Sunday, March 01, 2015

G.O.P. Race Starts in Lavish Haunts of Rich Donors

FEB. 28, 2015

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Instead of the corn dogs and pork chops on a stick ritually served up on the hustings of Iowa, the latest stop on the donor trail featured meals of diver scallops and chocolate mousse. The setting was the Breakers, a sprawling Italian Renaissance-inspired hotel here, where the cheapest available rooms fetched $800 a night. And for the half-dozen Republican presidential candidates invited to the annual winter meeting this weekend of the Club for Growth, an influential bloc of deep-pocketed conservatives, the prize was not votes. It was money.

Long before the season of baby-kissing and caucus-going begins in early primary states, a no less decisive series of contests is playing out among the potential 2016 contenders along a trail that traces the cold-weather destinations of the wealthy and private-jet-equipped. In one resort town after another — Rancho Mirage, Calif.; Sea Island, Ga.; Las Vegas — the candidates are making their cases to exclusive gatherings of donors whose wealth, fully unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, has granted them the kind of influence and convening power once held by urban political bosses and party chairmen.

Even a single deep-pocketed donor can now summon virtually the entire field of candidates. No fewer than 11 Republican White House hopefuls will fly to Iowa this week to attend the Iowa Agriculture Summit organized by Bruce Rastetter, a businessman and prominent “super PAC” donor. Each will submit to questions from Mr. Rastetter, who said he wanted the candidates to educate themselves on agriculture policy.

“I get it that it’s helpful that I’ve given nationally and been helpful in Iowa to different candidates,” said Mr. Rastetter, whose business interests range from meat processing to ethanol production, and who is not yet backing anyone for president. “They know I’m going to be a fair arbiter in this,” he added. “We’re going to have a good discussion around these issues.”

(More here.)

The fear of Ebola led to slayings — and a whole village was punished

By Amy Brittain, February 28, WashPost

WOMEY, Guinea — The lecture about the dangers of Ebola had just begun, but the village had heard enough. A group of women started chanting, to warn the others against the visitors, “They are coming to kill you.” A mob of men masked their faces, waved machetes and rushed toward the speakers. Stones began to fly.

On a September day in a peaceful Guinean farming village, a simple presentation turned into a slaughter. Two days later, authorities uncovered the bodies of eight people in a ditch used for human waste. The dead, who had come to the village of Womey to teach about Ebola, were local officials, doctors, journalists and a popular pastor. Several had their throats slit.

The killings shocked a world already in a frenzy about the growing Ebola crisis.

(More here.)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

After Boris Nemtsov’s Assassination, ‘There Are No Longer Any Limits’

By JULIA IOFFE, NYT, FEB. 28, 2015

On Friday evening, Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader and former first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, went on a prominent Moscow radio station to exhort his fellow citizens to come out to protest President Vladimir Putin’s policies. There would be a rally on Sunday, a spring march, to demonstrate against the deepening economic crisis and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. The most prominent Russian opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, had been put in jail for 15 days, which just happened to be long enough to keep him from attending the rally. Nemtsov, who was older and, by now, less influential, had handed out leaflets in the metro and encouraged people to come anyway.

After the radio show, on which Nemtsov warned that too much power in the hands of one man would “end in catastrophe,” he met Anna Duritskaya, his girlfriend of three years — and, as the police would later pointedly note, a citizen of Ukraine. They had dinner and then headed home, strolling across Red Square and past the swirling domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, adjacent to the Kremlin. Just before midnight, as they crossed the bridge toward the historic Moscow neighborhood where Nemtsov lived, a white car pulled up, and, according to investigators, someone inside fired seven or eight shots. Four of them hit Nemtsov in the head, heart, liver and stomach, killing him on the spot.

Duritskaya was unharmed and immediately taken in for questioning. Nemtsov, a big, broad man, was left on the pavement in the rain, his shirt yanked up to his chin.

On Russian social media, liberal Moscow has struggled to wrap its head around something that seemed like it simply couldn’t happen, until it did. It had been years since Nemtsov, a rising star in Yeltsin-era politics, had been the standard-bearer of Western liberalism, and he could be a silly bon vivant. But he was deeply intelligent, witty, kind and ubiquitous. He seemed to genuinely be everyone’s friend; when I lived in Moscow as a journalist, he was always willing to jaw over endless glasses of cognac. And he was a powerful, vigorous critic of Vladimir Putin, assailing him in every possible medium, constantly publishing reports on topics like the president’s lavish lifestyle and the corruption behind the Sochi Olympics.

(More here.)

Fear Envelops Russia After Killing of Putin Critic Boris Y. Nemtsov

FEB. 28, 2015

MOSCOW — About two weeks before he was shot and killed in the highest-profile political assassination in Russia in a decade, Boris Y. Nemtsov met with an old friend to discuss his latest research into what he said was dissembling and misdeeds in the Kremlin.

He was, as always, pugilistic and excited, saying he wanted to publish the research in a pamphlet to be called “Putin and the War,” about President Vladimir V. Putin and Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict, recalled Yevgenia Albats, the editor of New Times magazine. Both knew the stakes.

Mr. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, knew his work was dangerous but tried to convince her that, as a former high official in the Kremlin, he enjoyed immunity, Ms. Albats said.

“He was afraid of being killed,” Ms. Albats said. “And he was trying to convince himself, and me, they wouldn’t touch him because he was a member of the Russian government, a vice premier, and they wouldn’t want to create a precedent. Because as he said, one time the power will change hands in Russia again, and those who served Putin wouldn’t want to create this precedent.”

(More here.)

How We Learned to Kill


The voice on the other end of the radio said: “There are two people digging by the side of the road. Can we shoot them?”

It was the middle of the night during my first week in Afghanistan in 2010, on the northern edge of American operations in Helmand Province, and they were directing the question to me. Were the men in their sights irrigating their farmland or planting a roadside bomb? The Marines reported seeing them digging and what appeared to be packages in their possession. Farmers in the valley work from sunrise to sundown, and seeing anyone out after dark was largely unheard-of.

My initial reaction was to ask the question to someone higher up the chain of command. I looked around our combat operations center for someone more senior and all I saw were young Marines looking back at me to see what I would do.

I wanted confirmation from a higher authority to do the abhorrent, something I’d spent my entire life believing was evil. With no higher power around, I realized it was my role as an officer to provide that validation to the Marine on the other end who would pull the trigger.

(More here.)

The Silk Road might have started as a libertarian experiment …

… but it was doomed to end as a fiefdom run by pirate kings

by Henry Farrell, Aeon

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. His latest book is The Political Economy of Trust (2009).

The Hidden Wiki holds the keys to a secret internet. To reach it, you need a special browser that can access ‘Tor Hidden Services’ – websites that have chosen to obscure their physical location. But even this browser isn’t enough. Like the Isla de Muerta in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, the landmarks of this hidden internet can be discovered only by those who already know where they are.

Sites such as the Hidden Wiki provide unreliable treasure maps. They publish lists of the special addresses for sites where you can use Bitcoin to buy drugs or stolen credit card numbers, play strange games, or simply talk, perhaps on subjects too delicate for the open web. The lists are often untrustworthy. Sometimes the addresses are out-of-date. Sometimes they are actively deceptive. One link might lead to a thriving marketplace for buying and selling stolen data; another, to a wrecker’s display of false lights, a cloned site designed to relieve you of your coin and give you nothing in return.


To this end, entrepreneurs have found it necessary to create and maintain communities, making rules, enforcing them, punishing rule-breakers, and turning towards violence when all else fails. They have, in effect, built petty versions of the very governments they are fleeing. As the US sociologist Charles Tilly argued, the modern state began as a protection racket, offering its subjects protection against outsiders and each other. The same logic is playing out today on the hidden internet, as would-be petty barons and pirate kings fight to tax and police their subjects while defending themselves against hostile incursions.

No entrepreneur of trust was more successful than the Texan Ross Ulbricht, who, under his ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ pseudonym, founded and ran the notorious Silk Road marketplace for drugs and other contraband. And no-one better exemplifies how the libertarian dream of freedom from the state turned sour.

(Original here.)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Stratfor: The EU will never return to its previous unity

From the Budapest Beacon, Benjamin Novak

“The European Union will never return to its previous unity, and if it survives it will operate in a more limited and fragmented way in the next decade,” Stratfor predicts. “We do not expect the free trade zone to continue to operate without increasing protectionism. We expect Germany to suffer severe economic reversals in the next decade and Poland to increase its regional power as a result,” the report continues.

The current conflict in Ukraine will continue to remain a centeriece of the international system in coming years, and the Russian Federation will not be able to exist in its current form in coming years.

“[Russia’s] overwhelming dependence on energy exports and the unreliability of expectations on pricing make it impossible for Moscow to sustain its institutional relations across the wide swathe of the Russian Federation,” writes Stratfor.

The geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm expects Moscow’s authority to “weaken substantially, leading to the formal and informal fragmentation of Russia. The security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal will become a prime concern as this process accelerates later in the decade.”

Europe’s fundamental problem isn’t the eurozone but the free trade zone.

(Continued here. Referenced in this article: Decade Forecast: 2015-2025,; 26 February 2015.)

Wisconsin's supply-side economics is snake oil

by Tom Maertens
Mankato Free Press, Friday, February 27, 2015

The last two elections produced an unusual natural experiment involving Minnesota and Wisconsin, two states with similar histories, cultures and ethnic makeup. For purposes of comparison, Minnesota’s projected debt in 2010 was $5 billion — a “going-away present” from Tim Pawlenty — and Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion.

In 2010, Wisconsin elected a Republican governor, Scott Walker, and Republican majorities in the legislature, who followed the supply-side bible by reducing taxes on business and on the wealthiest. Walker also cut spending, including a 15 percent cut in education funding, and reduced tax credits for those on the bottom end of the earnings scale. More recently, he proposed cutting $300 million more from the University of Wisconsin system, 13 percent of its total funding.

Walker then attacked the collective bargaining rights of civil service unions with Act 10, crippling the unions, reducing the pay of public workers by 8 to 10 percent, and polarizing the electorate. He rejected federal money for rail transportation and Medicaid, and refused to establish a state health insurance exchange, despite the fact the federal government would have covered all health insurance and Medicaid costs for three years.

Walker claimed during a recent Iowa campaign stop that Wisconsin is running a budget surplus. He must have forgotten that his own administration announced last November that Wisconsin will face a $2.2 billion budget shortfall by mid-2017. Wisconsin’s transportation budget alone faces a $1 billion shortfall. The January 2015 estimate from Wisconsin’s non-partisan fiscal bureau shows a projected deficit of $283 million for just this fiscal year.

Minnesota, in contrast, elected a progressive governor, Mark Dayton, and handed control of both legislative houses to the DFL. Together, they legalized same-sex marriage, froze college tuition, made it easier to vote, increased primary education spending, instituted all-day kindergarten, expanded unionization and passed equal pay for women. The minimum wage was raised to $9.50, federal money for Medicaid expansion was accepted (leading to 35,000 additional people being covered), and a state health insurance exchange was created.

To pay for these initiatives, Minnesota raised taxes by $2.1 billion, principally on the top 1 percent of earners who, according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, will pay 62 percent of the new taxes. Some business taxes were eliminated, but, unlike Wisconsin, tax relief went to the middle class as well.

Four years into this experiment, there is no question which state is doing better economically. Walker promised to create 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, but created only 102,000, leaving Wisconsin 34th in job growth, according to Forbes’s annual list of Best States for Business.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is 5.2 percent; Minnesota’s is 3.6 percent. The Twin Cities have the lowest unemployment rate of any major metropolitan area.

The money Pawlenty borrowed from education funds has been repaid, and Minnesota now has a surplus of over $1 billion. The health insurance exchange has been so successful that a mid-level health insurance plan in Minnesota costs $1,200 a year less than it does in Wisconsin.

Republicans like to credit Pawlenty’s tax cuts and reduced spending for the increases, but Minnesota’s job growth was below the national average during Pawlenty’s two terms and recovered only under Dayton. recently compared 14 existing rankings of the 50 states and the District of Columbia from the Census Bureau, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and others and then averaged out each state’s ranking.

Minnesota came out as the best state in the union to live in and Wisconsin just 17th. Similarly, Forbes put Minnesota at 2nd for quality of life and Wisconsin, again, 17th.

Minnesota surpasses Wisconsin with respect to per capita income, high school graduation rate, home ownership rate, life expectancy, infant mortality and percentage of people below the poverty line.

In addition, Minnesota has less violent crime, a higher well-being index, higher math and reading scores, and slightly less income inequality.

Two areas where Wisconsin does lead Minnesota is in political polarization, and, of course, in the number of people walking around with fake cheese wedges on their heads.

Walker claims that Wisconsin is “open for business,” but Forbes magazine ranks Wisconsin 31st for business; Minnesota is 9th. Additionally, Forbes places Minnesota 7th for economic climate and Wisconsin 27th. The median income for a Wisconsin family is $8,000 less per year than in Minnesota.

In 2014, Minnesota led the nation in economic confidence, according to Gallup.

The comparison shows once again that supply-side economics is snake oil: cutting taxes on the wealthy does not improve overall quality of life.

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The TPP: Be afraid… Be very afraid…

The Trans-Pacific Partnership clause everyone should oppose

By Elizabeth Warren, February 25

Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.

The United States is in the final stages of negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free-trade agreement with Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore and seven other countries. Who will benefit from the TPP? American workers? Consumers? Small businesses? Taxpayers? Or the biggest multinational corporations in the world?

One strong hint is buried in the fine print of the closely guarded draft. The provision, an increasingly common feature of trade agreements, is called “Investor-State Dispute Settlement,” or ISDS. The name may sound mild, but don’t be fooled. Agreeing to ISDS in this enormous new treaty would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations. Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.

ISDS would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws — and potentially to pick up huge payouts from taxpayers — without ever stepping foot in a U.S. court. Here’s how it would work. Imagine that the United States bans a toxic chemical that is often added to gasoline because of its health and environmental consequences. If a foreign company that makes the toxic chemical opposes the law, it would normally have to challenge it in a U.S. court. But with ISDS, the company could skip the U.S. courts and go before an international panel of arbitrators. If the company won, the ruling couldn’t be challenged in U.S. courts, and the arbitration panel could require American taxpayers to cough up millions — and even billions — of dollars in damages.

(Continued here.)

Pay taxes? Naw, don't bother

IRS Audits Plunge as Agency Budget Plummets

Last year, IRS chief John Koskinen warned about the impact of his agency's shriveling budget. "I have not figured out either philosophically or psychologically," he lamented, "why nobody seems to care whether we collect the revenue or not." That was before Congressional Republicans slashed its funding for the fifth straight year. Now, one year after the numbers of Internal Revenue Service agents examining returns fell to levels not seen since the 1980's, the audit rate for individuals has plunged to its lowest in a decade.

That's the word from USA Today, which documented at growing crisis at IRS in the wake of the GOP's second gutting of the agency in as many decades.

(More here.)

Early Memo Urged Moscow to Annex Crimea, Report Says

FEB. 25, 2015

MOSCOW — A memo drafted in the weeks leading up to the collapse of the Ukrainian government last year recommended that Russia take advantage of the chaos next door to annex Crimea and a large portion of southeastern Ukraine, a Russian newspaper reported on Wednesday, printing what it said was a document that had been presented to the presidential administration.

Russia has long contended that it acted spontaneously to reclaim Crimea, mainly to protect Russian speakers who it said were threatened, and to stave off what it suspected was an attempt by NATO to colonize the Black Sea region.

The report in Novaya Gazeta, one of the few often-critical voices still published in Russia, said that before the Ukrainian government collapsed on Feb. 21, 2014, the memo had already advised the Kremlin to adopt the policy it has since largely pursued in Ukraine.

The memo appears to have been drafted under the auspices of a conservative oligarch, Konstantin V. Malofeev, the report said. The memo laid out what it called the inevitable disintegration of Ukraine and suggested a series of logistical steps through which Russia could exploit the situation for its own good — steps not far from what actually occurred, though Russia has not annexed any territory in eastern Ukraine.

(More here.)

Talk Toughens as U.S.-Israel Relations Fray

FEB. 25, 2015

WASHINGTON — When President Obama’s national security adviser sat down with her Israeli counterpart at the White House last week, she upbraided him over leaks in Jerusalem that the Americans interpreted as an attempt to undermine nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The meeting, shielded from the public but fraught with tension, brought home the depth of the frustration between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is a mutual enmity that has only grown in recent days as Mr. Netanyahu prepares to address the Republican-led Congress next week about the dangers of a possible nuclear deal with Iran.

What started out last month as a dispute over a speech has consumed the two sides ever since, threatening long-term consequences and possibly fracturing America’s tradition of bipartisan support for Israel. The president’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, evidently was not mollified by the meeting with Yossi Cohen, her Israeli counterpart, since she said in a television interview on Tuesday night that Mr. Netanyahu’s actions were “destructive” because they were injecting partisanship into the relationship.

(More here.)

This Is What Putin Really Wants

Putin doesn't want to restore the Russian Empire or a new geopolitical order. He wants something else entirely...

Fiona Hill, The National Interest

At a news conference in Budapest on February 17, Russian president Vladimir Putin engaged in one of his favorite pastimes: sparring with journalists. One reporter asked if Putin thought the newly brokered ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas region would hold. If not, what would Russia do if the United States sent weapons to the Ukrainian army? “Arms supplies are already taking place,” Putin asserted. Then, in a manner more suited to sports commentary than diplomacy, Putin declared that, in any case, the military game was already over in the Donbas. Kyiv (and by implication, the United States) had been beaten, by a rag tag rebel team of miners and farmers. “It is never easy to lose of course and is always a misfortune for the losing side, especially when you lose to people who were yesterday working down in the mines or driving tractors. But life is life, and it has to continue. I don’t think we should get too obsessed about these things,” said Putin. With these flippant remarks, Putin depicted the Ukrainian military defeat as a round in a much bigger tournament where everyone is a bit player in Russia’s competition to call the shots in its neighborhood. Right now Putin thinks he is on a winning streak.

In Ukraine, and in his whistle-stop trip to Hungary, Putin is out to score points for Russia. He is not out to win friends in Ukraine or Europe. Nor is he out to restore a Russian empire, or build a new Moscow-centric geopolitical order. Putin wants respect for Russia, not external obligations. He wants respect in the old-fashioned, hard-power sense of the word. Other countries should proceed with caution if they consider trampling on Russia’s interests. In the neighborhood, now that he essentially has the Crimean city of Yalta back in the fold, Putin wants to turn the clock back seventy years to the old “Yalta agreement” of 1945. He is pushing for a new division of spheres of influence. For Putin, the contours of Russia’s sphere correspond with the historic boundaries of the Russian Empire and the USSR. Here, Moscow’s priorities override all others. Russia—as Putin has stressed in numerous speeches––is the only country in this neighborhood with a unique civilization (rooted in Russian Orthodoxy and language), a long imperial history, a robust economy (based on energy and abundant natural resources) and the capacity to defend its territory and project power abroad. In the international arena, the United States and China are in the same category (although Putin is often scathing about the United States), but few other states have independent standing.

(More here.)

Islamic State’s Scariest Success: Attracting Western Newcomers

Extremist Group Gains Appeal Well Beyond its Ultraconservative Roots

By Yaroslav Trofimov, WSJ
Feb. 26, 2015 1:31 a.m. ET

Islamic State’s ability to lure thousands of Westerners is unprecedented in modern history, and may be its scariest success. It is especially disturbing because the bulk of these women and men flocking to Syria are relative newcomers to Islamic observance—a sign the murderous group is gaining appeal well beyond its ultraconservative roots.

Either outright converts from Christianity or people raised in nonobservant or atheist households, they are often rebels in search of a flag of convenience, terrorism researchers say. In rejecting modern society and its rules, many of these newly baked jihadists have embraced Islamic State’s genocidal cult simply because it is the most obvious counterpoint to the West.

Mathieu Guidere, an expert who tracks Western foreign fighters at the University of Toulouse, estimated that more than half are “disillusioned idealists and revolutionaries.”

“They want to remake the world, and find only jihadism as an alternative ideology because there is nothing else left out there,” Mr. Guidere said. “What they are really looking for is armed struggle, and in Islamic State, they find it.”

About one quarter of the 20,000 foreign fighters who traveled to Syria and Iraq hail from Europe, North America and Australia, intelligence officials say. The overwhelming majority are native-born citizens rather than immigrants. This Western influx is orders of magnitude larger than in the earlier battlefields of jihad, such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, or Iraq during the U.S. occupation.

(More here.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ISIS Heads to Rome

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
FEB. 25, 2015

The Italians got this one right. Last week, The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor helpfully collected tweets that Italians put out after a murderous video issued by the Islamic State, or ISIS, warned: “Today we are south of Rome,” one militant said. “We will conquer Rome with Allah’s permission.”

As the hashtag #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome made the rounds in Italy, Rome residents rose to the challenge.

Their tweets, Taylor noted, included:
“#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome ahahah Be careful on the highway-Ring Road: there’s too much traffic, you would remain trapped!” 
“#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome hey just a tip: don’t come in train, it’s every time late!” 
“#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome You’re too late, Italy is already been destroyed by their governments.”
(More here.)

It's the climate, stupid

Mysterious East Coast flooding caused by ‘unprecented’ surge in sea level

By Terrence McCoy, WashPost, February 25 at 3:34 AM

Several years ago, in 2009 and 2010, a string of unexplained floods and unusually high tides struck the East Coast. There was no easy explanation. No hurricane. No winter storm. But the waters kept spilling across the shoreline, from North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras to Canada.

The cause of that phenomenon may now have finally been found. Sea levels from New York to Newfoundland were undergoing an “extreme” surge unlike any other in recorded history, according to a new study in Nature Communications published this week. Calling the phenomenon “unprecedented” and “very unusual,” oceans along the East Coast rose roughly four inches between 2009 and 2010 in a rapid spike researchers compared to a “1-in-850 year event.”

“This is a very extreme event,” Jianjun Yin of the University of Arizona told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “The sea level has since dropped after that spike, but it is still much higher than it was when the spike began in 2009. … Global warming definitely contributed to this event.”

But global warming wasn’t the sole culprit. The study suggested a change in ocean currents coupled with persistent winds that pushed water into the region caused the spike — which may be the first of many. The seas are rising, Yin told The Post, but the ascent isn’t smooth or even. The mechanics of sea rise aren’t dissimilar to temperatures rising during spring. During some years, the weather gets warmer faster — but the general trend is upward.

“We should expect more of these extreme rises in sea level,” lead author Paul Goddard said. “And for this happen more in the future.”

Yin has long studied how ocean currents affect sea levels. He developed a hypothesis involving a major current in the Atlantic Ocean called the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. He said if that current slows, there are higher tides along the East Coast. The current transports warmer water from the tropics to the waters of the North Atlantic and polar regions. Once there, the water cools, sinks, and is then transported back to the tropics through the deep ocean in a system that works like a conveyor belt. As LiveScience explained, “the water temperature differences drive the current.”

(More here.)

Blaming the wrong rodent

After 8 centuries, rats exonerated in spread of Black Death. Gerbils implicated.

By Sarah Kaplan, WashPost, February 24 at 6:35 AM

After nearly eight centuries of accusing the black rat for spreading the bubonic plague, scientists say they have compelling evidence to exonerate the much-maligned rodent. In the process, they’ve identified a new culprit: gerbils.

It’s always the cute ones you have to watch out for, isn’t it?

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, climate data dating back to the 14th century contradicts the commonly held notion that European plague outbreaks were caused by a reservoir of disease-carrying fleas hosted by the continent’s rat population.

“For this, you would need warm summers, with not too much precipitation,” Nils Christian Stenseth, an author of the study, told the BBC. “… And we have looked at the broad spectrum of climatic indices, and there is no relationship between the appearance of plague and the weather.”

Instead, the fearsome “Black Death,” as the epidemic was known, seemed curiously tied to the climate in Asia. Analysis of 15 tree-ring records, which document yearly weather conditions, shows that Europe always experienced plague outbreaks after central Asia had a wet spring followed by a warm summer — terrible conditions for black rats, but ideal for Asia’s gerbil population. Those sneaky rodents and their bacteria-ridden fleas then hitched a ride to Europe via the Silk Road, arriving on the continent a few years later to wreak epidemiological havoc.

(More here.)

Shire, Maker of Binge-Eating Drug Vyvanse, First Marketed the Disease

FEB. 24, 2015

The retired tennis player Monica Seles spent this month making the rounds of television talk shows, appearing on everything from “Good Morning America” to “The Dr. Oz Show” to share her personal struggle with binge eating.

“It took a while until I felt comfortable talking about it,” she said in a People magazine interview, explaining that she secretly devoured food for years while she was a professional athlete. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to do this campaign: to raise awareness that binge eating is a real medical condition.”

But that is not the only reason. Ms. Seles is a paid spokeswoman for Shire, which late last month won approval to market its top-selling drug, Vyvanse, to treat binge-eating disorder, a condition that once existed in the shadow of better-known disorders like anorexia and bulimia but was officially recognized as its own disorder in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association.

As Shire introduces an ambitious campaign to promote Vyvanse but also to raise awareness about the disorder, some are saying the company is going too far to market a drug, a type of amphetamine, that is classified by the federal government as having a high potential for abuse. Shire’s track record is adding to the worry: The company helped put another once-stigmatized condition — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — on the medical map and made billions of dollars from the sale of drugs, like Vyvanse and Adderall, to treat it. In recent years, federal officials have cited the company for inappropriately marketing Vyvanse and other A.D.H.D. drugs.

(More here.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Net neutrality: This is a big one...

As Republicans Concede, F.C.C. Is Expected to Enforce Net Neutrality

NYT, Tuesday, February 24, 2015 5:40 PM EST

Last April, a dozen New York-based Internet companies gathered in the Flatiron Building boardroom of the social media website Tumblr to hear dire warnings that broadband providers were about to get the right to charge for the fastest speeds on the web.

The implication: If they didn’t pay up, they would be stuck in the slow lane.

What followed has been the longest, most sustained campaign of Internet activism in history, one that the little guys appear to have won. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote to regulate the Internet as a public good. On Tuesday, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, all but surrendered on efforts to overturn the coming ruling, conceding Democrats are lining up with President Obama in favor of the F.C.C.

(Continued here.)

Russia Lost the Long Game at Debaltseve

Alexander Golts, Moscow Times

The main event of last week was the military victory by what President Vladimir Putin called "yesterday's tractor drivers" in Debaltseve. That statement is an almost verbatim replay of this very old Soviet-era joke: "TASS reports that a peaceful Soviet tractor came under fire from Chinese territory. The tractor immediately returned fire, destroying three enemy squadrons, then started its engines and flew into orbit. The tractor driver is reported to be feeling fine."

In today's case, a mug shot of these so-called "tractor drivers" would show a striking resemblance to Russian generals.

As a result, the separatists won a few more square kilometers of territory, occupied an important railway junction and took control over a major road hub.

What did the victors gain as a result? True, they did improve their tactical position somewhat and created an opportunity for a further offensive. But that is all they did, and I doubt that such an attack will ever occur. After all, Russia has only limited capabilities for fighting this type of hybrid war.

As I mentioned previously in this column, the Kremlin has only two or three dozen units of high readiness forces that can achieve victory in a short-term conflict — with "short-term" the key word in that sentence. Obviously, those units are now worn out after months of fighting a hybrid war, and no replacements exist.

(More here.)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Bad budgets hurt 2016 hopefuls

Christie, Walker, and Jindal are caught between balanced budget mandates and flagging revenues

By James Hohmann,
2/23/15 5:31 AM EST

2016 is shaping up as an awfully tough time to be a governor and run for president.

Caught between legal mandates to balance their state budgets and the prospect that raising taxes could derail their national ambitions, several Republican state executives eyeing White House bids are proposing deep budget cuts this month to square their state finances. The moves threaten to damage their standing at home, upset some GOP allies and cause a distraction as they ramp up for presidential campaigns.

Chris Christie tops the list: New Jersey’s financial mess is arguably more damaging to his White House prospects than the bridge traffic scandal that dominated the news most of last year. Up against a Democratic-controlled legislature, he has little room to maneuver. Several lawmakers are insisting on gas tax increases to fund a transportation fund that’s $15.6 billion in debt and due to run out of money in June. Christie has presided over repeated downgrades in New Jersey’s credit rating, and the state pension system is also deep in the red.

But the governor vowed in his state of the state address last month to veto any income tax increases, and in a speech Thursday he went further, suggesting he would oppose tax increases of any kind.

(More here.)

Paralyzed By Ukraine, Dumbfounded by Russia

As the cease-fire collapses, Obama cannot commit to the next course of action to counter Moscow. And he’s running out of time.

By James Oliphant, National Journal

The sluggish disintegration of a weak peace deal in Ukraine has come as nothing less than a blessing for President Obama. It has helped mask his administration's inability to determine the best response to the crisis, and to Russia.

But this respite will not last. Given the events on the ground, Obama will soon have to decide whether to send weapons and trainers to the Ukrainian government and risk turning what has been largely a border skirmish into a major conflict by proxy with serious implications for the United States, Europe, and American interests worldwide.

Certainly, Obama has faced overseas challenges before—most notably in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. But he has never had to stare down a nuclear power bent on reestablishing its sphere of influence. And he's never faced an adversary with the swagger and smarts of Vladimir Putin, who hails from a throwback era of global power politics that predates Obama's experience on foreign policy, and one that the American president can't quite wrap his head around.

From all indications, the president and his aides are downright torn over how to proceed, mindful of the consequences of both action and inaction. Meanwhile, Putin-backed rebels consolidate their gains.

That's making hawks impatient. As separatists last week secured control of the strategically critical town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham excoriated Obama. At times, they accused him of "hiding" behind the increasingly rickety cease-fire agreement and clinging to "any available excuse" to not provide arms and equipment to the embattled nation.

(More here.)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Washington Post recognizes Minneapolis-based food startup

These granola bars are so fresh and free of preservatives that they must be refrigerated. (Fresh Bar)
Goodbye potato chips, hello jicama chips? These six start-ups want to change how you eat.

By Matt McFarland, February 19, Washington Post

If you want a sneak peak at what might be the next big thing in food, AccelFoods is a good place to start. The early-stage investors identify and fund start-ups with an eye for the future.

AccelFoods looks for growing markets and popular trends among millennials, such as healthy desserts, super foods, unique proteins and ethnic snacks. They’ve bet on everything from cricket protein bars to mushroom teas. AccelFoods has just invested in six more start-ups, its third class since launching a year ago. Here they are:


5. Fresh Bar: The breakfast bar you refrigerate.

The Minneapolis start-up Five Friends Food sells refrigerated granola bars with fresh fruits and nuts.

“We think for the millennial consumer and for moms who are really focused on delivering nutrients and fresh food that doesn’t have stabilizers and that’s not been sitting on the shelf for a month, it’s tremendously innovative,” [Accel managing partner] Jupiter said.

(The article is here. The five friends are all graduates of West High School, Mankato, Minnesota.)

Ho Hum: Another Climate Change Denier Exposed

Wei-Hock Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, whose articles have been tied to corporate funding. Credit Pete Marovich
Not an astrophysicist and employed by fossil fuel industry, not Harvard — Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher


For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.

One of the names they invoke most often is Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. He has often appeared on conservative news programs, testified before Congress and in state capitals, and starred at conferences of people who deny the risks of global warming.

But newly released documents show the extent to which Dr. Soon’s work has been tied to funding he received from corporate interests.

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

(More here.)

Jeb Bush’s Brainless Trust

Maureen Dowd, NYT
FEB. 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — I had been keeping an open mind on Jeb Bush.

I mean, sure, as Florida governor, he helped his brother snatch the 2000 election. And that led to two decade-long botched wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The nation will be dealing for a long time with struggling veterans and the loss of American prestige. Not to mention that W. let Wall Street gamble away the economy, which is only now finally creeping back.

But, all that aside, shouldn’t John Ellis Bush have the right to make the case that he is his own man?

In his foreign policy speech in Chicago on Wednesday, Jeb was dismissive toward those who want to know where he stands in relation to his father and brother. “In fact,” he said, mockingly, “this is a great, fascinating thing in the political world for some reason.”

For some reason?

(More here.)

Russia’s Top Cyber Sleuth Foils US Spies, Helps Kremlin Pals

Eugene Kaspersky, Soviet officer turned software tycoon
Photo: Stephen Voss
Noah Schactman, Wired

It’s early February in Cancun, Mexico. A group of 60 or so financial analysts, reporters, diplomats, and cybersecurity specialists shake off the previous night’s tequila and file into a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. At the front of the room, a giant screen shows a globe targeted by crosshairs. Cancun is in the center of the bull’s-eye.

A ruddy-faced, unshaven man bounds onstage. Wearing a wrinkled white polo shirt with a pair of red sunglasses perched on his head, he looks more like a beach bum who’s lost his way than a business executive. In fact, he’s one of Russia’s richest men—the CEO of what is arguably the most important Internet security company in the world. His name is Eugene Kaspersky, and he paid for almost everyone in the audience to come here. “Buenos dias,” he says in a throaty Russian accent, as he apologizes for missing the previous night’s boozy activities. Over the past 72 hours, Kaspersky explains, he flew from Mexico to Germany and back to take part in another conference. “Kissinger, McCain, presidents, government ministers” were all there, he says. “I have panel. Left of me, minister of defense of Italy. Right of me, former head of CIA. I’m like, ‘Whoa, colleagues.'”

He’s bragging to be sure, but Kaspersky may be selling himself short. The Italian defense minister isn’t going to determine whether criminals or governments get their hands on your data. Kaspersky and his company, Kaspersky Lab, very well might. Between 2009 and 2010, according to Forbes, retail sales of Kaspersky antivirus software increased 177 percent, reaching almost 4.5 million a year—nearly as much as its rivals Symantec and McAfee combined. Worldwide, 50 million people are now members of the Kaspersky Security Network, sending data to the company’s Moscow headquarters every time they download an application to their desktop. Microsoft, Cisco, and Juniper Networks all embed Kaspersky code in their products—effectively giving the company 300 million users. When it comes to keeping computers free from infection, Kaspersky Lab is on its way to becoming an industry leader.

But this still doesn’t fully capture Kaspersky’s influence. Back in 2010, a researcher now working for Kaspersky discovered Stuxnet, the US-Israeli worm that wrecked nearly a thousand Iranian centrifuges and became the world’s first openly acknowledged cyberweapon. In May of this year, Kaspersky’s elite antihackers exposed a second weaponized computer program, which they dubbed Flame. It was subsequently revealed to be another US-Israeli operation aimed at Iran. In other words, Kaspersky Lab isn’t just an antivirus company; it’s also a leader in uncovering cyber-espionage.

Kaspersky has 300 million customers. His geek squad uncovers US cyberweapons. And he has deep ties to the KGB’s successors in Moscow. Serving at the pinnacle of such an organization would be a remarkably powerful position for any man. But Kaspersky’s rise is particularly notable—and to some, downright troubling—given his KGB-sponsored training, his tenure as a Soviet intelligence officer, his alliance with Vladimir Putin’s regime, and his deep and ongoing relationship with Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. Of course, none of this history is ever mentioned in Cancun.

(More here.)

The Paranoid Style of Rudy Giuliani

Credit Photograph by Spencer Platt / Getty
By Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker

Rudolph Giuliani did much in his eight years as mayor to make New York a safer, more livable place. His reputation was briefly and unduly inflated after the September 11, 2001, attacks, but there are worse sins than receiving good press. (What did Giuliani, who had only a few months left in office, actually do during that grim time to deserve all the hosannas? It remains a mystery.) Still, if Giuliani had beat a dignified retreat into private life after 2001, he would have left a largely admirable legacy.

But since Giuliani’s disastrous run for the Republican Presidential nomination, in 2008, he has become a national embarrassment of a distinctive type. The latest example came at an event in New York this week for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s nascent Presidential campaign. “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America,” Giuliani said during the dinner at the “21” Club, according to Politico. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”

Elaborating in a later interview, on CNN, Giuliani said, “President Obama was brought up in an atmosphere in which he was taught to be a critic of America. That is a distinction with prior American Presidents.”

This has been a theme for Giuliani: President Obama is a fundamentally un-American figure, who has intentionally separated himself from what Giuliani believes are the values of the United States. Consider two other recent examples. In remarks concerning the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his planned speech before Congress, Giuliani said, “That is a patriot, that’s a man who loves his people, that’s a man who protects his people, that’s a man who fights for his people, unlike our President.”

(More here.)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The U.S. Should Arm Ukraine — But Not Because This War Is Winnable

By Casey Michel, TNR

As you read reports about the United States potentially increasing arms deliveries to Ukraine, keep this in mind: This war is already more than the Kremlin bargained for. And if average Russians see it get any worse, President Vladimir Putin will likely find his sudden surge in post-Crimea popularity evaporating. So the West's impulse to shorten this war through escalation—or by at least by helping yank the Ukrainian military into the 21st century—is almost certainly the right one. As the number of dead Russian soldiers begins climbing, outraged Russian citizens could well be the ones to end Putin's incursion.

Anyone following non-Kremlin media realizes full well that Moscow doesn’t want to acknowledge Russian troops’ deaths. The Kremlin doesn’t want you, or Kiev, or the Russians back home to know that its soldiers leading and aiding pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are dying by the dozens, casualties in generic insignias and unmarked graves.

The lengths to which the Kremlin has gone to obscure those casualties are typical of its broader modus operandi, both historically and tactically. The Kremlin attempted this play in Afghanistan in the 1980s, eliding the fact that Soviet forces saw myriad casualties during invasion, and in the First Chechen War, combining abject denials of Russian presence from above with concerted muffling from below. The redirection—the silencing—also fits with Moscow’s current information policy. The Kremlin tells its populace, its media, and its lawmakers: Don’t dig. Toe the official line. Smother the truth, depriving these dead soldiers of dignity. Because, claims the Kremlin, these men are not in fact obeying orders. Rather (goes the lie) these are “volunteers," coursing with Russian messianism, eager to put their lives on the line against the fascism brewing next door. No one has ordered their presence in eastern Ukraine. They’ve arrived under their own volition, for god and country.

(More here.)

Putin the Improviser

The Ukraine crisis is even scarier than you think: Russia’s strongman is making it up as he goes along

By Andrew S. Weiss, WSJ
Feb. 20, 2015 6:03 p.m. ET

After this week’s devastating military setbacks for the Ukrainian government, Western observers are trying urgently to get inside the head of Vladimir Putin. But the practitioners of this burgeoning cottage industry—call it Putinology—are missing one essential point: Mr. Putin has largely been improvising his way through the current crisis. That means that the Ukraine showdown is even scarier and more dangerous than you think: Mr. Putin is making it up as he goes along.

The Russian leader has routinely experimented with (and quickly jettisoned) any number of concepts, strategies and approaches, all in the name of gaining short-term advantage. Mr. Putin may be living “in another world,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly suggested to President Barack Obama—but in our world, which Mr. Putin is busily remaking, he seems to think that keeping his opponents guessing and off-balance is an end in itself.

In opinion columns and books, the Putinologists have been struggling to explain the thinking of the man who, almost single-handedly, seems to be dragging much of the West into a new Cold War. Like their Kremlinologist forebears, they try to decode Moscow’s intentions through painstaking analyses of the Russian leader’s every public utterance or symbol-laden photo op; they comb through minute aspects of Mr. Putin’s career and private life; they sift for clues in the output of Russia’s sprawling state propaganda apparatus. A lucky few even get invited to come to Russia once a year to sit down over elegant meals with the man himself and other mandarins and courtiers who spin them on how things really look from Moscow.

(More here.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Plot to Kill Health Care

Timothy Egan, NYT
FEB. 20, 2015

Republicans hate activist judges — those black-robed elites who are willing to upset the lives of millions of people just to further a political cause. Ditto trial lawyers trolling for clients, the ambulance-chasing, “Better Call Saul” guys. They hate them, until they need them.

And in the raw power play that is behind the attempt to kick millions of people off health care gained through the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are attempting one of the most brazen manipulations of the legal system in modern times. To pull it off, they’re relying on a toxically politicized judiciary to make law, and to make a mockery of everything that conservative legal scholars profess to believe.

In less than two weeks’ time, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in King v. Burwell — the net result of a well-orchestrated, well-financed, five-year campaign to kill President Obama’s signature achievement by legal assassination. It’s a remarkably flimsy case, the plaintiffs may lack standing, and a host of business and health care professionals have said the consequences of backing the right-wing consortium behind this case could be catastrophic.

But none of that matters to at least four justices on the court who would rule in favor of a ham sandwich, if it meant overturning the health care law. If they get a fifth vote, more than eight million people in 34 states could lose their health coverage. Premiums for several million more would rise enough to make insurance impossible. Thousands of people, lacking basic care, may even die prematurely.

(More here.)

When Americans Lynched Mexicans


THE recent release of a landmark report on the history of lynching in the United States is a welcome contribution to the struggle over American collective memory. Few groups have suffered more systematic mistreatment, abuse and murder than African-Americans, the focus of the report.

One dimension of mob violence that is often overlooked, however, is that lynchers targeted many other racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, including Native Americans, Italians, Chinese and, especially, Mexicans.

Americans are largely unaware that Mexicans were frequently the targets of lynch mobs, from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century, second only to African-Americans in the scale and scope of the crimes. One case, largely overlooked or ignored by American journalists but not by the Mexican government, was that of seven Mexican shepherds hanged by white vigilantes near Corpus Christi, Tex., in late November 1873. The mob was probably trying to intimidate the shepherds’ employer into selling his land. None of the killers were arrested.

From 1848 to 1928, mobs murdered thousands of Mexicans, though surviving records allowed us to clearly document only about 547 cases. These lynchings occurred not only in the southwestern states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, but also in states far from the border, like Nebraska and Wyoming.

(More here. LP note: The white population of the U.S. also treated the Chinese, particularly in California, in horrific ways, including lynchings and other atrocities, as told in the book Fusang, the Chinese who built America by Stan Steiner and in one chapter in the book Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

‘Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth’

What I learned from watching a week of Russian TV


On a cold, sunny New Year’s Eve in 2014, I am sitting at the edge of my king-size bed at the Four Seasons hotel in New York, munching through a stack of Wagyu beef slices and demolishing a bottle of pinot noir while watching a woman play a man playing a bearded woman on Russian state television. Standing on a stage lit by gleaming chandeliers before an audience of Russia’s elite celebrities, the parodist Elena Vorobei sings to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” in a crude impersonation of Conchita Wurst, the Austrian drag queen who won the 2014 Eurovision song contest. Vorobei is dressed in a sparkling gown, winking cheekily, scratching at her bearded face and swishing her lustrous wig around. “I have a beard!” she belts. At one point she throws out a Hitler salute, a gesture that’s meant to evoke Austria, Conchita’s homeland. The camera pans the laughing audience, cutting for a moment to a well-known actor-singer-writer-bodybuilder and then to one of the show’s M.C.s, Russia’s pop king, the also-bearded Philipp Kirkorov (widely assumed to be gay). The men, who are almost all tanned, in sharply cut suits, grin with unconstrained glee. The bejeweled women wear tight, knowing smiles. Everyone sways and claps.

With the exception of fishing, soccer and the Orthodox Church, few things are taken more seriously in Russia than Eurovision. Indeed, much of the sequined musical fare on Russian television looks like an endless Eurovision rehearsal. When Conchita won, back in May, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist in Russia’s Parliament who is roughly equivalent to Michele Bachmann, said her victory meant “the end of Europe.” The deputy prime minister and the Orthodox Church issued statements essentially denouncing the collapse of Christian civilization as we know it. On tonight’s show, broadcast to millions of Russians, the message is clear: Europe may have rejected homophobia, a value it once shared with Russia, by giving a musical prize to a drag queen, but Russia, like Gloria Gaynor herself, will survive, never to succumb to the rest of the world’s wimpy notions of tolerance. A country where gangs of vigilantes who call their cause “Occupy Pedophilia” attack gay men and women on the streets of its major cities will now carry the mantle of the European Christian project.

(More here.)

China Expands Island Construction in Disputed South China Sea

Construction of artificial islands shows Beijing isn’t backing off its territorial ambitions


(More here.)

Faulted for Avoiding ‘Islamic’ Labels to Describe Terrorism, White House Cites a Strategic Logic

FEB. 18, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Obama chooses his words with particular care when he addresses the volatile connections between religion and terrorism. He and his aides have avoided labeling acts of brutal violence by Al Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State and their allies as “Muslim” terrorism or describing their ideology as “Islamic” or “jihadist.”

With remarkable consistency — including at a high-profile White House meeting this week, “Countering Violent Extremism” — they have favored bland, generic terms over anything that explicitly connects attacks or plots to Islam.

Obama aides say there is a strategic logic to his vocabulary: Labeling noxious beliefs and mass murder as “Islamic” would play right into the hands of terrorists who claim that the United States is at war with Islam itself. The last thing the president should do, they say, is imply that the United States lumps the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims with vicious terrorist groups.

But Mr. Obama’s verbal tactics have become a target for a growing chorus of critics who believe the evasive language is a sign that he is failing to look squarely at the threat from militant Islam. The vague phrasing, they say, projects uncertainty and weakness at a time when extremists claiming to fight for Islam threaten America and its interests around the world.

“Part of this is a semantic battle, but it’s a semantic battle that goes to deeper issues,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of the past three Republican administrations and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Self-deception is not a good idea in politics or international affairs. We’re lying to ourselves, and the world knows it.”

While the most vehement criticism has come from Mr. Obama’s political opponents on the right, a few liberals and former security officials have begun to echo the criticism.

(More here.)

Graphic on ISIS

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Privatizing the Post Office is not the answer

You Should Be Outraged By What Is Being Done To Our Postal Service

FEBRUARY 10, 2013

You are probably hearing that the Post Office is “in crisis” and is cutting back Saturday delivery, laying people off, closing offices, etc. Like so many other “crises” imposed on us lately, there is a lot to the story that you are not hearing from the “mainstream” media. (Please click that link.) The story of the intentional destruction of the U.S. Postal Service is one more piece of the story of crisis-after-crisis, all manufactured to advance the strategic dismantling of our government and handing over the pieces to billionaires.

Here are a few things you need to know about the Postal Service “crisis”:
  • The Postal Service is the second largest employer in the United States after Walmart. But unlike Walmart, which gets away with paying so little that employees qualify for government assistance, the Postal Services is unionized, pays reasonable wages and benefits and receives no government subsidies. (Good for them!)
  • Republicans have been pushing schemes to privatize the Postal Service since at least 1996. In 2006 Republicans in the Congress pushed through a requirement that the Postal Service pre-fund 75 years of retiree costs. The Postal Service has to pay now for employeeswho are not even born yet. No other government agency – and certainly no company – has to do this.
  • Unlike other government agencies (like the military) since 1970 the Postal Service is required to break even. Once more: the Department of Defense is not required to break even.
  • While required to break even the Postal Service has to deliver mail to areas that are unprofitable for private companies to operate in. A letter sent from a small town in Alaska is picked up and transported across the country to a farm in Maine for 46 cents. While the Internet and recession have eaten into some of the Postal Services letter business, magazines, books, newsletters, prescriptions, advertising, DVD services like Netflix and many other services still depend on the Postal Service for delivery. And many people for one reason or another still send letters. In a democracy these people are supposed to count, too.
(Continued here.)

Democracy in Recession

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
FEB. 18, 2015

Every month now we get treated to another anti-Semitic blast from Turkey’s leadership, which seems to be running some kind of slur-of-the-month club. Who knew that Jews all over the world were busy trying to take down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Last week, it was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s turn to declare that Turkey would not “succumb to the Jewish lobby” — among others supposedly trying to topple Erdogan, the Hurriyet Daily News reported. This was after Erdogan had suggested that domestic opponents to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., were “cooperating with the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence arm. So few Jews, so many governments to topple.

Davutoglu’s and Erdogan’s cheap, crude anti-Semitic tropes, which Erdogan now relies on regularly to energize his base, are disgusting. For the great nation of Turkey, though, they’re part of a wider tragedy. It is really hard to say anymore that Erdogan’s Turkey is a democracy. Even worse, it is necessary to say that Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger global trend today: Democracy is in recession.

As the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond argues in an essay entitled “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession” in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy: “Around 2006, the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states). ... The number of both electoral and liberal democracies began to decline after 2006 and then flattened out. Since 2006 the average level of freedom in the world has also deteriorated slightly.”

Since 2000, added Diamond, “I count 25 breakdowns of democracy in the world — not only through blatant military or executive coups, but also through subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedure. ... Some of these breakdowns occurred in quite low-quality democracies; yet in each case, a system of reasonably free and fair multiparty electoral competition was either displaced or degraded to a point well below the minimal standards of democracy.”

(More here.)