, men and women, over age 75 should not be screened for cancer," Welch told Reuters Health in an email.

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 AM


Egypt's Counterrevolution (SARA KHORSHID, 12/30/13, NY Times)

Egyptians who frequently take the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road have lately noticed that the fee they usually pay to toll collectors now goes to the Ministry of Defense.

In a press conference in November, the Minister of Transportation announced one of the armed forces' companies had been granted legal rights, for 50 years, to develop the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road.

The army, a state within a state that used to protect its interests from the shadows, is now taking bolder steps to cement its power and asserting, increasingly overtly, that it is accountable to no one.

Posted by orrinj at 7:46 AM


Minding the Market : A history of the émigré intellectuals who helped undo the New Deal (CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL, Feb/Mar 2013, BookForum)

There is no natural alliance between moralistic conservatives and free marketers. Burgin is well aware of the observations of Joseph Schumpeter, Daniel Bell, and others about capitalism's tendency to embolden those who oppose it and enervate those who defend it. But this does not make Hayek's project incoherent, either. On the contrary. Hayek, following Hume's "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," approached the question from an epistemological angle. As Burgin puts it, Hayek "increasingly represented himself as a theorist of ignorance."

Hayek's argument, roughly, is that the more complex society gets, the less adequate individual reason is as an instrument for comprehending it. Markets and social traditions can remedy this problem somewhat. They give the individual working access to more wisdom than he can generate himself. Markets amass price information from buyers and sellers who will never meet. Social traditions (and, par excellence, religions) build ethical and metaphysical consensus across generations that don't inhabit the earth at the same time. If you accept this, a lot of conservative beliefs follow quite naturally. Socialist planning is antidemocratic. Hedonism is ignorance. And institutional change more often means vandalism than emancipation.

So one common hostile view of cultural conservatism--as something larded onto a basically plutocratic enterprise in order to make it more appealing to the plebs--is historically wrong, at least in the case of the Mont Pèlerin Society. Values were there at the beginning. Only later were they stripped away. It was by making common cause with consumerist hedonism, not by fighting it, that the society turned into a political force. Milton Friedman, who took over its leadership from an aging Hayek in the 1960s, is the symbol of this reorientation. He appears in Burgin's telling as the Lenin of postwar conservatism. His accession meant the triumph of dogmatism and politics. Friedman's political instincts were as good as his economic ones. He was almost alone among economists in predicting the stagflation of the 1970s. Although he supported Goldwater and Reagan, it would be too simple to say that he moved the society to the "right." Friedman was an intellectual forefather of income-tax withholding, open immigration, the earned-income tax credit, the all-volunteer army, and carbon taxes.

But where Hayek had been diffident and tragical, Friedman was ebullient and constructive. His rise marked an end to the Mont Pèlerin Society's--and to conservatism's--attempt to reconcile capitalism and traditional values. Friedman didn't solve the contradictions; he just failed to see them. As Bertrand de Jouvenel put it around this time, the society "had turned increasingly to a Manicheism according to which the State can do no good and private enterprise can do no wrong." It was now a much more efficient engine of battle and a much less interesting intellectual movement. People such as Aron, Polanyi, Rüstow, and Röpke, who had gladly called themselves conservatives when it meant liberating the human spirit from soulless and incompetent technocrats, ceased to call themselves conservatives when it meant cheerleading for tycoons.

Failing to see these contradictions, Friedman asserted that markets served ends that all people could agree on--only more efficiently. In Burgin's excellent formulation: "His was not a Spencerian or Sumnerian world in which free markets dealt crushing blows to some in order to contribute to the greater advancement of humanity. Rather, it was one in which incontrovertible benefits redounded, in a display of spectacular bounty, to people of all kinds and in all situations." About this Friedman was wrong--but for conservatives it was a vitalizing falsehood.

The realization that we've all arrived at is quite different and Mr. Friedman is closer than Mr. Caldwell.  As it turns out, the free marketeers were wuite right, capitalism does produce incontrovertible benefits in terms of wealh creation.  But they were wrong about those benefits extending to all in all situations.  That redistribution requires some level of social programming.

The compromise that the Anglosphere and Scandinavian Northern Europe have ioncreasingly settled on is to allow as much freedom as possible in the economic sphere to facilitate maximal wealth creation, but then to use the governmental sphere to redistribute that wealth more equitably.  And--importantly--to use the mechanics of capitalism to maximize those benefits even after they are distributed.

Thus, we are in transition from a system where businesses are required (whether by law, nationalization or social pressure) to maximize employment, pay for employee health and retirement, and myriad other ways in which we minimized productivity and profits, to one in which businesses are encouraged to shed jobs and social welfare spending in order to maximize productivity and profits which can then fund health and retirement programs premised on private but universal ownership of stock in these private businesses.  Meanwhile, we are moving from taxing income and profits--which we want--to taxing consumption--which favors savings.

Our current ideological awkwardness is a function of being midstream in this Third Way transformation, with the Right imagining they can still drag us back to the First Way--dumping social welfare altogether--and the Left imagining the Second Way can still be rescued--jettisoning capitalism and seeking state control of economics.  We of the great unwashed middle have already moved on from their two ways--as witness pretty much every national election in the English-Speaking and Lutheran worlds since the 90s--but are understandably nervous about the transformation we are forcing.  Indeed, this reformation will not be truly secured until the next generation starts inheritting the welfare accounts--401k, IRA, HSA, SS, etc.--that we're innovating. When genuine lucre starts being transferred down the generations it will cement the markets and social traditions--while, of course, alleviating the (initial) need for large wealth redistributions by the state.  


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